Terje's musings on educational research


First round of admissions has passed and now Tallinn University is announcing the second round. One of the main priorities of Tallinn University is teacher education and thus, most of the teacher training programs are ready to accept more students. There is going to be also an additional opportunity to join the Master’s program “Teacher of Computer Sciences, ICT Manager” I am leading. It is a 2 year program (in Estonian) and designed in a way that courses are provided at every second weekend and during school holidays. The program aims at offering a comprehensive academic education in the field of educational sciences and teacher education in computer science speciality, and developing competencies necessary for working on the positions of a teacher of computer science and a school’s ICT manager.

In case one is interested in educational technology, I must admit that “Teacher of Computer Sciences, ICT Manager” and our Educational Technology master’s program (also in Estonian) are very similar. The added value of my program is that it offers an additional teacher training module, which can be very beneficial one day if one wants to carry out some teaching and coaching beyond primary and secondary level education. However, “Educational Technology” program is also ready to accept a few more students.

Application deadline is August 15th and 16th; and a brief chat with my colleagues is going to be on August 19th. Welcome to Institute of Informatics!

Read More

In winter I was asked to provide an online course at Linz Pädagogische Hochschule for Erasmus exchange students. With a colleague from Linz we agreed to call this course “Learning and teaching in the 21st century”. The purpose of the course was to explore together with students some new trends in learning and teaching. During a 7 week’s period we spent some time on reading, thinking, analysing and reflecting on concepts such as personal learning environments, bring your own device, open content and open educational resources, e-portfolio, etc., but we also tried out some networked tools and services for facilitating our learning and teaching.

I have facilitated many entirely online courses, but despite of my experiences I have to admit that I feel a need to have at least one face-to-face meeting with students to get to know them better. It gives a more promising start for the whole journey with people you haven’t met before. However, I believe we managed to create a nice motivating atmosphere for exploring learning and teaching in the 21st century.

Read More

In the beginning of August 2012 I took part in an intensive program called “Psst” (Personal & Shared Strategies for Teachers in Web 2.0). The purpose of the program was to provide opportunities to develop knowledge and skills using technology for teaching and learning. The intensive program brought together 25 students from Romania, Slovenia, Latvia, Estonia and Austria. Topics covered during the intensive program were rather wide, from storytelling to serious games, from Web3.0 and copyright issues to philosophical aspects of technology in our society and education.

Although being in this field for quite some years now there is always something new to learn. Students’ presentations demonstrated the use of various tools and services in formal educational settings. I got a bunch of new tools to try out myself. For instance, BigBlueButton synchronous communication tool turned out to be a rather useful finding for my teaching. As I have a few courses taught entirely online, I’ve been looking for quite some time a nice alternative to Flashmeeting. In addition, Anneli demonstrated some tools for storytelling (ZimmerTwins, Creaza, Mapskip, Storybird). However, having all these fancy tools at our hands, I noticed that we tended to forget about what actually makes up a story and what the necessary characteristics are. Is a video introducing a set of London’s sights forming a story?

Our Latvian team also demonstrated some interesting sites and tools for making music, which I can imagine can be a nice supplement to music lessons. Some examples are:

or some music databases, in which the content is under one of the Creative Commons licenses:

I found Christian Kogler’s presentation about McGurk effect (a perceptual phenomenon) and interesting one. He also claimed that “we don’t see what we don’t know”, which made me think of a concept “affordances” we have used in our research to analyse the rationale for using particular tools for certain purposes.

Although our colleagues use quite a bit of technology in their classrooms, I nevertheless got the impression that we tend to repeat traditional teaching practices without considering or rethinking whether the roles and responsibilities should change, whether a different culture of learning should be accepted and promoted. And what is exactly this different culture of learning?

Read More

A few weeks ago we had scheduled interviews with new potential master students, who want to enroll in either “Educational technology” or Teacher of informatics, school ICT manager” programs. For the first program a portfolio and a motivation letter were required, for the latter one only a motivation letter was a basis for selecting new students in addition to the face-to-face interviews.

It came out that the “Educational technology” program was rather popular this year, from 20 applications only 12 students were accepted for the state-funded positions. The “Teacher of informatics, school ICT manager” program hasn’t been very popular for quite some years now, however, to my surprise we received 10 applications. The number of state-funded positions in this program is unlimited. So, if someone is still interested in this, we will open a new call for applications in August.

I was happy to see that also a slightly older generation has decided to come back to the university and study something new. I have to admit, that they gave me the impression of being more self-confident and aware of their wishes and visions of where they want to go than freshly graduated students.

Welcome to Institute of Informatics, Tallinn University!

Read More

This academic semester started for me with two new courses: New Interactive Environments for IMKE (Interactive Media and Knowledge Environments) international master’s program and Learning Environments and Learning Networks for Educational Technology master’s program. Both of them have been rather challenging tasks mainly because I teach them with other colleagues and we had to design them basically from scratch.

Learning Environments and Learning Networks (in Estonian) concentrates on different opportunities to support one’s learning environment with technological solutions. In addition to various potential learning environments this course also focuses on learning networks and their applicability in a learning process. The target group of this course is mainly active teachers and educational technologists who have come back to the university to get a master’s degree, but also to acquire new knowledge and skills regarding educational technology. The course has four contact days, rest of the activities are done online.

New Interactive Environments (in English) focuses on the (re-)design of new interactive environments for collaborative work and study. Particular attention is paid to the analysis, representation, and (re-)instrumentalisation of human activities and activity systems with networked tools and services. The course will be conducted online and uses a variety of assignment and collaboration formats.

Both courses are supported by a set of networked tools and services, in which personal Weblogs are the most important tools.

Read More

Recently I was working on the master’s level course descriptions I teach. This year, we can decide whether our course ends with an exam (it can be whatever student work that can be graded from A to F) or a pass-fail assessment without any grades. I was very eager to choose the opportunity to change the assessment method of all my courses from a graded exam to a pass-fail assessment. But later, I was strongly recommended to consider a grading exam if there is a slightest chance to give grades in my courses. First of all I find it extremely difficult to give grades on master level students, secondly I strongly believe that grades should not be a motivator anymore for a student in an university.

I was told that the main reasons to favor a grading exam are the following:
1. if there is no grade, a student would not want to put any extra effort on your course, because he or she can get a positive result with only putting minimum effort on this.
2. in order to get a stipend (in our case as a reward for being a good student), an average grade of the courses will be calculated. So, the courses, which end with a pass-fail assessment will not be counted.
3. in order to graduate from the university with cum laude the courses will be counted which have ended with a graded exam.

This is a good example of showing what Geis (1976) has mentioned. One responsibility of an university is “to act as a certifying agent: selecting, classifying, and accrediting on the basis of achievement”; and other responsibility is “to provide a rich environment for personal growth, self-actualization, or individual fulfillment” (Geis, 1976). Geis rightfully claims that these responsibilities are contradictory to each other and difficult to achieve at the same time. As universities continue to offer the same old, tired, and narrow group of reinforces, most importantly: grades (Geis, 1976), it is quite obvious what universities consider to be a more important responsibility to take. Giving grades at the end of the course falls to some extent into the same category – serving the certification function on the one hand and a motivator on the other hand.

My attempt is to provide students with challenging experiences, which allow self-direction, individual fulfillment and personal reflection. My main contradiction here lies between students who get more control over instructional dimensions and the need to measure student’s performance according to the objectives and standards set by someone else.

Master’s level students are adults, adults, who in most of the cases can reflect on what they have learned and how they have changed. Me as a teacher has my own values with respect to a certain learning experience and based on that I draw inferences. A student has his own values. “Given different values and different perspectives learning becomes a relativistic concept. Learning is appreciated differently, depending upon the psychological position of the observer” (Harri-Augstein & Thomas, 1979). We have a clear dilemma here. To give a student more control (including setting one’s objectives, finding right strategies, building his own personal learning environment and assessing his achievements), but leaving him aside from evaluating his progress is controversal to the concept of learner control. This would represent only an illusion of increased learner control. Furthermore, if one has taken control over something, then one should also take responsibility for it. And isn’t it what we want our students to be able to do?

Therefore, for me it either makes sense to let students themselves evaluate and give grades to their learning outcomes, which at least partially forms the final grade or we both agree on a basis of reflective conversations whether the student has met certain requirements in order to pass the course. Although in the first case, the practice has showed to me that grades which can change everything are not very objective anymore if given by a student himself (I don’t claim that teachers grades are more objective). Who would like to give himself a bad grade if he knows that this might reduce his chances to get a stipend…Thus, I find it more accurate and fair to let a student and a teacher to evaluate whether the student has passed or failed, instead of figuring out whether he/she is worth B or C.

It shows very clearly that the only motivational factor in higher education is still a highest positive grade. This is one of the aspects, which shows that we treat adult learners as primary and secondary school children. I find this attitude already wrong – assuming that students only work hard if there is a chance to get a grade and hardly work at all as there is only a pass-fail option…If we already start with this assumption there is not much to hope for…

Geis, G. L. (1976). Student participation in instruction: student choice. The Journal of Higher Education, 47(3), 249-273.

Harri-Augstein, S. E., & Thomas, L. F. (1979). Learning conversations: a person-centered approach to self-organised learning. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 7(1), 80-91.

Read More