Special Interview: Innovative Education with Distance Learning and Apps – Koen Timmers, Belgium

“Since the moment I became a teacher, in 2000, I’ve been passionate about e-learning. I founded my own educational website www.zelfstudie.be, on which digital courseware are published. Completed an additional master course “Technology Enhanced Learning, Innovation and Change” at Sheffield University, in 2014. I always try to find new approaches in which ICT is used to increase the motivation of my students. I try to be innovative by implementing blended and distance learning, screen casts, social media in my class room, which I strive to get paperless. OneDrive, Office, OneNote and Lync spice up my lessons. It will be my pleasure to share thoughts and approaches with you.”

What inspired you to become a teacher? 
I actually started to study to become an engineer after one month I realized I wanted to have a job with a much higher interaction with people. I remembered I actually always wanted to be a teacher. I only began engineering studies because others advised me to. My decision was also influenced by the fact that I had some really good teachers when I was 17/18, my mother was a teacher which without doubt influenced me as well.  While I began to teach I figured out I love to spread information. I love to develop curriculum which confirms the fact I like to share, inform and present. I’m a slightly introvert person and I need reflection time before I communicate with strangers, I always want to end a lesson making sure that everybody fully understood the curriculum.

How do you think apps help and improve education? 
Apps have created new pedagogical approaches. They can replace paper and make learning interactive. They can facilitate learning, promote creativity and motivate students.
For instance: 14 years ago I studied Biology. We needed to use extensive books to identify leaves? 15 years ago people determined the name of a tree and leafs by using huge books. The description of a leaf would take you from 3 to 90 pages. “Page by page brought you shorter to the name of the tree which the leaf belongs to” the idea with the app I created was to make this an easier task.

How many apps have you created, with what purpose?
I created 5 apps (http://www.windowsphone.com/en-us/search?q=timmers). The Tree key in two different languages.
EduLync to explain how Lync can promote distance learning and 2 dummy apps which I developed while writing a quick guide into app development.

You are a web design teacher, you know about coding, do you think anyone that wants to create an app, would need knowledge on coding?
No, some fellow educators (Kurt Söser from Austria and Ngo Thanh Nam from Vietnam) used Windows App Studio (http://appstudio.windows.com/en-us) which allows you to create an app in a glimpse.

Why would you encourage other teachers to create and use apps for their teaching?
It will be an important skill to have in the future. In some countries, UK, Hong Kong, USA coding is already mandatory in the current curriculum. Even though creating apps is somewhat more complicated it offers added value to any curriculum, but you definitely need to have a good idea of what you want and need the app for. It might be worthwhile to teach your students how to create an app as Ray Chambers (UK) is using TouchDevelop (www.touchdevelop.com) and his students are creating real apps.

Distance and Blended Learning

 “Technology can enhance learning in two ways: it can extend our physical reach and it can change our minds. These were some of the wise words of one of my favorite speakers, Sir Ken Robinson.”

You have been doing distant learning for more than 5 years, what would you say has been some of the biggest challenges you had to face?  
I must admit I had some doubts (Afstandsleren – Distance Learning) went very well from the beginning. The students were motivated. My schoolboard initiated the project by offering training on the use of web conferencing tools. We started from scratch and learned a lot. From small things like: never enable 2 microphones in one room (it causes unpleasant sounds), how to note who is present (as you can’t see your students), never stream videos – instead put the link of a video in the chat. Ask if students can hear you, instead of starting teaching directly, etc. Distance learning is really pleasant. People don’t have to challenge traffic jams and can learn in a familiar environment. Some students are using pauses for domestic tasks. Others are attending the lesson in pajama. The biggest difference between distance learning and face to face learning is that people are seeing my activities on a beamer, while they are working on their own computer screen. Distance learning forces students to watch and work on the same screen. This caused a pedagogical shift (students were working and attending the lesson at one screen, I had to change my instructional and pedagogical approach.

What are your thoughts on the turnaround time on feedback from the teacher to the student? 

“By using technology, feedback can be given a lot faster: e-mail, Lync, Facebook, the feedback function in Moodle, OneNote, etc. All these tools allow to offer quick feedback”.

You mention you use OneDrive, Office and Lync, and this spices up my lessons?
Yes indeed. In my face to face lessons, when I started to teach I wrote my lesson plans in advance. I instructed my students during 3 hours during lessons and got emails during the week with some questions. Nowadays I create my lesson plans while I’m teaching (OneNote) so it is 100% to the point and a paperless classroom. As the document is shared, my students are also contributing in the lesson plan by adding thoughts and information that I even didn’t know. I set up a Facebook group in which I make announcements and my students are posting questions and sources of new information. In most cases, the questions are already answered by peers, before I even get the chance to read them. This has also caused interaction between all my classes, previously these were isolated groups. Last but not least, my students began to share spontaneously their own written tutorials on OneDrive. They trigger each other to produce new knowledge. 80% of this knowledge is new to me as well.

“If that doesn’t make one a proud teacher…  My students are all collaborating, very motivated and there isn’t any day I haven’t learned anything new! “ 
What advantages do you think technology offers students other than the face to face lessons?
I somehow answered to this question earlier… To make it more consistent, I’d like to refer to 21 st Century Learning design. http://www.educatornetwork.com/pd/21CLD/Overview.
Technology allow students to collaborate, construct their knowledge, self-regulation, real-world problem solving and skilled communication. It also increases motivation.
“Tools which allows people to set up meetings, online workshops and even distance learning. By using screen, microphone and webcam, students and teacher can see and hear each other. Screen sharing allows students to pick up the information their teacher is sharing with them. Lync allows synchronous distance learning but it has more to offer. By recording lessons, ill less capable students can catch up. The chat allows to share urls, or pieces of codes. By setting up a whiteboard, teachers and students can use annotating tools to brainstorm, instructor collaborate”.

I believe we can agree on that Distance learning has created a revolution in the world of education. Millions who might not otherwise have had the opportunity to receive an education now have that opportunity. Where do you see technology and education develop in a few years?

I hope schools will soon use technology in all lessons rather than setting up lessons about technology. The NMC horizon report offers a clear view on what to expect.

My Personal thoughts: At this moment the internet is one mess of independent websites. It would be nice if all this information would be more coherent, available in all languages and all information verified. Learning will be individualized. By offering dynamical courseware, all students would have the opportunity to learn in a more personalized way. Less capable students get maximum opportunity to rehearse, stronger students to gain the maximum amount of knowledge. I think there will be a generation who won’t learn to do handwriting anymore. I rarely write by hand, which has caused some unreadable piece of art. Good thing my classroom is paperless.

New technology offers new ways to abuse and sometimes teachers have to adjust.
The first time a student used Twitter to check if the info I taught was true, I was offended. I was too much in an instructivist mode. Later I reflected on the issue and realized it is good that students use social media to gather or check knowledge. But it’s my responsibility to point out that opinions on social media aren’t always correct. This last approach is called connectivism, which is part of collaborative learning.

How would you say you have evolved as a teacher?

My vision has changed. I evolved from instructivism, printed courseware, where the teacher is the one and only source of information. Constructivism + connectivism, is a paperless classroom, and project based learning and a collaborating group of individuals who are all sharing knowledge.
In distance learning: Lync is a whole new story. Synchronous distance learning wouldn’t be even possible without Lync. It would take me a few hours to mention all benefits but I only want to focus on one unexpected side effect. Every group has its shy students who aren’t very keen to express themselves and participate in the lessons. In fact, I was one of them in high school. Again and again in different groups the shy people are the ones who are participating, interacting, sharing and contributing the most, for example Lync offers them the opportunity to express themselves and the satisfaction to solve answers from peers.

You mention that your teach adults and that only 70% of the class finishes the course, why?

Yes, indeed. In the 100% distance learning, not everybody finishes the course.
It could be due to the lack of social contact. People are learning by self-study and not by synchronous learning. The only objective which drives them, is to get skills (build a website) and get a certificate when finished successfully. The other group (blended learning) are unemployed. They take this course to get a job, which is a higher objective. They also get to do an internship.

You mention that shy people now have the opportunity to participate more in the classes without being exposed. Don’t you think that being able to interact (social skills) is also an important skill to have? How do you, as a teacher suggest that we balance this skills with long distance teaching?

Of course! That’s why blended learning offers the best of both worlds. Both approaches offer benefits and small disadvantages. I’m convinced more and more that people will work from home during the next years, so distance learning will give them a good introduction. Maybe some will realize they need social contact to function and will choose a job within this direction.

Koen Timmers
Microsoft Innovative Educator Expert (since 2014).
Teacher of computer science and web design at CVO Heusden-Zolder, Belgium.

By: Iliana Nielsen Due





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