Time is short…connect the dots…(part of a speech given by Steve Jobs) #ocTEL

So I feel I am running a bit late on ocTEL activities and therefore I am still catching up with Week 1 activities here on this blog even though we are now well into Week 2. So I have just spent a very good portion of my morning, re-listening the talks that I had actually seen and heard before but had in the meantime, forgotten some of their essence. My title in-fact was taken from Helen Keegan‘s PELeCON talk last year.

However if I had to choose two particular talks and two particular speakers which I think I am finding as my kind of ‘virtual mentors’ at this stage in my life, I would say that I would pick Eric Mazur and Sugata Mitra. In fact I have blogged about Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ experiment in an earlier blog post. Their talks are so inspiring because they, to me, have brought me closer to that “aha moment”, as described by Eric Mazur  – leading the way to the “connect the dots” process that Steve Jobs mentions [I do suggest viewing this commencement address delivered by Steve Jobs at Stanford in 2005]. I think that one concept which both Eric Mazur and Sugata Mitra have in common is in fact, this sense of giving responsibility to the learner for his own learning. I believe that with all the interactive whiteboards that we have, and for all the tablets that we might get, we are still so far away from actually shifting our mindsets to that direction. I ask what good is a tablet when all you use it for, are drill and practice exercises in class? What good is an interactive whiteboard in class, when all the interaction it seems to stimulate is between itself and the teacher, as the teacher presses the forward button on the powerpoint presentation that is displayed to the students?

I ask, why is it so hard for us teachers to accept that maybe, just maybe we don’t really know everything, and we therefore let go. As Mazur, rightly described – this is so easy… it is so easy to go for an information transfer approach. Me, the teacher, have the information – the content. You, the student, are there to get that information –  the content. Content in, content out on the exam paper. Easy yes? But no… the outcome is disastrous. It might certainly be less easy for the teacher to help students reach the hard assimilation process. It is so hard to watch learners try to understand, and let them explore, inquire, reach their own conclusions and be there to guide them along the way. Certain people I know, would say I am speaking in theory. In practice, this can never be done. Well in practice, it is what my young 3 year old son does. And he’s not a genius either. It’s what and how every child learns – through exploration – constructing and deconstructing knowledge. Yet when it comes to the classroom, and to the application of technology, a certain fervor seems to grab us by the throat and we decide that we are not able to handle seeing our students learn by themselves. So we instruct them. We have to be the ones to tell them how to open a Microsoft Word document. We have to be the ones to tell them that Facebook shouldn’t be used. We have to be the ones to tell them, to fill them up with something, whatever that might be.

What I have been trying to point out all along, even in previous posts is this. Technology, any technology or device or tool, if used for mere information transfer is absolutely nothing more special than a pen and paper – for what it’s worth. Information transfer is what we have been used to, what we have been taught. But today it is different. Today’s world is different, today’s economy is different, today’s society is different – their needs, our needs are different. We’re no longer secluded objects living on separate lands. So a student cannot just live on information transfer. People are showing they have very little engagement with schools and especially with the content taught at schools. I ask: why would that be? Sugata Mitra describes how in the traditional teaching setting a teacher spends his time trying to give content to the student, and the student spends his entire lifetime trying to forget it! It’s true. I have experienced this myself when I taught using the traditional information transfer, ‘sage on the stage’, kind of approach. And even if my powerpoint had an amazing design, and even if I had so many videos showing throughout the lecture, and even if I almost did acrobatics to engage my students, in the end, after the lecture, they could hardly remember one single thing which I talked about. None of them were talking, none of them were on Facebook or Twitter, none of them slept – yet none of them got any souvenirs back from my lecture.

This particular instance had started to make me realize that technology without the right approach and methodology is really quite glitzy and shiny, but it’s as shallow as cheap costume jewellery. There is no depth there. What Sugata Mitra was talking about, and what always impresses me when I watch this talk, is that the kids, during his many experiments, and wherever in the world they were (be it in the slum areas of a tiny village in India, or in the UK) managed to reach a depth in their level of understanding that could not even start to compare with what any teacher can ‘pour’ into them. And this is not to say that teachers are useless. We, as teachers, have to stop feeling scared of letting go. Both of the speakers focus on an approach that sees a major involvement of students, to solve problems that might be more complex than we think people of that age can handle. And yet, using the technology as a “conduit for connections” – (taken from the interview with George Siemens) they both manage to create learning experiences that are not only fascinating and engaging for the learners, but that manage to run deep in the learner’s minds.

I think that in essence technology is not just about the tools or the devices. I think it’s about the pedagogy, the art and science of teaching – and this centers around the teacher. I think that the technology is all about the use and application and how the teacher/mentor manages to apply this as  the “catalyst that fosters connections” (another quote by George Siemens) and as Steve Jobs says, something that “helps us connect the dots”.  Whether or not, technology has to be used everytime, everywhere is a debatable issue. I think that as with everything, there isn’t a clearcut black/white line… there are different shades that most often depend heavily on the context in which the learning experience is set.

My big question and experience for #ocTEL

So I start this new journey inside another MOOC, (I am not new to MOOCs), that plans to discuss Technology Enhanced Learning. My big question for the first week of #ocTEL is very much related to the work I do and to the experience I have accumulated over the years. Let me first start with a brief introduction of my professional career. I have a first degree in Education and I have, together with a colleague of mine, designed and developed my first digital 2D game way back in 1997, when in Malta, technology was still in its nascent years. My game, was designed around social constructivist theories, and focused very much on activity and interactivity, using various multimedia objects and game mechanics to help learners achieve their quests. Following that, I spent a few years teaching, both young adolescents and older adults. This was a challenging experience, but I felt that I needed to continue what I first started out doing… using technology as a medium to reach a wider audience and have a greater impact.

So in 2003 I joined a team of people who were working on an EU-funded project, focusing on the teaching of restoration and conservation techniques, using distance education. In 2003, the project centred around using online and videoconferencing techniques to deliver both theoretical and practical aspect of the courses that had been designed and developed by the  team I worked with. It was then that I had been introduced to MOODLE and it was back then I started off where I had left in 1997, that is, focusing on designing education using technology-based media and tools to support a learning that is both active and interactive. We did learn a lot from the project, and we even published a manual for best practices in videoconferencing for teaching and learning. I started taking more courses in technology applications, to be able to understand what happens at the back end of the applications we experience as users. The team and myself, worked a lot with the trainers, to identify best pedagogical practices when introducing technology to enhance the learning processes. In 2005, I started my Masters in Information Technology, and from there I built some experience and expertise around AI techniques as applied to learning and education, developing a thesis that revolved around the design and implementation of a personalized learning space for further and lifelong learning.

With a background in Education, and my focus and passion for educating others, a natural step was to join the Faculty of Education’s staff at the University of Malta. The scope of the Faculty of Education, is to be able to give a service to people who wish to further their studies in Education and become teachers. In 2007, amongst one of my various research interests I started converging onto virtual worlds and serious games, as an area in Education, that was still relatively new. I got hooked to Second Life, and I started carrying out some research about this particular medium, and how it could be of particular use and potential to people in and for education. In 2010, I submitted my PhD proposal (this was accepted) to try and understand whether using virtual worlds and 3D spaces can indeed shape an individual’s behavior and attitudes, in a way that can have a lasting effect.

Since I was working with pre-service teachers, I could identify a number of challenges that could be addressed during teacher training programs. One of the challenges, paradoxically, relates to the use and adoption of technology practices in the classroom. Various research indicated, that across the world, teachers seem to face a number of problems when it comes to changing the style of teaching to adapt to the 21st century practices that most of us are used to. Paradoxically as well, the teachers beyond the classroom may not all be avid gamers, but many are quite active on a number of online social media platforms. Yet when it comes to replicating that style of living and learning to the classroom, most would, (dramatically put!), step back in horror – “What? use Facebook in class? – oh never” …  “What? using games to learn – what is the world coming to?” (these, by the way, are not overdramatizing nor fictitious, but have been taken from a number of Facebook posts – updated by teachers!)

My own definitions of TEL revolve around a different approach and attitude to learning. I do not believe that it is all about the technology really, but it is about a new way of looking at problems and challenges. I knew, from research, that virtual worlds and serious games, have so much potential to help people gain  insights into different lifestyles, or ways of being or doing. So I designed a virtual world, for my own group of pre-service teachers, that amounted to about a 104 participants in all, and that focused mostly around the topic of how they could integrate different learning technologies and adapt them to their own specialization subject. The results are still work in progress but so far are promising to be quite interesting.

My belief is that TEL is a way of living and learning – it necessarily involves a mind shift possibly leading to a change in direction from our cultural backgrounds. I think it is useless teaching technology or training in the use of tools. Tools become obsolete almost immediately, and teaching is such a complex activity, that no amount of teaching technology can somehow identify the right way of applying it in the real classroom setting. So what I think is this, if somehow, these teacher trainees can assimilate TEL in a sort of way that grows on them, teaching using TEL approaches becomes as natural to them as using the mobile device, which can equally be applied to learning.

The big question is this: how can I, as an academic, help my students (who are teacher trainees) see TEL as a way of living and learning, rather than an imposition? Hearing students speak in corridors you would imagine that modules and units related to technology and TEL seem to be a burden, rather than something which is fun, and which is constructive. How can we help people engage in TEL with an attitude that is positive, constructive and creative towards the modalities employed? Your feedback is much appreciated!