Learning in communities โ€“ networked collaborative learning

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Facing a new day and a new topic

Topic 3 of the ONL191 course was difficult. For a number of personal circumstances (myself included) only a few could participate in each synchronous lesson. The ones I participated in included interesting and thought provoking discussions. Two major issues came together, the collaborative and the online aspect of learning. How to make them work at the same time is quite a challenge. Another aspects that was touched on, but not deepened during the second meeting I attended was the fact that participants are very different- there can be cultural and/or language barriers. So there is no one list of things to do- there are lists of best practices, and which ones are applied depends quite a bit from the context of the group.

Personally, I struggled to find my niche in the conversation, but Anne saved me when she suggested I could draw from my experience teaching and facilitating online to contribute.

Now the funny thing is, most what I know about facilitation of groups is not something I have learned as a scholar. For more than 10 years I have facilitated conflict resolution workshops inside prisons and in the community as a volunteer, and along the way learned many tricks of bringing people together. Most of them have to do with finding what is shared among participants, listening and communication skills, and practicing empathy. I soon realized that those skills were useful in my teaching, and started to apply them in the classroom.

There are numerous variations of exercises like the one shown in the video, in which participants share aspects of their lives and relate to each other. In real life you would start with less sensitive statements and as group trust grows one introduces more personal topics.

Some of those tools can be applied and even enhanced online! One of my favorite icebreakers for online introductions is asking students to post a picture that is meaningful for them and share why, then ask others to comment. Some students will post pictures of themselves or their families, others will post about favorite places or activities. But it is amazing how much can be learned from one picture and the story that goes with it. People posting kid pictures immediately connect with each other, as those who have similar hobbies or traveled to the same places.

For online social presence I learned a lot from Michelle Pacansky-Brock. She has consistently worked on bringing awareness to the importance of community building online, and the tools to achieve it.

So, I confess, for this topic I worked my contributions a bit backwards- I started with the tools I use and then went looking for scholarly references to support them. Luckily I did not have to search too far- in an excellent review of online course design, which I go back regularly by Jaggars & Xu, there was plenty of discussion about the importance of social presence in online courses. And this blog posting about online collaboration by Terence Brake (thank you Anne for the tips) covers both practical (structure, timing, recording) and more social aspects such as language and inclusiveness.

At the end, I felt again the need to learn more about these emotional/social aspects, which tend to get into the field of psychology and learning. This topic coincided with a busy schedule at a conference and then a few days of unwinding visiting family, so I feel quite accomplished that I could even make it!


The Art of Changing the Brain: Ch.4 we are lifetime learners if motivated



Skiing has been one of my latest sports to try, in spite of my fear of heights and my dislike of cold. Pure intrinsic motivation from my part ๐Ÿ™‚

I took a day break after finishing chapter 3 of the Changing the Brain book, with the idea of a balance between the different parts of the brain that need to be stimulated for effective learning. This morning, as I started reading chapter 4, I had to smile as it delved into several topics I have been reading about recently. One had to do with the primitive survival mechanisms of the brain based on fear and pleasure. The example for the second was sugar, of which I learned recently a lot from the book Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss. I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anybody interested in healthy eating and the role of big food corporations in contributing to the epidemic of obesity. The other topic was about extrinsic versus intrinsic motivation, which was much discussed as part of the Gamification MOOC I took some months ago. My positive view of the MOOCs is very much due to the excellent experience of taking that course.

But I am digressing. Zull winds his way in this chapter from the structures of the brain “in charge” of survival mechanisms, such as the limbic system for pleasure/fear, and the neocortex for more advanced mechanisms involving understanding and control. After describing the structures of the limbic system, particularly the amygdala, the site of “fear,” and the ‘septum,” of pleasure, he discusses how emotions can affect learning (positively or negatively). Note: Zull simplifies (on purpose) the description of brain areas and their associated functions, and I am not focusing too much on it either, so for a better description of these structures it is better to use a more detailed source. It all connects with the feeling of being in control of the learning process, which is more pronounced when the motivation is intrinsic (true interest, emotional connection) than extrinsic (rewards such as a high GPA). Movement (even anticipated or imaginary) bring pleasure to the learning process, leading to the idea that active learning is more engaging than passive learning. The chapter closes where it started, the idea that learning is a continuous process modulated by wants, needs, and emotions. and therefore it is our trade and art…paraphrasing de Montaigne, my trade and my art is living.

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