Students as Creators in the Digital Age | Minna Metsäportti, Petri Tuohimäki & Emmanuel Abruquah

Online learning is evolving at a quick pace, and new trends involve many factors that researchers, facilitators and students may not always be fully aware of. Add to this the inherently complex nature of language learning – what obstacles are we facing, and how can we counter them? We had a chance to participate as learners on an online course dealing with the subject.


21st Century Educators organized an online course under the title “Emerging Trends in Education” by TAMK between October 2015 – February 2016. The authors of this article participated in the course.

Our interest as English teachers was to examine the theories and practical tools the course offered, and the ways they could be utilised as part of language courses. One of the central themes of the course was Connectivism, a pedagogical concept that emphasizes the role of students as creators and the role of the teacher as a facilitator in knowledge creation.

The new concept of knowledge

Connectivism could perhaps be characterised as a mode of learning that has developed together with, or as a result of, the emergence and evolution of digital technology in education. During the past two decades, the advent of the Internet and the open access to information has facilitated knowledge/information creation, its distribution and consumption that has resulted in a significant transformation in how we understand the concepts of knowledge and information both within and outside education.

Real-time access and shortened lifespan of information in online environment have changed the nature and rhythm of learning radically. True mastery of knowledge is impossible, as knowledge is constantly evolving, it is supplemented and modified further, and debated over by other people in various online forums. Knowledge is networked, unsettled and incomplete.  (Weinberger 2013). As Warlick puts it, “For the first time we are preparing students for a future we cannot clearly describe”. Siemens stated way back in 2005 that “Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today”. Online environments are characterized by a vast abundance of information, a broad diversity of opinions, sharp rise in the openness of information, as well as information contributed by both professionals and non-professionals. E-learning continues to shape the acquisition and utilisation of information.

Communication technologies have brought along a need for today’s students to master a whole new set of skills and literacies, as listed by Wheeler (2011): social networking, privacy maintenance, identity management, creating and organizing content, reusing and repurposing, filtering and selecting, self-presenting.  According to Pegrum (2014) “New literacies and new skills increase the richness of personal and social lives, and make it easier to acquire a voice in local, national and international conversations.”

New knowledge is ideally generated through collaborative efforts of students when they process information and produce various kinds of materials about the topics at hand.

Students act as creators when establishing connections and building social and educational networks. Studying within today’s complex and dynamic educational environments involves a self-organized approach where students choose and modify their personal learning spaces, set individual goals and take control of their own learning. New knowledge is ideally generated through collaborative efforts of students when they process information and produce various kinds of materials about the topics at hand. In the Connectivist learning process learners connect to diverse social networks, including peer-based learning networks. Effective social and educational networks enable learning, critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, exploration, sharing, reflection and evaluation.

New learning environment

The emergence of mobile and online technologies has shaped learning environments, as well as the roles of educators. The responsibility of a contemporary educator is to embrace the role of a facilitator, who provides guidance and support for the students where needed during the learning process. This has caused an element of increased informality between the educator and the students (see Pegrum 2014).

Learning environments have expanded and become more flexible. A great portion of learning takes place outside the classroom, in informal settings and outside the direct influence of the facilitator; this further highlights the importance of discussion and reflection between participants, including the facilitator. Bi-directional learning often also takes place between the facilitator and students, as information is processed and reflected against each participant’s personal experience and shared among participants.

Among the most important factors contributing to successful virtual learning environments is sense of community: the learners need to be aware of the social presence of each other as well as the instructor. The role of the instructor is vital. According to Rovai (in Senior’s article, 2010) “Unless the community is nurtured, with support provided in the form of heightened awareness of social presence, the processes are unlikely to occur and sense of community will wither.”

Emerging Trends in Education

From the perspective of nurturing a community, the course we participated in was an excellent example. The course platform was designed to support the social and more informal side of learning in the form of a “Cyber Café” that contained light-hearted and fun tasks aimed to introduce us to each other and to help maintain communication within the group. Moreover, a Facebook group for quick communication and links to news was set up along with a blog for both work submissions and discussion. Our instructor, Ana Cristina Pratas, was actively keeping in touch with us through these platforms, providing support and maintaining the all-important group cohesion and social presence throughout the course.

On a personal level, this online course was a valuable experience for many of us also in that we ourselves underwent the learning process discussed above in the roles of both teachers and students. The course structure and assignments offered a great degree of freedom on a personal level, as each individual assignment was open-ended and involved many options to choose from, ultimately catering for individual learning styles. The tasks were both demanding and highly rewarding; they required individual research and in many cases also shared effort. Although the actual timetable was tight, it was systematically and consistently organized, which helped us to complete the course successfully.

Many of the assignments were designed to involve a hands-on approach. For instance, we enrolled in various MOOCs to get a student’s perspective on such courses, to evaluate them from a pedagogical perspective and to reflect on how knowledge is constructed in modern online learning communities. In addition to MOOCs, we also took a closer look into other educational trends such as Learning Analytics, Gamification, Game-Based Learning, Mobile Learning, Rhizomatic Learning, and Seamless Learning.

It was an eye-opening and valuable experience to adopt the role of a student on an online course. The challenges we experienced gave us good insight into how important it is for us teachers to consider factors such as how to take various learning styles into account, how to promote student autonomy in learning, how students can cope with the potentially overwhelming amount of information to be processed, and how they manage to prioritize and take control of the flow of information on an online course.

During the course, we found a number of practical design and implementation choices particularly valuable for our very busy and highly heterogeneous group of learners. In our experience, as facilitators on online courses we should

  • maintain a steady online presence for the students: check for messages preferably at intervals no longer than a few days, take part in discussions, post updates, news, reminders, extra material etc. regularly
  • promote co-operation and shared learning between participants through personal introductions, formal and informal course activities and group discussions
  • where applicable, offer online information on a subject in more than one format: videos, presentations and infographs (Prezi, MS PowerPoint, etc.), written texts
  • on any given subject, offer a wide selection of material in terms of scope, e.g. from short introductory-level FAQs to in-depth scientific publications
  • if necessary, utilise more than one platform to allow added flexibility – for example, blogs and social media (Blogger, Facebook, etc.)
  • pay special attention to assignment instructions to ensure they are unambiguous, clear-cut, concise and to the point, and divide extensive tasks into parts
  • be careful with how much time should be allocated for assignments, leave some room for late submissions and give regular reminders on deadlines

Overall, the ETE M6 increased our knowledge and awareness of what is going on in the world of digital learning, and how crucial it is to follow the development in the field. We can wholeheartedly recommend the course to anyone who is interested in updating and expanding their knowledge on both the theoretical and practical sides of online learning in an effective and inspiring way. We would also like to express our warm thanks to TAMK for providing us with this unique and genuinely beneficial opportunity, and to Mr. Mark Curcher for his eager involvement and promotion of the course.


References

Dennis, P. 2013. Quoting David Weinberger in “How technology has changed our idea of ‘knowledge,’ and what this means for schools”. eSchool News. Daily Tech News & Innovation. Read 20.1.2017. http://www.eschoolnews.com/2013/07/30/how-technology-has-changed-our-idea-of-knowledge-and-what-this-means-for-schools/3

Pegrum, Mark 2014. Mobile learning: Languages, Literacies and Cultures. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Senior, Rose. 2010. Connectivity: A Framework for Understanding Effective Language Teaching in Face-to-face and Online Learning Communities. RELC Journal, Vol 41, Issue 2, p.137-147.

Siemens, G. 2005. Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, Vol 2. No. 1. Read 4.1.2017. http://www.itdl.org/journal/jan_05/article01.htm

Warlick, D. 2007. David Warlick: Ed Tech Is Exciting Again (School 2.0, Part 8)
Read 20.1.2017. http://www.stevehargadon.com/2007/02/david-warlick-ed-tech-is-exciting-again.html

Weinberger, D. 2012. Why Networked Knowledge Makes Us Smarter than Before.

Read 23.1.2017. http://projectinfolit.org/smart-talks/item/107-david-weinberger

Wheeler, S. 2011. The Future of Learning: Web 2.0 and the Smart eXtended Web. Read 4.1.2017. https://www.slideshare.net/timbuckteeth/the-future-of-learning-6809148/15-Learners_will_need_new_literaciesbr


About the authors

Minna Metsäportti, senior lecturer in English and Communication, specialises in experiential and integrated language learning in the field of nursing and health care. She has recently codeveloped and piloted a multi-professional ‘fast track’ language course and authored a textbook for nurses and nursing students.

Petri Tuohimäki, senior lecturer in English and Communication, is interested in the ways ICT can and could be utilised successfully in language teaching and learning in the professional context. He has participated in the development and facilitation of a few online language courses.

Emmanuel Abruquah, lecturer in English and Communication, has a background in international business and administrative sciences. Among other things, he has co-created and facilitated a number of international online language modules in connection with engineering English courses.