The more work you put into the preparatory phase of a journey … and barring disasters or unforseen circumstances … the smoother the ride. Right? Knowing where you’re going and how to get there is also useful. When it comes to prepping course materials for delivery to students, it’s helpful to switch thinking from what it is you’re teaching, to how you go about it, or to put it in a better way, to consider how to assist your students to learn. Never miss an opportunity to get ’em interested. And so it was that I spent several hours or so a day during the past few weeks working with the Moodle interface.
The course content was done and dusted; I was more interested in prepping Moodle to make for a better learning experience and to get students more familiar with the online learning environment. The course in question is a typical external mode paper package. Like most of its ilk, the package contains selected readings, and a topical study guide which takes students through the course materials and textbooks by providing background notes and analysis. The Study Book contains discussion questions and quiz questions to test the basics. It’s a solid package of information … but it is just that, a package that needs unpacking and a lot of application by the student. And of course, external students are working solo for most of the semester. They have email access to lecturers, and perhaps external school contact, but less and less in these days of shrinking resources in the higher education sector.
Working as an external student is a lonely journey; I know because this is how I did my first undergraduate degree. I recall the late nights when the kids were in bed, and before word-processing arrived to save us time and bottles of liquid paper.
What external students miss is the enrichment that comes from interaction with others, and the stimulation that lies somewhere outside the covers of a study package … however excellent that may be.
So the answer to the question why would a lecturer tinker under the hood of a format that continues to work pretty well is, “because I can.” But it’s mostly because I want to help students to a better learning experience, and along the way increase their transliteracy. And of course, I’m learning as I go!
Online delivery doesn’t come close to the intimacy of the face to face communication over a cup of coffee or in the classroom. However, people learn in different ways. Perhaps when considering course delivery and learning styles, the best we can do is to provide as many approaches as possible within operational and financial limitations. These vary. For a start, with good planning it’s possible to provide students with the opportunity to communicate in a more flexible way online. Digital devices have the potential to stimulate and perhaps even accelerate learning. As long as students and staff are prepared to give them a go. Therein lies the rub!
In my experience, more students lurk in the online environment than actively work unless required to under the assessment criteria for the course. It’s a challenge to get a class cohort … as a whole … to utilise the online learning goodies. Perhaps this is no different from a live classroom where some students engage, whilst others listen, lurk and ponder in their own way. The challenge has always been to stimulate students to open the books and engage. In the online environment, the challenge is much the same, only now it is teaching them how to unlock and use the Web 2.0 tools to enrich their learning.
I’ve begun by making the design of the Study Desk a key concern in my prep. If it’s attractive, well laid out and simple to use, I believe students will be more inclined to return at regular intervals. In this way that they will become more familiar with the embedded tools and feel empowered to use them.
One of the biggest blocks to student … and staff uptake of e-learning is lack of familiarity with the tools being used
So what I continue to do in enriching these paper courses … and they are going to be around for a long while still … is to create opportunities for students to engage with content and other participants in various ways. I expect them to read the paper materials just as I would in a face to face class mode, but they now have the opportunity of extending and updating via forums on the Study Desk. I’ve set up a weekly live chat with me … not mandatory, but the topics are compelling, of the how-to variety like prepping for the first assignment or what I’ll be looking for in a well-written essay. I expect these chats will become a little more popular as the semester rolls along towards exam time.
At the risk of extending this posting beyond normal length, here are just a few more snippets of the kinds of tools I’m integrating and trialling via Moodle. I’ve divided the semester’s work into topic blocks rather than into the typical weekly breakdown of work. This layout is likely to appeal to students coming at study from a thematic or topical angle. They can choose either approach, but they now have choice. They are able to submit that well-written essay electronically or via paper. I’m happy to accept either. There are self-check online quizzes which provide immediate answers, and which can be taken over and over … the questions rotate from Moodle’s question bank. I also use podcasts in my teaching. The podcast topics vary: a personal take on a play set for study, or a response to an assignment. It’s a variation on the written feedback, it’s personalised, and it opens the window on the possibilities just waiting out there for all those digital natives and for me!