[Enjoy this interview with Gilly Salmon by playing the video or, if you prefer, reading the rest of the transcript below.]
When she wrote E-tivities, Professor Salmon drew, from what, at the time, was already a lot of experience with distance learning. She used to be at the Open University Business School in the U.K.. Now she is Pro Vice-Chancellor of Learning Transformations at Swinburne University of Technology, in Melbourne, Australia.
Her book has a lot of practical advice for teachers, obviously. We want to talk to her about that. But I thought it would be interesting also, given the focus of our site at MOOC News and Reviews to ask her advice for students, and, of course, to get her observations about the addition of MOOCs into the online learning landscape. So we’re going to cover all of those as much as we have time for.
Welcome Professor Salmon. Thanks for being with us.
Thank you. Did I get everything right in that introduction? Is there anything to correct me on?
No, that’s fine. Let’s go with that. My mother wouldn’t believe it.
Your mother wouldn’t believe it? [Laughter.]
Well, congratulations on your publication. So it’s been about 11 years since you wrote the first edition. Oh, and I also want to mention that there will be an ebook version of this second edition. That’s one thing that’s changed since the first edition, I assume.
Alright. What else has changed since 11 years ago?
I think it’s interesting that the basic concept of the five-stage model – which is a scaffold to help students gradually engage with online learning, which acts a design tool and a guide for the student, and the actual framework of how to take part with others to share knowledge – that really hasn’t changed that much, because it was based on a grounded model, which was with quite a large number of students. It was lucky that I had access to large numbers of distance students at the U.K. O.U. at the time.
So that hasn’t changed. But of course, what has changed dramatically is the whole range of resources we have in which to engage with each other and the kind of methods of contact that we have that, for me, act as a spark to start the dialogue.
The updated edition is very much about how to design for the very new and much more interesting environments we have. And also, it is a bit of a guide for those who are trying to get engaged in MOOCs and the like – how to scaffold your engagement with others, how to get the most out of it really.
The subtitle references students. Is it a handbook for teachers exclusively or are you also addressing students in the book?
I’m addressing the designers of courses, which are typically either students or small teams of people, usually with the academic-plus supports like librarians or learning technologists.
In fact, chapter five covers a very interesting way of doing that which is called carpe diem. A handbook for that is actually on my website if anyone would like to have a go at that. So, I don’t think we’re saying there’s only one person that can do the design. When you’re creating the future, we’re all designers now. The book is not directly addressed to students. But the models in there, I think, will help anyone who’s trying to learn on their own. It gives you a framework, a scaffold, to help you pace yourself if you like and get the most out of it.
I don’t know this for a fact, but I’m guessing that there are just dozens and dozens of new teachers every day – they are probably experienced teachers, but are new to teaching online – who are just pouring into the environment every day now. And I wonder what you’re hearing from those teachers about what their concerns and anxieties are.
There’s many at my own university. I’m at Swinburne University of Technology, which is in a gorgeous place in the center of Melbourne. Those who recognize accents will know that I’m a Londoner, so this is not my hometown, so I can say that about Melbourne. I’ve been here just over 18 months.
Probably, almost every day, because we are largely a campus-based university, people have said just that kind of thing to me: “Yeah, okay. I want to do the best for my students. I want it to be engaging. I want it to be active, but how do I do it?”
And so my suggestion is, both to teachers and students of all kinds, is just see the online environment as another place to learn. So don’t see offline and online as completely different places. They’re places to which you can get sparks to start the dialogue. You can get environments that make it easy to interact with others just as we’re doing now. You can actually understand how so much of what was previously locked down and inaccessible is available to you.
So that’s really what I say. They then look at me, “Yeah okay, fine. But what do I do next?” And that’s what the book offers. It offers, if you like, a guide to how to actually design. It’s really a call to all of us to become designers of the future through offering learning with and for others.
I’m an outside observer. I teach part-time, but I’m probably like most people. I go by habit and rote and the way I learned when I was a student myself. I haven’t taught online, but it seems to me that the growth of online education has made teachers a lot more conscious of their course design and teaching techniques. Is that they way you see it?
Yeah, I think that is the case. I think we’re all aware that you can’t really handcraft in the way you can with a lecture. There’s not the immediacy and responsiveness, so you need to anticipate all the possible pathways. It’s a strong move away from believing that teaching is about content and more towards teaching about engagement and working with others.
I guess that’s the problem. Most MOOC’s, not all, are focused very much on delivering the knowledge. Well, we all know for each of us, we all have a different style, which is largely based on the way we’ve learned to learn throughout our lifetime.
Mine’s been quite a long one, fortunately. I was born in the twentieth century and had to learn the ways that we were taught in that way. Certainly, as a baby boomer, I was in very large classes. They felt a bit MOOC-like now looking back, one teacher at the front delivering the rest to us.
But over time I’ve come to realize the great value of learning with and for others. And online has been the way that I’ve been able to do that. So, I think, “open your mind” is the answer.
That’s interesting, that last point you made. I think there’s a narrative developing that the online environment will be antithetical to engagement and learning from others. Yes, it definitely can work out that way, but I have a hunch that the opposite could also be true – that there could be more engagement in an online environment.
I very much hope E-tivities is going to make a contribution not just to that debate, but to the practice. What E-tivities has tried to do is pull together everything that I . . . and actually thousands of other people who’ve tried out my ideas and told me what worked, what didn’t and particularly how their students responded, that I’ve tried to embody into something that other people can follow.
So they’re models and frameworks for people to have a go at. So, I do hope it will be making a contribution directly to the fact that online learning is about all of us being together around the topic rather than sitting remotely.
I’ve been researching this for about 20 years now, and there are two kinds of people, I think. Some people who will do what we’re doing now and think, “Wow, I’m out there with everybody else and what’s going on and how exciting.” And other people will say, “Okay, give me, give me, give me.” There’s two ways of looking at it. Well, this is for the out-there people. This book is for people who want to harness this up, if you like, and join the race.
Let’s talk about MOOCs in particular. Where do you think that the role of MOOCs is going to be in online education?
The $3,000 question, that. If any of us knew we wouldn’t be sitting here, would we? But I think there will be a variety, of course, and I think there already is a complete variety. But from my point of view . . . and I noticed on your site you were mentioning the new Australian site, Open2Study, and I’m involved in five of those. They’re not on there yet, but there’s five of our academics that are developing them. So, you will see some stuff coming out from Swinburne on Open2Study.
But for E-tivities, I think it’s really interesting that they are based on volume, so that’s similar to the way people are trying to think about MOOCs. They’re based, however, on the idea of a social constructive pedagogy, not really on a transmission-of-knowledge ones. They are based on the idea that you design once and then you can deliver many, many times to increasing numbers of people, because the original research was based at the Open University Business School where I had 4,000 MBA students online in the very early days. We’re talking about the early 90’s when fortunately I could experiment in a way you probably couldn’t do now. [inaudible.]
They are designed for engagement and participation. So, to a certain extent, they’re addressing some of the problems that we’re seeing. But they weren’t obviously designed for MOOCs, so it is a matter of adapting and exploring the frameworks that have been used for most structured not-open courses and seeing how they work. I think that is our next challenge, to transfer the best of quality online engaged learning to the MOOC environment.
I’ll probably say it once, and maybe I should whisper it, but just supposing we were able to do that and so MOOCs became engaging and more satisfying for both students and tutors and the learning perhaps more evident that was going on, maybe it could be the make-or-break for the MOOC of the future. Who knows? Perhaps that’s the answer.
I’ll throw out that challenge to everyone to tell me what they think. I’d love to hear whether you think there could be a new eMOOC, an engaged MOOC, using the framework.
Scaffolding for online learning
The way I look at it is, I see all kinds of potential problems with MOOCs, and I’m sensitive to a lot of the criticism and resistance toward MOOCs. And I hear people saying, “Oh, this is nothing new. We’ve had online education forever,” but then you go into one of the environments, and there are 20,000 people enrolled, and I think, “That has never happened before. That’s a new thing.” That many people signing up for something and engaging in something, that means something. It seems like it can’t be easily dismissed when there’s that much energy coming from the students.
That’s right. Let’s go where the energy is. I’m a great believer of learning from the context in which you are operating and learning fast. Robert, that’s exactly what you’re saying. Let’s not go around being naysayers, but let’s embrace it and make it work and make it work better.
Some of the things that you’ll find, for example, in E-tivities and also in my other book E-moderating, which is about the role of the teacher in online environments, is the idea of a scaffold – that you don’t just jump in and immediately learn it, that you need to get used to being in the new environment, that you actually need to find out who’s there with you, because it’s about team building and trust, self-disclosure and learning about others before you start making the exchanges.
Only then can you really start to construct knowledge together and really start to impact on personal development. And that doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. You need to come back, not just once, not just twice, but many, many times and gradually engage with people. So it needs to be more than a cocktail party and setting your profile. And that’s what’s meant by scaffold.
That, I think, is the key thing, to start looking . . . and these are quite old ideas of scaffolding really, going back. People like the references – [inaudible], I think it’s quite old now – where we started to understand that people learned with others in a gradual way. Even going back into a lot of the Vygotsky stuff and social construction. And those people who like that kind of thing, you need to take that and apply it to this new context.
Then I think you can teach and learn with 20,000 people. The U.K. Open University has often had up to 10,000 people in their distance learning courses. When I was there we certainly had 4,000 plus in our MBA. Probably those heydays have gone now with a lot of this, because we tended to be the prime mover in those days.
There are ways of doing this, but it certainly can’t be done by dumping content. You’ve got to look at the whole ideas of scaffolding and engagement in that way.
Also, if you’re a student in a MOOC, even if it’s not designed like that, I still think having these ideas in your mind will help you to get the most out of it so that you can reflect as you go through, “Okay, I’m getting regular access. That’s stage one. I’m starting to meet a few other people and learn a little bit about them. That’s stage two. I’m exchanging information. That’s stage three. We are actually sharing and constructing knowledge now, so I can see myself moving on. I’m actually contributing and challenging.” Those are the kinds of things, if you’re aware of doing that yourself, you’re much more likely to keep going and find the MOOC site learning more satisfying.
That was actually the next thing I was going to ask you. I wanted to try and get a little bit more practical. What I was going to ask is, when a student enters an online classroom space, what should they be conscious of to help them succeed?
I think before you even begin, work out what you want to get out of it, which might be different from the designated learning outcome, so you need to turn yourself into an independent learner even before you engage with the resources and the others. And then you need to check. You need to also learn something about how you might get what you want from it.
But it’s the same with any form of openness. To a certain extent what you put in is what you get out of it. I think we go in saying, “Hooray.” I did one – I think it was a Coursera one on genetics – and I realized within the first week I just didn’t have the basis of the scientific knowledge and I had to try to get a few other people to teach me, but they weren’t having it. I knew from the start that it was just completely wrong for me, but I have since gone and found something on the more basic science of genetics. So, I’ll probably, hopefully, go back to it another time. So, I think it does push your own self-awareness back very much more.
You have signed up for MOOC, so this isn’t a hypothetical question, but the hypothetical question I often ask is, if you were to go to sign up for one over your winter break, over your summer break – many high school students or college students here in the U.S. are now going on their summer break – when you are looking at them, how do you discriminate between good and bad ones? How do you decide, “Oh this one makes sense?”
You keep asking these really hard questions. I think you start off by working out what you want and like anything, any sort of planning for your own learning, you need to work out what you want to get out of it. And it may be a structured thing. You may want something that in three years time, “I’ll then be able to go on to a particular program,” so you’d work back from that. And I would’ve thought that was great value, preparing yourself for something else, because you’re not necessarily going to get accreditation from this.
And then the other side of it, I suppose, I’d also say that everyone, every student, really needs to do something from outside their own comfort zone. If you look at the academic literature, we’re all being pushed as academics, particularly professors, to work with professors from other disciplines. The example I know best is how much science has benefited from the visual arts, if you image something. That’s just one example and there are many, many others. And so much about solving the big problems of the world in the future are going to be cross- or multi-disciplinary.
I appreciate that. I guess the related question is, let’s say you had two classes on genetics, both at the right level, like you needed intro genetics and one was provided by this provider and another from this provider, you, as an experienced online teacher, how would you decide which one was well designed and going to work for you?
I don’t think there’s one answer to that. It has to go back to what you want to get out of it. It would be determined by working out knowing yourself. I don’t think you could look at each one and say, “This is a good design, per se, for everyone, and this is not.” But I supposed if you had to have a short benchmark, I’d work out how many people have completed this before me. I think that’s your quick one. If people are completing, there’s something going on that’s good.
Let’s talk for a second about teachers. When a teacher is new to an online class, what is something about the students that might surprise them? Like how do students behave in the online environment that maybe teachers don’t anticipate?
What might surprise them? The first thing would be there is a leveling that you don’t get in a spatial or physical environment. By just simply putting the teacher or the professor in the front of the class and everybody else facing in rows towards them, you completely structure the authority and the hierarchy, and that doesn’t happen online. It doesn’t matter how you designed the course, it just doesn’t happen online.
And of course, I guess we should whisper this, they may be much more used to being online than the teacher is, mightn’t they? They might just be more comfortable in the environment than you are.
I suppose another way of saying it is that the online environment is a social and learning environment just as much as the planned classroom or lecture theatre is – just as much as the seminar is in a physical or campus-based environment.
But the social relationships are not the same. It’s social, but it’s a different way of socializing.
It’s a social environment, but it is a learning environment. It’s a knowledge-exchange environment. I think if you aren’t used to it, if Facebook isn’t your primary environment, then it takes a little while to get used to it. But most teachers can get used to that. But that would be the first thing I’d say, is it is a different kind of environment
And that’s probably a strong enough argument for simple learning design like e-tivities and scaffolding and that sort of thing, because it means that at least you can structure that interaction to a certain extent so that you can actually create learning pathways rather than it being a free-for-all. So, first bit of advice.
And if you want to get used to that, what we do is we run courses that we call E-moderating. We’re doing that at Swinburne. I’ve been doing it for some time around the world. So all teachers have the chance to interact with each other in that online environment before they start doing it with students. And people get it quite quickly. They enjoy it. They find they get to know people better and faster than they could possibly have imagined. They really enjoy experiencing the exchange of knowledge and views. And that, therefore, means that they’ve become online learner themselves and will be one hundred percent more comfortable when they’re working with students than they would’ve been.
What are some of the best cases or best examples of MOOCs that you’re seeing so far? What are some best uses of MOOCs that you’ve noticed?
The only thing that I’ve noticed that is probably helping is to use MOOCs as the content delivery mechanism rather than assuming that it’s fixed objective knowledge, which then leaves the teacher in his or her time much more time to interact with the class, to work with individuals, to structure activities around the content. So if you see a whole MOOC or part of one as the opportunity to structure the knowledge, then you can see it shifts the whole emphasis into the interaction.
That’s what we’re experimenting with here. It’s a little bit like the flipped classroom idea, but there of course, generally speaking, the professor or teachers are still putting the knowledge out.
But if you took that a stage further, then actually if you’ve got fantastic knowledge out there, you’re really using your own skills as a facilitator, as an enabler of knowledge, as a supporter of learning. So, it’s a little bit like going to the gym really. You go to the gym because they’ve got decent machines and people to help you. Why would you build the gym in your living room? You still have to do the work though. You’re not going to get fitter unless you get on that machine.
I lurk in many, many MOOCs also, and, to me, the best advantage of a MOOC is the fact that there are masses of students. That’s a complication and that’s difficult to deal with, but that’s an opportunity that can be leveraged also to do interesting things.
And the MOOCs I’m always most disappointed with are the ones really do feed the critics in that they really are just oftentimes delivering the information in forms of lectures, and they’re not doing anything to promote community or promote engagement or have the students support one another, which is really a missed opportunity. And others are the opposite, right? They really do a terrific job with that.
Yeah, exactly. So, we’ve got the whole range, haven’t we? Do you know? Don’t tell anyone, but learning has always been variable like that. I’ve seen my children go all the way through university and you ask them, “How did it go today?” They say, “I was so bored.” And then other days, “Wow, look at this. Look at what we did.” And so don’t blame MOOCs for that. Honestly, it’s always been like that. Yeah, it’s just that it’s much more exposed now, and it’s good we’re articulating it, we’re discussing it. So hopefully it will impact on learning of the future and all sorts of different and positive ways now.
It’s driving the conversation about teaching generally, right? Even if you don’t teach a MOOC or even if you only do it once, it seems like it’s making people more conscious of their pedagogy than they might’ve been otherwise.
Indeed. And remember, the paedogogus was the Greek slave who walked the child to school. So, that’s what we’re doing. We’re taking baby steps here. There’s a way to go. Ask me again in a year, 10 years.
Or next week.
Well, thank you very much for your time. This has been very informative and congratulations on the edition of E-tivities, and good luck on your work with Open2Study and the rest of the work you’re doing.
I’ve been a graduate student in English literature, a newspaper and magazine reporter, an ESL teacher at home and abroad, a marketing consultant and a grants and outcomes measurement specialist in nonprofits. Currently, I provide higher education MOOC consulting services and teach writing at a local university, and my “other job” is volunteering for several local nonprofit organizations. I started this project because I believe MOOCs are going to be an important – not to mention fascinating – social development, and I want to ensure that students and teachers could participate in lively critical dialogue about it. You can find me on G+.