Wednesday, 6 July 2011

E-learning - it's life, Jim, but not as we know it!

I've recently sent in my final assignment of a long and grueling Masters Course in Open &  Distance Education - what a relief! I embarked on it way back in 2003, when all that most of us had was a dial-up connection; but even then the internet was beginning to change the way we all live and work. I had an inkling that a powerful bombshell was about to hit the world of training and development, and sure enough it has, although it has not been the magic bullet that some thought it would be. Nevertheless, a recent study I saw said that 50% of learning will be delivered online by 2015!! Quite a turnaround in the world of education, eh?

I signed up with the UK's Open University, a remarkable organisation that has been a pioneer in delivering Distance learning for over 40 years. In the early days of the OU, students used to receive big boxes with course materials at the start of their courses, and were left largely to their own devices. But over the years, as technology has moved on so has the OU. Where better to learn about Distance Learning, I argued? As well as learning about the disciplines of Distance Learning, I got to be a Distance Learner myself.

I plan to try and capture some of the main learning points relevant to me and my practice whilst they are fresh in my mind. These reflections may well run to several blogs - maybe you'll find them interesting too?

I'm kicking off by looking at the place where learning takes place - the virtual classroom, often called the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

As someone who has spent almost all of my 'teaching' career in the classroom, the face-to-face arena is where I have learned my trade. The social contact in the classroom plays a really important part in the way I do my job; being able to see the audience, judge their reactions to presentations/activities/group discussions, and then being able to adjust my teaching style to fit has become an instinctive matter for me. And the social contact also works well for students too - group discussions are very good for deepening learning, and the relationships that are developed between students often have carry-over benefits into the workplace.

Is there any way that this can be replicated online?

My short answer to that question is no, or at least not in the same way! The energy that can be generated in a lively classroom is well nigh impossible to create when you are separated in space and time from your audience. My three years as a Distance Learner have seen a few moments of high emotion, most notably when a 'group' online activity has been taking place and I have felt some sense of ownership of what was going on. But group activities are just as likely to lead to frustration, either because you can't get others to join in, or because the group dynamics are hard to orchestrate when you can't see what's going on with others. On my most recent module, two of the group activities were abandoned due to lack of participation, and a third took place, but had very few participants.

The most important adjustment I  am struggling to come to terms with in the virtual classroom  is that the balance of power well and truly shifts from teacher to student. The student decides when, how, and how much they are going to contribute. If the material and activities are not of interest, there is not much the facilitator can do about it! Some might argue that the same is true in the real classroom - just because someone is present does not mean they are interested or are learning anything. But it does feel different!

My sense is that the way we deliver content and engage with our learners online has not yet come to terms with this new learning arena. Although there are many more organisations offering e-learning these days, its questionable just how qualified they are in the use of the new media for education. Few have got the pure track record of the Open University in delivering Distance Learning, and I'm sure the OU would be the first to acknowledge the challenges. The generation that is teaching today has learned its trade in a non-digital world, and is inevitably influenced by that. And the majority of (adult) learners have similarly developed learning skills in an era when the teacher was the fount of all knowledge. Both parties will have to learn new skills in this digital era - teachers seeing their role as guiding students to make good learning choices, and learners being more independent and choosing their own learning path.

Disappointing results of a study into student participation in e-learning (Garavan et al, 2010) are evidence of how hard it can be to get engagement. In a large sample of students from 275 organisations they found that less than 50% of participants successfully completed their courses. Garavan and his colleagues observe that e-leaning is an isolating experience, and that this isolation is a major cause of attrition.

If teachers and students can't make the shift to different ways of teaching and learning, its hard to see how the use of e-learning will deliver the results that our education systems need to deliver.

What's your experience of participating in e-learning? Which methods of teaching have you found work well for you, and which have been disappointing?

More later....

Garavan, T.N., Carbery, R., O’Malley, G., and O’Donnell, D., (2010) Understanding participation in e-learning in organizations: a large-scale empirical study of employees, International Journal of Training and Development 14:3, pp 155 – 168 ISSN 1360-3736

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Scaffolding for Student Generated Content?

The subject of student generated content seems to be in a state of dynamic flux at the moment, most notably due to the fact that access to media that lets users broadcast their points of view to the world is increasingly available. The fashion for blogging saw a massive uptake in the noughties with all and sundry blasting out opinions and advice. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have simply served to fan the flames of this already highly combustible brush fire. 

So just how useful can this phenomenon be for educators? There are several issues that struck me as important if SGC was to be a useful tool for learning;
  • Focus; I have found myself on many occasions in my elearning past being completely thrown off-course in my investigations. The sheer breadth and connectivity of the web is enticing, but can waste time and leave one feeling lost. My sense is that for SGC to be productive, we must find ways to give direction and guidance, without being restrictive.
  • Scaffolding/ Pedagogies: The web 2.0 generation is likely to resist/reject the kind of guidance that declares absolute truths. However, I can think immediately of three ways to provide scaffolding that can keep students on the right track; 1. a variety sources of credible information, 2. tools to help with the interpretation and discussion of this information and 3. fora in which students can seek mentorship in the application of what is learned. 
  • Student Motivation: the most promising aspect for the growth of SGC that I can see is that it lets the student follow their own interests. In the online arena, participation of students is voluntary, hence prompting students to create content that has meaning for them, albeit with support, challenge and input from others, seems the only way to generate widescale participation.
  • Plagiarism: this was a topic I did not see covered in any of the articles that I read, but the move to e-portfolios and web 2.0 assessment seems to lay tutors/educators open to much greater plagiarism. The OU's methods of providing discussion fora and using the evidence of forum posts for assessment is one way of discouraging plagiarism. The tutor/student discussion around ECA submissions is another such method. I am sure that, in time, software that identifies authorship of material will progressively become commonplace and should, hopefully stamp out the abuses that are no doubt currently taking place.

Comments that resonated from my H807 readings included:

A wider content provider base means more areas of knowledge can be covered (Chin 2006)

The challenge for educators is to define emerging pedagogies in terms of 21st
century skills where the ability to use new technologies and to shape social communication and interaction using a range of multimedia tools will define success in the future. (Johnson & Dyer, p2)

• Adaptive learning support is a type of learning support typically found in tutorial session or peer group informal learning.
• Computer-based adaptive learning support (Ljubojevic et al, 2005) has the goal of orchestrating the available reusable learning objects so as to meet a particular learner’s context and learning needs. (Cook and Light 2006, p56)

Although content provision can provide scaffolding for internet based learning it is community pull, characterised by social discourse and dialogue, which provides opportunities for critical reflection, problem solving and collaboration. (Johnson & Dyer, p2)
The most effective learning occurs where the learners’ interests are aroused and their self-defined pathway meets their needs, (Johnson and Dyer, p2) 

    Since all users can become potential content providers, little is known about the credibility of the person and the content being posted (Chin, 2006)

    in a corporate environment, there must be some measure of oversight to ensure the quality and accuracy of content (Chin, 2006)

    Evidence from the study shows that participants are not driven exclusively by vocational objectives, being motivated by a variety of personal goals, which include, but do not rest upon, keeping up to date. (Cook and Light 2006, p59)

    Chin, P. (2006) The Value of User-Generated Content, Intranet Journal, (Accessed 8th June 2011).
    Johnson, J. and Dyer, J. (2006) ‘User-defined content in a constructivist learning environment’ [online], elearning papers, (Accessed 9th June 2011).

    Student Generated Content; F2F

    I have read several of the recommended H807 articles on the subject of Student Generated Content; what I have been wondering is - what is the link between Student Generated Content and Social Constructivism? Here I will reflect on my recent use of Social Constructivism in a Face to Face setting, in which one of the outputs has been Student Generated Content. In particular I want to think about the kind of scaffolding and pedagogy that means that the learning objectives of the client and the student are met. I am hoping this will help me create some guidelines that can be applied in the online setting.

    In a current face to face programme of mine we are making extensive use Social Constructivist pedagogies. The client has engaged us at a critical point in her company's growth to reinforce amongst all staff (new and experienced) the essential difference they are seeking to bring to the troubled banking sector. When it came to the session in which we were engaging with the subject of the principles that will guide the way employees act, the client was very anxious that we had failed to give her a slot in which she could explain these concepts to the audience. What we had done was to:
    • encourage existing employees to bring their own examples of these principles in action today 
    • encourage new employees to bring examples of treatment they had experienced from companies that they have appreciated/admired
    • provide high level descriptions of the five principles
    • organise employees into groups that have varying amounts of company experience
    There is another structural benefit at play here, too, which is that the company is part of the Virgin group, which has a strong brand presence amongst consumers.

    With all of these pieces in place, we set the mixed groups on a task of 'storytelling' and working out together how they would explain the company's principles to their mum or their pals in the pub! All I can say is that the results have been most impressive, and are being collected into a repository of stories that can be accessed by any employee. They have taken concepts that are more typically converted into 'corporate gobbledegook', and turned them into authentic and personal explanations. Having been initially concerned at the 'lack of structure' the client has agreed that the outcome was exactly what she was looking for, and is now happy with this pedagogy going forwards!

    I have to say that the quality and credibility of the outputs does vary - but these sessions and the conversations they are generating back at work are a perfect way to inform and develop newcomers, and to iron out misunderstandings without declaring anyone right or wrong;-) When all is said and done, getting principles into action can only be done if people agree with them and are motivated to work out how to use them for themselves.

    In the next blog I will attempt to draw out some principles of Student Generated Content that can be applied in the online setting.

    Saturday, 4 June 2011

    IMS Learning Design Use Case: Excellence Audit Analysis

    The IMW Learning Design Use Example provided on H807 was used to create this outline design:

    Learning objectives
    Awareness of the data available in the Excellence Audit
    Experience analysing data of a real client
    Come to conclusions about what to recommend to the client


    Different types of learning content used – the following content is used:
    Task narrative
    Excellence Audit Data; Full Group and 3 subgroups
    External web based resources with client background
    Practitioner's guide to ExAud analysis

    Different types of learning services/facilities/tools used
    Conference – to share out activities, report back, consolidate results and come to conclusions: tutor to moderate.

    Different types of collaborative activities – students engage in the following
    collaborative tasks:
    Division of audit analysis jobs
    Discussion of any differences in results
    Consensus on client recommendations

    Learning activity workflow – There are four activity structures, each comprised of a
    number of learning activities:

    Division of groups (Full group and subgroups)
    Proposed division
    Agreed division

    • Analysis
    Reading of explanatory information on audit
    Apply analysis to allocated group
    Draw conclusions on recommendations
    Report analysis back to group workspace

    Asynchronous discussion
    Agree process
    Contribute analysis on allocated group
    Read summaries of others
    Debate the full picture created by analysis of each group
    Debate which areas require attention based on the audit results

    • Sum Up/Conclusions
    Agree three recommendations for the whole group, and any further advice for the client
    Individuals create their own presentation of the analysis of results

    Scenarios – Real life example of final report presentation.
    Other needs / Specific requirements – none.


    Support and My Learners

    The sequence of activities that look at learner support have given me pause for thought about my current approach.

    Knowing a bit more now about student support, I realise that I have so far only focused on one - the pedagogical support. Even then, I have tended to limit support only to the content of the learning and not the process. For example, I have not thought about whether any support is needed to help people use the technology we are using. I have also failed to give much in the way of pointers for further research, other than the content that we provide. With the variety of resources now available on the web, this seems to limit the richness of material studied. The 10 scaffold supports given by McLoughlin are a good resource to expand on current practice. The spectrum of support from instructor-learner is also valuable for progressive reduction in scaffolding. 

    Looking at the support that encourages students to sustain their studies (Dearnley, 2003), there are several points here to consider. Although the core delivery mechanism of an online web tutorial does build some sense of community, the extent to which support goes on outside the tutorials is not obvious. I am aware that some connections have been struck up between individuals and the tutoring staff, but that has happened naturally rather than being an explicit design feature. Maybe these are examples of what Dearnley (2003) calls "informal professional networks". This is a feature which could be developed in future.

    On occasions, an individual's personal commitments (holiday/family illness etc) has prevented them participating in a tutorial, but the fact that the session is recorded does at least let the person catch up what they have missed. This is a helpful support feature, it seems to me. 

    One aspect that is not covered in any of the readings is language. I invariably have at least one delegate out of the 8 who does not have English as their first language. Although there is no promise made that allowances will be made for difficulties in this area, I am wondering whether there is any support that can be made available. The fact that the core discussion forum is via a synchronous web conferencing system may well make it much harder for 'non-English speakers' to stay engaged. One option that comes to mind is that any content to be delivered is provided in advance, say, as a podcast, and that the discussion topics are also provided in advance to allow for preparation. A further option is to create a discussion thread in an asynchronous setting, which can supplement the live discussion, and give those requiring more time to think the chance to do so.

    The final reading, Ludwig-Hardman, S. and Dunlap, J.C. (2003) has opened my eyes to what is probably the biggest oversight in my distance learning offers - what the student is looking to gain the learning. All my students are university educated and most also have a postgraduate qualification. However, it is rare that they have done any distance learning. The learning orientations assessment they describe provides a sense of the motivation that the learner has towards the learning outcomes of the programme, and can also point to the extent to which they are disposed to self directed learning. A version of this kind of assessment at the outset would provide information about the kind of support that each learner may need to achieve the outcomes they are looking for from the course.

    Dearnley, C. (2003) ‘Student support in open learning: sustaining the process’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.
    Ludwig-Hardman, S. and Dunlap, J.C. (2003) ‘Learner support services for online students: scaffolding for success’, International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning [online] (Accessed 1st June 2011).
    McLoughlin, C. (2002), Distance Education Vol. 23, No. 2, Learner Support in Distance and Networked Learning Environments: Ten Dimensions for Successful Design.

    Tuesday, 31 May 2011

    Learner Support: Two Important Dimensions

    Of the 10 dimensions that McLoughlin (2002) identifies as important for the scaffolding of learners, two seem very relevant to a course of mine; constructivism and learning orientation.

    Constructivism scaffolding encourages the learners to make new meaning as opposed to conducting memorisation or rote learning.
    Learning orientation scaffolding reduces the active contribution of the teacher as the learner gains more knowledge, skills and confidence.

    In my situation, the learners have tended to remain in a passive role, accepting input from tutors, and offering critique or comments. The scaffolding to encourage them to create knowledge of their own and articulate it has been missing.

    To encourage greater learning orientation, I envisage an individual task in which the learner must find their own case study examples that illustrate the theory they have been taught. An example can be provided, to model the way the case studies can be analysed and recommendations can be made about how and where to search for examples. If we were then to add the use of a shared workspace where the results of this research are logged, a further scaffold (collaboration) will be available.

    Constructivism can be scaffolded by means of an activity that invites students to create a short presentation; this will articulate their learning to an audience of their choosing. A template which provides an outline structure for this presentation can be offered for those that a looking for greater guidance.

    Yet again, I am finding that the subject of e-learning innovation is like the peeling of an onion. You think you've got the hang of a topic, and then another level is opened up into view. What strikes me about my previous efforts at e-learning is that I have overlooked the diversity of support needs and existing levels of knowledge of my students. I have assumed levels of knowledge, rather than looking for evidence of what that knowledge is and having a sense of what the next zone of development should be. Although the zones are likely to be different for each student, the more that the responsibility for that learning can be handed over to the student, the less crtical it is for the tutor to shoulder that burden.

    McLoughlin, C. (2002) ‘Learner support in distance and networked learning environments: ten dimensions for successful design’, Distance Education, vol.23, no.2, pp.149–62.

    Wednesday, 25 May 2011

    Looking Forwards with e-Learning Theory and Pedagogy

    Having reviewed the Mayes and de Freitas (2004) study, they provide some very helpful pointers to incorporating e learning theories and pedagogies into my online teaching approach. 

    As I said in my previous post, my current face-to-face practice begins with an associationist approach to defining outcomes and breaking a topic down into manageable chunks. But once I get into teaching and learning activities, my approach becomes more cognitive, with learners being encouraged to make their own meaning with scaffolding from tools and activities. Whether my learners could ever be called a community of practice, as in the sociative genre, is less arguable, as they are often from different disciplines, levels of experience, intellect etc. However, by the end of a programme, I do think my activities become more socially constructivist in style, with groups being asked to work together to make sense and communicate main messages from an event.

    In moving into e-learning, my early efforts have fallen into the category that Mayes and de Freitas (2004) describe as "pragmatic rather than pedagogic" (p4), consisting of groups of participants for whom getting together to learn is completely impractical. In adopting more of an associationist approach to delivering content, we have failed to exploit many of the affordances of the new technology.

    Mayes and de Freitas outline the following overall approach to e-learning design

    • carefully defined intended learning outcomes,
    • learning and teaching activities that enable the students to achieve that learning, 
    • assessment tasks which will genuinely test whether the outcomes have been reached
    I'm sure I can do a better job of breaking down the various learning outcomes needed, and that incorporating more constructivist activities into the programme will help my learners to build better frameworks for their own learning.

    However, the big gap I can now see in my approach is that I have left assessment too late in the process. In the current programme, assessment only occurs at the end of a five module programme, by which time gaps in understanding may have been missed. An important affordance of technology is that formative assessment becomes much easier and offers the chance to make learning much more personalised. This takes me back to one of my eye opening moments on H807 - web 2.0 assessment (Elliott, 2008).  I can now see that formative assessment is a vital element in being able to offer learners scaffolding for their development.

    Not quite back to the drawing board, but a lot of food for thought;-)


    Elliott, B. (2008) Assessment 2.0: Modernising Assessment in the Age of Web 2.0 [online], Scottish Qualifications Authority; available from (Accessed 12th April 2011)

    Mayes, T. and de Freitas, S. (2004) ‘Review of e-learning theories, frameworks and models’ [online], Bristol, The Joint Information Systems Committee, (Accessed 24th May 2011).