Celebrating the CETL with wildfire teaching


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Summary of work done for COLMSCT fellowship with some future directions indicated.

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  • Building on Engeström's recent formulation of wildfire activities to discuss teaching and learning, and linking it to ideas of personal learning environments.
  • TT280 Web basics, design, development and management http://www3.open.ac.uk/study/undergraduate/course/tt280.htm One of suite of six in Web Applications Certificate http://telemat.open.ac.uk/webapps/index.cfm?task=home 12 weeks 10 points = approx 100 hours study 800-900 students per presentation, 6 forums for all with 6 moderators. Usually around 10,000 messages in each presentation. Intensive environment; students cannot afford to fall behind, so pressure is on to answer queries and problems quickly
  • What it's all about
  • This represents the “terrain” in which wildfire activities take place. What you see here never happens; the terrain is a mental construct created by the trails that people lay on it. Bearing that in mind you see the main features of the terrain with a variety of landmarks in it.
  • This is what the terrain looks like with trails laid down on it. It looks a complete mess because it is. But this represents the normal way in which people learn. Engestrom applied it to informal settings – skateboarding, birding. But it applies equally well to formal settings. You can see patterns beginning to emerge. There are knots where trails cross, and landmarks emerge out of the coinciding of numbers of knots. A knot is not a spot that can be marfked.it is an experiential moment. The most important issue to bear in mind here is that this is a depiction of informal learning. It includes some more formal and professional trail laying, but by and large this is trail making which is under the control of those who make them.
  • And here I have added in the path that is laid down by the TT280 course materials. This to my mind begins to bring into relief the whole issue of the relationship between teaching and learning. We know where the teachers want the path to go, but it is by no means a straight line, and it may be rendered seriously out of date by changes in the landscape. Also as teachers we have less control than we might have thought over where students go. This also brings up issues about the usefulness of the conceptual divide between formal and informal learning. It brings into very clear focus the amount of even formal learning that is under the control of the student rather than the teacher.
  • Here I've added in the trails laid down by the students taking TT280 – the purple dotted lines. They bear some resemblance to the path laid down by the course, but they do not follow it slavishly, and they do occasionally veer off at astonishing angles. Partly this is because of the student's decisions fduring the course, but it is also due to the existence of the student's personal learning network which goes well beyond the terrain marked out by the course.
  • These come from Yrjö Engeström's paper on wildfire activities Engeström, Y (2009) Wildfire Activities: New Patterns of Mobility and Learning, International Journal of Mobile and Blended Learning , Volume 1, Issue 2, pp 1 – 18 They are the key features of these activities. We'll have a look now at a couple of threads in the forums from one presentation and I will outline some of the features shown in them.
  • But before doing that I want to introduce you to, or remind you of, the Activity System diagram. Everything focusses on the object of the activity. Without the object there is no activity. The object is simultaneously the thing being worked on and the outcome being worked towards. Tools are used and always mediate or shape the activity. At the lower level of the diagram, the activity is also mediated by the rules , both formal and informal, applied, by the community of which the subject is part for this activity, and by the either implicit or explicit division of labour
  • I have been able to cocneptaulsie the activity of TT280 interms of Engestrom's model. There is a knot here, and trails about validation of code . Activity Theory sees this as a contradiction at work; (the basic motivation for learning). Problem may be coding and practice - learning the rules of practice is an important part of overall learning. Topic is validation - a concept - it is an object in its own right to have properly valid code, confirmed by the validator, but the validator is itself a useful tool for producing validated code. Part of the job of the moderators is to teach this as a practical skill. Rules of the activity system make a big difference here. Formal rules in web design about what constitutes valid code; informal rules about how important that is. There are formal rules of assessment, formal rules of coding, and informal rules of practice in coding, as well as rules within the forum which determine the division of labour . E.g. students can answer questions as competently as the moderator on many issues but tend not to when it comes to an authoritative interpretation of what will be required for the ECA.
  • If one exchange could be described as the fulcrum of our work, this is it. It encapsulates the fundamental issue that underlies all of our work. Whatever we teach conceptually, we come down in the end to rules of practice; and the closely intertwined relationship beween theory and practice. There is a trail here, and a concept around the idea of practical experience; among the most important trails and concepts for a student to lay down and become familiar with. It could be described as the first rule of troubleshooting - check your code minutely. Mr White might well have replied "We've all done it. You just became a real web designer.".
  • I have been able to identify rules and tools which have grown as the course has progressed from its first presentation, and these are some of the important ones. The key feature of all of them is that they are clearly practice focussed. The Rocky is the time it takes to answer a question (about 90 minutes in TT280), the Cubitt is the time before a detailed technical answer is given (around six hours), and the Bird the time before a repeated questrion becomes an FAQ (about 7 days). These are are all informal rules or standards of practice for the moderators. Snagfroid might best be described as a rule of attitude – collness in the face of poressure or emotion from the students. And the FAQ forum is the tool par excellence – writen and continuously updated out of the practice we are daily involved in.
  • I have been able to suggest ar eworking of the ZPD along lines proposed by Engestrom. This is the classical Zone of Proximal Development as first proposed by Vygotsky. It has relatively straightforward boundaries between: - what we can do - what we can move into doing with the help of a teacher or a more experienced peer (it is notable that Vygotsky considered outside intervention in ths form necessary) - and what we are not yet capable of It is neat and beautifully structured (even when the lines are wavy)
  • Contrast this with the ZPD as seen through the metaphor of terrains and trails. It's a mess. It is anywhere within reach of the student, depending on which trails the student has laid down already, and where they might go next. Notably this is no longer under the control of a teacher or peer. They may have some influence – and often do – but a lot can happen under the student's own steam. And this means that the student can move into their ZPD at any time or in any direction. The previous cocneption suggested that the teacher or peer had much more control over this.
  • This enables me to link to ideas around PLNs – personal learning networks. Part of the PLN will exist within this terrain but much of it will be outside in all directions and in different forms.
  • I'd just like to note briefly some issues about the idea of community. We often talk about community as if we unproblematically create learning communities which are clearly bounded and include all the learners within the course, for the duration of the course. But community is a much more volatile organism and much less susceptible to institutional rules and structures than we often think. The construct of wildfire learning illustrates very clearly the way in which communities can rise and fall much more quickly and contingently than we usually allow for. This implies some robustrness and nimbleness on the part of the learner. We also need to note the porousness of the concept; great uncertainty as to where any boundary is and how firm it is.
  • The next three slides refer to three of the features of wildfire activities. You might call them higher order features. High stakes personal involvement . This is crucial. It's a big issue for many of our students who join up to gain skills in coding, which they perceive as a process of cognitive acquisition involving not much personal investment. They discover that they actually have to learn something, and that it makes a difference to them. It's a lesson well learned – because ultimately you can't learn without changing. This discovery rocks a few worlds. Noticeable in some of the messages we get.
  • Improvisational adaptation and long-term design This again is part of the essence of learning, and perhaps mirrors the conjunction I mentioned earlier between theory and practice. The adaptation is the ability to turn your mind to dealing with this problem now. Long term design is remembering what the objective was: draining the swamp. I argue that we can know when we are learning well when we can keep these two perspectives in mind together.
  • Holoptic vision Here we are pushing at the limits of what we can achieve with TT280. Our firm ambition with every presentation of TT280 is to turn on the light - to enable students to grasp what they are doing and take control of it with critical insight. That requires quite a leap on the part of most of our students, and many do not achieve it. It is particularly apposite for the subject area of web design because of the factor noted above that web design is an ever shifting field.
  • Conclusion: course structure and ethos I've been able to examine how the informal world of the student, including their PLN, interacts with the formal world of the course. We have to remember that this is what people's learning naturally is. We impose order so that the learning is efficient and so that we can quality control the outcome. But we have to take this into account. The structure and ethos of a course needs to accommodate this, or it won't work, however good it looks.
  • I have been able to determine that moderators' work needs to be focussed at two levels. We work in quick zaps on students as they fly past. Short zaps are activity-provoking – they enable the student to carry on with what they were doing. Long zaps are thought-provoking – they enable the student to carry on but also give them something to think about that will fill in the overall picture, if they take the opportunity.
  • Have been able to determine the influence that a constantly changing terrain has. Cussins on whose work Engeström built says trails are permanent, though a tracking of one may not be. I'm not so sure; I think it is possible for trails and landmarks to be simply obliterated. We have to produce learners who are capable of dealing with that.
  • All this adds up to the idea that a course is a living object. It can't be set in stone, paper or electron and left to get on with itself. Real learning, effective learning will move on with the world, and it will leave the static course behind.
  • Celebrating the CETL with wildfire teaching

    1. 1. Wildfire teaching Celebrating CETLs 2009 Image courtesy of “Superjew”: accesssed 13/12/09 http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Party_explosion.jpg
    2. 2. TT280: Web basics: design, development and management
    3. 3. Teaching online: using very fleeting contacts with students to enable more effective activity and learning.
    4. 4. Wildfire activities – a terrain
    5. 5. Wildfire activities – a terrain with trails
    6. 6. Wildfire activities – a terrain with trails and TT280 path
    7. 7. Wildfire activities – a terrain with trails, TT280 path, and students' trails
    8. 8. Features of wildfire activities (Engeström) - swarming that crosses boundaries and ties knots between actors operating in fractured and often poorly charted terrains - building mycorrhizae communities. It blazes embodied and lived cognitive trails and social bonds that make the terrains knowable and livable. The mechanism of stigmergy - constructing collective concepts that stabilize the trails and may serve as platforms for expansive restructuring of the activity - experiencing highstakes personal involvement , risks and critical conflicts, and shifts of identity. - combining quick improvisational adaptation and long-term design - holoptic monitoring . It is oriented toward gaining a global view of events while engaged in intense local action.
    9. 10. Example: Coding Queries 2-34 1 of 2 Charlotte Wednesday 3.54 p.m.: [...] It is very frustrating as the code validates but has this warning, {200 words] Delaney 4.31 p.m.: I think this is the same issue that Edgar answered down the page. [...] Charlotte 4.39 p.m.: Terrific..thank you for that, in my frustration I missed the earlier postings. Mr Black 4.47 p.m.: You won't be penalised for the warning, but it occurs to me that the reason the validator is giving the warning is because it's checking the document against UTF-8. Emily 11.11 p.m.: I am using utf-8 and get the same warning. It seems to be just using direct input that is generating the warning. [...some technical discussion...]
    10. 11. Example: Coding Queries 2-34 2 of 2 Charlotte Thursday 12.54 p.m. replies to Mr Black: Thank you, I am now testing with File Input before closing the file as well - belts & braces as they say! Edgar 2.45 p.m. to Mr Black : I wonder if you could confirm please... To me there seems to be be no obvious advantage between using UTF-8 and ISO8859-1. So is there a preference as far as TT280 is concerned? Mr Black 2.59 p.m. Either will do, Edgar.
    11. 12. Example: ECA 101 Dolores Friday 9:45 p.m.: I am checking one of my templates and the validation services comes back with strange errors. For example: [...] Mr White 10:48 p.m. [...] the message is telling you that your paragraph element <p> is causing a problem. Dolores Saturday 7:02 p.m.: Thank you for looking into it. I double checked. I treble checked. I didn't close the <p> tag in the middle of the text block. Kindest regards, Dolores
    12. 13. Rules and tools Rules: The Rocky The Bird The Cubitt FAQ forum Snagfroid
    13. 14. The classical ZPD
    14. 15. The wildfire ZPD
    15. 16. The PLN – personal learning network
    16. 17. Issues around “community” Image compliments di Mola: http://www.flickr.com/photos/50327830@N00
    17. 18. Implications: high stakes involvement
    18. 19. Implications: improvisation and long term Image courtesy: Caesar: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Özz_Nûjen_at_Skrattstock_2006.jpg
    19. 20. Implications: holoptic
    20. 21. Conclusions: structure and ethos of courses
    21. 22. Conclusions: focus work at two levels Theory theory concept practice blah blah blah
    22. 23. Conclusions: awareness of constantly changing terrain
    23. 24. Conclusions: the course as a living object
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