Challenges of flexibility and facilitation
Last week we had a 3 day f2f seminar at the MIL programme, where my colleagues and I introduced the 4th module on Ict and Educational design – the module in which I facilitate a blended in-world course. Saturday afternoon I started out by giving a lecture on remediation and redidactization focusing on respectful and radical design in SL both regarding people, places and processes. After the introduction we had a hands-on workshop where basic SL functionalities were explained and tested. 13 students out of 25 signed up for the course, and 5 other students, who chose to analyze a learning environment different from SL, wish to participate informally which I allow.
The course in fact started on November 1st but the period up until the seminar is mainly reserved for the students’ preparation (reading, creating an account and joining the in-world group). I did however plan some “Get off to a good start” in-world activities before the seminar, but only a few students attended these. All the different activities in-world are voluntary and I only demand that each student participates at least once in scheduled in-world activities during the course. The argument is that the MIL programme is intended to be flexible in order for the students to be able to participate even though the majority is full time employed, and several mandatory online activities would challenge that flexibility. Furthermore as part of a problem based pedagogy the students are expected to explore and investigate on their own and in their study groups. This pedagogical strategy is possible not least because the students are adults, highly motivated, comfortable with taking responsibility for their own learning and in most cases appreciate the freedom of choice. Last year when I did the same course, a handful of the students chose to participate in several of the activities, and I expect that to be the case this year also.
Meeting on November 16th – showing some students the Connectivism Village
Promoting and ensuring student autonomy is a cardinal point of my (and MILs) pedagogical philosophy, nevertheless this strategy poses some challenges as seen from the facilitators point of view. I’ve planned roughly 3 activities pr. week and they last between 2-3 hrs, and so far I’ve been the only facilitator. (This week we’ll start having activities with in-world colleagues). One of the challenges of this “buffet pedagogy” is that I never know how many students will attend, and since the sessions are relatively long some students choose to participate in parts of the activity only. Not knowing the exact number of participants calls for flexible planning thus challenging me to let go of my usual need for control and structure.
A different challenge of this flexibility for me as a facilitator is that I constantly have to be aware of new students joining and try to include them simultaneously during the sessions. A good feature for this of course is the IM, which makes it possible to text without interrupting the whole group. This is something not possible in real life, and I do think that it is quite smart, but I also have to say that it is fairly demanding on the facilitator. I suppose the ability to text chat with several participants simultaneously is a skill that “just” needs to be learned, but I can’t help wonder if this rather complex way of communicating would discourage some potential teachers from trying out SL or similar environments.
The last 2 Mondays I’ve been attending Metanomics meetings with students, and on these occasions I had respectively 10 and 12 active chat windows, so my immediate impression was that I spent most of my time paying attention to the chats rather than the speakers. The main reason for attending these Metanomics meetings was to show the students this particular way of communicating, “Constructive Cacophony” as Bloomfield calls it, so the content wasn’t all that important. I will return to the content issue in another post, but for now I just want to reflect on the possibility of using text and voice simultaneously. At the Metanomics meetings Bloomfield is assisted by moderators, and if we transfer this to an educational setting the solution could be to have more than one teacher or perhaps a TA.
Another option is to limit the text chat and ask participants to use a certain group chat only. This might work well, and we’ll experiment with that down the line, but here in the beginning of the course, I believe that it is very important not to limit the students’ use of IMs to the facilitator. It’s my clear impression that the IMs serve as an invaluable support giving especially less confident students a communication channel where they do not need to “expose” their inexperience and/or insecurity. The trick here – just like in real life – is to create an atmosphere where no questions are too small or too stupid. On the other hand, it is also my impression that the students choose IM because they experience this as being more polite than interrupting the activity with personal /individual questions, and this may be because we have not yet reached consensus on how to communicate in these in-world situations.
Finally, from another perspective this possibility to pose individual questions during group activity may enhance inclusion in a way not possible without technology mediation, and this is truly where I begin to see SL as a strong learning environment … even though it initially challenges both the students and the facilitator :-)