LATINA – Learning And Teaching IN A digital world
Professor Helge Hoivik
Oslo Metropolitan University
This is a reprint of Chapter 5 from Høivik et. al.: Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age — Experiential Approaches to E-learning Design in Norway and China from 2016. The entire book is out of print, but available for free download in ePub format (July 2019. H.H.)
The last one and a half decades has seen a massive transformation of the World Wide Web, as invented by Tim Berners-Lie in 1990. In the early days, only a few published and many read Web content. Developments would, however, soon lead to the creation of a new interaction space which was quickly referred to as Web 2.0. Writing, recording, posting and publishing now became almost as simple, in Web 2.0, as reading, listening and watching, due to the good use made of XML-based transfer protocols and low cost server farms that support blogs, micro blogs, wikis and social networking using cloud-based tools and repositories. This evolution was matched by the rapid development of the physical networks which provide wired and wireless communication across the globe.
This progression, which is founded on earlier Web 1.0 experience and solutions, is at the heart of the LATINA projects, LATINA being the acronym for Learning And Teaching IN A digital world, and at the heart of the course development achieved since 2008.
LATINA courses respond to the new training, teaching and learning demands posed by the knowledge economy. The new economy, due to intertwined and mutually dependent productive and cultural factors, demands innovative individuals and groups. Post-industrial society requires migration of labor from easily replaceable factory and office roles to creative roles and to team roles that require the combination of personalized skills, a wide range of interests and relational competencies. Few entrants to the work force will experience a single life-long career, little of what we need to know and need to be able to do being learned at school decades earlier. We acquire new knowledge and skills, in the knowledge economy, on an almost continuous basis and at the same time have to discard technical and operational detail to translate experiences into more generic forms of knowledge.
The importance of coal and later electricity during industrialization was primarily due to these energy sources being able to be moved to the locations of other productive inputs, such as abundant manpower, raw materials and transportation hubs. In the knowledge economy, productive capital is inherent in peoples’ minds and hearts and resides in their social networks, making it even less dependent on specific locations. It is therefore prudent to assume increased competition for good jobs and good salaries, on a global scale and a defining characteristic of modern education has therefore been preparation for such tensions.
Our courses place great emphasis on the tight integration of theory and practice. The aim of course readings, lectures and other activities is to throw light on practical experiences and, conversely, the aim of practical experiences is to throw light on course readings, lectures and other activities. The overall purpose of this is to explore practical ways of teaching and learning. Most of humankind may now already, or will in the near future, take access to digital tools and texts for granted. Technology itself is however not enough. The new possibilities it provides must however become socially accepted and understood and must be embraced and developed by individual teachers, faculty bodies and educational institutions as a whole.
LATINA has a number of connotations. The most important of these is the simple principle that a good way to learn something is to try to explain it or teach it to others. We therefore consider learning and teaching to, in essence, be two sides of the same coin.
The philosophy behind LATINA focuses on learning by students. Learning is, however, not solely confined to this group. Teachers will also need to learn. So will learning institution staff such as administrative personnel and those who take care of document-centric and computer-centric functions such as multimedia specialists, software developers, security supervisors, and maintenance and technical support staff. The institutions themselves will also need to learn, as reflected in the termlearning organization . Getting organizations to learn is, however, not a trivial exercise. They are built to maintain themselves rather than to change. Change is, however, one of the essential tenets or indications of true learning. We can formulate this more generally using disruptive-oriented formulae: In the knowledge economy, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate learning from production. Whenever an institution engages with its surroundings, it must routinely take this as an opportunity to discover and learn about the particularities of that context, whether that is students, customers, clients, constituencies or partners.
LATINA acronym also points to the inner relationship between globalization and digitization. It is the citizens of the world that are the targets, not particular groups in particular countries. LATINA course participants have come from more than 30 countries spanning all the continents.
Finally, LATINA is a word play on Latin, the language. Latin spread with Roman conquests around the beginning of the Current Era. It was consolidated as the lingua franca of the Roman Empire and continued to be so in Europe for centuries afterwards. Mandarin in China and Arabic in the Middle East and Northern Africa has fulfilled similar functions. English and Spanish, and potentially Mandarin, are playing the same role on a global scale in our times.
LATINA courses are conducted in areas where there is wired or wireless access to computer networks or where this can be expected. We have also, in some cases, created stand-alone solutions that emulate Web-based work at locations where technological development has not yet reached a sufficient level of stability.
Course participants are generally equipped with portable computers or pads. The price of this equipment has fallen drastically over time. The earliest pads cost around US$ 1,000 when first launched in 2010. Similar functionality can, however, now be purchased for US$ 100, a decrease of 90%. This price ratio can also be seen in the difference between low and high end devices. Mobile phones can be purchased for around US$ 50 and less. More high-end units however cost 10 times more. This also applies to pads and portable computers. These devices contain few movable components other than on/off and volume buttons. Assembly is therefore easily automated. We may therefore expect further price falls. This follows Moore’s law of transistor miniaturization. In 1965, Intel’s co-founder Gordon Moore predicted that transistor density would double every two years for a given price range (Moore 1998).
LATINA classes require interactive display surfaces such as smart whiteboards, large flat-screen televisions or similar wall projections. This equipment has experienced the same rapid price decline of computing equipment when comparing screen real estate with cost. Television sets are, in fact, becoming increasingly like computers and reasonably large screens are affordable to a large portion of educational institutions.
Room layouts and designs need to be flexible so that they can support various group sizes and working formats such as plenary one-to-many lectures and demonstrations, small-group work, screen-casting, web-casting (real time broadcasting) and recorded presentations.
LATINA courses are directed at heterogeneous student groups. Variability is evident across a number of dimensions including language, subject area, academic level, age and nationality.
Good English skills are, however, a common requirement. In practice, some students may be quite fluent in written English but not as at ease when speaking. Their English might also be reasonably grammatically correct, but there may be room for improvement in pronunciation. We have addressed this from a pragmatic and principled point of view, the two perspectives overlapping. On the one hand, the working language is English, but is extensively supported by manual and automated translation services, manual translation being commonly performed by participants. Some courses are multi-lingual by design, learning materials being prepared in several parallel languages.
Students and teachers at the first LATINA Summer School july 2008 photographed in the author’s home in Oslo, Norway.
Diversification in LATINA is not limited to gender, nationality, culture and language. It also extends to age, participants being in their early 20s to their late 50s, and to job position. All participants, no matter where they are on educational and career ladders, are all “newbies”, beginners in the art of digital learning and teaching. Our relaxation of requirements relating to identical subject orientation and common educational level has been particularly important. We have actively supported variance in the academic levels of participants, which have spanned from first-year students to post-docs, their knowledge domain spanning from chemistry to linguistics and from educational technology to marketing. All interests and personal profiles therefore merge into a shared interest in educational development. This transcends the traditional logic of brick-and-mortar-based learning institutions. In established modes of education, the ideal class consists of similar students, with the same levels of skill, who generally advance in concert.
The structure and content of this audience mirrors a global dimension in the educational design space. New learning processes may mirror this as a matter of course due, at least partly, to new or cheaper communication technologies, both digital and physical. Computers and network access cost relatively little. Calculations should however also include face-to-face interaction. For example: The return airfare from Oslo, Norway to Beijing in China with a stopover for aircraft change in Helsinki, Finland may at times cost less than just the return trip Oslo-Helsinki. Cheap airfares promote increased internationalization. Travelers become carriers of elements such as curriculum dispersion, exchange of teaching and learning methodology, shared research, institutional agreements, organized student and faculty mobility and practical development cooperation.
Education, in addition to the operational and theoretical dimensions, can also be seen as being a discourse or conversation. This discourse requires teachers to provide feedback on the ideas, activities and texts – the feeds – that the educational process generates. Feedback on these feeds is also equally important. Feedback or talkback is a required part of the educational framework. Teachers, in addition to handling first-order responses, may also be required to handle second-order feedback loops in which, for example, the educational process itself becomes the topic of discourse. This lets students react to the thrust from the teachers, the uptake of online materials, the impacts from the educational establishment at large and from their fellow students. Such conversations run throughout the entire course periods. These conversations are often oral and take place face-to-face. Digital publishing however increasingly serves as an essential supplement, providing depth, focus, precision and a track record.
Students and teachers may express themselves and publish and present their activities using a range of formats. This includes the written word and numbers. Ideographs and pictographs, still images and moving imagery in animations and videos are however growing in importance. A very important component of this design is the Content Management System (CMS). A CMS is a computer application used to create, edit, manage, search and publish multimodal documents.
We, in the earlier work with the FRAGMENT project as described in earlier chapters, used rudimentary and homegrown CMS functionality. It was based on the general client-server structure on the LAMP stack that combines database entries with HTML formatting under programmed control. This takes place on the server side with rendition and user interaction on browser clients, the staple solution of Web 1.0 technologies. We combined the home-grown database schema called FRAGMENTS with the FRAMESET mechanism in the HTML specification.
We redesigned the technical foundation and the design and navigational structures of learning materials as user-friendly Web 2.0 technologies rapidly developed. The LATINA projects used the same principles that were used previously, but by turning to available open source software solutions. A number of platforms were evaluated during this transition period.
WordPress as CMS
We were particularly impressed by the ease of use and configurability of the freely available WordPress platform. Large professional and amateur web-based cottage industry have grown up around this software package and close to 30,000 support programs, called widgets, haS been produced by the community. There are more than 2,000 free themes that provide a variety of color, font and screen layout solutions and many more themes are available for a fee. One may therefore think of this open source platform as a community of practice rather than as a software product. This community is involved in content management, in the wider sense, based on the use of current and previous versions of the software.
The underlying MySQL database is available for data extraction and modification using one of the common programming languages, such as PHP, Perl and Python.
A WordPress Object-Role diagram.
The base data structure of WordPress is illustrated above using a simplified Object Role Model (ORM). The model shows how content and tables relate to each other. The model can be read to imply that “Each post/page in WordPress (a wp_post) has content, a title and a menu order. It is written by a user. There may or may not be comments to this post that are also written by a user”.
These base tables are also listed below in greater detail. The table called WP_POSTS contains the main entries for pages and posts. It, very importantly, can be extended to support other types of content. We will return to how this can be used to support Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in the next chapter.
At the point in time the snapshot above was taken, there were 214 pages or posts ( wp_posts ) and 4 developers ( wp_users) registered in this repository. The wp_categories table supports a well-developed classification system while thewp_comments table is used for commentary and discussion.
In a traditional blog, postings follow the Last-In First-Out (LIFO) logic. The most recent contribution is the first thing a visitor sees. The success of WordPress can be ascribed to the maintenance of such functionality and an extension to hierarchically structured pages. The page construct allows structured texts with logical table of contents to be built. It is also possible, with a bare minimum of programming, to switch between the two entry types so that a post can become a page and vice versa. WordPress easily supports small-to-intermediate repositories of a few hundred and up to one or two thousand web pages and a single installation can host several unique web sites. Management chores are, to a large extent, automated and the system handles still imagery and embedded video well.
The WordPress system uses five pre-defined roles – administrator, editor, author, contributor and subscriber. The scope of participant roles can be extended using dedicated user role editors. Other plug-ins support online payment to manage the access and maintenance of large student groups.
Web publication has, through blogs, micro blogs, image messaging and other social tools, become the new default rather than the exception. This does not, however, mean that privacy has been abandoned. The public/private boundary is an important structure in social life. Blogs do however challenge this boundary. They straddle the division between the private and the public sphere, which was also reflected in the LATINA courses. Participants were encouraged and required to write on a regular basis, which was technically and textually integrated into the course. Their contributions were commented on online, out of class, by teachers and other students and brought up in class as a common reference and as a “scaffold” which the author could use to present their own contributions. These texts were valuable contributions to the overall course repository and evolved both on a weekly and a daily basis.
Additional productive tasks, such as the creation of still images and image sequences, digital stories and digital triggers, were also an integral part of the standard design. A trigger is a condensed and multi-faceted presentation of a problem area, used to ignite thinking and debate. These texts also represent increasing levels of technical and rhetorical difficulty.
The general course websites were also expanded and reorganized based on these contributions and other feedback and on the ongoing reading and engagements of teachers and course designers. Web site content should be markedly different at the end of a course from the content at the start.
The illustration below shows the design for teacher and student self-publishing during the first three years (2008-2010). The main course website contained hierarchically ordered pages of course content and comments from all participants, both students and teachers. Each student was taught to make his or her own blog and was gently but firmly encouraged to write reflections and collect resources for the course.
All news items from the student’s blogs were syndicated (collected) through a Real Simple Syndication (RSS) mechanism and presented, with all recent updates, in a common page-view. Every year, new students who were introduced to this design, mastered the fundamentals of creating and maintaining their own course blog from the first day of the course. This was a gratifying experience.
The students were eager to create their own blogs, but more hesitant to publish. They felt that the daily work this involved became too much and we encountered some reluctance and shyness to write in English and to “go public” in general. Microblogging was suggested as an alternative. The 140 characters space however only provides room for the briefest of comments and the option to redirect readers to other resources. The ability to reflect and follow an argument in writing and to publish photographs, videos etc. was lost. We therefore, in 2012, modified our approach, partly due to the changes in digital publishing and partly due to the need to lower the demands we make on students and faculty alike.
A separate and collective blog was created in this new incarnation and called “The LATINA Chronicle”. Domains for student entries proved relatively easy to create using the categorization system for blog entries. We opted for a group-based publishing design. Individual members of each group could publish to this blog in the name of their group or they could collaborate on entries.
This design was supplemented, in the period 2012-2014, with three other publication formats:
- The ePub e-book specification, which was used to publish course content as separate e-books. They were made available for download and could be read separately from the web site itself.
- An electronic magazine was established, initially using the Google “Currents” platform.
A secondary WordPress installation was used for student input, which was mostly but not solely limited to categorized postings. The students were split into color-coded groups and each group was required to make at least one posting a day. These posts could be accessed as RSS streams from the main course blog or from a specific Google Reader account until Google Reader was discontinued.
Course materials were organized in a hierarchical page structure of approximately 500 entries. This “paged material” was used as input to static files in ePub and PDF formats that users could download to their portable devices. Several mechanisms existed to simplify this process and they will become even more automated.
This results in two main RSS streams, from the main course website and from the students’ contributions to their secondary blog. Both streams are consolidated through the Google Reader account. They are picked up from here by the Google Currents e-magazine or supplementary delivery mechanisms (Pulse, Flip, Feedly, …). The Google Currents magazine also has sections containing content from the open web and more stable material from the course text-book, image streams from course pictorials, video streams from YouTube playlists etc.
Topics and Learning Events
Tangible outcomes in a range of media types and formats are the result of the production requirement. Organizing the leaning process using explicit production-oriented principles is however of great importance. Teachers and course directors use tools from the project manager’s digital toolbox and they conduct the work from a collaborative project management perspective. Examples of this span the entire spectrum, including idea generation, planning, scope delimitation, tool-to-task selection, task sequencing, distribution of responsibility according to capabilities and needs, freedom to act within such constraints using well-defined formulae and methods of governance, control and self-control.
Learning-as-production is however no panacea for student engagement and enthusiasm. Students must be kept on track using strongly collaborative and also soft “command-and-control” approaches. Teachers meet regularly, often on a day-to-day basis, to summarize and analyze good contributions and emerging challenges. The results are presented and expanded upon the next morning. Students seem to experience quite high levels of satisfaction when receiving feedback on work well done.
The list below is of topic headings for recent LATINA courses:
- Visualization and digital storytelling
- Video triggers for learning
- Words & Numbers: practical collaborative solutions for the 3 R’s
- Statistical reasoning: data collection, processing, presentation and use
These are supplemented by framing technologies such as:
- Interaction frameworks and contexts: wikis, blogs and learning platforms
- Recombination of online resources (mashups, remediation, transmediation)
- The reuse of research data and data mining and management
- Retrieval and reuse as knowledge construction.
There is also a separate section on content repositories as an extension to the last topic in this group. The topics in the current incarnation are:
- Evidence-based education.
- Global platform for lexical knowledge
- Large-scale digitization projects
- Museums and archives as learning institutions
A third topical group is used to draw attention to the wider context. We make the web itself an object of study through Web Science topics such as:
- The role of the Web in the global knowledge society
- The growth and structure of the Web
- The economic impact of the Web
- The social impact of the Web
- The cultural impact of the Web
The topics describe the overall intellectual and instrumental course content. They are operationalized through a set of physical and social resources. Students are required, to improve learning and build community, to complete preparatory work before they attend in person. There is a “classical” schedule of day-to-day activities during the 3 weeks’ venue. The most important element of the LATINA courses is, however, the final and main assignment. Each student or student group must produce a delimited “learning event”, for which three strong requirements are set:
- Students should use or apply the techniques and theories that they have learnt during the course to create the learning event.
- The topic and formats should be of interest to themselves.
- Most importantly: The tools, topics and formats should be of, at least, reasonable interest to their audience of the other students.
Student heterogeneity adds value to this exercise. It also counteracts the very human tendency to restrict oneself to least efforts, i.e. student assignments and texts tend to mimic each other. We have experienced this on a number of occasions in the LATINA courses. Some participants chose similar and repetitive topics such as cultural shock, globalization and the Internet. Others however ventured into their own specialties such as malaria prevention, the development of open and easily accessible learning centers and principles of on-line marketing.
These events and the entire course are collectively evaluated using an interactive survey at the end of the course. The survey is developed and results are interpreted collaboratively. The survey is finalized and answered using digital technology in-situ and the results are immediately calculated and can be interpreted immediately.
Each run of the LATINA courses is evaluated using online questionnaires, which was discussed and improved by participants before and during the survey. Results were immediately shared and followed by a plenary interpretation and discussion. The students generally speak well about the design. The following are typical examples from the overall evaluations:
“On a scale of one hour, the teachers gave theory lectures for 20 minutes and 40 was (set aside) for practice. This is good because practice makes perfect. As I have noticed, there has been a balance between the practical and the theoretical in the sense that the course has been conducted in a cooperative way between the teacher and the students. There were lots of activities, either individual-oriented or group-oriented, in which the students applied the theoretical aspects delivered by the teachers, especially that part of giving feedback section.”
The theories about pedagogy are all very useful and the most important thing is the way we teach and learn. The teachers in LATINA could use the technology appropriately for our learning. This is the new teaching and learning I think. And we also learn a lot of things from other students. Thanks to all the teachers and others students, thank you!”
Inspiring as this might be, there is also a caveat. Although the students enjoyed the course and would strongly recommend it to others, it was also considered to be too demanding:
“Too many tasks, overloaded, and maybe or too little time (3 weeks – it is very exhausting)”.
“More target group oriented, offered in a certain design for a certain group. Group structures could be more targeted and improved.”
“Blogging: Better defined writing periods and assignments
The courses may have placed too much pressure on students and on the teachers. A “pressure cooker” environment may be effective for learning. But if the pressure gets too high, then this can reduce long-term efficiency and cause results deterioration due to mental and nervous fatigue.
This problem must be addressed. We discuss some aspects of this in the next chapter.
Moore, Gordon E. (1969): Cramming more components onto integrated circuits. Reprinted 1998 from Electronics Magazine. Pp 114-117, April 114-117, April 19, 1965. Available as PDF from 1998 at http://goo.gl/oAQT0x (http://www.cs.utexas.edu/~fussell/courses/cs352h/papers/moore.pdf )