Monday, 16 February 2009

H809: Week one roundup and reading reflections

Well it's been just over a week and things have definitely got going with H809. Students have been busy introducing themselves, and it seems there is quite a range of people on the course, with a variety of backgrounds and expertise (as was last year's group). There's also been a certain amount of becoming familiar with the VLE, I know I'm still getting used to the forums but I am starting to feel less confused about where everything is, and less overwhelmed by the number of posts! There are even a few blogs popping up - I've listed the public ones under H809 on the left hand side of this page, though there are also a couple that are just open to OU users. Not much is happening on these just yet but there have been a few posts e.g. Juliette Culver introducing her research background and her thoughts on educational research, and Mike Protts reflecting on the first course reading. Hopefully, we'll see a few more starting up and some further discussion as the course progresses. It does seem that some people are further ahead than others in their work, such as H809-jm thinking about a for technologies in education, but it is worth pointing out that one of the advantages of doing an online course is that you can go through the materials at your own pace so it's best not to use other people's progress as a marker for your own. Btw, in case anyone missed it, a glossary for key terms has been set up within the course wiki (if you are signed into the OU website, you can access this here).

In terms of the first paper,"Teaching sociology in a virtual classroom" (Hiltz & Meinke, 1989), most of the tutor groups have been getting on with the activities and sharing their thoughts and opinions about it. I think one of the first things that people noticed about the paper was the date that it was written - I mean we're talking pre-internet (something I have real trouble imagining as I've never had to do any academic work without it) so it's important to try and put this in context as there wouldn't have been much CMC related literature around at the time. However, the novelty value of the Virtual Classroom (VC) didn't really seem to be something the researchers considered but it is something I really should think about in relation to my own research, especially when dealing with novel game-play interaction techniques.

Some of the other things that seemed to come up in forum conversations more than once were the fact the study tried to cover an awful lot of ground, the colleges that took part in the study were very different (as were the modes of delivery) and that the institutions attitude towards having to use the virtual classroom was not always favourable. The latter point was quite interesting to me, as it reminded me of my work at the University of Bath where I was a research assistant on the Racing Academy project and one of the things we had to evaluate was the organisational impact of implementing the use of the game within different HE and FE institutions. We ended up using Activity Theory (I think this is coming up later on in H809 anyway) as a way of describing all the factors that seemed to have an impact, and I'm sure we would have missed some of the most interesting findings if we hadn't tried to take organisational issues into account. In the forum discussions, it was pointed out that while Hiltz & Meinke (1989) mention the fact that there was resistance to the use of the Virtual Classroom, we have no idea how the students were affected by this, or even why it occurred in the first place. I guess that to me at least, these seem like questions worth asking. It was also good to see how everyone is starting to consider the methods being used, and coming to terms with the distinction between quantitative and qualitative methods, something that I think the next reading will place more emphasis on.

My own research is beginning to take shape at the moment, and there are certain key words circling round my head as I try and formulate my research question. One of these terms is engagement, and I couldn't help pay attention when Hiltz and Meinke began to talk about interest and involvement. You see one of the key reasons for the academic interest in digital games is that they are seen to be engaging so researchers want to know how we can harness this motivational power (p. 4; Kirremuir & McFarlane, 2004). As such, I was especially interested in Hypothesis 2.4 which suggested the VC would be superior to traditional teaching in terms of "Increased level of interest in the subject matter, which may continue beyond the course" (p. 436; Hiltz & Menke, 1989). How were they going to evaluate this? Turns out through self-report questionnaires, and I'm not sure they even did ask about "beyond the course". So, the measure of interest was actually how interested the students thought they were, with no recognition of the possibility that the novelty of the VC might be a contributing factor. I guess I was hoping for something a bit more objective, though I'm not sure what exactly. In terms of methods, I know I won't be using some sort of pre-post test experimental design either as I will be focusing on much more informal learning. Still need to think about how I'm going to assess this though...

Going back to the paper, I think (and this is something else that kind of came up in the forums) the references to procrastination and self-discipline are a little bit worrying as they seemed to come across like students were being blamed for not being interested enough in the first place. If the VC is supposed to raise interest in the course, but not all students feel the same way, then surely it's not doing it's job (in this respect at least)? Big surprise, but the students who participated the most in the VC were the ones with the highest levels of reported interested i.e. the students who described the experience as "fun" (p. 440) were probably already highly motivated to begin with. The authors even go on to conclude that students who have problems with motivation, verbal skills, and/or access to computers are more likely to drop out of an online course - which suggests to me that the VC really doesn't increase "level of interest in the subject matter". I have a suspicion as well that when it comes to games, a similar thing is going on. I mean, it seems likely that the people who would get the most out of game-based learning are the ones who are already motivated to play games which seems quite obvious now that I've written it down...

Hiltz and Meinke also tie motivation to the concept of cognitive maturity - the authors claim that students who have attained a specific "level of cognitive maturity or writing skill" are actually predisposed "to active and highly readable engagement with ideas and new skills" (p. 434). I guess this is an attempt to explain why the VC does not appeal to everyone, which is fine, except that there is no consideration for how the situation might be improved, apart from cutting out the VC entirely from the academically weakest course. The notion of cognitive maturity reminded me a little of some reading I did last year on approaches to learning (see here for brief introduction) where much research has focused on how to promote deeper approaches to learning within education. So maybe that's why I was expecting something about how to improve the situation, rather than the conclusion that the VC is just not suitable for less academically able students. As for my own project (and for where I'm going with the link to games-playing) I think this has reinforced my thinking in terms of how important it is to take student characteristics (or game player expectations and long term motivations) into account if we are ever going to come up with a clear understanding of how motivation, involvement and learning interrelate.

No comments: