Another dot in the blogosphere?


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Humour me. Pretend that you watched this video about the Student Learning Space (SLS) without knowing that it was about the SLS.

What makes it stand out from just about any other online schooling platform?

I do not ask the question sarcastically, but critically. My question comes from a place of earnestness and honesty. I ask because we should question buzzwords.

I ask because I want to know whether you see what I see. I see two main things.

First, without knowing that this was about the SLS, it could have been a pitch for any LMS or CMS. Providers of these platforms and services tout essentially the same things. I see no difference, except my next observation.

Second, one thing that is supposed to make the SLS stand out is its push to promote self-directed learning (SDL). The official statement and the video led with it.

SLS and SDL

While SDL might sound self-explanatory, it has different connotations. Like any other term, e.g., socio-emotional learning (SEL), it is important to have shared understandings of SDL.

If you explore the literature, specifically the work of Gibbons, you might discover that SDL is a continuum. Gibbons identifies true SDL as “Courses or programs in which students choose the outcomes, design their own activities and pursue them in their own way.” Does the SLS allow these?

If you organise your own unPD with Twitter, you might discover at least seven elements that characterise SDL at the independent learner end of the spectrum. Does the SLS enable these elements?

BTW, the #edsg folks who volunteered their time also shared their thoughts on SDL in 2014. I curated the conversation and resources with Storify. Like most LMS, the SLS will allow students to converse. Will it allow students to create and curate as a result of learning conversations?

So, what form of SDL will the SLS promote and nurture? I ask this knowing that the SLS is not just about the platform. The social and pedagogical aspects of its use help answer the question.

Will the SLS be as natural as Googling and looking for YouTube videos? Will it be a first response or a last resort? Will it be leveraged in skilfully or superficially? Will it be integrated seamlessly or stand out?

Answers to these questions lie in its use. The way it is used depends on its users. Its users need to know its expectations of use and to see new models of integration. Its teachers need professional development (PD), not just of technical know-how, but also social and pedagogical nous.

I have no doubt that teachers will get some training and PD. These will be met with the usual range of teacher responses. I wonder how many will depend on their own SDL to learn more about the SLS.

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I avoided manually converting two old Google Sites to new ones in the hope that Google would offer an import-export or conversion tool. After all, the new Sites have been available for several months [early adopters announcement] [open for general use]. But such a tool does not yet exist.

Moving to a new Site requires a fair bit of work and is not a simple three-step process described in the help page.

The problem lies in the “copy and paste” step. If all I had was text, then I would have less of a problem. But since I have images, videos, and other embeds, I face an ordeal.

I need to have the images and videos in Google Photos, Google Drive, or YouTube first. Then I need to embed them again.

This could mean downloading these files from other sources and putting them in my Drive and folders. This might contravene usage guidelines of the original source and I have to find some other sources.

An even bigger problem is not being able to embed anything outside the Google tools ecosystem. For example, I like using Padlet and AnswerGarden. Both appear immediately and are usable on old Google Site pages thanks to scripting add-ons. However, in new Sites, my learners need to visit them in separate tabs or windows.

While I can create links to these resources that open in new windows or tabs, Sites is fanatical about warning me and my learners that we are going elsewhere. How very Facebook of Google to do this!

The experience from a learner’s point of view is potentially jarring because new instances and resources need to pop up or draw them away from the page. The experience is no longer as seamless, logical, or convenient.

All that said, the editing and creating interface is simpler and more modern. That is a good thing. However, the point of producing a Google Site is to share, teach, showcase, or otherwise let someone else interact with it.

It is not just my experience that needs to be good. Being learner-centred also means taking their experiences into account. I feel good about using the new Google Sites. I would like my learners to feel the same way too.

I read two recent news articles [1] [2] about a local bank providing 6,000 kids with watches that manage their spending in and outside school. I wondered if there was an unseen opportunity for learning.
 

 
Might the provision of watches be combined with coding and making so the kids try some hacking? This is something that happened in programmes like Negroponte’s OLPCs and Mitra’s hole-in-the-wall computers.

While such actions might be viewed negatively, they are not only an opportunity to learn by tinkering, they are also ripe for learning about ethical practices and responsible behaviour.

Not every hack is bad. Buyers of IKEA products have been hacking them for a long time. The results can be creative and even better than the original.

A Smart Nation is not just about “smart” devices. It is more about smart people making smart choices. One of the best ways to get to that state is learning by doing and learning from mistakes.

What is our next smart move?

I find it odd how headlines and news articles tout “any time, anywhere” but accompany them with photos of students during school hours in a classroom.

The headlines are not wrong because school is technically one time and place for “any time, anywhere”. However, this is just a sliver of the whole experience. Furthermore, illustrating just one experience colours the expectations of readers and reveals the mindset of those who make and share the news.

Those who do military service in Singapore will be familiar with OTOT — own time, own target. The Student Learning Space (SLS) is touted to allow student to have their OTOT by self-directed learning.

But we must be more critical of such a claim. OTOT is not realistic if the current practices of the curricula race and assessment do not change. Time is limited in such a race and no one wants to come in last in assessment.

The alternative behaviours can be difficult to show and achieve. This is in part due to the fact that the makers and sharers of the news do not know what it might look like. How can they if they have not experienced this first hand?

Even if they have, consider these. What if your anywhere is perching on the porcelain throne? What if your any and own time is waiting in a queue or right before you sleep? The photos or videos of these might look like the type fear-mongers love using, e.g., addiction to a device.
 

 
If you are going to tout it, you must shout it. All of it. If participants and stakeholders of an intervention do not see new models and possibilities, they will do the same old thing. If they do not change, then “any time, anywhere” becomes “no time to do, going nowhere” instead.

No, I am not referring to the SLS that is Sim Lim Square, although that place is worthy of a rant. I am referring to the recently announced rollout of the Student Learning Space.

I cannot critique this article on the SLS in one tweet. Hence this longer critique.

I present segments from the article and share some thoughts.

“The aim is for students to take greater ownership of their learning and to work together with their peers.”

This is a worthwhile aim. However, I wonder if students should actually be exploring and using other already available resources to do this. The fact that such resources are NOT already under one roof, curated, or sanitised is the point. How else better to prepare them for higher education and work?

The path to ownership is paved with learner agency and empowerment. Such characteristics are not found neatly stacked on a shelf or conveniently packaged online.

“learn at their own pace, revisit concepts and read up on other areas of interest”

Uh, one word: YouTube. Another word: Wikipedia.

These words are not neat and tidy like teaching. Instead, they accurately mirror the messiness that is learning.

“developed with industry and external partners to offer real-world context”

Um, another word: Buzzword.

“Real-world” examples and contexts are crucial and sorely missing, so making lessons more real is worthwhile.

I hope that the providers of SLS have learnt from the plethora of examples in YouTube and social media like Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram what to do and what not to.

If not, they are just using a buzzword for effect. The effect is like a firework. It is spectacular when it explodes, but it does not last long and the scene fades back to black.

I still wonder if providing a portal is wise in the long run. Is this not just more elaborate spoonfeeding? Or perhaps the giving and regurgitation of fish?

“rolled out progressively to all schools from next year (2018)”

Starting when next year? After the main exams so students can do cool and fun but not test-relevant things?

The official announcement mentioned 62 trial schools, but no specifics on when. My guess is that you cannot get shot down if you do not hold up timeline targets.

“teachers can share lesson ideas and strategies within and across schools”

Will this be done like the way it was about a decade ago? It was mandatory for some to share resources like test papers in online repositories. The “ideas and strategies within and across schools” was poorly conceived and implemented because competition was stronger than collaboration.

I hope the Ministry officials learnt from this faux pas. It must have the right people to provide that institutional memory and who have the willingness to not be yes-men or women.

I also wonder if the goal is to emulate teachers who already blog, tweet, and create YouTube videos. If so, they must nurture a mindset and culture that embraces openness, humility, interdependence, creativity, critical thinking, and reflectivity.

If not, they might be creating conditions for another mistake. An expensive and very public mistake.

I used to conclude two courses I taught at NIE with this: Change is not about asking for permission first. It is about asking for forgiveness later.

Change is not about asking for permission first. It is about asking for forgiveness later.

I shared this at a panel after my keynote, and before I could elaborate, the moderator reminded the audience that they should not be doing this with budgets or financial transactions. Taken out of the context, it might have seemed like I was advising people break the law. I was not.

The context of my courses was taking ownership of problems in schooling and teaching. The content of my talk was about changing mindsets on how to learn in the workplace. I was advising participants and my audience to be change agents instead of waiting for change to happen.

It might be difficult to visualise this or see the impact of such actions. Thankfully, there is a YouTube video that illustrates this nicely.


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An activist wanted to send Twitter-Germany a message about dealing with hate messages. As he kept getting stonewalled, he decided to take action.

He made stencils out of 30 terrible tweets and sprayed the messages in chalk outside Twitter’s office in Hamburg. The semi-permanence of the chalked text was more impactful visually than scrolling pixels on a screen. They were tough to ignore.

The video ended with Twitter doing in real life what it seemed to be doing online. It removed what was immediately outside its building on the pavement, but left intact the majority of messages slightly further away.

I do not know if there was a longer term impact of the activist’s actions, but his message spread on Twitter, RSS feeds, and news sites.

He did not wait for permission to take action because he saw a real and urgent need to do something. If he got into the good sort of trouble, he could ask for forgiveness later.

The lesson is this: It is not about guaranteeing a change as a result of action; it is about taking action when few, if any, are ready or prepared. It is about moving in the right direction even though the destination is not clear.

It is about not asking for permission to move, and if you make reasonable mistakes, asking for forgiveness later.


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It is easy to tweet the essence of the advice that Alan Alda shared about public speaking: Share just three ideas, said three different ways, and iterated three times each.

But that distilled wisdom becomes a meaningless tip if you do not adopt the same value system of wanting to create an authentic connection.

Alda took time and care to bracket his three tips with the need to make that human connection. Public speakers and teachers might take that advice as a golden reminder that delivering messages and running the curricular race come a distant second behind making that connection.

If you cannot reach them, you cannot teach them.

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