Authentic Networking

Sharon Boyd The annual elearning@ed conference was held on Thursday 10th April at the Institute for Academic Development.  The focus was the broad and challenging theme of “authenticity online” – asking what are the implications of authentic practice on teaching and learning experience as mediated by technology.

The elearning@ed committee discussed the theme at length, sharing our own understanding of what “authenticity” meant to us in an educational context.  The range of responses within even our own group demonstrated that the theme had wide-ranging potential, and we were all interested to see how the day would develop.

For me, the theme connected strongly with my interest in sustainable education.  As teachers, we act as change agents, inspiring transformation in our learners by sharing our own understanding and experience, and learning from them in return.  Learning is a participative experience – we are working as a community, rather than in isolation.  At its heart, a sustainable education approach requires that the activity be meaningful and engaging – to be “real” for each person.

Bonnie Stewart (Keynote – University of Prince Edward Island) asked us to consider what is “real” – is it something that can be held in the hand, is synthetic the opposite of authentic, how “real” are our digital selves?  She demonstrated the importance of digital research – of sharing our research via social media and recognising the importance of this skill in academic practice.  She covers this and more in her blog post on the conference.

Ross Galloway (Keynote – School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Edinburgh) spoke about “cargo-cult teaching”.  Lacking knowledge, we create a learning experience where all the right tools and basic information are present, but we miss some key aspect – we have built the airstrip and the planes don’t come.  This is then seen as a failed test of the experience – “it didn’t work for me”.  In his presentation, Ross used his own teaching and learning practice to demonstrate how this can happen, and in doing so he carried through his message of making the content real.  Ross highlighted three strands within the theme of authenticity – authentic practice by instructors, by students, and in educational research. As with the best keynotes, it served to provide structure for the rest of the day, and I have used that here.

Authentic practice by instructors

As part of her talk with Graeme Ferris on WebPA, Inger Seiferheld (Business School) spoke about her time teaching in Lecture Theatre 1 at Bristo Square, where the conference was held, and the benefit of being able to encourage discussion between students.  This was brought to life most strongly by Lindy Richardson (ECA) as she encouraged us to try finger knitting – aptly renamed “digital knitting” by Daphne Loads (IAD) during her session later in the day.  Lindy discussed the importance of hands-on experience, of learning the craft before introducing the technology.  She distributed wool she had brought from her own supplies, and we wove a woolly web with the help of our neighbours.  It was a quick and very effective example of how a simple change of view can inspire new ideas.  It carried all that was best about a sustainable approach – creative, participative, engaging and inspiring.

Lindy Richardson demonstrating digital knitting.

Lindy Richardson demonstrating digital knitting.

Michael Begg (CMVM LTS) and David Pier (CMVM) each gave their own insight into methods, like Inger and Graeme, which facilitated authentic assessment experiences for students.  The key factor, Michael pointed out, being the connection with real-life experience, and providing the opportunity for the individual, as David highlighted, to take responsibility for their own learning development.  Again, I saw the sustainable education theme highlighting methods to create learning opportunities where students can take ownership of their learning.

Authentic practice by students

Continuing the theme of ownership, Alex Munyard (EUSA VP) spoke about the importance of allowing the student to plot a route through learning materials to meet their own needs, to follow their passion and be inspired.

Anna Wood and Ed Guzman (MSc Digital Education) were present virtually through their video presentations, introduced by Marshall Dozier.  Through image and music, they creatively conveyed the importance of the digital distance in creating an authentic learning experience.  Both Anna and Ed have given permission for their artefacts to be reproduced here.

Thinking of Bonnie’s keynote, I was reminded again to consider what is “real” – Anna and Ed were not there in person, but their digital work spoke for them.

Yiqiu (Ivy) Wang, Jingyao (Serena) Luo, Ruihan (Victoria) Ma and Sheng Lyu delivered a group presentation, each speaking about the importance of a range of digital tools, most particularly the virtual world of Second Life, in supporting the development and understanding of a second language.  It allows the students to explore the meaning of words – see a tiger with the word “tiger”.

Authentic practice in educational research

As Rob Thomas (Biomedical Sciences) said, the “e” in “elearning” is for “experience”.  To be authentic, a task or experience must be meaningful – “life is authenticated by the self… experience is self-authenticating”.  Anne-Marie Scott (IS TELS) reminded us that having analytics data does not tell us much if we do not also know the student – the human awareness is essential.  It is important to remember the “human” in learning – to appreciate the creativity, but as Daphne Loads reminded us, to also acknowledge the error or misjudgement.  Thinking back to Ross’s presentation, we are reminded again that we are all free to make mistakes, to learn, and to grow.  Sharing our experiences with students in a conscious way encourages a transformative view to try new things, and accepting the risk that accompanies that.

The day ended with the poster session, with wine and cheese to keep the conversation flowing, though it didn’t need much encouragement.  We had another great set of posters this year, and moving the poster session to the end of the conference provided space to discuss with the poster presenters and to share our thoughts on the technologies and teaching approaches which inspired us.  Needless to say, we had to be thrown out before they locked the building…

Thinking about authentic experiences, time to engage as a community creates the space for cooperation and inspiration.  The elearning@ed conference provides that opportunity.  Jeff Haywood, Vice Principal Knowledge Management, opened the conference by encouraging us to remember the importance of fun and inspiration in learning.  We certainly didn’t let him down!

The elearning@ed forum is open to anyone who has an interest or involvement in digital education at the University, and the internal conference is free and open to staff and postgraduate students.  If you would like to keep up with the forum discussions, you are welcome to join the mailing list (EASE log-in).

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