A great example of learning in communities and collaborative learning is the ONL course itself. As part of this course, each group works together towards creating a shared body of knowledge by investigating different aspects of the topic under study. One important success factor in this context is having a common goal and making sure that everyone has the correct understanding of that goal, otherwise, conflicts can arise and in the end the work of each individual student may deviate and therefore does not contribute to the overall goal that the group is following. Having group meetings, and also platforms for taking notes and working on documents collaboratively are some of the things that helps in this regard. The more the students interact with each other the better they can build a process to achieve their learning objectives and ensure success.
On the other hand, there are many things that can also go wrong in a networked collaborative learning environment as a community. For instance, the motivation of each course participant can play an important role in how much they are eager to collaborate with the rest of the team and how much importance they put into attending group meetings. It can easily happen that one student, for instance, works in isolation from the group ignoring the shared goals that need to be achieved. Moreover, each participant can have different capabilities, personal characteristics, and also way of thinking. For instance, some students may be introverts and do not talk much in group discussions while, the extrovert ones may talk more with each other and get a false idea that those with introvert characteristics are not interested in the group discussions! The group meetings can help the students to know more about each other and the way of working that each person has. This is very important in building a successful learning community. There are also very simple personality exercises that are not only fun to do, but can make the students realize that they are people with different characteristics and personality types in the group.
Also in building a learning community the choices we make on the platforms and technical solutions can also make a difference. For instance, some participants may already be familiar with a particular technology and platform, so it can be much easier for them to get onboard and start collaborating even when it comes to simple things such as note taking in meetings . On the other hand, for the others the learning curve to understand how a new tool or platform works can slow down their progress and may even make them appear as lazy or not as active to the rest of the team.
In summary, two of the factors that can be important in building a successful learning community, among many others, are: i) understanding and paying attention to the personal characteristics of different participants; and ii) choice of the right technology and platform and helping participants to get onboard and reduce the learning curve in adopting new tools. These are also in line with the findings that are reported in  by Brindley et al where they discuss collaborative group activities.
 Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3)
Last week, we had the final week of the ONL201 course when we met with all the group 10 (PBL10) members for the last time as part of this course and shared our reflections. ONL201 was overall an interesting journey as we did hands-on experiments on how to design an online course, discussed the challenges that both teachers and students may experience when we transition towards a digital way of education, and how to enable a collaborative form of learning in such a digital environment, among many other things.
One important aspect and take-away for me personally from the course is the better understanding of the concept of co-learning or co-creating knowledge . Instead of a 1-way transfer of knowledge or individual learning experience, a key element in collaborative learning is the co-creation of knowledge where each participant works with the others towards this goal resulting the whole group to advance, build on their knowledge, and learn together. This is not an easy task though as it requires an open mindset towards collaborative way of learning and many other things to work properly such as technical aspects of education. Proper choice of tools and platforms can help a lot in this aspect but they are of course not enough. Having clear goals and setting up group agreements are also two other factors that can facilitate. Overall, it requires practice and open mindset to team work. Interested readers on the topic of co-learning and co-creation of knowledge can refer to the article titled “Co-creation in learning and teaching: the casefor a whole-class approach in higher education” by Catherine Bovill .
As my tips for future participants of this course, I can start by saying that try to attend all course lectures and meetings. It is by participating in the group meetings that you develop your skills to co-create knowledge and co-learn with other people. This is not something that you may easily be able to compensate later on as an individual assignment. Also course facilitators can be of great help and you can count on them when you feel lost; so don’t worry if at the beginning the exact tasks and expectations may not appear clear to you; have patience and trust in the process. By involving the facilitators you can also learn from and apply their experiences in your group work and activities. Also it is important that you approach this course with an open and active mindset; i.e., with a passive approach towards this course you cannot get the most out of your participation and time.
To conclude, here is a photo from our group work in the last week to create a meme and our motto for this course:
“Don’t ask what online learning did for you, ask what you did for online learning” !
There can be many factors to take into account in deciding the design of a course and adopting the right methods for teaching it, but one factor which I believe plays an important role and can affect our teaching methods is the type of courses and programs. Some courses like from the programs in human and social sciences can include discussions on different opinions and perspectives on the topics of the course. However, some other courses, for example, those that deal with the basics of the mathematics or teaching the fundamentals of a programming language, are most often a one-way lecture in the sense that facts, formulas, and methods are communicated by the teacher to the students and the students need to learn those basics. In such courses, there are usually not many points up for discussion. A concrete example of such cases could be when the basics of a network communication protocol is being taught to the students in a course on network technologies (usually part of computer science curriculum); where the topics do not deal with the difference of opinions. However, I think if the concept of flipped classrooms  are adopted for teaching of such courses, it can create more room and opportunities in the class for students to then share their opinions and have discussions, but again to a certain degree and probably not as much as can be done for other subjects such as in social sciences. Therefore, I believe it is very important the teachers pay attention to this factor and that their teaching methods need to be adapted and customized based on the nature of the topic they are teaching to provide the best value to the students. Otherwise, students might feel that they can learn the basics and facts more easily and flexibly on their own than by participating in the lectures.
It is also important to remember that sometimes students take courses from different types of programs as part of their university studies. So they may come to one course with the expectation that the teaching method is going to be the same as they experienced in another course (from a different subject). So the teaching method might seem a bit strange to them (in the beginning) or take time for them to get used to different styles and methods of teaching, and as teachers we need to be aware of this. Moreover, this might even cause resistance in some students against the methods of another course when they are not used to it. So maybe some activity that can improve such situations and cases is open communication with the students about the methods that we are going to apply in our course, and the motivation on why a particular method is chosen by us for that course and why we think it is best-suited for the topics of the course we are giving.
MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Course, and if you search the web for how a MOOC should be designed and what can be considered a MOOC you get many different opinions and definitions. Apparently, it is easy to confuse and consider many forms of online teaching with the concept of MOOC (e..g, to sound cool or jump on the hype train), but according to some it boils down to one’s mindset towards education and how a course is planned and designed from scratch. The following is a definition of a MOOC that I came across during my research in the course, and I think is very interesting to share. It is from an article titled “Academic libraries in the age of MOOCs” by Kerry Wu :
“A MOOC is not the online version of a face-to-face (F2F) class. It’s not a collection of “recorded classroom lectures” and lecture notes. It is a “born digital” class, even if it’s adapted from an existing F2F class. Video lectures are the core of MOOCs. MOOC providers leverage technologies to create a rich learning environment by incorporating at least one and often most of the following elements: professor speaking directly to the camera while accompanied by PowerPoint slides, notes, or animated illustrations on digital whiteboards; in-video quizzes; additional video clips that are not part of the professor talk; and video interviews of guest speakers”.
What this can mean for us in our journey towards online education is that simply transferring course materials to a digital format and offering them remotely does not mean that we are offering a MOOC. This is particularly important when we take into the scalability aspect of MOOCs. In dsigning MOOCs the right approach could be to plan them from the beginning and consider appropriate platforms and digital solutions to make the course scalable and attractive to a wide spectrum of students.
This was particularly observed during the recent COVID-19 pandemic where university teachers rushed to prepare an online version of their courses and faced many issues in this regard. One issue, for instance, was how to design course exams and what could be the right format and platform to perform examination of course students. Another important issue to take into account is that as a course scales up and is offered to a wider variety of students from different regions, having alternative technical solutions for delivery of course material and content can become more important. For instance, while assuming that YouTube can be a right platform for delivery of video content, it is important to also know that in some countries access to YouTube is limited. Also some ISPs may limit bandwidth usage for video steaming. All these factors can in the end determine the success or failure of a MOOC.
One of the issues in the move towards online education and use of digital platforms for teaching is with respect to the availability of the teachers. This is something that I have personally heard from different teachers that although digital education tools and platforms provide so many benefits, but on the flip side, they may make the teachers too available to the students. This means that the students may use many different forms of communication including even social media such as Facebook and Facebook Messenger to initiate contact with their teachers at any time of the day, and expect the teacher to thus always be available and reply to them. Therefore, it may implicitly increase students expectations on the availability of the teachers. This issue can easily cause problems for teachers and interfere even in their personal life and negatively impact the balance in their personal vs professional life.
At the other end is the feeling of isolation that students may experience in an online learning environment, as discussed by Croft et al (2015). While the issue of isolation itself is not the main focus of my post here, it has some connections to the topic of availability and reflects another aspect of this topic. In the article by Croft et al (2015), the authors identify five dimensions or axes of isolation: 1) chronological (time delay), 2) communication, 3) geographical and distance, 4) professional, and 5) technological. The solutions that can be used to improve the interaction between students and teachers, and increase their feeling of closeness and availability in times of need can somehow address these five dimensions as well; for instance with respect to communication channels and arranged meeting times suitable for students in different timezones. The main challenge here is that the expectation of the students on the availability of the teachers may be different and may not necessarily match the schedule and allocated time of the teachers. This is also reflected in the aforementioned article where the authors talk about tutor contact and that “maintaining appropriate levels and methods of contact” is a major challenge. As can be observed from the article and their investigation, some students were quite satisfied with their contact with the teachers and their availability, while a couple of students felt that the teachers were not available at times when they needed to discuss an issue. Moreover, speed of response is identified as another factor that can contribute to the students’ perception of the availability of the teachers. These results highlight an important and interesting point regarding the issue of availability: the level and forms of availability that a teacher may use and also consider appropriate in a course may not necessarily match the expectation of the students on the availability of their teachers. One way to tackle this may be to explicitly specify it and define its boundaries as part of the course contract and learning agreement (e.g., a dedicated section on availability and contact) which students receive at the beginning of an online course. Additionally, means of communication and platforms via which the students can reach the teachers is another important factor that affects the perception of the students about teachers’ availability which needs a well-defined description and agreement as well. From the teachers’ side, ensuring early on that the students get a good understanding about the availability of the teachers (including communication channels and the time slots at which they can be available for contact) can save lots of hassle and unwanted contact (i.e., contacts at undesired hours or via undesired channels such as private phone or emails), and thus help with the separation of their professional and personal life in the online world.
Croft et al (2015): Nicholas Croft, Alice Dalton & Marcus Grant; Overcoming Isolation in Distance Learning: Building a Learning Community through Time and Space; Journal for Education in the Built Environment, 5:1, 27-64; Published online: 15 Dec 2015; DOI: 10.11120/jebe.2010.05010027
Well, let me start by introducing myself. My name is Mehrdad Saadatmand. I have a PhD in Software Engineering and I work as senior researcher at RISE Research Institutes of Sweden in the city of Västerås. To improve my pedagogical skills I have been taking some courses, and one of them is the Open Networked Learning course which started in February 2020.
In this course, which requires team work as well as independent research, there are participants from different countries who form groups to work on specific topics in a Problem Based Learning approach. I am part of PBL 10 group. In my blog series, I reflect on and provide a summary of some of my findings in this course, and some important points that I think can be important to anyone who wants to improve his/her pedagogical skills in the digital world.