What motivates me at most in my academic work (and truly, motivation is really something that keeps raising my enthusiasm to what I do) is the peer-support and the kind of collegial and friendship atmosphere in doing something together. This is why, I have always liked to be a part of academic international communities, gathered in various thematic associations.
One of such groups is the ECREA Visual Cultures Section, formed together with colleagues that I know from various different contexts. This has been a place – or actually the people – from whom I could always get constructive feedback. Our discussions have been always enriching. From this day on, together with Dr. Patricia Prieto-Blanco (Lecturer in Digital Media Practice in the Sociology Department at Lancaster, UK) and Dr. Maria Schreiber (Postdoctoral Researcher at the Department of Communications at the University of Salzburg, Austria) I am taking a lead as a Chair of the ECREA Visual Cultures Section. We would like to continue the work that the previous chairs, Prof. Asko Lehmuskallio and Prof. Paolo Favero established in the Section, but we also want to add new. Foremost, however, we want to keep this Section as a place open for constructive discussions about and through the visual from many disciplinary angles.
I think that the most rewording aspect in teaching is my own learning, together with students. Such learning occurs on various levels — from the course planning and preparation of the learning materials and throughout the teaching process in the classroom. Due to the nature of the subject that I teach, that is, visual communication and the interpretation of the visual, there is always something new to discover together with students, even using the same image or the same activity in several courses. It is so fascinating that while teaching with and about visuals, you can never get bored.
Just yesterday, I had the last class of an intensive one-week summer school course in visual communication, which I was co-teaching with my colleague, Rasa Zakeviciute. This was the first time we were teaching together in an online environment. What is more, we not only designed a completely new course, but we also designed it especially for an online teaching mode. In this sense, we were more lucky than many of our colleagues, who, under pressure of time (and often without sufficient knowledge and experience) moved their face-to-face courses online. We could plan the course from the start as a fully online experience.
We had two main goals when we were planning the ‘Visual Communication as a Way to Improve Working Life Skills’ course. The first one, built on the approach we have already implemented in the ‘Visual Research Methods’ courses, that is of visual pedagogy. The other was to create a balance between synchronous and asynchronous teaching, that is, to constantly keep in mind that we are planning an online course, not a face-to-face one (an aspect of which many teachers do not think). For that reason, students received all the learning material in a form of video-lectures, other videos and readings as well as individual assignments and group work. Thus, the two-hour online classes per day could have been devoted solely to activities and discussions, based on the learning material (which students could have explored beforehand in their own peace). That kind of approach can especially benefit students of various linguistic backgrounds (they can use dictionaries, or listen to lectures several times), from different geographical locations (we worked between time-zones of 8 or even 11 hours of time difference) and busy with other commitments (they can schedule their study time).
In this course, we had a really great group of students. It was so rewarding to work with all of them. Their ideas and ‘ways of seeing’ enriched my experience as a teacher and visual scholar. We also had fun all together in the course. The online teaching is any worse from the face-to-face classroom. Actually, when well planned (and with an intention for good online teaching), it can be a truly rewarding learning experience, both for students and for their teachers.
I am in a privileged position: I was not under (pandemic) emergency to move my teaching online (mostly due to the fact that I have been teaching on an hourly basis). Thus, I have had time to plan and prepare, or even more — to first educate myself in pedagogies for online and blended learning and teaching. One of such courses that I have recently participated in was the Open Networked Learning (ONL211) — an international open course on e-learning in higher education. My good friend, Dr. Judit Hahn, recommended me this course as she herself completed it earlier.
Since the beginning, I have had rather mixed feelings about it. This was mostly due to the pedagogical approach, on which the course was designed, that is, the problem based learning — approach, which was completely new to me. For each two weeks, following a specific topic related to online education, we were confronted (i.e., eight learners and two facilitators) with a scenario, based on which we created our learning. In addition, once per week there was a lecture or workshop by na expert, organized to support our thinking within the given topic.
At first, I did not like a relatively unstructured way of learning — a learning that each group and each individual learner have had to create. However, the longer the course lasted, the more I have been enjoying being my own facilitator of learning, taking agency with peer-learners in the process. I must admit, I have always been rather skeptical to asynchronous online courses, not really experiencing learning in such contexts. However, my main take-away from the ONL is that learning, indeed, can happen in such format if only the course is well-designed and if learners are sufficiently motivated. Our motivation as learners was high. Thus, I think that as a teacher in online environment, I should even more work on the course design, because I may not always be able to influence students’ motivation.
The topics that I explored during the ONL course helped me to see that there is a lot of potential in online education. Challenging is, however, to come out of one’s comfort zone in order to see this potential and to learn as a teacher. Still, isn’t it that we should constantly develop our skills as teacher and broaden knowledge?
Currently, I am planning an online 5-days intensive course for the summer school. This is not an emergency, ad hoc transmission to the online environment as many of my colleagues have experienced with their regular courses last year (tough, the summer school has always been organized in my institution as face-to-face teaching throughout four weeks, with one course per week).
Considering the fact that, in principle, I have more time for planning, I wanted to create a truly “online learning experience”. However, almost immediately came the first obstacle — students who signed up for the course are coming from the very different time zones, which makes it impossible to bring all of them together at the same time. Thus, we decided with my colleague (with whom I will be teaching this course) to have two, the same, synchronous classes for each of the “time-zone group”. All other activities will be taught asynchronously, and thus, they have to be designed to enhance students’ engagement in the learning process. At the moment, we think about one overall scenario for the course (like a game, in which you collect scores) and a number of group activities leading to a group project, all supported by learning material packages per specific topics.
Blended learning is not only about blending online and offline teaching, but it also means to blend various forms of teaching — and I prefer to understand it this way. In an online course, the teacher acts as a facilitator of learning, who helps students to navigate between synchronous and asynchronous activities, guiding the learning process. Until this summer school course, I have not realized that planning an online course (especially in its intense format) is much more demanding than planning a face-to-face teaching. I am thinking here, of course, about a meaningful learning experience, when students are truly engaged in the course material in various ways (games, group collaboration, scenarios, projects, etc.). In his lecture, Steven Mintz (2021) points out that students learn when they are mentally involved, when they are engaged in hands-on activities, when they are in the process of discovery, investigation, interpretation. In a similar vein, Marti Cleveland-Innes (2021) highlights that students who are given choices (in terms of the learning material, activities, forms of assessment), perceive that they are making contribution to their learning environment and this increases engagement.
The more I read about the design of online and blended learning, the more I get fascinated about possibilities it offers for students. However, will I be able to implement some of them in an intensive format of the summer school, considering the obstacles of time zones and limited time for students’ reflection on their learning process?
Cleveland-Innes, M. (2021). Blended and online teaching and learning: Identifying pedagogical change in higher education. ONL211 topic 4 Intro video (9:35 min). Video on YouTube
Mintz, S. (2021). How to Design a Course for Maximum Student Engagement: Seven Innovative Approaches. Webinar presentation (60 min) Recording
How to design an online course is such a way that it leads to the meaningful learning process for students? And how to make this process collaborative? — By collaboration, I mean here a truly engaging work throughout the course, not just a group work assigned to students.
I think that it all should start from making a distinction between two pairs of words, often misinterpreted: cooperation vs. collaboration and group vs. community. The first pair, cooperation and collaboration, are often used interchangeably in academic context, both in teaching and in research. I would say that collaboration is more meaningful, and thus, it requires more effort from all collaborating parties. In pedagogical practice, this can be a collaboration between teachers (challenging, but rewording) and collaboration between teacher(s) and students as well as among students. In the last case, a semantic distinction between group and community also comes to the forefront: in a group work, students need to, at least, cooperate, but in order to create a (learning) community —they need to collaborate.
How can the teacher help students to create a learning community and enhance learning collaboration? First of all, the course has to be designed around the idea of peer-learning, not simply as a (number of) group works with the divisions of tasks. The most efficiently, we learn from each other, because our human nature is social. However, in order for students to learn together, they need motivation and encouragement. Both of these can and should be generated and strengthened by a good facilitator of learning, namely, the teacher.
Finally, the aspect that requires the most re-thinking is assessment. In a community collaborative learning, there is a need to look at both the result and the process of learning. For the purpose to assess a result — a rubric can be created; but assessing a learning process is more challenging. An ideal option will be to collect peer-feedback and students’ individual summative assessment of their learning. However, if students are not used to such forms, but are more familiar with exams or course essays, their reflection on the learning process may not be that meaningful. And yes, now I am coming to the key point: reflection as a learning tool. I am still discovering it, both as a teacher and as a student, a long-life learner. I have experienced it in its various forms, including student’s learning diary, teacher’s reflective diary, a blog post, and a reflection on my teaching practices through analysis of my video-recorded classes. Thus, I also know how difficult it is to reflect on one’s own learning. However, the more conscious we are about our own learning, the more effective a community learning process can be — and so the collaboration will be more productive, when learners are more conscious about their learning goals.
How to think about openness and open resources in education? Am I able to, as a teacher who spends hours preparing the teaching materials, stop screaming “mine!” like a child?
Education is a relationship of sharing. We share our knowledge and experience with students while their share their ideas with us. The exchange of thoughts works only in an open environment that provides room for reflection on the learning process. Thus, education is per se about sharing and openness. However, those of us who are working in academia, know how vulnerable our work is toward the sharing practices — the constant fear of when to share and with whom my research ideas, plans, preliminary results that they will not be stolen. Is this the same case with the educational material that we produce? Or can they be shared to inspire others?
I am now thinking about my learning and growing process as a teacher. Many of the ideas I have implemented in the classroom were inspired by the work of others. And I am still searching for the new ideas, activities and learning materials that I can adapt for my teaching. Education is about sharing, which does not mean to give away. Each student group will react differently to the same material, and each teacher will apply the same activity in a slightly different way. Thus, by sharing our educational practices and materials as teachers, we do not need to worry that we give them away. They are staying we us, we can still use them. However, and what is more important, there are other teachers and learners who can benefit from our work and enjoy the learning process in a novel ways.
In this place, I want to mention a great initiative, supported by the International Visual Literacy Association (IVLA), of open educational resources (OER) in the area of visual literacy — a place where teachers across disciplines and levels of education can find lesson plans and share teaching ideas related to visual literacy. This is a recent initiative, but extremely important, and I think it is the time that I am going to contribute to it as well. You can find more about it here.
During the last two years, I was writing about screen-mediated family communication. Now, I’m trying to bring what I learnt to the educational context, specifically, to my never-abandoned area of visual literacy. A couple of weeks ago, I have been (re-)exploring the concept of digital literacy as one of the topics in the international online course on e-learning in higher education — the Open Networked Learning (ONL211), which I have recently joined. As it always happens with the concept of digital literacy, also this time the reference to already extensively criticized Prensky’s ideas of digital natives and immigrants couldn’t be avoided. However, this time we were introduced to something else, regarded as (more accurate) alternative: Davide White’s ideas of being/acting as visitor or resident in an online environment. White situates these two concepts on the opposite sides of the scale, but considering the relationship between them as a continuum. The place where we are, i.e., closer to visitor or resident mode in our online and digital encounters depends on our motivation to engage. This model doesn’t really speak to me, because I perceive as yet another way to classify and situate the practices, which cannot be defined by simple binary oppositions, but are more complex than that.
Nevertheless, there was a couple of thoughts on digital literacy, or specifically on teaching in digital habitats that I would like to note here. Davide White points out that the current, forced by pandemic, shift of higher education into online teaching requires different way of thinking about our teaching practices. He suggests that we need to reimagine rather than replicate our institutions online. Teaching online is not the same as in the physical space, and thus, I think that even the learning objectives of a course should be changed and adjusted to the specific practices of online teaching and learning. White even goes that far to suggest abandoning thinking about teaching as ‘contact hours’, but shift into thinking about education in terms of ‘presence‘. In this sense, online education, according to White, is ‘desituated, but not disembodied‘ — thus, we (teachers and students), although being geographically desituated, we need to be physically present in the teaching and learning process in the online context. And I think it isn’t simply about turning on the camera in synchronous teaching (btw, seeing a video of myself is really destructing, it’s like carrying a bunch of mirrors to the classroom and situate them at my desk). This is more about engagement in the learning (and teaching) process. And this is especially challenging in education at the distance, when we cannot feel the presence through all our senses.
And here I can jump back to visual literacy. I wrote elsewhere that today, visual literacy needs to be understood as multi-sensory experience of the visual, and thus, visual literacy education is about developing competencies in visual reading and writing — but, considering the visual as multimodal entity; a visual, which engages other senses, not just vision. Thus, presence (’embodiment’) in online education is not only about turning on the camera, but to engage other senses in the teaching-learning process. How to do this? I’m yet there to experiment and discover this!
This is a book that I have been long waiting for to work on. For the past few years I have had different concepts about it and rather than sitting down and thinking about it – I kept engaging in other publication projects (some successful and some not).
Now came the time when I got really excited about this book, and thus, I can also picture it (finally!) in my head. This will be an edited collection with the working title “Teaching Visually: A Guidebook to Visually Immersed Higher Education”. Excellent contributions from more than ten authors, with various teaching experiences (nationally, culturally and subject wise) will form its core. This will be complemented by an extended Introduction, in which I will elaborate on the key concepts related to visual education in the university context. The book is to be completed with a year, by December 2021, including two review rounds (one of which will hopefully be a publication workshops with all involved authors). The book is contracted with Brill/Sense for their series “Advances in Teaching and Teacher Education”.
In the study published in the article: Virtual proximity and transnational familyhood: a case study of the digital communication practices of Poles living in Finland I use a concept of virtual proximity, meaning the emotional closeness between individuals afforded by digital technologies and mobile communication. Through ethnographically driven inquiry among five Polish-speaking families living in Finland, I identified four thematic patterns in participants’ practices in digital habitats: (i) children’s agency in creating family WhatsApp groups, (ii) the use of family in-app communication for language learning purposes, (iii) digital caregiving strategies and arrangements, and (iv) the use of digital photo-sharing as a form of visual co-presence.
The study is part of the project ‘Whats in the App? Digitally-mediated communication within contemporary multilingual families across time and space’ supported by the Academy of Finland (grant number: 315478). And the article is open access!
In the auto-driven visual elicitation interviews with Polish mothers, I look at family constellations and technologically mediated communication practices. Applying the technique of an interactive collage, study participants visualised kinship relations, using colored cards showing silhouettes of adults and children and icons of mobile apps. The technique of an interactive collage is my contribution to enrich visual elicitation methodology.
The study presented in this article was supported by the Academy of Finland [grant number 315478] and conducted as part of the project: What’s in the app? Digitally-mediated communication within contemporary multilingual families across time and space (2018-2022).