It’s all go at the moment. Sandwiched between two final days of workshops with our PG Cert teacher-students, I spent Thursday in Oxford talking with Dave White, Alison le Cornu, Martin Weller, Dave Cormier and several others about the notion of ‘online’ as a place where learners ‘visit’ or ‘reside’, and how we might use this idea to develop teaching practice.
At the start I thought the Visitor/Resident continuum was primarily about the degree of comfort learners have with the learning environment. What I have observed about my own student-teachers is that many of them ‘reside’ online in a social sense; they may feel ‘at home’ on Facebook, for example. They feel relatively safe there; they choose who they share their space with and feel that they have a sense of ownership of their space. They feel they have a sufficient degree of control over what goes on in that space. However, when they are working on the blog-based reading and discussion activities I’ve set them, or uploading their first video to Process Arts, they may not feel so much ‘at home’. They may feel their safety is being compromised as they share their thoughts and their work with the world, expose their uncertainties and open themselves up to judgement from their peers. They may not feel that they ‘own’ their space or their actions within it; although it is ‘their’ space, it is also NOT their space; I have instructed them to create the space and have dictated certain aspects of what happens within it.
So (still working within my initial understanding of the Visitor/Resident concept), I found myself asking whether it mattered that my student-teachers feel and behave like visitors rather than residents in our online learning spaces. Learning is not supposed to be comfortable; it requires the expansion of boundaries and questioning of assumptions. The last seven months have certainly been challenging for the learners I work with, but we got there, and I can honestly say it has been the most rewarding time of my life, seeing them change and grow. In addition to having grasped the fundamental concept that teaching is something that is best done with one’s mouth shut, many have also now realised that sharing their practice on the open web will not result in the sky falling on their heads. The others are at least peering around the doorframe and are on the way to crossing that particular threshold.
So at first, I thought the question I should be asking myself was whether I should prioritise the nudging of each learner towards the Resident end of the spectrum; helping them to feel more comfortable, safe and in control. I’ve concluded that I would like my student-teachers to feel a little more comfortable in the learning environment, to the point where they are more willing to persist with it, and the grade awarded for participation is not such a significant factor in their engagement. Fortunately I now have additional resources in the form of several hundred blog posts and over fifty three-minute videos that have been produced by the current cohort; these will come in handy next year when I need to model the online learning behaviours that are required to complete the course. In particular, I have good examples of blogs – and even videos – that have been completed anonymously using pseudonyms and other techniques. This is a much more appropriate stepping-stone to open practice than keeping a private blog or producing a video that remains on a CD.
I have tried to make plenty of space and time for open dialogue about the learning activities and tools/environments within the course, in order to deal with any anxieties. The feedback I received this week told me what I already suspected; firstly that the interim (formative) peer assessment sessions were incredibly valuable in surfacing and addressing the difficulties learners were experiencing, and perhaps these should come earlier in each unit. Secondly, the learners felt they needed more f2f time to gain familiarity with new tools and environments. The session on the first day where we get them to set up their blogs needs to be longer, so that they can experiment not only with writing, but also with commenting, changing settings and working with group and networking tools. They also need more technical support in producing videos for the web – in particular how to ensure a manageable file size. These changes have already been implemented in the 2012-13 schedule.
However… talking with Dave White during the afternoon, I began to realise that the visiting/residing distinction isn’t just about perceptions of comfort and safety, familiarity and control. It dawned on me that ‘residing’ is an immersed state of mind. Delegates on a residential course or conference, for example (or undergraduates living in halls for another), are engaged in the learning experience full-time. Although their engagement during that time is variable, it is persistent, and there is a blurring of the boundaries between formal and informal, professional and personal.
This realisation transformed and deepened how I saw the visiting/residing distinction as being useful for course design and teaching. Finding strategies that enable learners to feel a little more comfortable within the learning environment is one thing, but the fact remains that that each group of learners will vary in their ‘immersedness’. There will be numerous external factors impacting on the degree to which a learner chooses to engage with a course, and there should actually be no reason why – as a couple of people pointed out to me on Twitter on Thursday – why a ‘visitor’ cannot feel as comfortable engaging with a course, or learn as much, as a ‘resident’ might. This doesn’t mean my earlier reflections are defunct; I think taking steps to minimise the discomfort of all learners is a vital aspect of ensuring everyone’s needs are met. But it does serve as a reminder that my courses should not expect or require the total immersion implied in ‘residency’, but be inclusive of all learners.