There is no such thing as ‘virtual learning’

This morning a respected twitter colleague Craig Taylor, tweeted that he felt the need to write a blog post on this topic – which being something that I agree with passionately thought I would do the same, so we can then compare posts.

Since people have used computers, the term virtual is often used to identify something that isn’t physically touchable. e.g. Email is an example of virtual mail, in that you cannot physically touch it the same way that you can with a letter dropping through the letterbox of your front door.

Cerebral lobes

We then have the term VLE or Virtual Learning Environment, which some people misread as being an environment where ‘virtual learning’ takes place, and the term ‘virtual learning’ then gets misused by some to define learning supported by technology. The problem is there is no such thing as virtual learning. Learning is a complex mechanism that takes places in the brain and is a process of connections being made between neurons in a way that connects prior knowledge (from memory) to new information to create new knowledge and understanding (apologies to any psychologists or similar for the gross over simplification here), so learning is learning – it doesn’t matter how or where that learning takes place; whether it is in a classroom, a workplace, in front of a computer, watching TV or reading a book – learning is learning.

Some people think that when we learn via online technologies (e.g. via a VLE) the learning process is different – the actual mechanism of learning (the formation of connections between neurons) is exactly the same – what changes is the environment in which this takes place and the mediums used to help the learning to take place.

So going back to the idea of a VLE – I mentioned earlier that it is not an environment in which Virtual learning takes place, instead it is a virtual environment (e.g. you cannot touch the walls, seats, tables) in which learning takes places. Maybe the acronym would have been better if it was a Virtual Environment for Learning or VEL – but VLE seems to have established, and personally I am not too bothered about the semantics of whether it should be a VLE, MLE, LMS, CMS etc. what I am interested in, is that people use these tools effectively and efficiently to enhance the business that we are in, and that is as facilitators of the process of learning.

Adding subtitles to YouTube videos using CaptionTube

YouTube is a wonderful resource, it works on just about all internet enabled devices, it hardly ever goes wrong, it is easy to use and although there is a lot of low quality rubbish on there (in my opinion), there is also huge amounts of really useful high quality videos that we can use in education to enhance our teaching and learning practices.

A feature of YouTube that many don’t know about, is the auto-captioning option – in other words YouTube creates a transcript of the video without you having to do anything. If you are watching a video on the YouTube page and you want to see the captions, then there is a button below the video (currently to the right of the where it says ‘add to’) which is the transcript button – this brings up the transcript as a timeline below the videos and automatically advances with the video. This can be great for learners that have a disability (e.g. are deaf), but can also be really useful to find a key point within a video.

For example I often use short sections of the excellent TED talk video of Ken Robinson talking about schools killing creativity. If I want to locate a certain section within that video, I use the automatic captions that appear below it to locate the section that I want.

Because the transcripts are computer generated, they do contain errors – and depending on the clarity of the voice and the background noise of the video will determine the accuracy of the transcript. For some reason my voice never does well with automated speech to text systems, including YouTube.

However if you do want to override the automatic captions that YouTube creates with your own ones, then this is very easy to do – and for this I use a service called CaptionTube This is a simple system where you sign in (using a Google Account) you locate the video you want to caption (which could be your own or someone elses) and then you play the video pausing it at intervals to add your captions. If the video is your own, then you can add the captions to it there and then, if it isn’t your video then you can send the transcript to them to see if they want to upload it.

The following video (by John Skidgel) introduces the basics of CaptionTube.

Here is a video of mine that I captioned using this method. This took me 12 minutes in total from opening the page to my captions appearing on the video on YouTube.

Adding Captions to a video is a simple way to increase the accessibility of a resource, as well as potentially increasing the number of people that see your video, as the contents of the captions will get picked up by search engines (if the video is set to being public and listed).

Using Google Docs (Drive) to create a collaborative learning activity

Google Docs or Google Drive as it has changed it’s name to, is a suite of office tools that work via the internet and store the different files in the cloud (on the internet) rather than locally onto the computer. This has huge advantages in terms of the files are backed up automatically, can be edited on a variety of different computers (including Smart phones) and they allow multiple people to contribute or view the files.

It is the ability to allow multiple people to edit that makes Google Docs an excellent collaborative learning tool, as it is possible to set up activities where different learners are accessing and editing the same document at the same time – this means that they can see and respond to what each other is doing in real time.

An example of such an activity is one that I ran recently used at a training event as part of the Advanced Teacher Learning Coaches programme. This took me about 10 minutes to create and set up, so nice and quick, and the learning experience was far greater than doing this in a non-collaborative way. If you want to use the activity above (possibly swapping in your own websites for your particular area), click on the link above, then save a copy of this (from the file menu) – you can then alter the sharing settings to allow other people to edit it. A video showing how to do this can be found below.

Using Google Docs for collaborative activities – is a great way of working with higher order thinking skills. What I will often do is set a simple task where each person or small group of people have to edit an area within the document answering a question or questions. What I then do is ask everyone to swap areas (e.g. so they are looking at someone else’s contribution) – I can then ask a more challenging question – such as critique the other person’s responses, or present a counter argument to their point, or ask them to identify which of the points made by the first group would also be examples of….. etc. and if time allows, then I sometimes set a third question where they look at a third different set of responses and answer another challenging task or question.

Another really useful feature within Google Docs, is that you can see the revision history – so you can identify which people have contributed most (and when) – which can be useful if doing this as part of an assessed activity – and you can roll back to earlier versions of a document, so if someone does something very damaging (e.g. deleting everything, writing something defamatory, or using it to cyber bully) you can roll back to an earlier version (or restore point).

The fact that these documents will work on most if not all Smart phones makes this a really powerful, versatile and truly mobile opportunity.