LdL – what’s in it 4 me?

a couple of weeks ago, i used an opportunity today to talk about our experiences with blended learning at a class of an online learning course for lecturers at TU Berlin (sth. like “Berlin Institute of Technology”). there was a large, interested, very well informed audience of about 20 people asking a bunch of good questions which i’d like to pick up on here again because they touch the core of what i believe is the most important thing here: the teacher’s attitude to teaching & learning. i also recorded my earlier experiences with this course on a (now defunct) meta-blog, “horses 4 courses”.

the following questions were prompted by my description of online module creation by students using various tools including wiki, ILIAS, and more recently, our WordPress blogs created by my students and by myself (thanks to dimitri 4 recording them!):

1) how do these methods you use relate to LdL (“learning through teaching” – see also German community)?

i prefer to ask students to identify their own challenges & solve them, too. e.g. i give them a reading assignment & let them figure out questions to ask the class. we also developed a rudimentary rubric for grading purposes together, which i then finished. by asking them to create their own blogs (as individuals), i also ask them to practice commenting and feedback modes and routines. By asking them to create topical blog projects (in teams), i ask them to step out of student and into teacher mode. i do not, however, engage explicitly in the “classical” LdL where students prepare entire seminars. the main reason being that i do not know (yet) how to do that!

2) how high is the threshold for students and for other lecturers posed by technology?

the threshold for students is low – they are surrounded by and they engage with communication technology all the time – way more than we did in my student days. they are used to figure things out either by themselves or with the help of friends or with the help of the net. they are, with mark prensky, digital natives, while we lecturers are digital immigrants. in our e-learning work at the HWR, we focus on helping lecturers, not students. instead, we try to motivate students to help and motivate their lecturers (an approach which seems to begin to work).

3) isn’t it too much work for students and for lecturers alike if everyone would use blended learning and LdL?

this is indeed one of my own lessons (thanks mostly to quality management at our school and to the frank feedback of my own students): personally, as a workaholic, and because of my own relative ignorance of didactics, i have always tended to ask too much of the students. i find that these methods work best if i radically reduce the amount of content that the students are supposed to learn & that they are confronted with. instead, i invest more time in the framework and in coaching them. this, too, seems to bear fruit. also, our present generation of bachelor students is overburdened with classes. this reminds me of a corporation where employees are supposed to be present, not working effectively (which might include going home early). my students spend too much time in class with too many diverse topics. we (as a lecturing collective) do not leave them enough time to read, to digest, to mull things over – and quite possibly, to reject them. but not to reject them because they’re tired and fed up, but because they don’t share the passion. as it stands, a lot of students’ resistance seems to come from having to work too hard for too long for classes which do not look out for the learner’s but only for the institutional needs. (end of lecture ;-))

4) what’s the effort and the benefit of blended learning and LdL for lecturers?

with respect to my limited experience (see above, related to the project, wiki, ilias and blog work), there is, so far, little benefit for the lecturer in terms of hours saved. quite the opposite, especially in the thorny beginning. this is to be expected, of course, when starting anything new. in the medium term (even within one semester), i find the savings (in terms of energy, productivity etc. which translate into time savings and better quality of teaching/life) substantial. especially communication with students is easy and flows. communication offline and online creates the illusion of a lecturer who is present at all times (not like big brother, but perhaps like a bigger brother) which helps making students more secure and definitely motivates many (if not all) students.

5) don’t students want an expert to teach them the ropes? doesn’t that get lost when using LdL?

that’s what some – especially foreign students – have told me when i presented the LdL concept (if not the practice) to them. in reality, the students will and should not necessarily notice that they’re “doing LdL”. they get lessons, they get stuff to do (a lot more than in the classical lecture or seminar) and if the balance is right, they enjoy it. i have recently (over the past few months) rigorously replaced “lecture” by “dialogue”. a little tough at first because students are not really used to continuous dialogue, but it works better and better. i have increasingly come to think of “the ropes” as something that’s better and faster learnt and acquired by practice and communication, and not by lecturing. especially in web 2.0 – there are so many briliant resources out there, and not just for twitter and blogs. many of them, in fact, seem to me to be better suited for students than certain textbooks written decades ago and still walking, on crutches, in the “completely updated 15th edition”.

having said that (and dished business textbooks which, for the most part, are grotty): of course there is a case to be made for knowledge foundations. but to provide this foundation – a lot of it – and group learning in one and the same place seems weird to me now as a didactic requirement. i believe that i serve a group of students best when i am with them, if i listen to them, get them to talk (to each other if possible), supplanted by guiding remarks or my personal pearls of wisdom here and there. a garnish more than a main course. many lecturers disagree – my personal approach is based on my experience in business more than in academics (and business is where the majority of our students will go later).

6) won’t the role of a lecturer shrink to only grading the students (if they do most of the work)?

not at all. coaching, teasing, confronting, challenging the students as “they do most of the work” can be harder than creating mouth-sized portions of knowledge like digestive cookies. you cannot, however, make this shift, which i believe is implied by moving to “blended learning”, without taking yourself back as a lecturer in the traditional way. incidentally, since i love to perform and speak, this is my personally greatest challenge, too. i’d love to hold the floor at all times. i just don’t think it serves the students bst.

… this is, roughly, also what i said then. since, under the terms of our current ESF grant, we are also developing blended learning courses in berlin, i am looking forward to working with this group to create courses that, hopefully, fill existing gaps rather than cannibalise a common market of lecturers wanting to learn about LdL and e-learning.

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