‘Learning for change’ conference: ComDev student reflections on online learning

by Tobias Denskus on May 26, 2015

in ComDev lectures,ComDev seminar,Glocal Classroom,Student work

ComDev student Muhammad Al-Waeli participated online in the ‘Learning for Change’ conference hosted by the Nelson Mandela Institute of Science and Technology in Arusha, Tanzania. We re-publish his reflections that originated from discussions on our itslearning platform and his subsequent blog post. Muhammad’s reflections are not only relevant in the context of the Glocal Classroom seminar in Arusha, but offer detailed and practical insights into how the ComDev model of convergence pedagogy works in practice.

In one of the Glocal Classroom workshops, titled ‘Technology Approaching Pedagogy and Learning’, the following questions were discussed in groups:

General and Organization Questions:

  1. How would you create collaborative situations with teachers and
    students using technology?
    Think of combining channels and systems and not necessarily single system solutions, meaning pay emphasis to convergence and different digital and in-situ modes that transgress single platform learning.
  2. How would you create and support a user driven environment/design on a local level from an organizational point of view? With Glocal Classroom we have a user driven environment, which allows cross-country collaboration. Think of various ways to develop user driven environments, adapted to, and supported by, larger organizations. What organizational structures do you need to support this?

Pedagogy and Practice Questions:

  1. If you have to live stream a lecture or seminar, how would you do it? Think of how to expand the physical room to a virtual or across-distance space and also how to strengthen synchronous modes of
    learning where traditional distance learning is mostly asynchronous.
  2. How can you make use of the live situation after the event?
    For example to re-use recorded images, sound, text, PowerPoints and dialogue.
  3. How to create learning situations using written interaction? Think of e.g. the use of written chat during lectures, or written, asynchronous interaction in guidance forums or similar. Consider student as well as teacher to student interaction, and focus on interaction that are not written feedback/assessment on assignments or exams.
MuhammadAlWaeliComDev ComDev student Muhammad Al-Waeli, currently based in Iran

Through chat and video, the COMDEV students were able to share their experience as online students at the MA program. The comments covered cultural, technical, and administrative issues associated with online learning and education. Also, COMDEV lecturers gave technical and pedagogical insights about their experience as online teachers and practitioners.

Of course, the sessions could no cover all views and experiences about the topics. Therefore I thought it would be a useful exercise to think about the questions again and share my thoughts and experiences, in light my studies as a online postgraduate student at Malmö University. Here is my rather practical (as opposed to academic) take on the issue.

Collaborative situations with students and teachers using technology

Teacher-student interaction

There is a debate going on about how much teachers should interact with students in online learning platforms. Whereas some interactions are necessary, especially when feedback from both sides is required, there are others situations in which the teachers’ intervention is debatable.

For instance, LMS forums often host discussions and debates where students express their take on specific issues. Having teachers intervene might “disturb” the follow of the debate sometimes. Even knowing that teachers are able to read the posts of the students might make some of them reluctant to post anything, in fear of appearing in a way that makes the teachers change their view or assessment about them.

On the other hand, teachers comments might be useful and serve as brainteasers or guidance for the students. Being able to see the niveau of discussions might also be useful and informative for the teachers and might serve as feedback on how much the students have understood a specific topic.

So, each side has its point and there is clearly no clear-cut solution for this problem. Nevertheless the online course administrators could establish a rather informal ‘playground’ for the students to interact based on their terms and to which teachers don’t have access to. Not all interaction between students can, will, or even should take place on the main LMS system. This is therefore an attempt to give the students freedom of choice on where to interact and how.

Of course, this could be done through conventional social networks. However a dedicated and ready to access platform might increase the interactions, whether formal or informal, which at the end enriches the overall online course experience.

Collaboration platform alternatives

Not all LMS are suitable for group assignments. When working on mutual project that involve lots of sharing, communicating, and scheduling, most LMS systems don’t excel much.

Social network applications like Facebook Groups, Google Groups, and Yahoo groups are popular choices for collaboration, but there are many business oriented solutions with more specialized features especially useful in group assignments.

To mention a few examples, there is Asana, which provides several features like tasks, projects, comments, and an inbox that severs as a better alternative to email. It is available on the web, iOS and Android.

Another interesting option is Moxtra, a wonderful service with many features and capabilities. It allows collaboration and real time communication, the ability to annotate PDF documents via text and voice, group video and voice chat, scheduling group meetings, sharing to-do lists, saving documents on the cloud, and of course all that on desktop and mobile. These features are definitely useful for group assignments.

There are also the free but less advanced (compared to the other examples) group collaboration services like Wiggio by Desire2Learn, which provides by far a better experience than using Facebook and Google groups, at least when the goal is group learning.


Online learning is a great option for those who have constraints with time and location in regards to education. By that I mean, either a person can’t attend physically the lectures of a specific program because he or she can’t travel (difficult visa requirements, costly commuting, time constraints…), or because the attendance is in a specific time is impossible due to work and other obligations.

Here, mobility plays a significant role in online learning. Learning related tasks can be done while traveling or after work, from any place in the world. If providing the LMS through web only, it would translate for most users sitting in front of computer, meaning time and place constraints, which are the same things the learners who joined an online program are trying to avoid.

Access to LMS through the web browser from a mobile device in not enough here.

For starters, Internet through mobile is still not accessible in all countries (at least with practical speeds). Added to that, mobile apps are more intuitive and easier to use than websites. Even if optimized for mobile, most websites through a mobile browser are still bulky and less pleasant to navigate. In addition to that, mobile apps provide the option to learn while being offline. This is specifically useful for users in developing countries with limitations in continuous online access as well as the relatively higher costs associated with that.

It seems that LMS services are a little bit behind in this regard. MOOC providers on the other are doing it right.

User driven environment/design on a local level

The Glocal Classroom project is obviously one good example of a user driven learning environment in which several universities from around the world organize live learning sessions and seminars.

However, this can’t happen often during the year, and although being a rich experience, it is limited in terms of time and interaction.

One solution could be the creation of social networks that link the different universities participating in the project permanently, where students can interact with their counterparts in the other universities, have access to mutual resources, and even work on mutual assignments. Sharing parts of the curriculum might also be pedagogically useful.

Live stream lectures and seminars

Low bandwidth option

I think one of the most vital feature that makes the whole (or a huge part) of an global online program possible, is providing a low bandwidth stream for students with a slow internet connection. Although the video quality won’t be impressive, it nevertheless is sufficient to have a steady audio stream with acceptable and continuous video feed to follow what is happening in the class.

This is what we have on itslearning in our COMDV program, and as the instructor responsible for setting this up putted it nicely in one of the ‘Learning for Change’ seminar sessions, “we need to care for the students at the bottom of the pyramid”.

There is an option to use Flash as a streaming format which has the capability to auto-adjust its resolution based on the user internet speed. However in my experience this is not a reliable option. Better results are achieved by having a fixed low-bandwidth stream.


Talking about Flash, I would cease using it altogether. Especially in the last few years, Adobe Flash has been suffering from many issues. I like the expression “Flash kills the Internet”. This applies especially to those with low bandwidth connections. Flahs has security problems, is not supported on all mobile devices, and constantly needs updates. Often, it causes system crashes. The forums are full of Flash-related problems.

Throughout the recent years the HTML5 standard has evolved pretty well. It enables live video and audio streaming and is more stable that Adobe Flash. It is lightweight and device neutral. HMTL5 clearly has some significant advantages over Flash.

Combining chat with live broadcast

Chatting while watching a live feed is important. It allows the sessions to be more interactive and the proceedings to be archive for later use. More on that in the next points.

Live situations after the event

Broadcast archives

It is important to be able to access archived class material and events. Online learning is particularly suitable for people with other working obligations, and as it is often the case, not all students are always able to attend the teaching sessions and seminars live. Therefore having an archive is essential here. One important things is to provide sufficient description about the content, the ability to add keywords to make search easier, and having the chats that went on during the lecture fully accessible.

Archived chat sessions

As said before, during the live sessions lots of important material can be captured in the accompanying chat sessions. Students post links, interesting comments, or answers to questions during the live lectures. The teachers also answer their questions through chat. Therefore it is very valuable to have an accessible, easy to search chat archive of the live sessions.

Learning situation using written interaction

Written chat sessions (as opposed to other types of chat like voice and video) have several advantages.

For starters, it allows more controlled interactions during the live lectures. When virtual participation becomes large, it would be unpractical to use a voice or video based interaction system, like Adobe Connect, unless, lets say it is language course and the teacher needs to hear the students practice speaking, and the participants are relatively few.

Based on personal experience, using voice and video chat systems like Adobe Connect provides additional difficulty. You need rules for controlling who is allowed to to speak, and all students have to adhere to them. Anyone not doing so will affect the others. In a language course I attended online using Adobe Connect, the lecturer kept asking students to turn off their microphone so that no noise would disturb the class. Whatever goes through an individual’s microphone will be broadcasted to the rest of the class simultaneously. Too often students would forget to do that and you can imagine how that affected the lecture.

Another major advantage is that the archived written chat is easily searchable. Unless providing transcripts (which is not practical), searching through an voice or video chat archive is almost impossible to do given the current state of technology.

Making Technology Accessible

During the workshops another important topic was hotly debated, which is ‘How to make technology accessible to everybody?’ The participants talked about the difficulties that accompany teaching or participating in an online course when being less literate in technology. Several solutions and suggestions were brought up. Here I will write down what I remember being mentioned as well as adding and elaborating on my own.

User friendly interfaces

Unfortunately most LMS are not very much user-friendly. Lots of settings, small printing, and complicated structures make them intimating for a not-so-tech-savvy user. LMS should be designed in a way that wouldn’t require lots of learning to use it. Few buttons, clear large text, and logical design should characterize a LMS. A poorly designed LMS can affect the learning experience badly, especially with an online course.

Easy to use documentation

It is important to have an easy to use documentation for the LMS. In many cases the documentations are more complex then the system itself, assuming they are sufficiently available.

Added to that, there should be a crash course on how to use the LMS, similar to the ones commercial online service provide immediatly after registration, in addition to a more detailed documentation.

The documentation should also make use of graphs, animation, and video instead of text only. Having to read a lot to learn about something practical is frustrating.

Mobile devices

Learning to use apps on a mobile device tends to be easier than learning to use an online system accessible on the desktop or web. The limitations imposed by a mobile device force the designers to think more about the user interface and optimize it for mobility. I think that by designing an LMS on a mobile device from sc

straight-forward to use.

Learning through exploring

Users should be encouraged to learn through exploring and trying thing out. Most novice users are reluctant to do so. On the other hand it seems that mobile platforms are more inviting in this regard, which makes learning to use them easier. Nevertheless, users should be encouraged to take this path with any kind of technology. Documentation alone, regardless of how thorough or easy to use, can’t do it all.

There where many other points that were covered, however these are the most important ones that I could remember.

Please share your opinion.

Special thanks to my friends Adriano and Eleni and the rest who attended the online seminar and helped inspiring some of the ideas and thoughts mentioned here.

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