Digital Environments: A Retrospective

So here we are, the final leg of a 12 week journey that is “Digital Environments“. This is the first time that I have done an online course taught at a distance. I already had some experience with a correspondance course; which I did, in part, to test the waters to see if I had the stamina to take on a higher degree that was being taught from a distance. Oh boy! it couldn’t have been more different.

Block A – Orientations” gets the ball rolling very quickly by using discussions boards to introduce yourself to the group and to discuss a number of presented scenarios – immediately I can see that the communication element is far superior here than the correspondance course which relied mostly on sending material via Her Majesty’s Royal Mail, possibly e-mail which was read on certain days or a telephone call which may be picked up during a two hour window on Sunday’s only. Oh and no fellow students to talk to about the course or the assignments.

The communication dimension of the course aside, the really big thing that impressed me the most was how fantastic the course Blackboard/WebCT was laid out (see “First Week Impressions“). For example, all the reading lists were located under the relevant week’s topic folder (not in a completely separate reading list folder that my academics tend to do – but then we don’t do course design as part of the basic Blackboard training that we offer academics if they want to be Blackboard Instructors).

Despite not having met (yet!) Sian Bayne and Rory Ewins, their digital presence has been strongly “felt” (sorry Dreyfus! Wasn’t he Inspector Clouseau‘s boss?). This has also been true of the more prolific students (Tony McNeill, Henry Keil, Nicki Brain, Andy Miller and Bill Babouris). The feedback from blog and discussion board posts from Sian and Rory have been pretty much immediate – so much better than a correspondance course (or even a classroom-based course come to that!). On the subject of discussion board posts (I’ve made 44 posts in total), I did find myself not participating on some of the more popular topics. This, in part, has a lot to do with me coming to the discussion boards after 7.00pm when everyone has gone on a discourse feeding frenzy like a plague of locusts – much discussion and research has been done about this.

Block B – Environments” allowed us to explore “structured spaces” like e-portfolios and virtual learning environments (VLE); “volatile spaces” like Web 2.0 and Hypertext; and “new spaces” such as Second Life. One of the reasons for doing the MSc in e-Learning at Edinburgh was the richness and diversity that the course offered (see “And so it begins…“) and it is here that it is at it’s most apparent.

For me, the discourse and the theoretical underpinnings of the e-portfolio was a lot more exciting and interesting than trying to “knock up” an e-portfolio on Blackboard/WebCT (see “Betwixted, bothered and bewildered“). The Web 2.0 section of the course made use of a number of activities such as adding a bookmark to Delicious (whilst I appreciated what was going on here, the activity could have benefitted from adding a bit of extra meat to it) and placing an entry onto the Group Wiki (interesting that no-one wanted to mess around with other people’s entries). We also discovered that the volatile nature of the Web 2.0 application / service is fraught with opportunities and dangers (see “Web 2.0: A Game of Snakes and Ladders“).

One of the big delights for me on this course was the opportunity to use Second Life in an educational context and to interact and engage with my tutors and peers in a very relaxed and friendly environment. The nature of digital identity, personalities, group dynamics and digital discrimination and prejudice was explored and discussed; along with that of “presence” – by now this had become the course arc word (see “Return to the Rabbit Hole“).

Block C – Contexts” introduced us to the more philosophical (and highly explosive) discussions of “learning bodies” (or the importance of human embodiment to teaching and learning) and “digital natives” (the controversial metaphor, the generational rift that it appears to have opened up and the implications to 21st Century teaching and learning practices). Indeed, the course material should have been rubber-stamped with an “highly inflammable” symbol. On the subject of course material, I should say that the quality of the reading materials and the scanning have been first rate and easy to read.

Whilst I can see that the “digital native” / “digital immigrant” dichotomy would have offered a useful conversational starter on the perceived changes in student behaviour and learning that Higher Education (and in education as a whole) would have to address – it has now been insidiously absorbed into something far greater and more menacing than anyone would have imagined (see “Digital Imperialism: The Tyranny of Technology“).

So for now, I bid Rory, Sian and the inspirational “Digital Environments” course a fond and affectionate adieu.

Thanks for the digital memories.