Tag Archives: online learning

Weeknote #23 – 9th August 2019

Doctor Johnson's House
Doctor Johnson’s House in Gough Square

Monday was another trip to London, I had been expecting to participate in a workshop, but this was cancelled late last week, and I already had train tickets and another meeting in the diary so decided to head up anyhow. The weather was changeable, raining whilst on the train, but this cleared up by the time I arrived in London.

I saw this link in my news feed and it did make me think more about how we could use AI to support learning, but also reflect on some of the real challenges in making this happen. Also do we want this to happen!

China has started a grand experiment in AI education. It could reshape how the world learns. – MIT Technology Review

I wrote a blog post about some thoughts I had on this.

Is this the future of “teaching”?

In the afternoon in the office we were discussing Education 4.0 and how we are going to move this forward in terms of expert thinking and messages.

Tuesday was a busy day, first a meeting in the Bristol office, before heading up to Cheltenham for a meeting the HESA office.

CrossCountry train at Cheltenham Spa Railway Station
CrossCountry train at Cheltenham Spa Railway Station

I haven’t been on a CrossCountry train for a while now, so travelling to Cheltenham Spa from Bristol Temple Meads I was interested to see how the 3G connectivity issues I’ve always had on that route would be like, especially as I now have 4G with Three. Well same old problems, dipping in and out from 4G to 3G as well as periods of No Service. I would like to blame the train, but the reality is that there is poor phone signal connectivity on that route. As there is no incentive for mobile network providers to improve connectivity.

If I do go to Cheltenham again, I think I will take a book!

We were discussed the Data Matters 2020 Conference, which is now in my portfolio. Still a work in progress and the proposal needs to be signed off by key stakeholders.

Pub in Cheltenham
The Vine Pub in Cheltenham

Whilst I was in Cheltenham I bumped into my old colleague Deborah from Gloucestershire College and we had a chat about stuff. What was nice to hear was the number of my team and colleagues in that team that had started there in learning technology and were now doing new and more exciting jobs at universities across the UK.

Wednesday there was rain. I spent today preparing for a meeting in the afternoon and tidying up my inbox. Though I did find time for a coffee.

Flat White
Flat White from Hart’s Bakery

Thanks to Lawrie for the link, I read this report on the iPASS system, which uses data and analytics to identify students at risk.

The three institutions increased the emphasis on providing timely support, boosted their use of advising technologies, and used administrative and communication strategies to increase student contact with advisers.

This report shows that the enhancements generally produced only a modestly different experience for students in the program group compared with students in the control group, although at one college, the enhancements did substantially increase the number of students who had contact with an adviser. Consequently, it is not surprising that the enhancements have so far had no discernible positive effects on students’ academic performance.

Looks like that it didn’t have the impact that they thought it might.

In a couple of weeks I am recording a podcast and met with the organiser today to discuss content and format. Without giving too much away, we will be covering the importance of people in any digital transformation programme and ensuring that they are part of the process, consultation and are given appropriate training in the wider context of their overall skills and capabilities. You can’t just give people new digital systems and expect them to be able to use them from day one or with specific training. Familiarity with digital in its wider context is often critical, but is equally often forgotten.

Whilst writing a blog post about online learning I wrote the following

Conversations are really hard to follow in e-mail, mainly as people don’t respond in a linear manner, they add their comment to the top of their reply.

When I first started using e-mail in 1997, well actually I first started using e-mail in 1987, but then got flamed by the e-mail administrator at Brunel University, so stopped using it for ten years….

When I re-started using e-mail in 1997, there was an expectation when replying to e-mail that you would respond by writing your reply underneath the original e-mail, bottom posting, which really was something that I got from using usenet newsgroups. This from RFC 1855.

If you are sending a reply to a message or a posting be sure you summarize the original at the top of the message, or include just enough text of the original to give a context. This will make sure readers understand when they start to read your response. Since NetNews, especially, is proliferated by distributing the postings from one host to another, it is possible to see a response to a message before seeing the original. Giving context helps everyone. But do not include the entire original!

By the early 2000s lots more people were using e-mail and most of the time they were replying at the start of the e-mail, top-posting. There were quite a few people in my circles who continued to bottom post their replies, which made sense when reading a threaded conversation, but confused the hell out of people who didn’t understand why someone replied to a conversation, and from what they could see, hadn’t written anything!

Today top-posting appears to be the norm and I can’t recall when I last saw someone responding to an e-mail by replying at the end of the quoted reply.

Here is the blog post I wrote, about how online learning doesn’t just happen.

Online learning doesn’t just happen

Friday was about planning, planning and even some forward planning. One thing that has puzzled me for a long time was the difference between forward planning and planning. Thanks to Google I have a better idea now.

Forward planning is being pro-active, predicting the future and then planning to achieve that prediction.

The opposite is backward planning, which is more reactive, you wait until you get a request or management decision then create a plan to achieve it.

So what is plain and simple planning then?

Wikipedia says that planning is the process of thinking about the activities required to achieve a desired goal.

So some of what I am doing in my planning is responding to both requested goals and planning for some predicted goals.

We had our weekly meeting about the Technical Career Pathways we are developing at Jisc. I am responsible for the Learning and Research Technical Career Pathway.

My top tweet this week was this one.

Online learning doesn’t just happen

student on a laptop
Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

When it comes to the delivery of online learning, the assumption is made that it will just happen. Assumptions are made that academics who are experts already in delivering learning will be able to easily transfer their skills to an online environment. Even if they are provided with some training, what they will require will be minimal. The training will usually be about the mechanics of online learning, as these academics are already experts in learning, so why would you even “insult” them with training about learning!

What can often happen is that the processes and methods that people use in the physical space will be translates verbatim to an online space. It will not taken into account the challenges of an online environment, or recognise the affordances of said environments. This also ignores the potential and affordances that online environments can bring to learning.

  • Lectures will become webinars.
  • Presentations will become PowerPoint slide decks.
  • Handouts will be Word documents to be downloaded.
  • Verbal communication will be done by e-mail.

The online environment will become a repository of materials that will be forgotten and ignored. The end result will be a lack of engagement by students and a deluge of complaints about this whole online learning experiment.

Writing in a notebook
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

The overall experience is expected to be the same, but merely re-creating the physical experience online is often disappointing for both students and academics. Many of the nuances of face to face learning can be lost when moving to online. Part of the issue is that physical learning activities don’t necessarily translate readily into an online environment, the nuances of what makes the face to face so valuable can be lost in translation, similarly the possibilities and affordances of the online space can be lost.

A lecture is more than just someone at the front talking to an audience. There is something about bringing together in a single place, the physicality of that “performance” adds to the whole experience. Though the oral nature of the delivery can be captured, the non-verbal aspects will often not be noticed, but are equally important as the verbal ones.Students will share a common experience, and they will have a similar experience to others in the room.

As webinar can be used as an online lecture, but you won’t have the non-verbal cues, even when using a webcam. The academic will miss out on the whole group experience and their non-verbal language in response to the lecture.

Using webinar technology can allow for a complex and fluid conversation to happen at the same time as the lecture. Using the chat functionality can enhance and enrich the experience. In my experience it helps to have someone else in the webinar space to manage the chat area, to respond, to provide links and content and to summarise at appropriate times to the academic delivering the webinar feedback from the group. It’s really hard for one person to do all that and deliver an engaging lecture. Another aspect that is often forgotten that online delivery (be it audio or video) appears flatter than when seeing it for “real” so one thing I do is up my performance a notch or two. Take it too far and you will become Alan Partridge, but it will make for better delivery if you brighten and enhance your delivery.

Of course webinars don’t have to be a lecture, they could be a group discussion. Why replace the lecture with a webinar, when you could replace it with a podcast of various experts discussing the topic of the lecture. Of course online means you can bring in experts from across the country (if not the world) to discuss the topic and record it for future listening by students.One of the affordances of online is that it doesn’t have to be live, it can be recorded and then watched by the student at a time and place to suit them. Suddenly this opens up a wide range of opportunities, why just record yourself in a lecture theatre, why not take to the road and turn your lecture into a radio programme. Why not create a film about what you want to talk about? Of course this takes time and effort, but sharing and collaboration (much easier to do these days online) means you could share the load with others in your field.

It is easy to upload files to an online environment, but in isolation what is the context. If you create great PowerPoint slide decks for your lectures, do they work without the lecture? Personally my slides are usually just images or single words, that look nice, but really without the talk tell you nothing I was talking about! There are tools and processes out there that can turn simple PowerPoint files into online videos through recording an audio track as they are presented. You could do this live (using webinar technology) or pre-record using the built-in tools. Something to recognise that these files can be quite large, will your students have the connectivity and the bandwidth outside campus to access them? Will you need to provide alternatives?

Though for many PowerPoint is a familiar tool, there are other tools in the toolbox that can create engaging online content. Some even allow you to add interactive elements. How you create good online content isn’t just about the technical aspects of using said tools, but also recognising the pedagogical principles that need to be followed when designing online learning content. If you start to add quizzes or questions, there is a whole new raft of skills that may need developing.

reading a Kindle
Image by Pexels from Pixabay

Though it might be thought uploading Word documents to the online environment, is one way to get content to students, there are so many other resources out there to create an effective online learning experience. The subject of e-resources could fill a book and often does. Understanding what is possible with resources is one thing, understanding the wealth of resources out there is something else.

We know that everyone loves e-mail, and it is often the default online communication method for many. However using a single tool for all types and formats of communication is not effective or efficient. Who really wants their sacred inbox to be filled with numerous conversations and questions that are getting in the way of other “important” work e-mails. If you have more than one cohort, then it becomes even more difficult. Conversations are really hard to follow in e-mail, mainly as people don’t respond in a linear manner, they add their comment to the top of their reply. For conversations and discussion, e-mail is a really bad online tool, especially when there are so many better alternatives out there for doing this kind of thing.

I find e-mail is best for the one-to-one messaging (and occasional) conversation and for the broadcast style one-to-many messages (though even then I think there are better alternatives out there for even that kind of message). Using appropriate platforms for online conversations opens up a range of learning possibilities that could not happen in the offline world as well as re-creating the conversations students and academics have.

Overall there is more to online learning then learning the mechanics of online learning. That equally applies to students as well as academics. Don’t assume people can do online learning, there are skills, techniques and possibilities that need to be thought about and taken onboard. As well as the mechanics of using the system, there is the how of online learning, the process of learning that also needs to be considered. Really it should be considered first and then deliver the technical training.

So how are you approaching the subject of online learning with your academics? What works? What challenges have you come across and how did you overcome them?

Merging the Distance

Yesterdays sunrise in Iceland near Bifrost University

One of the interesting talks I listened to at the BETT show was from Bifröst University who had merged their distance online courses with their campus based courses.

From a learner’s perspective they received the “same” experience regardless if they accessed the course online or on campus.

The learner feedback was very positive as it allowed them to pick and choose how they accessed the learning on the course depending on their personal circumstances and context. You can imagine how one week due to snow or holiday they accessed the course online, the following week they were in a face to face session on campus.

In this blog post I am going to look at and discuss some of the technical issues that Bifröst University had to consider and out into place before moving forward on merging online and campus based courses.

Bifröst University in their presentation made some key points on the technical requirements. They needed to have in place a robust IT infrastructure in place to host and distribute the various types of content and video for the courses. They also needed to ensure there was solid scalable WiFi available to all users, taking into account the changing landscape of devices that learners would be using. As well as campus connectivity there is the issue of external internet access and bandwidth, as far as Bifröst University are concerned, they see really essential for learners to have access to high speed internet.

The other main consideration, that Bifröst University mentioned, was the need to have a robust Learning Management System (or VLE) and interesting for this to be backed up by good communication software and group productivity tools.

This is a very similar concept that I have spoken at length about in various bog posts and conference sessions, notably the VLE is Dead debate back in 2009 at the ALT Conference. What I said was that the VLE was an important portal for learners, but that didn’t stop organisations from adding in external tools. These tools could be Google+, Twitter, Google Docs, Office 365, or other communication and productivity tools. The tools that the learners use would then be accessed or linked to from the VLE.

Bifröst University also embraced the concept of BYOD and making sure both learners and teachers understood the limitations of this, but also ensure they re was a willingness to cater for the variety of devices that learners would be using.

One aspect that Bifröst University put a lot of emphasis on was on the importance of training and the large amount of training that would be needed. They certainly understood that even with a so called digital generation there was a need to provide training for learners before the start of the course, and this training would need to be repeated throughout the year. Training sessions were also run for staff at the start of the year, with additional micro sessions run throughout the duration of the course. Bifröst University also made sure they had good support materials for all key systems backed up by a range of guides and handouts.

In a future blog post I will look at the curriculum design implications of merging online and campus based courses.

Photo Credit: Iceland by Jakub on Flickr

Learning from massive open social learning

Learning from massive open social learning

There has been lots of chatter and talk over the last two years on MOOCs.  One of the challenges of MOOCs is that they lack the social interaction that traditional small campus based courses offer.

MOOC providers such as Coursera and Futurelab are recognising this and starting to build in social networking to their massive online courses.

The recent OU publication on innovating pedagogy talks about massive open social learning.

Massive open social learning brings the benefits of social networks to the people taking massive open online courses (MOOCs). It aims to exploit the ‘network effect’, which means the value of a networked experience increases as more people make use of it. The aim is to engage thousands of people in productive discussions and the creation of shared projects, so together they share experience and build on their previous knowledge. A challenge to this approach is that these learners typically only meet online and for short periods of time. Possible solutions include linking conversations with learning content, creating short-duration discussion groups made up of learners who are currently online, and enabling learners to review each other’s assignments. Other techniques, drawn from social media and gaming, include building links by following other learners, rating discussion comments, and competing with others to answer quizzes and take on learning challenges.

When developing online learning, the lesson we can take from MOOCs and as outlined in the OU report is the importance of adding online social elements to courses. We need to ensure that these social aspects are as much a part of the learning journey as the content and the activities.

An expectation that these social elements will “just happen” is a flawed approach, and as with other aspects of the learning design, the social components of an online course must be thought about, designed and delivered in a similar way to the learning and assessment components.

Activities can be designed to motivate participants to engage with each other and create social networks within those taking part. Obviously with a large number of learners (such as you find in MOOCs) you will probably find this easier. With smaller cohorts it will be significantly more difficult.

It can also help embedding aspects of the course into existing social networking services and tools, but it is useful to audit which of these tools, if any, the participants actually use external networks.

Social aspects of learning are important to many learners and that is one of many reasons why learners choose to attend a programme of study at a physical location such as a college. The social aspects of an online course are not a replacement for face to face social interaction, but are for many learners an important aspect of an online course and will help support and motivate them as they go through the online course.

Image Credit: Empty by Shaylor

Webinars, FELTAG Confusion

It is no wonder that many in the FE sector are confused over the implications of FELTAG.

In my previous blog post I quoted the SFA response to FELTAG which includes the following comment.

This is activity which replaces face to face lecturing time including webinars, but not time spent on researching information on the web. 

I read this as

These are activities, including webinars, which replaces face to face lecturing.

However it should be read as

This is activity which replaces face to face lecturing time and webinars.

If you read the Provider Support Manual from the SFA which has more detail it states:

333. The following are examples of online learning:

  • Learning materials that the learner accesses on a college virtual learning environment such as Moodle
  • Video demonstrations or Powerpoint presentations accessed outside the classroom
  • Structured learning packages that are not facilitated by a lecturer.

334. The following are examples of activities that do not constitute online learning and should not be included in calculation of the Percentage of online delivery:

  • A video of a practical demonstration that is shown in the classroom with the lecturer present
  • Work undertaken on a computer with a lecturer present
  • An online webinar delivered by a lecturer
  • Homework assessments that are undertaken on-line
  • Email/telephone or online tutorials or feedback discussions.

Webinars would include using tools such as Adobe Connect, Blackboard Collaborate, Big Blue Button and Google Hangouts.

The SFA responds to FELTAG

Tablets and phones by Zak Mensah

Following the publication of the FELTAG report and the somewhat confusing response from BIS, across the FE sector there has been a lot of discussion about the implications of FELTAG, the 10% online delivery particularly getting a lot of attention.

I have attended a lot of events and meetings where we have discussed FELTAG, and though there was a lot of positive comments about ensuring our learners gained the necessary digital skills for future employment, the challenges of ensuring our staff have the necessary skills and training to deliver on this often came to the fore. In addition the 10% dominated many of the discussions, partly as it wasn’t clear what was online and what wasn’t? Most people were sure that “searching the web for information” was not online delivery, whereas computer-mediated content and assessment probably was. What was less clear was if discussion forums or webinars counted towards the online 10%.

This week the SFA released their response to FELTAG, and as one of the major funding bodies for Further Education this has been eagerly awaited in the anticipation that they would clarify and clear up the implications from FELTAG.

We now need to record on the ILR for the proportion of the Scheme of Work which is delivered “online”.

The 2014 to 2015 individualised learner record (ILR) includes a field which asks for the proportion of the curriculum design (scheme of work) delivered by computer-mediated activity rather than by a lecturer. This is activity which replaces face to face lecturing time including webinars, but not time spent on researching information on the web. 

It is good to see the clarification that webinars are considered to be online and as expected that researching on the web isn’t.

However it will be interesting to understand in more detail what is included and what isn’t. I consider all the following could be used to replace face to face lecturing time.

  • Having a discussion online using a forum on a VLE, or within a Google+ community.
  • Researching using online and digital collections, ie not using Google and the web, but using specific digital resources, such as an e-book library; the British Library Newspapers Archive; a collection of online journals.
  • Creating a blog and commenting on the blogs of others.
  • Having a discussion on Twitter, using a single hashtag.

The SFA also clarifies what they understand by the 10%.

We are not expecting providers to convert 10% of learning delivery in each programme of study ‘en bloc’ to online to meet a ‘directive’. Rather, we are encouraging providers to establish a strategy to determine where the adoption of a greater ‘blend’ of delivery and assessment types adds most value to a learning programme…

There was some discussion that the 10% could be an aggregated 10%, however the statement from the SFA implies they are expecting every programme to adopt blended learning in some format.

The challenge will be designing, developing and delivering the computer-mediated activity to meet this 10%. Unless the staff have the necessary skills, it will be a difficult process. It is one thing to use learning technologies for the odd activity here and then, it’s another thing to plan and schedule in 54 hours of online delivery into a 540 hours programme. The response from the SFA does indicate that colleges shouldn’t just convert the 10%, but it is clear they are expecting providers to strategically establish processes for implementing 10% (or more) where it “adds value” to a programme.

In many cases I would suspect that some courses already are meeting the 10%, it’s just that it isn’t part of the formal scheme of work. In this instance, the challenge will be for the teaching staff, how they will reduce their face to face time by 10%.

The other response from the SFA is that they will be looking at current use of online delivery this year, combine with the IRL information from 2014-15, to then get the data that “will be used to gauge the current volume of online delivery and establish a baseline to inform funding policy development and implementation for future years.”

The response to this has to be either, start now, don’t wait… make sure you train the staff. Though I am sure some providers may think that if they don’t start the process of change, the policy might disappear in the future…

It is good that we are getting clarification and the real value of FELTAG is getting the message out that the use of learning technologies should be used where it adds value to learning and improves the learning experience.

Image Credit: Tablets and phones by Zak Mensah