Tuesday, May 14, 2013

A Teacher Who Really Bridged the Distance: Cmdr Chris Hadfield

The International Space Station
Ok… so this has to be one of (if not the) coolest moment in the history of space exploration: Cmdr Chris Hadfield’s live recording singing David Bowie’s classic, Space Oddity, in space! The video compilation, which features Hadfield both singing and playing guitar while floating about the International Space Station, was the grand finale of his tour of duty as commander of the ISS.  Hadfield lived on the ISS from December 21, 2012 until May 13, 2013, and served as commander of the station for several weeks before turning over the reins to his successor.  During that time, he was active on Twitter (@Cmdr_Hadfield), tweeting countless pictures from around the globe, and answering questions from curious residents back on his homeworld.  He also connected directly with school children to teach interactive lessons from space.  His grand finale performance of Space Oddity was posted to YouTube as his final communique via social media before boarding a Soyuz space capsule to return to terra firma.  You can view the video here:

So, what is it about Hadfield that has captivated millions of followers around the world, including me?  The fact that he took full advantage of social media to share his fascinating experiences and knowledge with whoever wanted to join in!  Hadfield’s Tweets, YouTube videos, and live sessions with school children show the true power of Internet connectivity and mobile technology to enhance teaching, learning, and the human experience.   

Moore’s (1989, 1991) Transactional Distance Theory (TDT) has been one of the most influential learning theories in the field of open, distance, and mobile learning.  TDT describes the distance that exists between learners, their peers, their teachers, coaches, or mentors, and the learning content.  To maximize the effectiveness of a learning experience, you need to reduce transactional distance wherever possible.  In past decades, new media technologies such as radio, film, and television have all failed to live up to their hyped potential of bringing the finest minds from around the world into everyone’s classroom and learning space.  Mobile learning (mLearning) researchers and practitioners are now exploring how what is perhaps the world’s first truly effective ubiquitous communications technology—mobile devices—can do what previous technologies have failed to accomplish.  Chris Hadfield has perfectly demonstrated how the combination of Internet connectivity and mobile technologies are eliminating transactional distance across many domains simultaneously.  I mean, come on, this man was in space! Yet he managed to connect with millions, answer their questions about space exploration, actively participate in formal classroom experiences—and truly allow all of humanity to share in the age-old dream of exploring the cosmos!  The following video clip on YouTube is an interview with Hadfield from January 29, 2013, in which he explains the impact of social media on why he was so active online during his tour on the ISS. 
I think that all teachers could learn something from Hadfield.  He took full advantage of technologies at his disposal to reach out to as many people as possible, and to make learning fun (which, in turn, further reduces transactional distance because it increases the learner’s motivation and commitment).  Besides all that, let’s face it, Hadfield’s performance was just plain awesome.  For several months he was the coolest Canadian in outer space.  At least for now, he’s probably the coolest Canadian back here on Earth.   
Canadian astronaut Commander Chris Hadfield aboard the ISS


Moore, M., (1989). Three types of interaction. The American Journal of Distance Education, 3(2), 1-6.

Moore, M., (1991). Editorial: Distance education theory. The American Journal of Distance Education, 5(3), 1-6.  Retrieved from http://www.ajde.com/Contents/vol5_3.htm#editotial
Wikipedia (2013, May 14). Chris Hadfield. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chris_Hadfield

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Tell me one thing about... A simple idea to weave VoiceThreads into mLearning!

The final week of the Instructional Design for Mobile Learning MOOC (#idml13 on Twitter) provided participants with an opportunity to explore a range of tools and resources for integrating mLearning strategies into teaching and learning practice.  One of those tools was VoiceThread, which is a cloud-based voice recording and sharing service.  Unlike SoundCloud (see my earlier post), which allows you to record and share a single audio file, VoiceThreads advertises itself as "Conversations in the Cloud."  It allows users to carry on an asynchronous conversation that can include recorded voice and text comments, images, and presentation slides.

I've actually used VoiceThreads before #idml13.  I was introduced to the service by Dr. Terry Anderson with the Center for Distance Education at Athabasca University.  He integrated a VoiceThread activity into the Advanced Research Methodologies course (EDDE 802) of AU's Doctor of Education in Distance Education program.  Dr. Anderson's VoiceThread is available for public view, and continues to expand as participants in each successive offering of EDDE 802 view (and listen to) the comments posted in previous terms, and then add their own.  While the topic (qualitative research methods) may not be of interest to everyone, this particular VoiceThread is worth accessing (you can click on the picture) just to learn from Dr. Anderson's pedagogical strategy. 

The pedagogical approach behind Dr. Anderson's integration of a VoiceThread activity in EDDE 802 is pretty straightforward... you learn more when you teach about a concept yourself.  Anderson gets his doctoral level students to contribute comments about selected research methodology topics, and then everyone in the current and future cohorts can learn from their peers.  What's nice about using this kind of tool is that it gives learners a chance to break away from the traditional research paper assignment formats of typical higher education courses.  They can contribute through an entirely different medium, and are actually forced to reflect a little more deeply about their learning content because they are drawing upon different media and different learning modalities.  Interestingly (for the sake of my #idml13 compatriates), Dr. Anderson's VoiceThread activity represented an excellent example of the integration of mLearning strategies into higher education practice.  My participation in EDDE 802 overlapped with a break between semesters at my institution, and I spent a lovely one-week vacation with my family outside of Brasov, Romania.  I only took my mobile phone and tablet with me... but I was easily able to access the VoiceThread, listen to everyone's comments, and post my own, all while sequestered in a remote ski resort villa!
The final "Try it Yourself" activity for #idml13 was to create and share a VoiceThread resource using our mobile devices.  Reflecting upon my experiences with the VoiceThread used by Dr. Anderson in EDDE 802, I was inspired to create my own relatively simple activity for my own blended-learning courses.  I call it "Tell me one thing about...", and the idea is to forward a link to my students, and ask them to contribute a comment about just one thing that they have learned in my course over the past week.  I don't really care about specific / central topics... I just want to get my students to take a few minutes to actually reflect on what happened in class over the past week (something that can be difficult to get some students to do, especially if there are no marks assigned to the activity)!  I'm hoping that the novel approach will entice at least a handful of my students to participate the first time around.  I'll bring up the VoiceThread on the projector at the start of the next week of class, and use it as a springboard for a brief review of the material that has been covered thus far (and discussion of any misperceptions students may have about the content).  Hopefully, more and more students will be enticed to participate in the weekly VoiceThreads as the term progresses.
I'd love to share how I'm implementing this approach here, but I'm not going to do that for privacy / confidentiality reasons.  I haven't asked my students if it's ok if I make their comments public, and I don't want to either violate their privacy or make them too uncomfortable to participate in this new type of activity.  However, I was inspired to create the VoiceThread linked to the image below to share with participants in #idml13 (and with mLearning enthusiasts in general).  It's my #idml13 take on the "Tell me one thing about..." activity, called "Tell me one thing about... Mobile Learning!"  The Instructional Design for Mobile Learning MOOC ends soon, and this VoiceThread is my way of trying to keep the lines of communication open after the course is over.  My request to participants is simple--add a comment to share one thing (anything at all) that you've learned today about mobile learning.  It can be something about mLearning concepts, implementation issues, instructional strategies... anything at all.  And you can come back as often as you want to share what you continue to learn, and to hear what others are up to!
As #idml13 winds up, I wish a fond farewell to my countless new friends and colleagues from the micro MOOC.  I'm already following a number of you on Twitter and your various blogs... and I hope you'll all follow me (@xPat_Letters) and subscribe to this blog, and my daily xPat_Letters newsletter, so that we can keep in touch and keep learning from each others ideas!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Do we have the competencies to integrate mobile learning?

This is one of the reflection exercise questions posed during week 2 of the Instructional Design for Mobile Learning MOOC (#idml13 on Twitter).  Honestly, it's a bit of a loaded question!  On the one hand, it's a bit of an impossibility for anyone to have all of the competencies necessary to effectively integrate emerging of future technologies into teaching and learning practice.  At least, it is if you are viewing the question strictly from the technological competencies standpoint. 

As teachers, we're always going to be playing catch-up as new mobile technologies (including devices and apps or applications) are developed.  We're going to be at even more of a disadvantage because each successive year will bring students to our doorsteps (either real or virtual) for whom the technologies are more and more transparent (because they've been using them practically since birth).   

On the other hand, it's not that difficult a thing for an already competent and enthusiast teacher to have the right mix of competencies to effectively integrate mobile learning strategies.  It all depends on how you look at things, and what you are trying to accomplish.  No, not every teacher will have the requisite technical competencies to develop and deploy mobile learning platforms, programs, or even their own apps or reusable learning objects.  But any good teacher already has what it takes to leverage the affordances of mobile devices to increase student participation and learning!  Teachers are a resourceful lot who have always had to make the most out of whatever resources they have at hand.  Leveraging mobile devices in teaching and learning is not like capitalizing on other technologies that have been hyped for their educational potential throughout the years.  Radio and film did not become the new norms for mass education, bringing the finest minds and educators in the world into every classroom at once.  TV and educational VHS and DVDs also failed to accomplish this.  Never mind the lack of interactivity associated with those one-way communications media -- let's face it, there's just so much prep work involved for teachers to actually make use of those technologies.  And, yes, they do turn your learners into passive zombies!  Mobile devices are different.  If you use a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) approach, then you can leverage free technological tools that your learners are bringing into the classroom with them.  As a teacher, you don't necesssrily even need to know how to use all the bells and whistles on these gadgets.  You don't even need to plan out exactly which tools your students will use on their mobile devices.  No, what you need to do is give your students a learning goal (or, better yet, negotiate a learning goal with them), provide them with inspiration and support, and then get out of their way and watch what they accomplish!  

Do we have the competencies to integrate mobile learning strategies?  Of course we do!  They are the same competencies that good teachers have always displayed.  Be creative and willing to draw on whatever resources you have at hand--including the ones called mobile devices that your students already bring with them (hey... let's face it...how often can we guarantee that our students will all bring their required learning resources!).  Be adaptable to change.  Be not afraid to unleash your students to achieve on their own terms.  And be willing to be inspired and to learn from your students every bit as much as you hope they learn from you!  Mobile learning is not about jumping onto the newest bandwagon or technological craze.  It's about realizing that technology finally allows us (teachers and learners) to do what we've been trying to do all along more efficiently and with more resources at our disposal!

Playing with SoundCloud for an Interactive mLearning Classroom

So... here's a couple of nice apps that I've just learned how to use as part of the Instructional Design for Mobile Learning MOOC (#idml13 on Twitter).  The first is called Textgram, and it is extremely easy to figure out.  Just download the app, type in some text, and pick the template you want.  The app will then create a "graffiti" graphic, like the one pictured below, which you can save to your mobile device or share online via Instagram, Twitter, or a blog like this one. 

The second app is called SoundCloud.  This provides you with easy access to cloud storage for audio files, such as music or recorded  voice.  You can create a voice recording from within the app itself, or upload an audio file from your computer or mobile device.  As you can see from the "widget" below, the app allows you to upload a graphic (such as an album cover, for music) to associate with your audio file.  It also provides you with options to publically share your audio file, or to keep them private.  If you choose the latter, you can easily retrieve the widget code to embed your audio file into a webpage, blog, or wiki.  I experimented with Textgram and SoundCloud to create the graphic (above) and the "welcome" message (below), which could be used to offer online, mobile, or blended learning students a unique greeting when they enroll in one of my classes!

I have actually added this Textgram and SoundCloud audio file to a hidden page on the wiki for a live course that I am teaching this term (which just began this week).  The page itself is linked to a QR code, which I have added to the course wiki homepage with a little graphic that says "Scan Me!"  You can see how I've done this by scanning the following QR code:

So, aside from a cute way to welcome students to your course, how could apps like Textgram and SoundCloud have a positive effect on the teaching and learning experience (and, for that matter, student achievent)?  Well, for one, they provide new creative outlets for learners as part of the learning process.  When learners create something to convey a message about something they are learning, they are much more likely to actually learn more about that topic themselves! (The whole idea of learning by teaching!)  Another positive--allowing students to create audio files is a great way to practice communications skills without the performance anxiety that comes from presenting before a large group (such as their classmates).  I've recently seen an example of project in the United Arab Emirates that uses mobile devices (iPads) to manipulate the actions, speech, and environments of cartoon avatars (Nicoll & Hopkyns, 2013).  The idea is for English Second Language learners to practice their conversational skills by recording what they want their avatars to say, and then manipulating their "puppets" actions and environments to match the conversations.  The fun of the activity takes a bit of the edge off of the performance anxiety!

That example in mind, and armed with tools I've discovered in #idml13, I've decided to modify one of the major assignments in another course that I'm teaching this term (a different course than the one linked to the QR code above).  The course is an introduction to IT customer service and help desk applications.  The original assignment had students pair up to role play a scenario where one student is a help desk agent, and the other an angry customer who has called in.  The students were to perform the role play in front of the class, and this would be followed by a whole group discussion of the scenario and how the situation was handled.  My integration of mobile learning -- instead of a live performance I'm going to have students use SoundCloud and their mobile devices to record the exchanges between the help desk agent and the angry customer.  I'll then give the groups the option of creating either a Textgram to introduce the exchange, or a photo collage (see my earlier post on that topic) that highlights the steps to effectively handling such calls.  Once those two products are ready, I'll get the groups to post their graphics and embed their SoundCloud widgets to the course wiki.  We'll view (and listen to) all of the groups' projects as a whole class, and use that as a launching point for discussions of how to handle irate callers and resolve conflicts in such situations. 

So how is this better than getting the pairs of students to put on a live role play performance? 
  1. First, students get a chance to think more deeply about what they are going to do for their presentation before the time to role play arrives.
  2. Second, the pairs will inevitably be dissatisfied with their initial audio recordings, and will likely re-record them several times before they are happy.  This means extra "live" practice! 
  3. Third, requiring students to create an accompanying graphic will force them to reflect upon their scenario, and the concepts that they have been studying in the course, in order to come up with something meaningful. 
  4. Fourth, posting the SoundCloud widgets and graphics to the course wiki will create lasting, reusable learning artefacts.  Classmates (including any who are absent on the "role play" day) will get a chance to access and learn from the performances. 
  5. And, fifth, because the artefacts are posted to a wiki, everyone in the class will have the ability to reflect and then participate in commentary / discussion of the performances (as opposed to the handful of extroverts who normally dominate the precious few minutes of open discussion time in a live classroom).

Nicoll, T., & Hopkyns, S. (2013, April). A new PPP for vocabulary building.  Poster presentation at the Mobile Learning: Gulf Perspectives Research Symposium, April 25, 2013, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.


SoundCloud (online version)
You can also find the SoundCloud app from the Apple and Android app stores

Available through both the Apple and Android app stores