Friday, 18 November 2011

Institutional E-learning Strategy

I've been thinking about the basic strategy for an individual, group or institutional with their online learning design.  Trying to draw together all the principles, processes and techniques I recommend.  To plan strategically, think about the following.
Essentially, what you want to do is:

1. raise knowledge/understanding of the various online learning activity tools

2. educate staff about the design process itself

3. illuminate for them the strategic issues that need addressing in their context

And then:

4. work with them, guide them through a real learning design process.

What you often get is just the first of these points together with offers to help with the last point. The other points might be addressed in passing but often don't get enough attention. It's about educating before direct assistance in an actual process.
Now more on each of these points.

1. Knowledge of tools

This is knowing about how to use any online tool.  For a learning technologist, you want to do more than just demonstrating navigation. You want to help them understand how they can be used, how they are commonly used, show working examples, decontextualised templates, pedagogical affordances etc.

2. The design process

Educating about the design process is about:
  • getting people to think in terms of time periods
  • making judgements of teaching hours and learning hours
  • ensuring understanding of asynchronous/synchronous and how to handle the different types of activities
  • promotion of a scaffolded learning process
  • Establish the basic building blocks of bespoke content and learning activities
  • For content, raise awareness of the various types of media they can use for content
  • For activities, explain what the tools are (this could include 1)
  • Explain how assessment can be linked.
3. Strategy
  • You want to think clearly about the rationale for altering your mode of delivery. Are you looking to open out into new markets? Are you looking to improve engagement through more flexible access? Whatever the rationale makes sure it’s clearly understood by everyone.
  • Articulate your timeframes both for the design process and the course itself
  • Identify and involve people that will teach on the course. Large-scale you need to organise a tutor training programme. This would involve raising knowledge/understanding of any online tools used and information about the learning design.
  • It’s at this point you broach contextual cans of worms that needs talking about so they don't become elephants in the room. You would work hard in advance to talk about ways through these issues. The difficulty in HE is opening cans of worms that often fall across departments or even between departmental responsibilities. Engaging with marketing, engaging with IT, engaging with registration, engaging with assessment/exam boards, broaching issues such as academics time and space to design learning. A consultation role would highlight potential areas for scrutiny.

4. Doing the design

This is best done in face-to-face meetings with the individual or group designing the course.  Having the knowledge/understanding from 1-3 could mean they can undertake this alone but it's preferable for a learning technology type person to be present.
So how are 1-3 realised?

Face-to-face sessions
Common are events about particular tools, technologies explaining how, why and, if you're lucky, in what way you can use it. Now you need these. But be careful that this isn't all you do. Just doing this reinforces misconceptions about it just being about the technology. Sessions about 2 and 3 are desirable but rare (I do these). Pedagogically, I favour hands on workshop, and collaborate teaching involving activities and discussions.

It's common for institutional initiatives promoting blended/purely online learning to make stuff/make artifacts for people to engage with on their own: Stuff like advice documents, templates, case studies, videos, screencasts etc. I could talk about which ones I favour and the work I've done in this area. I worry about Institutional strategies which just do this and move on. Just as you would in an online learning activity, you need to support the process by helping staff one on one and in groups engage with any artifacts created.  This is to help them contextualise the artifact.  Without this process they are meaningless.

In an ideal world you would have an:

All emcompassing face-to-face event
If you're lucky, you can get design teams in a room at the same time with time and space to first learn and then to practice or actually do their own learning design. Effective strategies from the research include Leicester's carpe diem initiative which involved having a captive audience for multiple days. Essentially, this allows you to take people through a learning journey from start to finish then do so on this subject. Within such events you could engage in a variety of teaching methods to iteratively teach or facilitate the learning of the 3 main points. You could introduce and facilitate engagement with any artifacts you've created. All this before guiding teams of people of people through a design process whilst the learning is still fresh in their memories.

Finally a point about motivation.  A lot depends on the backing of the senior management. Not just hollow words, but financial commitment and resources. It's difficult to engage the majority of academics in blended/distance learning in their teaching and learning help of this kind would show that they are putting their money where their mouth is. It’s also important to utilize the trailblazers, peers who can show what they are doing and give validity to what’s new to others.

Monday, 14 November 2011

The difference between asynchronous and synchronous learning activities

A few points on this subject as I return from holiday.

Synchronous is what we are used to, it's what learners know and expect. For learners with a history of success in the formal education system, it works just fine. To articulate how asynchronous learning activities can work well, you need to highlight the breathing space such activities afford the learner when gathering their thoughts before they express themselves. Asynchronous is about time periods lasting days not hours.  This could be exemplified using online discussion where you are engaging with the content and other participants.  Through a dialogue, the learner's views are challenged and their own views get refined.  This is learning and learning is hard.  For me, an asynchronous context gives this process more chance of success. This is because the learner can engage in an iterative process of thinking, articulating (usually through writing text) and refining their views.  Thinking about a journal, blog type of asynchronous tool, you have more engagement with the content/own experiences than other participants.

It's important when thinking about asynchronous/synchronous learning activities to acknowledge the importance of being comfortable in the mode of learning the learner's find themselves in. Of course, I am well disposed and well used to learning asynchronous online. Many are not for various reasons. Whatever the reason, good practice involves process/navigation support where process support means how a learner should engage with the activity. You could also call this pedagogical support - how to engage pedagogically in what is usually a collaborative ethos. In a sweep of research I did earlier this year, a theme that came through strongly was the importance of learning how to learn. Online, its a misconception that the technology is the main stumbling block. This is wrong, it's the collaborative pedagogical design learners can't handle. This is because they don't know how to learn this way as they are not used to it.