Monday, 27 October 2008

SIS lecturer Roy Crotty recently presented the following paper on technology and communication skills at a CSU Foundations in University Learning and Teaching workshop.......

The School of Information Studies on the Wagga campus prepares students to work in the fields of information management, librarianship and teacher librarianship. All our students are taught in the DE mode which places challenges on the teaching staff to develop innovative means of delivering content. One of the challenges is having students work in the collaborative mode, especially with teacher librarians who are now beginning to work in collaborative exercises within their schools and between schools. Their students also have learning styles different than their own i.e. they work together in collaborative settings and modes as part of their normal lives. Our students are scattered across Australia and even across the world so participating in collaborative exercises is a challenge.

CSU Interact has offered some means of addressing this challenge and the following example demonstrates strategies used by students and staff to enhance the experience. Students in one of the TL strand subjects were organised into groups of 4 (there were 180 students so 48 groups were established). Their task was to develop a 15 slide Powerpoint presentation to the editorial panel of a major educational journal.

The members of each group were randomly allocated. With the assistance of the school’s educational designer, sub-forums for each group were created on Interact with only the members of the group, the subject coordinator and educational designer being given access to their sub-forum. Each group had access to their own wiki, Resource page, group email and chat room. Of course there was still the overall subject forum where items of general interest to all students could be communicated through the group email, resource, chat and wiki pages.

The students were geographically spread across Australia and the world. One group had two members from Qld, one from NSW and the fourth from Belgium. Members of each group made initial contact using the Interact chat room facilities and demonstrated the usual cautious approach to ‘meeting’ new people and establishing their task. The group had to develop their own topic based upon one of the learning objectives of the subject which presented its own communication difficulties in being able to establish common times to be available to meet in the chat room. Some problems soon became evident, often technical problems such as students without broadband access attempting to use Interact across dial up lines occurred and had to be managed. Students were encouraged to use whatever means they found useful to be able to communicate with each other. Email was used but of course is not synchronous, phone calls were made but not many used conference calls due to the cost.

It became obvious that the technical skills of many of the students varied greatly across the entire cohort and within groups. To their credit most accepted the challenges of learning new communication skills and technologies. Skype was mentioned to all as an efficient and cost effective means of communicating and many group members took the opportunity to learn this new technology (to them). Comments indicated that the ability to actually speak with each other and, in some cases, actually see each in real time while using Skype video aided to the collaborative efforts. Being able to conference using Skype also enhanced the collaborative efforts. Being a free service was also an attractive bonus.

In sharing their developing Powerpoints, students began to use the Resource page on Interact to upload their presentations. Other group members would them download the Powerpoint, edit or add pages and then repost to Interact. While this was useful, there was still a delay while each person edited etc. Students could discuss the changes but the time lag was present and only one person could use the Powerpoint at any one time. Some students attached their Powerpoints in emails to other group members in order to speed the process.

Google have developed an application called Google docs where files can be posted onto a site and other people can be invited to view the file and edit directly from the site. Simultaneous editing can be done by all invitees. Students were informed of this Google app via Interact’s group email facility and invited to use the site. They were informed that this application was a beta version, its use was not supported by CSU and to keep backups of all work. Several groups used Google docs to load their Powerpoints and share the file without having to download/upload. One group reported using both Skype and Google docs simultaneously – speaking with each other about their Powerpoint and editing as needed by any group member. Google docs can be accessed form the Google homepage – just look under MORE for DOCUMENTS.
Youtube contains some excellent videos on the use of Google docs and some links are included here.

One technical aspect we discovered was that attempting to edit Powerpoint formatting features was not successful. Its worth is in editing text so we recommended that the text be edited in Google docs and then add the formatting – build the house before painting it.

Part 2 of the assignment involved a personal critical reflection by each student which included commenting upon their communication and collaborative skills. Overall the comments were similar – people with little or no technical skill taking a chance and learning new skills. They expressed excitement at what they had learnt about new communication technologies and how collaboration, while seemingly daunting at first, can be an enriching and invigorating experience. A number of groups asked for the sub-forums to be kept open in order for the group members to continue collaborating during the rest of the semester.