Lessons that are not learnt…

The ONL162 course is now coming to its end, and like at the end of a holiday, time has come to put away the suitcase, wash the clothes and book the next holiday…

Topic 5, is called ‘Lessons learnt’. And though I was thinking about the things I was expecting from the course, what I have learnt as new by participating as a student in an online course (rather than the facilitor/teacher), presentations our group has made, nice literature that we have read and discussed and new insights that I have gathered – it struck me that I think the lessons I have NOT yet learnt are perhaps even more interesting to reflect on. They are, however, harder to define, as they may be purely based on stubbornness, resistance to change OR on hope that it is a lesson other’s may have to learn….or maybe a combination of the three.

But here they come:

  • I think there is still much to learn about learning, I don’t think the current educational pedagogics models are complete, certainly not to account for the online possibilities. I hope one day ‘pedagogics’ will become like ‘sustainability’: something everyone has to take into account and feel in every aspect of his/her activities, rather than a separate topic some of us occupy themselves with. Maybe I don’t believe that the necessary changes in pedagogics will come from the pedagogics teachers/teachings, maybe they will always come from the ‘field’ and the pedagogics domain will theorize them and put them into context. But I haven’t yet learnt  what is missing or how we could find it to utilize our possibilities of interacting in the ‘cloud’ to the fullest of its potential.
  • I think some people jump on the ‘online learning’ train for the wrong reasons. Are there wrong reasons when the end product is still positive and useful for others? Maybe not. But maybe for me education is partly about transferring content into other human beings, but mostly about learning others to use their creativity and braincapacity they already have but perhaps haven’t utilized yet -and in the process approve skills and content. So I haven’t yet learnt what the true impact of online learning could be or should be.

  • I do not think I have learned how one can activate everybody in a group to work to their fullest abilities. Many people are merely ‘visitors’ and perhaps that is fine also. But perhaps it isn’t. Perhaps we should never go anywhere with the intention to visit only. Maybe we should always go places with the full intention to improve things, stay forever (even if we don’t), give it all we have and most often fail misserably (and sometimes succeed) and be okay with that because next time we are going to stay and have a lasting impact. But perhaps our imprint will not show today but years from now…. But I could be wrong. But it is certainly a lesson I have not yet learnt.
  • Finally, I think an important lesson I haven’t learnt is what is the magical way to managing ‘the process’ of learning. Be it in an online context, or a class-room. I know I strongly believe that unless we educate our coming generations how to operate, create, collaborate, innovate in a multi-cultural and cross-disciplinary setting, we will not be able to cleverly meet the societal challenges to come. Does it matter on the long run? After all, after failure comes success, merely out of pure necessity…. Perhaps. But perhaps the costs are too high along the way. Education has a major role to play in this, which we should never forgot, while making our journey through new tools, methods and processes. Perhaps there is no magical way. Perhaps the only solution is to create sufficient momentum, have sufficient passionate individuals that can shake the system and some brilliant students that become our teachers later on. The rest of us should then make sure we facilitate, not block too much and jump on board once the train is moving…. Definately a lesson we still need to learn…


How online learning environments can better support learning



The 4th topic of the ONL162 course is, in my opinion, addressing the very core question of online learning. Though we discussed earlier about other reasons for MOOCs and other online teaching efforts (eg. fulfilling the globally growing need for education as a whole), as a teacher I am most interested to see how being in the ‘cloud’ can have added value for students’ learning.


But I think before discussing this as well going into pro-s and cons of various methods for an effective course design, I think the question should first be: what is it that we want to teach our students. There are so many different ‘types’ of teachings, but also ‘types’ of learning aims that we have in the course of all our educational programs. Are we talking about the transfer of knowledge (where the student should be able to reproduce material), or all the knowledge levels after this (eg. being able to put it into another context)? I do not want to go through the entire range of educational taxonomies available, that are already well described elsewhere (eg. BLOOMs http://www.nwlink.com/~donclark/hrd/bloom.html, BIGGS SOLO http://www.johnbiggs.com.au/academic/solo-taxonomy/ or Feisel-Schmitz http://tll.mit.edu/help/two-examples-taxonomies-educational-outcomes).

But I would like to get right into the educational part that I personally am most interested in: making our engineers into knowledgeable, creative people that are able to not only work within a multi-cultural setting, but also into a cross-disciplinary world.

I strongly believe that the major contributions of the future will lay in the ‘interface zones’ of disciplines: how to effectively bridge communication between machines and humans, between cars and roads, between materials and ICT, between energy and society, between inputs and the outputs etc. Functions will get expanded upon, processes will get smarter and how can we –as a society – ensure that the end result is beneficial for society on the long run as well as maintainable from both a human and environmental perspective? Who will keep the system’s perspective, so we avoid technology for the sake of technology?

Who will be the ones that are going to be the stewards of this? In my opinion this will be our students and the students of our students. So we, as teachers, need to enable our current generation of students to have the content, skills and social (communication) abilities as well as instill them with a sense of societal responsibility. I think the online learning platforms will enable us to get much further with this than the traditional class room does. Partly because the students will get forces to become more self sufficient, more creative and more responsible (as long as we avoid the spoon-feeding trap). But also because it will get them into the wider world earlier, where they have to deal with multiple disciplines, different backgrounds and complex systems and cultures.

So how can online learning thus support this: Which methods should we apply, so as so ensure we will reach this very ambitious end goal? In ‘Bates, T (2016). The 10 Fundamentals of Teaching Online for Faculty and Instructors. PDF available here’ the online methods are listed as

  • Online class notes
  • Recorded lectures
  • Webinars
  • Instructionally designed online courses based on a LMS
  • Design based on open education and emerging technologies

This last one is, among others, referring to Courses built around emerging technologies, such as virtual worlds, gaming, and augmented reality.  Bates highlights in his texts that ‘Students are encouraged to seek, analyze, evaluate and apply content to real world issues or contexts, rather than the instructor being primarily responsible for content choice and delivery

I do think, however, that before we expose our students to this we need to ensure that their ‘vessels’ are already filled with knowledge. So they should already have been educated on the basics, and have sufficient ‘expertise’ in their field. The traditional topics (mechanics, mathematics, physics etc) can perhaps already been handled before the online world becomes a necessity for the added skills. One can of course argue that the traditional topics can in fact be also very easily treated with online courses. This brings us into earlier discussions which are focused on the usefulness of online courses for student, teachers and institutes (‘accessibility to education’,‘fighting costs’, ‘why reinvent the wheel every time’ etc). But my point here was how online teaching can create the added skills that we otherwise may never build.

In our group assignment for this topic we went briefly into the ‘gaming for education’ direction, where students learn through ‘playing’ a game together. As the literature regarding ‘serious gaming’ or ‘gaming for education’ is fast and extensive, I’d rather explore here its effectiveness. For this I am referring to a key scientist in this field, Traci Sitzmann, that published extensively on the effectiveness of teaching in an online setting (for instance using gaming methods) in comparison to class-rooms style teaching, for instance:

In these, she concluded that:

web based instruction was 19% more effective than class-room instructions for teaching declarative knowledge when web-based trainees were provided with control, in long courses, and when trainees practiced the training material and received feedback during training.
Interactive cognitive complexity theory suggests that simulation games are more effective than other instructional methods because they simultaneously engage trainees’ affective and cognitive processes


I think Biggs ‘constructive alignment’ (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF00138871) fits perfectly within this context, as some of the skills we are aiming for are not only encouraged through content or activities, but even through all the implicit (social) processes our students (and teachers) will have to go through within these type of online courses.

Perhaps in the future we will see a clear division between online environments that are catering towards transferring basic knowledge (focusing on minimizing reinventing the wheel, accessibility and perhaps institutional sustainability) and online environments focussing on increased skills and abilities for our students. Each of these would demand different tools and methods within their course design. In any case it is going to be interesting to be part of some of these developments and perhaps in 10 years time (or even shorter?) we may already see the effect in a new generation of students that can tackle our societies challenges!

(Clouds drawing by Maaike Hartjes, @comic house.nl)

How to Optimize Online Collaborative Learning


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I think we have all gone through it (several times) both professionally and in our private lives: group work -though often a lot of fun and rewarding at the end-…. can also be frustrating. There is often a gradient in activity level between all the participants, some people are really good starters and some are really good finishers. Some are excellent in the process along the way and some are perhaps having a winter sleep altogether…

So what happens when we take the collaboration ONLINE? Do the available collaboration tools (eg the sharing of documents in your own time) help us to deflect some of the problems as we are more flexible…or does the differences in time zones and delays in response from group members make things worst?

According to Capdeferro and Romero (2012) (Ref: Available here) the largest source of irritation still comes from inactive group members, even online. Second to that is the frustration of having varying goals among group members. As more freedom (and responsibility) is given towards the project work, learners seem to often have different aims within the project –even though they are members in the same group. Where in face-to-face meetings these matters may be solved through effective communications (and a lot of coffee), online communication allows for a delay in answering and perhaps still missing each other’s points….

Brindley et.al(Available here) suggest that some of these issues can be solved through very clear and transparent instructions from the teachers. Though they caution us to not forget to remain reflective along the way, depending on the actual learning behavior of the group.

So perhaps an optimal solution to ensure that collaborative online learning leads to actual collaborative work, with all of its benefits, is to start with a very clear instruction about the intentions and goals of the project, defining the level of freedoms/responsibilities and then already giving a careful prediction about possible issues that may come up….(Like a list of Q&As – Q: What should you do when one of your group members doesn’t participate…..A: hummm,….talk about it in a common chat?)

Though it feels very temping to come up with an overly structured set-up for an online collaborative learning course that avoids the generally noted pit-falls, I am wondering if the experience of a certain level of frustration may be in fact okay. Perhaps even good…. and can be seen as part of the process? After all, real life isn’t exactly always problem free either…

As teachers/mentors/facilitators we do have a role to play to facilitate the learning process and to avoid situations in which an entire group is running against the wall due to a misbehaving member. But Brindley’s advise on remaining reflective along the way is good one I think. I also think it is not possible to come up with a ’perfect recipe’ that fits all online learning efforts. One matter, which we shouldn’t forget, is the influence of our own backgrounds and cultures.

It is often advocated that the best and most creative teams are those that have a sufficient mixture of cultures/backgrounds/experiences. This is often quoted in the context of the need for more women in traditionally dominated male fields – which I couldn’t agree more with. But it is also valid for many other differences.

Unfortunately it is always easiest to agree with yourself, so having to deal with a team full of people that may see things very differently can lead to some start-up issues. The question on how to collaborate most effectively together to reach the team’s optimum may thus not be the easiest to answer.

When we were developing the C-Campus course between KTH and Tsinghua University on Future Highway Design, we wanted to make teams of students that would go through a creative learning process. Each team consists of students from both universities, but also from different disciplines. One of the structures that we built up beforehand was to give everybody the option to choose an ’avatar’ (see top picture, avators made by the very cool Dutch cartoonist Maaike Hartjes). So we would all be different in a same way.

Though this did not solve all the issues, it did work as a nice ice-breaking course start and created an immediate sense of community (as also advocated by for instance Martha Cleveland-Innes and her team at the Centre for Distance Education @Athabasca University). After we had the first round of the C-Campus course, we plotted some of the communications that the individual groups had had, trying to see who was initiating the communications, who where picking up on it, did the communication happen between disciplines and between the universities etc and we tried to relate this to the ultimate course results. Below an example of the visualization of such investigations.


(An evaluation of the first C-Campus pilot can be found from here:
Shreenath V, Meijer S, Wyss R, Kringos N, C-Campus: A pilot study on cross-cultural and multi-disciplinary learning, in: Proceedings of the 6th International Conference on Education and New Learning Technologies, 7-9 July 2014, Barcelona, Spain, ISSN: 2340-1117, pp. 1296-1305)

But we also investigated something else: the cultural difference between the Swedish and Chinese students. For this we used the 5 cultural dimensions as defined by Hofstede, e.g Hofstede and Hofstede)

In short, these 5 cultural dimensions are defined as

(1) Power Distance: expresses the attitude of the culture towards inequalities amongst us
(2) Individualism: expresses  the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.
(3) Masculinity/femininity: Defines what motivates people, wanting to be the best (masculine) or liking what you do (feminine).
(4) Uncertainty avoidance: The extent to which the members of a culture feel threatened by ambiguous or unknown situations and have created beliefs and institutions that try to avoid these
(5) Long Term Orientation: The extent to which a society shows a pragmatic future-oriented perspective rather than a conventional historical short-term point of view

Below you can see a comparison between China and Sweden on these 5 cultural dimensions, as defined by Hofstede (see reference above).


Though the students from KTH also came from many different cultures, we felt that some of the major differences between these dimensions shed some interesting light on the discussions and challenges that some of our groups had had.

Now the question still remains how can we possible use these types of insights to facilitate and optimize the process of collaborative online learning?

I do not really have the answer today. But I do think that the availability of an online platform will enable us to mobilize these type of tools better in the context of collaborative learning as we can: (i) more easily objectivy and measure characteristics, (ii) automatically update tools and structures depending and progress and (iii) track the behaviour of our learners to facilitate their effective iteractions…..

That, and perhaps (iv) some general common sense and a good portion of humor…. will certainly make our collaborative online learning communities into important vehicles for training our students into solving our society’s future problems!

The future of MOOCs?

By getting to know more and more about the principles of Massive Online Open Courses, I am starting to wonder what the future of education will look like….

I can agree with the argumentation that with a growing world population the demand on higher education will also increase and the ‘old’ education model will not be able to meet that demand (as it would imply building more and more universities, see David Wiley TedxNYED talk https://youtu.be/Rb0syrgsH6M). So providing online openly accessible courses seems a perfect solution. I also like the fact that this is breaking through economic barriers in getting educated.

I also agree with Wiley’s argumentation that openness is the ONLY means of doing education, and that it is all about sharing and being generous. A culture of selfishness should thus be avoided/counteracted/demotivated…Online learning and sharing, be it massive or not, seems thus a natural and positive step.

But from watching the explanation of what a MOOC is by Dave Cormier, one of the people behind the first ever MOOC (see https://youtu.be/eW3gMGqcZQc) and from reading some Chapters in the book by Weller, M. (2014) ( Battle for Open: How openness won and why it doesn’t feel like victory. London: Ubiquity Press) gets me wondering about two main issues:

  1. How do we teach our students to learn in a new (non-linear) networked way?

  2. How will we be able to give sufficient pedagogical support in MOOCs, given the economic constrains?

Lets take some steps back on each, so I can explain my thinking:

Dave Cormier explains some of the key elements of MOOCs as:

i) sharing work;
ii) engaging in other peoples work,
iii) rather than specific assignments, making connections between ideas, engage with each other, ie networking
iv) appling distributed learning: having a non linear way of going through the course,
v) course material is not found in one central location, but can be found at many different locations and is connected in a networked way,
vi) promoting students independence, working in your own spaces
vii) ‘only you can tell in the end if you have been successful’-just like real life…

Though some of these elements of course reflect back on elements we may already have in our current educational systems (e.g peer mentoring, presenting your work, literacy), some of these elements are distinctively different:

Our educational system today is still rather linear, the way we expect students to receive and/or find information, learn content, reproduce content, develop content… With the occassional exception, I would argue that from primary school to university we are today still promoting a linear way of learning.

How then can we expect our students to be ready and able to learn in a completely new way?

I do not think that the added technology will be a barrier, especially not when we see our tottlers already able to navigate their way through ipads and pretty much everybody is used to browsing through social media platforms. But finding, posting and replying to content is not the same as learning and understanding new content…How and when are we teaching our students (and perhaps our teachers) to learn in a new non-linear way?

Shouldn’t universities in addition to developing MOOCs be developing training courses for teachers and students to learn how to learn in a new way? And would that suffice or would we need to already start redesigning all of our educational institutes?

Some claim that traditional class-rooms and online courses will always exist in parallel, but will the MOOCs really reach their potential success and impact if we still promote the traditional way of learning throughout all of our educational system, but expect students to be able to learn in a networked, participatory, non-linear, independent add-on way when taking online courses?

If we now, for a moment, take a vision of MOOCs becoming in the future our mainstream educational form: We will be living in an Open, Connected, Interactive, Inclusive, Global world where education is accessible to all…. there will still be a need for an economic sustainability of the MOOCs. As Weller is describing in his ‘Battle for Open’ book: those that finance the start-up costs of MOOCs will, generally speaking, want a (economic) return within a certain timeframe. Universities and teachers will also still need to be able to finance the material, effort and time their teachers and researchers will put into the courses. Perhaps indeed tuitorship and university credits will only be supplied to the paying participants and the content can be open to all. But assuming that some level of mentoring, pedagogical support or teaching will still be required on the MOOCs to ensure that the participants can indeed follow and learn from the course …..who will be those teachers?

If indeed our future education is dominated by MOOCs and if the MOOCs are catering towards the ‘M’ in the word, that would mean a massive amount of tuitors. Will these tuitors be our Faculty? So,…

…will the future university Professor be spending his/her time on tuitoring everyone that takes part in the MOOC? Or will we end up with a new generation of MOOC tuitors: highly educated professionals that cater towards the pedagogical needs of the MOOC participants, similiar to the call centers in India that are used today by many Western companies for the support needs of their customers?

If the latter is the case, what would then be the role of our Faculty in this? Will each Professor that starts a new MOOC course, build the content and structure of the MOOC, train his MOOC tuitor teams to support the students and be available him/herself on weekly Q&As?

I think promoting non-linear ways of learning is a good thing, regardless of the future role of MOOCs, as we live in a complex non-linear world. Many of our challenges today are intrinsically complex and will need a new generation of engineers that can develop multi-disciplinary innovative solutions. Being able to take time and place consideration into account in a more complex, iterative, evolving way would thereby be a large benefit.

I am convinced that the key to all of this lies somewhere in taking a systemic perspective to what it will take to ensure a sustainable (socially, environmentally and economically) future. I just hope that the efforts and investments that are currently being made by pioneering and passionate individuals get sufficient sufforts by the institions in terms of systemic changes. As change always meets resistance, this could be a monstrous effort that will require a long-term commitment of many individuals to hang in there…




This is PBL10!

It is always nice to know where everybody is coming from when you are joining in a group to so some collaborative work. Even though all of us are associated with KTH, we represent different disciplines, different roles and, of course, have also different perspectives. This is what makes it interesting in the first place to go through the ONL162 process together….

Have a look at a short group presentation by clicking here: onl-pbl10_introduction


Becoming ‘comfortable with discomfort’

To get into the ‘Problem Based Learning’ thinking I was reading up on some of the course literature. This article I found particularly fascinating:

Kek, M.  & Huijser, H. (2015). 21st century skills: problem based learning and the University of the Future. Paper Third 21st Century Academic Forum Conference, Harvard, Boston, USA.

In this article, a number of aspects stands out to me. For one:


The concept of using your MIND (what’s the idea), your HEART (where is the passion) and the ACTION (what are we going to do) I have frequently used in…elevator pitches! Teaching students to make a good impression on an important researchers in their field, asking for a guest lecture of visit to their institution, getting the person involved in your project. But thinking about this concept in the ONL context makes a lot of sense now. It is about having something to say (backed up by -technical- knowledge), being engaged into it and then expecting something to happen, a result to appear a communication to start. Learning online, with the help of a network, based on a specific challenge is thus not so different from an elevator pitch where you are trying to sell your project to somebody you respect and expect a ‘click’, an active communication, an exchange of information.

Another part which interested me a lot in this article was:


How to be creative and productive, given many uncertainties. Almost all engineers are trained within a pillar structure. Which serves a purpose as ‘general knowledge’ will not build a house, get an airplane to fly or solve urban problems. Yet how to use your technical skills and knowledge and combine them with many other skills and abilities within an uncertain situation is getting us into adaptive engineering. But we are not even thinking specifically about engineering here, we are thinking about learning, education and the supporting system around it. Provided that we allow our students to use learn in different ways then we are traditionally used to, how can we still ensure the outcome? If we let ‘the internet’ be part of the research domain, how to we avoid concluding assignement which are a simple ‘googled-piece of art’? I have found this very tough to establish as a teacher. Not merely the motivation, but the entire guiding mechanism, and criteria based -pass te course based on xyz’ is not catering for this.

So what is the solution? Well the article gives another idea on this:


I thoroughly like the idea of ‘responsible anarchism’ as a beautiful contradiction to itself. I think that designing a course on solid educational principles and getting students to learn their important lessons ‘problem-base’-wise may not even be the main challenge here. Getting the universities and the mind-sets of the teachers reprogrammed may be even a larger problem…

Getting started…

As we are in the start-up period of the ONL162, reading up on PROBLEM BASED LEARNING’s history and its various definitions I am trying to relate it to my own experiences with e-learning and blended learning. At the same time we are trying to get our group started.

As engineers the phrase ‘problem based learning’ sounds very comforting: a.k.a. ‘What’s the problem’ – ‘Let’s fix’ it. But as we are getting started I think we are experiencing the same as many of my students have before. I have heard myself say numerous times ‘Here is your group, here are the platform we have built for you, these are the available tools (but feel free to use anything you like), and now get started! Let’s get creative guys….

After a while, as the teacher I would look into the online ‘spaces’ we have created for the course and would sometimes be disappointed with the lack of ‘immediate action’, and often had to put in some start-up energy myself. I never really understood what the problem was. But getting started with the ONL162, I get the problem better. So many places to go, things to read, tools to start using. And even though none of the tools seem very unfamiliar, using them together to come up with a collective approach to solve a (not really defined problem) seems suprisingly daunting… Absolutely fantastic to experience this feeling myself. Now lets get down to the next step. Here comes an engineering approach: read all the material, start conceptualizing the problem and see how to activate others…