The ONL course has provided several valuable insights into pedagogical theory and practice on different levels: with regards to the course contents, in terms of an experience of collaborative learning in a digital context, and finally in provoking reflection on how to implement teaching in different settings.
Contentwise several topics have become more familiar to me during the course. Digital literacy and open learning were themes I had not given that much thought. Understanding the basic frameworks for these phenomena will certainly provide a useful point of reference for future practice be it the testing of student’s digital literacy levels or planning open education courses. In addition, insights into collaborative learning in digital context and blended learning provided me with new ideas on how to approach interaction in education. For example, considering the needed support in different learning environments or providing help in building learning communities are but two examples of such themes.
In terms of the form of the course, i.e. problem-based learning in groups, the course offered a valuable experience in terms of how students might feel and work in such a setting. In other words, I have taken the student’s position in the community of practice to better understand their perspective – in some sense it was something of a simulation. This is valuable, as there are few opportunities for this kind of pedagogical training. This has shown the many benefits of collaborative learning but also the associated challenges of working in big groups in a digital setting. To name but one of the benefits, spontaneous interaction and discussion around a topic in the group brought out novel perspectives, and sharing experiences, tips on various digital tools, or pedagogical theories complemented the other course contents.
As for the other side of the coin, one of the key points is that detailed instructions are not the solution for challenges in digital collaborative learning: there needs to be cohesion and a feeling of common purpose between the learners if the collaboration is to be useful in a digital setting. Providing time and opportunities for socializing (maybe some sort of forum with posts that others can comment asynchronously might be good for this). Another way to improve the understanding of a common purpose is to articulate more clearly the learning outcomes for each lesson. In addition, this common purpose should be supported by the tool used for learning, but the tool is not enough in itself to ensure participation. Indeed, even if the contributions of each learner are made visible, this does not necessarily mean that everyone contributes. Moreover, I feel that there needs to be more explicit encouragement to try and test different ways of working to build up collective motivation for learning. As a practical lesson from all this, I feel that the often-repeated rule of thumb holds true: groups of more than four learners tend to get much more challenging in terms of group dynamics and it’s much harder to organize the group work, even more so in a digital environment. But as commented above, there is rarely an opportunity for this kind of experience to develop oneself as a teacher and to better understand the students’ perspective. Facing such challenges is perhaps the most valuable lesson that the course had to offer.
Finally, by providing time and space to reflect on my own pedagogical thinking through the readings, discussions, and writing these blog posts, the course has attuned me to different perspectives beneficial for future course planning. I feel that the main benefit has been this “sensitization” to pedagogical theorizing and practice through intensive period of learning. I feel also more secure to try new digital tools in teaching to see what might work in enhancing the learning experience of my students.