[This post was originally part of a post graduate degree coursework, though afaik was never looked at by any examiners…I have left it available for public access as it includes some useful reference material for others, and has been viewed quite a bit.]
A critically reflective report on the experience of designing, delivering and facilitating online learning
I have been using technology to teach for several years. In fact, outside of the Weblearn LMS, I have used technology since 1996 both to learn things informally myself (technical and web development skills), then (in 2005) to learn things formally (my MSc Multimedia Systems), and then (2006) to teach in higher education (using RSS feeds, web-pages of content developed by me, websites from other people, online books etc, and using Google chat to communicate with students). So my experience of using technology in a teaching and learning context is strong, and varied.
The knowledge I didn’t have was in the theory behind teaching online in relation to good practice, sound pedagogy and consideration of the importance of facilitation (teaching and social presence), and deep learning (cognitive presence). Some aspects of teaching presence I feel I had already grasped, like organisational and instructional, and some overt facilitation, but without deeper understanding of the whole process. The discourse around teaching and learning online and how (emerging) technology can be utilised is becoming increasingly absorbing to me.
The most interesting aspect that I will take forward from this module is the idea of developing learning material together with students in an assessed scenario, both formative AND summative, in other words, to harness the concept of a community of enquiry and learning. For example, this could be a body of useful tutorials and other relevant resources for use in a module coursework (usually an artefact development of some type in my subject area) that could be assessed formatively for contribution and engagement and summatively for content, usefulness and quality. This could be contributed to in a number of ways – through a discussion board, a Facebook Page, usual Facebook newsfeeds, or other appropriate use of (established) semantic web (e.g. Delicious, Digg, Stack Overflow). If I can bring to higher education ‘assessed work’ the process that we as a community of developers (in my discipline of web and digital media applications) are involved in every day, I believe I can structure authentic learning experiences that will help to form reflective skills of real use and benefit to students as they go on into the world of work. The ability to judge usefulness, validity and relevance of many sources of information available on the Internet is increasingly important, so critical thinking and constant re-evaluation of what is ‘known’ is key to lifelong learning in my discipline. ‘When members of a community get together and interpret a world as their shared world they form a set of beliefs and culture, and, […] contribute to and learn from each other’s pragmatic knowledge while adjusting to a group consensus on a topic’ (Kim 2001, Vygotsky, 1978, in Mason & Rennie, 2008). To this end I used a discussion board as a FAQ section, which I will continue to try out in future teaching, as a basis for this type of idea.
Something I found most relevant from Garrison and Anderson were their ideas on interaction models, specifically the ‘content to content’ idea. Though the other aspects of models of interaction were also of great interest and importance: teacher to teacher, student to student, and both to content and to each other, the stating of content to content made clear that the authors of the book knew about technology, and how it may come to be used in teaching and learning in the future. “In the not too distant future, teachers will create and use learning resources that continually improve themselves through their interaction with other intelligent agents” (Garrison & Anderson, 2003, p46). This is the semantic web, which today is now post Web 2.0, and interacts both semantically and socially (i.e. with the Social Web).
A difficult thing I experienced on this module was the lack of face-to-face teaching and the clarity of tasks and purpose towards final documentation. This might be in common with other students, as “…distance education…is complicated by many factors, including…the lack of physical proximity and body language used for feedback in the classroom…and the reduction of informal, after-class interaction…” (Garrison & Anderson, 2003, p93). As I step into the role of student, I lose confidence, and start to feel unsure about sometimes even the things I would normally feel very sure about. Perhaps this is because the process of opening up to ideas from other sources and people immediately challenges one’s own preconceptions or ‘given’ opinions.
I found the week-to-week exercises, whilst they did not contribute to the final marks, provided very deep and engaging learning, as we were free to use the exercises in any relevant way we thought useful. I learned a great deal in doing the research and writing and became very engaged. Discovering that my own thinking often concurred with the theorists was a pleasure, as well as how some current research challenged my views. The work I did for the E-Researcher posts (I did two posts) was particularly rewarding – it made me think a lot more deeply about who I was teaching, how my methods related to theoretical concepts (cognitive presence, facilitation, teaching the NET generation, non linear learning, constructing knowledge etc), and how it might be being received by my students in the wider context of their learning. It was challenging in that it made me realise I needed to know much more about current academic perspectives if I wanted to make properly considered arguments in order to critique or add to a field of knowledge in a deep and valuable way.
The formative assessment feedback exercise, part of the module class study, created some interesting issues for me, the main one being the ability to communicate and bond successfully with my allotted group members. This was a singular disaster, and made for other problems and misconceptions. The assessment exercise was not perhaps as clear as it might have been (to me), and problems occurred with how the marking had been allocated to my piece of work. The module leader suggested a meeting with her and the course leader, and this actually turned out to be a very worthwhile experience for me, as I learned a lot. It allowed me to see senior academics considering deeply esoteric aspects of learning in a methodological and patient manner. The practice of continually referring to objective academic positions when assessing a piece of writing, how to maintain passion (or one’s own point of view) but still remain aloof to the actual work, how to look at different sides of a perceived meaning, considering all possibilities of implicit and explicit terminology in the text. This taught me not only about my own writing and the need for absolute clarity, but also about marking students work, or even how to interpret papers and journals I may use in future research and further knowledge building.
The reason I find communities of learning and constructing knowledge so appealing is that it is a way of learning that is non linear. Perhaps this method of learning has become ubiquitous with the advent of social media news streams, as well as more established communities of learning, for example forums or resource websites such as MIT Open CourseWare and MIT World.
An experience I had in the past of taking part in an online learning event was watching a video lecture from MIT World of Thomas Friedman’s ‘The World is Flat’ (2005). It was a 75-minute presentation, with questions and answers. This video lecture, along with a few others, eventually inspired me to enrol at a university, and consequently changed my life. It also acted as my introduction to e-learning.
At that time the blogging community picked up on this video and much discussion took place across many blogs. This was an organic community of learners, and though it was informal, it still required reflection and critical thinking to take part and benefit from, indicating ”…we must push further by talking about how meaning emerges collectively and collaboratively in the new media environment” (Jenkins et al, 2009). This is the real life practice of communities of learning and inquiry and the process of collaborative learning, where those with more knowledge or experience share their views and resources with those who are new to the subject or topic area. (Another view is that ‘crowd wisdom’ has or is taking over (see books such as ‘The Cult of the Amateur’, by Andrew Keen, 2007), however, I think this is a relative argument and should be applied on a case by case basis.)
My practical research into design and delivery of the online module began with my previous experience using Weblearn in a blended learning context, as well as asking my students about what they might prefer to see in an online context for learning in our subject area, that they felt would provide ‘authentic learning and tasks’ (i.e. what would be most realistic and useful for them).
I finally decided on a short module entitled ‘Developing Audio for Idents and Animatics’, aimed at 3rd year undergraduates, with pre-requisite requirements of suitable knowledge and experience in music software and editing. Students therefore would be digitally experienced users, able to understand a variety of interface designs and digital concepts quickly.
My approach to developing the content and learning structure was informed by learning outcomes, coursework assignments and assessment criteria I thought suitable for the module, and this would be the same for any online or face-to-face teaching for me.
Developing the strategy of learning with strong consideration of the main theoretical framework proposed by Garrison and Anderson was also very important, that is, Cognitive, Teaching and Social presence. I also considered in some depth the concepts discussed in ‘Educational Technology and Interaction’ (Garrison & Anderson, ch4) to inform provision of facilitation (social presence) and create a community of inquiry to construct and critique knowledge (teaching and cognitive presence). I considered factors used to evaluate the structure and design, particularly Garrison and Anderson’s proactive evaluation areas, especially those of interface design and interactivity relationships (ch9). This was not always thought out as clearly as it might have been, however the process of designing the module began to give me ideas about what I should be doing, both with the assessment and even with the coursework elements.
I also referred to various current papers sourced through Google Scholar and the London Met Library online journal resources, specifically ‘IEEE and Society’ Journals and Conference papers, JISC papers, ‘Studies in Higher Education’ papers, MIT Press Medialab papers, and others (see References).
Consideration of prevailing thinking around the uptake of e-learning, both by educators and those being educated led me to (amongst others) The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, from 2010, as well as The Knowledge Building Paradigm: A Model of Learning for Net Generation Students, (D Philip, 2007) both of which confirmed the necessity to be moving towards a technology based learning experience, perhaps most especially from the modern learners point of view. The marvellously evocative quotes from Donald Philip about ‘changing learning from torture to fun’, and that the computer “should not be a machine you go to, but a machine that goes with you…. […] ‘It’s part of my brain. Why would I want to leave it behind in a computer lab?’” indicate the sea change around use of technology in everyday life. Even though differences in culture, background and technology access and experience make for a difficult job in deciding appropriate learning design, technology of choice for delivery as well as facilitation, (Fetaji & Fetaji, 2007, and Garrison & Anderson, 2003), we now arguably move forward into a ubiquitous online life, and this may indicate that the processes of e-learning design and delivery will become easier, not harder.
Finally, issues in relation to accessible, efficient and consistent delivery were also considered. As a professional web and digital media developer (and H.E. lecturer in this field) I would consider these as absolute requirements, and in teaching and learning this may be at least as relevant and important. The disability discrimination act (1998), general digital literacy levels and other user considerations are all key to designing efficient and useful learning online. Students who may not be so digitally literate arguably need to be helped into this new literacy: “as we move toward the 21st century, anyone who is not “computer literate” will find themselves at a disadvantage when competing in the job market” (Fetaji & Fetaji 2007).
I was interested in Mason and Rennie’s comments regarding innovative online teaching and staff development issues, in particular their quoting of Bates (2005) referral to ‘the Lone Ranger phenomenon’, and the likely amateurism of the resulting learning materials. In my case, I would hope this would not be the description of my endeavours. Indeed, I would assert that more web professionals should be actively involved in the development of staff and e-learning. This way, best practice could be encouraged with technical, accessibility and usability standards and validity incorporated.
My main considerations, aside from previous teaching experience with use of an LMS (specifically Weblearn), were for Garrison and Andersons Cognitive, Teaching and Social presence (see later in this section for more on this).
Garrison and Anderson’s Proactive Design and Evaluation areas, (ch9, p101 -104) were also considered. Areas three and four were of real interest and relevance to my module design. The third area of proactive evaluation refers to the interface, and how important good interface design is in relation to good quality course learning materials. Consideration of presenting content in a variety of formats, with effective information architecture that is easily mastered by participants, (see also Hassenien and Head’s ‘Perceived Ease of Use, Perceived Use’, 2004) and based ‘on a metaphor’, i.e. architected around the idea of a campus, a desktop, a filing system, are considered key factors for ensuring a good quality learning experience. I have attempted to create a clear learning path, and a variety of ways (user journeys) of accessing the information.
The fourth area of proactive design and evaluation is the amount of interactivity supported by the course. This became the most interesting aspect of theoretical discovery, the concepts of teacher – teacher, student – student, teacher – student (and vice versa), teacher – content, student – content, and content – content. I have tried to achieve this to some extent, but would do more now that I know more about it.
I have tried to incorporate elements of deep collaborative (authentic) learning, a community of enquiry and authentic tasks, and create an environment that encourages active engagement and participation. This is an ongoing challenge that I will continue to think about and develop in future modules.
I believe that if you expect or require students to take part and use online material, then it must be created with as much care as possible, as this reflects on how it is perceived, i.e. a student is likely to judge the quality of the content of the learning by the way it is presented and the evidence of care taken. Fetaji & Fetaji, (2007) state ‘the quality of the virtual learning environment is mainly depending (sic) on the quality of the presented e- learning content’. Referring again to Garrison and Anderson and their ‘third area of proactive evaluation’, which focuses on interface design, (ch9, p103) the navigational metaphor, organisation and presentation of materials as well as possibilities of extensibility are all contributory factors in the interpretation and quality of a learning experience online. This may of course also be true of many ‘hard copy’ situations, for example, a poorly produced module handbook is disregarded by many students, or worse, held up as evidence of poor quality teaching (which it is).
I use images or icons to add design value as well as act as simple indicators of ‘social presence’ referred to in ‘Building Online Trust through Socially Rich Web Interfaces’, by Khaled Hassanein and Milena Head (2004). Hassanein and Head have carried out a large amount of research with users (in an e-commerce setting) using their ‘perceived use/perceived ease of use’ factors in relation to user interface design. They research ways to help in creating engaging content. NB, Hassanein and Head use the term ‘social presence’ to mean something slightly different, though similar to Garrison and Anderson, in this case, they refer to a meaningful visual experience that relates to ones own real life.
I also used audio in the WBLT module – and have always used audio and video, including live streaming video in my lectures and teaching in the past 5 years. I have had ‘issues’ every time I used multimedia, some good, some bad. In the WBLT module it was technical issues – the firewall wouldn’t allow access to embedded content from voisse.com when using Metnet wireless. Previously I’ve also had issues with accessibility – a deaf student who couldn’t benefit from the video lecture without asking his interpreter to go through the whole thing with him. So perhaps a combination of delivery methods is always best, ‘… 59% (of participants) prefer a combination of all media in representing the course e-content. 15%, prefer Text as their representation of learning e-content, 11% of the respondents prefer Video as their e-content, 9% prefer Graphics and 6% prefer animation representation of their learning e-content’ (Fetaji & Fetaji, 2007).
I used a variety of tools for facilitation of the learning:
• Facebook for the majority of online facilitation (synchronous and asynchronous). Provision of direct link to Facebook profile so students can ‘Add me’
• Voisse.com (in trial) to provide embedded audio clips of instruction or other appropriate advice
• Discussion Tool (in Weblearn) for the basis of a FAQ section, with student and teacher contributions, can be rated for usefulness
• Mail tool for Personal messaging if required by student
I provided a FAQ in the form of a forum (discussion) board. Students could post their own questions that everyone can see, as well as respond to other questions that I or anyone else posts into the forum. Students could also rate usefulness or quality of each answer. I feel though it is unlikely students will use this facility in this test context, over time, in my real teaching this might become something I do more often. This is a new idea for me, and not previously tried in ‘real’ teaching. I feel however, that through reactions and feedback about this its worth taking further.
I always use Facebook to facilitate learning in my online teaching scenarios, so I have used this method in this module. Facebook interaction is sent to my mobile phone, this allows me to provide timely and relevant feedback as and when required by students. It avoids the need to give my mobile number, and can be dealt with appropriately for given needs. This was utilized successfully on this module, see Appendix 1.
I also use the Mail tool as a method of PM’ing (personal messaging) the tutor, in a private and secure context, should that be required. This would also be a preferred method of distributing formative feedback in some online contexts. I find that the mail tool can become confusing to some students, who begin to email you using the mail tool, which is not a successful method to communicate (with me, at any rate).
Important considerations for me when providing teaching presence begin with a clear indication of coursework, assessment criteria and learning outcomes, clear learning paths, content navigated easily (via multiple user journeys), FAQ section or similar (possible use of social media) opportunity for sharing ‘misconceptions’ or potential confusions, all accessed several ways to accommodate various approaches and preferences by a wide variety of students. Ideally every student should be able to connect all these aspects to each other, and their relevance to the whole learning process.
Providing good resources for learning that are relevant to the module syllabus is the basis on which all other learning events are built. This use of relevant, well presented materials encourages engagement, and models an example of high standards of work. This helps students to sense the quality of (and have confidence in) the teaching and learning available to them. If the teacher (me) uses confident indications of required participation and behaviour, when and how and most importantly why processes are being undertaken, students will benefit from a well-guided but open and fruitful experience and engage more easily.
But teaching also involves other aspects of facilitation, like developing the knowledge (or some of it) together, and learning ‘how to learn’, how to decide what is useful and what is not, what works well, and what doesn’t. This in turn creates the cognitive presence that Garrison and Anderson stress must be present in online learning design.
My view is that this is all part of reflective deep learning. Mason and Rennie quote Moon, 2005, who describes reflection as ‘a form of mental processing…to achieve some anticipated outcome…to gain a better understanding of relatively complicated or unstructured knowledge…’ and I interpret this as being exactly what takes place amongst a community of online learners, sharing and developing their own set of resources, their own knowledge base, contributed to by most in that community. Moon again: ‘learners try to understand material that they encounter and to relate it to what they already knew…(which) may mean reflecting on what one knows and modifying it (deep approach).’ This is authentic cognitive presence, when applied to authentic tasks (coursework deliverables). I have attempted this in my module with the use of authentic tasks and the idea of peer and self critiquing.
So, I also encourage ‘deep learning’ through developing a deep understanding of my students, and hopefully them of me. This way, we communicate without barriers, in so far as I still remain their lecturer, but I am also an experienced practitioner in their field, so can draw on previous knowledge for their benefit.
My students, all digitally highly literate, are comfortable with using online resources. The aspect that always gives most cause for concern is assessment (how, what), and assignments (what, when). In this module that was not as clear as I would have liked. Making all assignments available at once was not a success, as students seem to only have experience of one assignment ‘drop box’ available at once, not several. This confused them, and I would think about this a lot more carefully before implementing it in a real module in this way.
The Assignment tool wasn’t a good choice for peer and self critiquing as I wished students to be able to critique another student’s work, as well as one of their own pieces, in a PRIVATE setting, creating an environment where they felt they could be honest. After some thinking, I decided to use the private journal tool. This was also not a success as if I had a large cohort it would not be practical on an administrative basis. I found out that I could not post items to a student’s journal (in ‘teach tab’) and had to log in to each students account in order to post the piece of music I wanted them to critique. I still haven’t been able to think through a satisfactory solution to this type of assessment.
Presenting the module to a set of examined criteria was an interesting experience. The best thing about it was that it made one really think about familiar processes already being done a lot of the time in one’s ‘real’ teaching.
An aspect that became apparent through the presentation was the need to evaluate what was happening online – that students could evaluate usefulness, or not, of resources or other relevant aspects of the module.
It is possible I need to think and plan more with this in mind, what the best methods of evaluating course material and processes are, and how students can be most encouraged to take part in a transparent way, so engaging them on a real and deep level. This could possibly contribute to either formative assessment in some way, or to the collaborative learning assessment process I describe earlier.
Davidson and Goldberg, in ‘The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age’ quote John Seely Brown’s concept of a “social life of learning for the ‘Net age’”, which I think is where we are now (so do they), this is the reality of the modern learner. I believe that in the future, as technology and use of web 2.0 increase, teachers will be able to benefit no matter what their discipline, because it will be so easy. Web 2.0 (and Web 3.0*) make cumbersome interfaces obsolete, so anyone will be able to use a multitude of teaching tools and learning management systems to enhance their teaching materials and processes. Mason and Rennie’s comments about web 2.0 and specifically the role of peer learning seem to compliment this: “We need to trust the power of peer learning and the importance of self expression as vehicles for developing the kinds of process skills that are of an increasing value in a socially networked world” (p176).
I feel that in my formal role as ‘Teacher’ – as leader, guide or moderator, I may lose sight of my role as learner. In removing myself from this two-way communication channel, I perhaps begin to remove myself from the whole process of teaching and learning. Learning together to construct knowledge is the most rewarding and engaging experience for all concerned (‘the study pleasure and motivation’ of Holmberg 1989, in Garrison & Anderson, 2003, p42). Again, Mason and Rennie state “the learning process is often more important and lasting than any particular content”, and that “the art of course design is to capture the essence of informal uses of Web 2.0…while introducing structure and direction into students engagement…”
I think as a professional web developer, my role as a teacher in the future of my own HE institution is both to develop my own skills and theoretical knowledge, and also hopefully to research and then model some best practice for others to then perhaps be inspired by. Trying to find new and easier ways of achieving a blended learning approach for most learning and teaching disciplines is really important, as e-learning cannot only mean that everyone needs to become a web developer. This is simply not practical and does not solve the digital skills ‘gap’ of most lecturers, who simply do not (generally) have enough digital awareness or skill to develop sufficiently high quality material (see Mason and Rennie’s ‘lack of staff skills’ comments, p142).
I was pleased when I tested my module on my mobile device (Nokia 5800 smartphone) – I could view and access everything except the Voisse audio player. I read up on statistics for mobile versus desktop devices and certainly we are now in a mobile age of connectivity, the ECAR study as well as the Net Generation paper demonstrate statistical take up of mobile ubiquitous learning. Boys and Ford talk throughout their e-Revolution document of mobile and handheld devices, in the context of an e-Institution, not only e-learning. Mobile learning is an ongoing interest for me, both from a technological and a pedagogical point of view.
“Educational institutions need to respond to, and embrace, these new options to provide a rich and competitive learning environment for the students of tomorrow. These students will expect their portable or hand-held devices to integrate with the learning and administrative processes of their study and, in a highly competitive educational marketplace, those institutions that are slow to exploit the full potential of such evolving devices will inevitably lose market share.” (Boys & Ford et al, 2008)
My last comment is in the form of a news item shared on my Facebook network newsfeed, – “Davos 2011: We’re all hyper-connected, now what?” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-12309882) which discusses amongst other things, how the nature of learning has changed, and “with information in abundance, it takes on a different value for the multi-tasking, self-organising ‘Net generation’”. A simple example of Web 2.0 sharing of relevant information that I only became aware of as I wrote these last paragraphs, and would not know about without the social web and my community of collaborative learners.
Boys, J & Ford, P et al, 2008, The e-Revolution and Post-Compulsory Education, JISC
Davidson, C and Goldberg, D, 2007, The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age, MIT Press, http://mitpress.mit.edu/books/chapters/Future_of_Learning.pdf, (esp p10-p13) last viewed Dec 2010
Fetaji, B and Fetaji, M, 2007, E-Learning Indicators Methodology Approach in Designing Successful e-Learning, Proceedings of the ITI 2007 29th Int. Conf. on Information Technology Interfaces, June 25-28, 2007, Cavtat, Croatia
Garrison, D and Anderson, T, 2003 E Learning in the 21st Century, A framework for research and practice, Routledge Falmer
Hassanein, K and Head, M, 2004, Building Online Trust through Socially Rich Web Interfaces, USA, Proceedings of the Second Annual Conference on Privacy, Security and Trust
Jenkins et al, 2009, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, MacArthur, MIT Press
Mason, R & Rennie, F, 2008, E-learning and social networking handbook: resources for higher education, Routledge
Philip, D, 2007, The knowledge building paradigm: A model of learning for NET generation students, Innovate, Vol. 3, No. 5
Smith, S, et al, 2010, The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology, 2010, Educause Center for Applied Research
Baskerville, Peter; Guild (KPG), (2010), Knol Publishing. Open Online Learning – A Paradigm Shift: Entrepreneurial opportunities in Open Online Learning [Internet]. Version 272. Knol. 2010 Mar 14. Available from: http://knol.google.com/k/peter-baskerville/open-online-learning-a-paradigm-sh…
Friedman, T, 2005, The World Is Flat, video lecture, MITWorld (http://mitworld.mit.edu/video/266), last viewed Jan 29th, 2011
Kessler, S, 2011, School Tech: 6 Important Lessons From Maine’s Student Laptop Program, Mashable
http://mashable.com/2011/01/04/classroom-technology-education/, last viewed Jan 29th, 2011
Kort, B and Reilly, R, 2002, Restructuring Educational Pedagogy: A Model for Deep Change, The Media Laboratory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA, (in Proceedings of Pathways to Change Conference, Alexandria, Virginia USA) http://web.media.mit.edu/~reilly/pathways.pdf, last viewed Dec 2010.
Wakefield, J, 2011, Profile update: Your teacher has now joined Facebook, BBC Online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-12193773 , last viewed Jan 29th, 2011
* Web 3.0 is “the semantic web (or the meaning of data), personalization (e.g. iGoogle), intelligent search and behavioural advertising…” or “non-browser applications and non-computer based devices…geographic or location-based information retrieval” or both, and something else too!
Appendix 1 – Facebook Communication Evidence
PDF of images showing Weblearn Module on Smartphone