Lessons learned from the 30th annual conference on Distance Teaching & Learning

Recently, I attended and presented a part of my work at the 30th annual conference on Distance Teaching & Learning in Madison, Wisconsin. IMG_3494I had a great time at the conference, met some great new colleagues, and heard some excellent talks. One of my favorite quick talks was a very brief (about 15 minute) remote Skype talk from Elliot Masie. Masie is very popular in the world of online learning, in particular corporate learning, and it is easy to see why. He is energetic, and brings lots of great ideas to his talks.

Quick aside, my first interaction with Masie and his consortium occurred while I was working as a summer intern for Humana back in 2009.  On a webinar, Masie spoke about how the elearning world had done themselves a huge disfavor by having a lot of early online learning work focus solely on things like Sarbanes-Oxley training or other certifications that simply needed a check box to show to management that a satisfactory completion rate had been achieved. Because of this, so much early online training was dull, boring, unimaginative, and lacking in engagement for employees.  He issued a call to designers of the consortium to think of ways to bring back learning that was innovative and engaging for corporate learners. To demonstrate his points, he paralleled video game designers. He was not calling for ‘gamification,’ ‘serious gaming,’ any of the other trendy words used to describe video game research, rather he used some principles of games and why they are fun, such as difficulty (no one wants to play a game that is super easy), failure (the ability to fail frequently and restart), and other concepts that I thought were very insightful and potentially very useful for instructional designers. He suggested that if instructional designers were to design learning materials that were difficult, engaging, and had the option to not be afraid of failure, that these trainings could be very useful.IMG_3495

Now back to Masie’s recent talk. His key point that he spoke about (and later blogged about here was a notion that he calls Learning Interruptus. His view of current learning is that as opposed to a prior view of Learning Completus, where the assumption is that a learner completes an assignment, class or project from start to finish. Yet now learning has become much more interrupted, or interruptus. People may join a class or MOOC just to glean bits of information without intending to finish the course.  Learners will get distracted by other online resources while working on projects. Learners can often hit pause on their learning and them come back to it later. Learners have many choices and if we can accommodate and encourage constant learning, we can achieve greater success in keeping the learners active. In Masie’s words, “the learner of the future is not a prisoner.”

Another session that provided some good insight, was Chris Dede’s session about developing massive technology-based models for use in education. In this session, Dede spoke about the highlights of a recent project/simulation that has been developed at Harvard. The simulation is a pond ecosystem that can be used by students to learn about pond ecosystems and can also be ramped up to be used by advanced college students with the right development. While I am not very familiar with existing research about simulations, the point that I thought was most interesting occurred during the question and answer. One skeptic in the audience raised the issue that this was just a single simulation environment, in this case a pond, and it may not be feasible for many universities to have the ability to develop such an environment only to be used for that project. Dede’s response was clear, that yes, you need some initial funding to build the environment, in the same way a movie company has to spend money to build a western town set for films. However, the thing that was exciting to Dede is that this environment can be scaled, modified and used in myriad ways for learning, not just a single study that was going on now, with minimal requirement of maintenance and resources. Continuing with the Western town set metaphor, he said, “Once you build a western town set, you can film 30 different movies. We are building sets to use for a variety of purposes in the future.” This idea touches on open access learning and other concepts that I find very intriguing.

Finally, I learned that Madison, Wisconsin is as beautiful in the summer as everyone said it was. I actually camped at a small campground just outside of town on Mendota Lake, and the conference center, Menona Terrace, had spectacular view of Menona Lake. Taqueria Guadalajara had some of the best Mexican food I have had in years (try the sopes!) and overall the weather was great. It is easy to see why so many people love Madison.

Thanks UW Madison for putting on an excellent conference and I look forward to coming back next year.

Is “informal” the same as “unstructured”?

Q. In your view, as you have adopted Sefton-Green’s criteria, would the term “informal” be equivalent to “unstructured”?  What do you see as the elements of “structure” applicable to curriculum and setting?

It depends on how you are defining structure, but in my definition, yes I would say that they could be equivalent. Julian Sefton-Green is a Principal Research Fellow at University of Oslo working on projects exploring learning and learner identity across formal and informal domains, and is someone that I have started reading over the past year. (Appendix A) In fact in his literature review, Sefton-Green (2004) takes this idea of informal and structure a step further and says that, “the distinction between informal and formal learning…, can more clearly be made around the intentions and structure of the learning experience” (p. 6, emphasis added). As Sefton-Green points out, there is a quadrant when looking at informal learning.

One of the contributions that Sefton-Green adds to the definition of D.W. Livingstone (2000), is that Livingstone refers to only, “the curricula of educational institutions.”  I still follow this definition as it does encapsulate my work, but adding the quadrant of Sefton-Green provides more clarity and focus.Image

For example, two years ago my W210 students and I helped facilitate a “passions project” at the local Bloomington Project School.  The passions project was a three-week project where we helped the students learn about Lego Mindstorm robotic kits.  These were 6th -8th grade students in a classroom setting, with an instructor, and visiting education majors from IU.  In other words, this was a pretty formal setting.  But the activities and curricula were very unstructured.  The objectives for the project were to work in groups and pick something to build out of the lego kits, and ultimately program the object to move or do something.  Each group could set their own objectives. One group made a car that could change directions when it hit an object. One of the kids was much more interested in learning about the computer programming of the object while others had more interesting in building the car and making it stronger so it wouldn’t break. These activities were less structured, but still in a formal setting. These could also include the Boys and Girls Club or a neighborhood Computer clubhouse. My minor advisor Dr. Kylie Peppler from the Learning Sciences, has done extensive work in researching the role of informal learning at the intersection of the arts and new media in these spaces.

Contrast this with someone participating in something like the Virtual Choir, which would be lower on the scales of curriculum and setting. Online learning, or some MOOCs might be informal settings as you can participate from your home or anywhere, yet have highly structured (more formal) curriculum with set assignments and objectives

Traditional K-12 schools would be generally highly structured and highly formal.  Adventure Learning, which I mentioned before, might be right in the middle of both scales.  Some AL projects start with a designed curriculum, in a school, but they may deconstruct that curriculum and iterate on it during the project depending on the findings of the explorers and researchers. Students may follow the curriculum during the school day learning about an ‘animal of the day,’ but they also interact with the adventurers/researchers after school or by following along on blogs, webcams, or webcasts. There are many other examples that I could place on this, but these are ones that I am most familiar with.

This is a pretty long way of showing how yes; I do think that structure could be viewed in the same way as informal.  But this explanation has also shown how the different definitions of informal learning are important. Sefton-Green’s definition built on Livingstone and provides clarity.

Since I am also following Sefton-Green’s definition, structure is a part of both curriculum and setting.  So I think that as they relate to curriculum and setting, it is not a simple question of marking something as ‘yes, this is informal’ vs ‘no, this is formal.’ They are degrees and there are times and situations where each may be more or less appropriate depending on the learner.  In some cases more structure may be appropriate, where others it would be less appropriate. This is an area where my background in IST may help to understand how more structure could be beneficial in some informal learning environments. It’s all about creating structures for learners. These structures may be dependent on age, familiarity with the context, may be more structured at first then become less structured at the end.  The environment needs to be able to be flexible and so does the structure.