Reflections on Social Learning

Just remotely attended Jane Hart’s keynote Social Learning = New Toolset + New Skillset + New Mindset at EdTech 2010 which was streamed live from the Athlone Institute of Technology on Thursday 20th May, 2010. It was very interesting because Jane encouraged the audience, both in the room, and logged in from the Internet, to help her to deliver the keynote by tweeting answers to some key questions as she went along. The actual slides are on SlideShare and hopefully the video of the keynote was recorded and will be made available as a permanent resource later.

The questions asked are worthy of some deeper reflection, but here is a summary of my instant responses:

Q1: Which social media tool has impacted you most – personally or professionally?
The answer has to be Blogger (or perhaps blogging). It’s the one thing that I’ve done consistently since I became aware that I was engaged in social media. I have accounts and have shared on Buzz, Delicious, Flickr, Picasa, YouTube, SlideShare, Facebook, Twitter, FriendFeed, Posterous, Tumblr, Ning and on and on … but the centre of my network is still this blog. It’s arguably not that social, but I share an awful lot on Google reader too.
Q2: Would you rate Twitter as your TOP tool for learning?
No! Personally, I learn more from my news feeds in Google reader. For teaching, I’ve yet to find the magic formula that will get my students to engage with me or my courses on Twitter.
Q3: Formal Learning Models, do you use social media as an 1) add-on to formal learning, 2) embedded with formal learning or 3) for collaborative learning?
The best I can claim here is 2. I’d like to do more 3, but I’m not sure how – or indeed how it would fit in our formal, traditional university models. To paraphrase: “no one ever got fired for using Blackboard!” (or indeed a blackboard) and formal examinations.
Q4: If you are looking for help or information on a subject, where do you go first?
It has to be Google. Jane mentioned YouTube and yes, I do find more and more useful stuff there in a format that’s easy to digest. Wikipedia is also on my list of useful places, but I find information there mostly because it’s high on the Google search result, not because I’ve gone to Wikipedia to find it. Google’s also behind the Open location field in all my favourite browsers, so I hardly ever use bookmarks: and Delicious is mostly write only!
Q5: What collaboration tool do you like?

I have no good answer for this. I like Google docs and Wikis, but I’ve yet to find a colleague who liked one or other of these at the same time as me! Most of my “collaborative” work has been with myself! I find myself commenting more than I used to on blogs and social networks if that counts! Perhaps I need a project where collaboration is a necessity. Even my work colleagues have so far resisted the charms of SharePoint, and though many use the VLE, not many seem to have recognized the value of the wiki there! I also note resistance from my students.

Q6: do you use enterprise-wide social tools?

Yammer took off at Swansea U. for a while: but it’s usage seems to have been embraced by a particular sub-group of the staff and there’s not much learning support there. I’ve played with Ning and Elgg and both have potential for both student and staff use. Ning decided to charge just as I’d started to generate some interest in using it for intra-organizational learning.

So what did I learn? Is social networking in my personal learning environment … definitely. In my teaching? The jury’s out, but this talk may have inspired me to try harder!

All in all an excellent keynote and a very interesting back-channel (Twitter certainly works at e-learning conferences!) The whole conversation is available by following #edtech10 on Twitter Search. But of course, that’s the whole conference, so look for @c4lpt and #edtech10 together; (#edtech10+@c4lpt) and follow the stream from the first tweet.

Radical Math Teaching …

I worry about the teaching of mathematics. Lack of student confidence in the application of mathematics is one of the biggest problems we have in Engineering: it hampers the development of our courses, limits how far we can go, and is a primary source of lecturer concern when we have to deal with the consequences at examination boards. Yet the attitude is too often “the quality of the students is at fault”. As if raising the A-level score in our entry requirements by 10 points is all that is required to solve the problem.

Well I’m sure that the problem is a bit more fundamental than that and our approach to dealing with it seriously flawed. I’m also sure that there is much more that we as a School and University could do to address the issue but because I don’t teach it, as e-learning champion in my School, all I can do is highlight best practice when I see it. Here is one inspirational piece of advice from Dan Meyer, a US high school mathematics teacher who has to deal with remedial students. He takes the problems that typically appear in text books, removes all the step-by-step hints and gets his students to solve the real problem.
Take the filling the tank problem. In a text book there’d be a picture of the tank (essentially a prism), and step by step directions to the answer: calculate the area, use the area and the height to find the volume, work out the flow, use the flow and the volume to calculate the time.
Dan’s approach is simply to photograph the tank, make a video of it being filled up (including a clock), and then get the students to validate the actual time taken by solving the problem themselves from first principles. They don’t apply Euclid and Newton, they have to become Euclid and Newton!
Which is the most inspirational way to teach? Which lesson style achieves the learning outcomes? Watch the video from TED talk Math Class Makeover and then you decide! Real engineering is about using mathematics so reason about and solve real problems. You don’t know the steps in advance and you might not have a formula.

If you have any more suggestions about how to really improve the teaching of Mathematics, leave them in the comments.