Final reflections on Flexible, Distance and Online Learning

As you may have noticed, during the fall I participated in  the online course FDOL (flexible, distance and online learning), and now it is time to make my final reflections on what I have learned during the course.

What I’ve learned about flexible, distance and online learning

The FDOL course in itself was a great learning experience, not only by providing theoretical knowledge and interesting discussions on what flexible and online learning is, but also by giving practical experience of participating in such a course. It was inspiring, challenging and gave me lots of ideas for how to incorporate online tools in my own teaching. But, to keep things short in this final reflection, I choose to focus on the three key concepts in the course title; flexible, distance, and online learning.

Flexibility – the concept of flexibility is something we have discussed a lot during the course, and one statement that stayed with me is “Flexible for whom?”. Flexibility for students may very well lead to more work for both teachers and administrators, and while flexibility is often thought of as a good thing, too much flexibility can also leave students without the support needed to reach their intended learning outcomes. A balance between self-directed and flexible learning and structure and support is needed.

Distance – the distance is of course one aspect of flexibility, by not having to be present in a physical location education in different forms can be accessible to a much larger group of people. Not only can the education be accessed, but as a participant you also have the opportunity to collaborate and share experiences with people from all over the world. On the other hand, the geographical distance can cause problems with respect to e.g. time differences making synchronous communication challenging.

Online – the fact that we are discussing online learning opens up to using an array of new tools for teaching and learning! In the FDOL course we have used blogs, twitter, google+ (with both groups and hangouts), diigo for curating resources and adobe connect for online seminars. Most tools where familiar to me, but the sheer amount of different platforms and means of communicating in the course felt quite overwhelming to me the first weeks. This led to many interesting discussions and thoughts about digital literacy, and what it might be like for students to be faced with many new and perhaps intimidating technical environments.

Finally, one of the key lessons I’ve learned during the FDOL course has to do with the importance of supporting students while at the same time trusting them to be independent and self-guided learners.

What I learned from working in an online PBL group

PBL (problem based learning) was quite new for me, and it took a bit getting used to. I have often worked with group assignments during my own education, and am fond of using group work in my own teaching – but of a much more traditional kind. Here we were given quite free hands – we got to set our own learning outcomes for each unit, and choose which scenarios to work with, and how to present our results. But basically, it was all about collaborative learning [1]- and after a while we managed! I quite like the scale suggested by Siemens to discuss collaborative learning, describing how learner-learner interactions in an e-learning course can be viewed as a four stage continuum [2]:

  1. Communication (people talking, discussing)
  2. Collaboration (sharing ideas and working together, occasionally sharing resources, in a loose environment)
  3. Cooperation (doing things together, but each with his or her own purpose)
  4. Community (striving for a common purpose)

I believe that during the FDOL-course I experienced at least the first three stages. Communication took place e.g. in the online seminars where participants from the entire course participated and synchronously discussed the units topic. We also did some sharing of resources and ideas in google+, bordering on collaboration. In the PBL group we definitely collaborated, but it took a while for us to reach cooperation. At first we had weekly hangouts where we discussed what to do and then attempted to work independently and have asynchronous discussions in our google+ group. It didn’t work very well. Working together using the google hangouts turned out to be very efficient in the latter part of the course. We had our shared documents on google docs and all worked together on them while we simultaneously discussed in the hangout. Between hangouts we all worked separately, but the main task of collaborative learning was done synchronously in the hangouts. I have previous experience of similar work when writing articles together with other researchers spread out across Sweden. I would definitely recommend this way of working to my future students, at times its even more efficient than meeting f-2-f since everyone can work on the same document at the same time.In the end, I think the three of us left in the group actually felt a sense of community too.

What I plan to change in my own teaching

As I’ve described in earlier blog posts, I plan to extend my teaching practice by including blogging as a tool for students to reflect and communicate with experts outside the teaching environment, and potentially also explore flipping my classroom to some extent in order to make better use of the face-to-face teaching-learning activities.

In the FDOL course, we have discussed open learning a lot – how can we open up our practice? I find the thought of open education very appealing, and I believe there is a great demand for the type of courses we teach in health informatics masters program. Hilton et al showed that using current technology it is quite easy to make a course openly accessible to outside students [3], and I believe that I could easily make most of my course materials openly available online (since most of it is already published on our online learning platform). Yet, considering my experiences with the FDOL course, I question somewhat the benefit to learners in only accessing these materials. The main learning activities that take place in my courses are of a collaborative nature, and in order to organize functioning groups I still believe some direction and facilitation from teachers is required. Simpson also focus on motivation as a key aspect of online learning [4], and I believe that both peer feedback and meaningful activities can increase student motivation – but it requires active interaction with teachers/facilitators as well. In addition, opening up my courses requires much more planning and organization than I currently have means to do. For now, I’ll keep my courses blended with both online and face-to-face teaching/learning activities, introducing more and more online tools and open practices such as blogging. And perhaps it will be possible to offer some of the courses as fully online alternatives in the future – I’ll keep you posted on what happens!

[1] Dillenbourg P. (1999) What do you mean by collaborative learning?. In P. Dillenbourg (Ed) Collaborative-learning: Cognitive and Computational Approaches. (pp.1-19). Oxford: Elsevier

[2] Siemens, G. (2002).  Interaction. E-Learning Course. October 8, 2002. http://www.elearnspace.org/Articles/Interaction.htm

[3] John L. Hilton III, Charles Graham, Peter Rich and David Wiley, Using Online Technologies to Extend a Classroom to Learners at a Distance

[4] Ormond Simpson. Motivating learners in open and distance learning: Do we need a theory of  learner support?

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2 Responses to Final reflections on Flexible, Distance and Online Learning

  1. Dear Maria,
    It was really interesting to read your final reflections concerning FDOL course. As you mentioned in your text, we have learned a lot about flexible distance and online learning, but as you say it took a while to get used to it.
    I think we have similar ideas about how blogging and flipping the classroom can change our way of teaching.
    Kind regards
    Charlotte

  2. Anne Lee Solevåg says:

    Dear Maria, Thank you for all your interesting thoughts throughout the FDOL course. One thing that comes to mind reading your final reflection is that when your PBL group decided to collaborate mainly in Google hangouts, did you somehow leave some of the flexibility behind? One of my preconceptions about flexible learning is that you can decide on time for learning yourself. In my group we were 5 members left in the end and I don’t think that agreeing on a time for hangouts allows for great flexibility, at least not when there is a (though small) time difference involved. I do agree with you that synchronous discussions speeded things up, though, and maybe this indicates that flexibility in terms of time requires more discipline than scheduled meetings (either f-2-f or online). It also requires a huge amount of motivation to learn entirely flexible and self-directed, in particular when you have all the additional obligations that open flexible online learners often have. You also need a certain amount of insight into own learning habits and preferences

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