Meeting the Minds – Dr. Terry Anderson, Part II

Dr. Terry Anderson is a Canadian Research Chair and on the editorial boards of several academic journals. He is also a teacher of AU’s Masters of Distance Education program, and recently consented to be interviewed by The Voice Magazine by writer Marie Well.

In the first part of the interview, Dr. Anderson spoke about the awards he has received, his philosophy of course design needing to incorporate assignments that provide practical experience, and how he has taken to using audio-recordings to provide comments and feedback to students’ assignments.

Marie: What pedagogical standpoint is most reflective of your way of teaching?
Dr. Terry Anderson: Jon Dron and I actually wrote an article a couple of years ago on the three generations of distance education pedagogy. The first generation we called cognitive behaviourism. That is the kind of pedagogy that is used in our undergraduate programs and in large lecture theatres on campus. The idea of that is that your role as a teacher is to disseminate information in a very clear way such that the student can absorb what you are saying. You have very clear learning objectives so that everyone knows exactly what is happening and where they are going with no confusion.

So, I used to teach that way, especially when I was teaching high school students, but then, like most people in the 1990s, we fell into the constructivism pedagogies. These focused a lot more on small groups and how the group helps the individual construct their own knowledge. So that is what our graduate program at Athabasca focuses on, with their maximum of thirty students in real-time and asynchronous interactions.

I still do a little bit of that, but I think what I am most interested in now is in connectivism, where the idea is that it is not what you know, it is your capacity to know that counts. So, what you challenge your students to do is to develop networks that include not only people within and outside of the course, but also networks of the content that is out there: resources, Websites, and stuff of a similar nature. It is a very net-centric pedagogy that is evolving at this point. The individual who invented the term connectivism, is at Athabasca: George Siemens. He has been at Athabasca for about eight years, and he has a joint appointment with the University of Texas. Unfortunately, he got stolen away for half time.

Marie: If you could wave a magic wand and make changes at the university, what would they be?
Dr. Terry Anderson: I think it would be for students to have deep and rich social learning experiences. I think that developing a sense of camaraderie and that sense of helping each other, learning together, we can and we should develop more extensively within our online learning programs.

That is what Jon Dron and I have been doing by building the Athabasca Landing. We created an environment that any member of the Athabasca community can use for any non-commercial purpose. The nice thing about the Landing is that the President of the university has the exact same power as any undergraduate student. If an undergraduate student wants to start a new group about a course, they don’t have to ask anybody, they just go ahead and do it. It is a special type of environment only available Athabasca University community, and therefore it is a safer environment. If you don’t want your information shared on the wide open net, you can restrict anything you write or any group you’ve created or any photo you released to just people at Athabasca or people in your course or just your teacher or whoever you want. But at the same time you have the option of opening your work to views and comments from anyone?including Google search engines. It is designed to be a really empowering environment.

We thought it would be revolutionary for Athabasca. Unfortunately, the adoption is growing very slowly now after five years. We can’t seem to get faculty to build it into their courses, and students don’t use it for a variety of reasons. Maybe they don’t even know about it. The undergrad program, where there is no student-to-student interaction, is where the Landing could be most effective. Yet, we haven’t been able to do much in the undergrad programs.

Marie: How could a student start a group on the Landing and get people to join?
Dr. Terry Anderson: If you are a registered student, you would log into the Landing (, using the same log in you would use for the library or myau, and under groups you click “Start a New Group.” You give it a name. You announce the group on the “wire” and you send an email to whomever you want to invite to the group. You can make it a closed group or an open group. Then anyone who has joined that group gets an announcement pushed to their email whenever there is a new posting, picture, or comment.

Marie: What are some of the highlights of your teaching experience?
Dr. Terry Anderson: I guess I’m a bit of a techno guy, and I like it when I’m able to use a new technology and see positive results. For instance, marking by voice was a highlight when I saw how effective it was and how it saved even me time. I think when I picked up a learning activity off of my own personal network, I have been able to pass things like articles to students. I think opportunities to bring my own personal network, my blogging, and putting that in a course is always quite exciting for me.

Finally, technologically, when I first came to Athabasca, we had no Web conferencing, so I had a small grant that came with my Canada Research Chair. So, I bought the first Web conferencing system that we use at Athabasca. It was funny because I thought, when it first came to Athabasca, it was really effective, and now, ten years later, it is getting used quite a bit. For the longest time, it was just Terry’s research project. The computer services didn’t support it. It was just sitting there on the side. That is exactly what the Landing is now. It is Terry and Jon’s research project. It is not a project of Athabasca University yet?but I hope it will be integral to Learning at Athabasca someday

Marie: What is your view of social media in the online learning environment?
Dr. Terry Anderson: I think it provides the glue that is really important to get students to have the energy because learning, especially at the university level, is usually quite hard work. Sometimes just knowing that other people are there, that they are struggling with the same things that you are struggling with, or that they can give you some advice or some help, really can make a huge difference.

I feel sorry for some of the undergraduate students who must feel all alone, like nobody else in the world is taking this same course. They could phone the tutor, I know that, but the fact is that that is very scary for a lot of people to do. With social media, they don’t have to write anything; they can just go and read what other people are saying. If they feel motivated, they can ask a question or make a contribution.

Marie: If you had one piece of advice for online learners, what would it be?
Dr. Terry Anderson: I think to get online, develop a net presence, develop your network, get off of Facebook for twelve hours a day and start exploring some of the other learning resources that are out there, some of the communities that are building nationally and internationally. For instance, if you are taking a language course, I would really encourage you to join one of the Web 2.0 chat groups and talk in that foreign language, with a native speaker of that language. In the process, you can help them learn English. This type of activity is usually is outside of the course requirements, but it can be an immense help in acquiring proficiency in a foreign language. You gain social capital. You gain confidence. You contribute to the learning of other people.

Marie: What books of yours would you most recommend a student entering the education online program to read?
Dr. Terry Anderson: I think I am most proud of the one that Jon and I released this summer, which is Teaching Crowds: Social Learning and Media. That book is available free from Athabasca University Press. It talks about all the kind of social ways that learning is enhanced, and not just social in the sense of a group, like in a classroom, but social in the sense of a network of people who could be spread around the world and also social in the sense of people who share a common interest. For example, with Wikipedia, some of the larger articles are edited by forty, fifty people at different times. Those people are not a group, they are not even a network, and they don’t know each other and have no interest in knowing each other, really. But, they are a set of individuals with a common interest in that topic. So, they have a social bond with it, and they contribute to it, they evaluate it, and they build together without the social obligations of the group or even of the network.

In the book, we talk about all three of those groups, nets, and sets and how they can be used in education and for informal learning as well.

Marie: What are groups, nets, and sets exactly?
Dr. Terry Anderson: A group is a group, as in a classroom. A net is a network, as in people on the Landing, for instance, or people who you are friends with on Facebook. A set is people who have a common interest. It could be the set of all students of Athabasca, who don’t know each other, but have a common interest in learning at Athabasca. We have a relationship with those people, even though it is a very loose relationship, and what is of interest to somebody in that set could very likely l be of interest to you.

For instance, The Voice readers are going to be reading the magazine, and they are not in a group. They are not in a network, but they are the set of people who are undergraduate students at Athabasca. So I hope they have a certain interest in reading this article and learning from it. Thanks for this opportunity.

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