My e-learning report card

Report Card

It’s that time of year when assessment, exams and reporting on student progress take precedence over more mundane matters. I thought I’d take the time out to check through my own progress and outcomes in the use of e-learning materials this semester. Apologies in advance, as it’s a biggish post, and I had thought about breaking it down in smaller, bite-sized chunks. I’ve ended up making it part of a new series I’m calling Getting Going in e-learning.

So what have I used, how did the experience pan out? Here are most of the e-learning tools I’ve used for various learning and teaching projects:

Moodle My school took on the Moodle course management system for the first time this year. After a couple of training sessions offered by the university’s IT, I played in the Moodle sandbox and set up my course home pages and learning resources. Moodle became the hub of many, but not all of the apps and services I used this semester.

Moodle’s a long way from the Web-CT push technology we’ve been used to for some years in course management systems. For a start, the ability for an individual teacher to customise the look and way course materials are presented is a big advantage. However Moodle’s skeleton remains sufficiently rigid to please the centralist tendencies of IT administrators.

Moodle is pleasantly easy to work with once the format for writing pages, and uploading and organising files is understood. One of its best features is being able to write an email note to one student or to the entire class and to have it delivered into student-specified email boxes. Likewise they can write to me and have the mail land in my mail box of choice. I’ve chosen to have a daily digest format delivered at day’s end; this way I can keep track of student requests and all course activity on a regular basis. What I really enjoy is not having to log in to your Study Desk to access email in individual courses. In fact, time is saved and productivity enhanced through not having to click endlessly to get to where you need to be to do what you want.

One of my goals was to make the first view that students have of their course home page a pleasant and welcoming one.

Design matters

One of my courses is offered entirely in external mode, and I spent a good couple of weeks assembling resources into topics and weekly activities. These included visual images, sound files, hotlinks to videos, websites and quizzes. After loading these files up to the Moodle platform I sat back and waited for the rush of students eager to join in the e-learning experience. Reader, I waited in vain. They poked around in a desultory fashion, didn’t want to engage in forums (asynchronous discussions) or join in scheduled weekly synchronous chat sessions which were organised around the week’s topic. It felt like I’d thrown a party and no one had come. After the first essay results were in, I offered to lead an online writing intensive for anyone who wanted to join in. I got 3 takers. No show. (F)

Now why was this I asked? What’s the resistance here? Well the fact is that except for a few of the early uptakers and the curious, most preferred to rely on the old, known resources … study materials provided in their paper based external study package. External students are often busy people studying part-time, so part of the transitional strategy had to include consideration of time-saving. I teach a couple of other mixed-mode and purely on-campus mode courses, and had prepared similar course homepages with enrichment materials and study advice. In these latter on-campus and mixed mode offerings, I had to encourage students to get online and try for themselves. My findings were that students continue to prefer lecture notes or handouts obtained in class.

I found most internal and external student expectations of online learning materials were confined to the ubiquitous Powerpoint stack

Those students who checked out my course sites were delighted to find weekly podcasts either as ‘trailers’ for the next topic lecture or podcast-lectures presented in 15-20 minute episodes as well as the Keynote slidestack (pdf). Just as a sidenote, I’m experimenting with strongly visual materials to aid retention of concepts and key themes. I’m heavily influenced by Garr Reynolds and his work on Presentation Zen. Do check out his take on what he calls ‘slideuments.’ It’s worth a read and a check against one’s own teaching presentations. Summed up, it’s all about context: slides are slides and documents are documents, and we shouldn’t mix them together.

Marking online has been a new and pleasantly positive experience for me. I urged the braver student souls in one class to submit their final major essays via the Study Desk. In external mode courses, most submissions will be delayed by several days from submission by the student, through the marking process to return from the university after grades have been entered. I’m delighted to report that most of the class took advantage of my suggestion, but very few didn’t follow up with an email asking whether the essay had been received … anxiety you see! Marking using Word’s reviewing tool bar with tracking changes switched on meant I could annotate the essays quickly and clearly. With only 2 or 3 clicks I was able to return the essays and have the marks sent through to Gradebook. The students then received an automatically generated follow-up email. Neat. (A+ for productivity and ease of use)

We’re in transition here in terms of study materials provision. With the push for student e-portfolios coming hard, it’s imperative that well-designed and presented study materials be prepared for offering on line or via digital media. Until then and until students are engaged positively in using online systems, feel comfortable and confident with their use, I doubt they will be enthused about switching from the tried and true. (A for effort, but a B in outcomes)

Blogging Again this year I introduced a new class of students to blogging as reflective practice during a creative arts production project. I wanted them to learn how to blog and to share their reflections on work with one another. I chose the Edublogs platform because it had the administrative capacity I wanted; I’d used Blogger last year and each student had created individual blogs. This resulted in more work for me as I had to log on to up to 20 blogs when perusing student posts. I hadn’t considered feed readers back then; now that’s something I’ve learned in a year.

This time I decided that I wanted everyone to post and comment in the same place, so I set up a class blog and created individual pages within it for each of the students. The front page was designed to share general findings and for me to write posts and to call for comment. Students would keep their own production reflective journal on their individual pages. In time they learned the difference between logging on via the back end of the blog and writing a page, or posting a comment. It was a very useful exercise and results from this were positive from students: ‘Yes I’ll use a blog again’; ‘It was simple to extract quotes for my final report’. Most had never blogged before this project requirement. (B)

I self-host on WordPress.org and maintain another blog to which I often refer students for posts. (A for modelling and reference)

Google Docs This is the current app of choice for a creative writing project for final year acting majors that I teach with a colleague. Students work across the semester on scripting and then presenting a 20 minute one-person show. The advantages of having one place to collaborate and stay updated on the script (formatted to industry standards) and to refer back to earlier drafts is just great. Scripts can be worked up to the last minute and are instantly available for print out. (A+)

Flickr I set up a group to collect images for use in the production project (above) and once again many students had not used Flickr or realised its creative potential. With the discovery of Flickr, there was a useful opportunity to discuss copyright and Creative Commons licensing of an individual’s work.

Creative Commons comes as a revelation and a strongly debated discussion point with future artists and creatives.

(B+/A)

Facebook also provided the opportunity for students to create an event in order to market their production projects. In the entertainment and arts industry Facebook is becoming more and more popular as the way to promote performance-based events. (B+/A)

Garageband This had been my choice for creating enchanced podcasts i.e., podcasts with accompanying images and sound effects … what you lose in production time, you gain with a polished product at the end. However, given the time factor as well as the problem some students have in accessing or converting mp4 files, I’ve come round to recording audio-only podcasts on my lightweight Olympus DM-20 digital recorder. Files then upload easily and quickly via Moodle. Students can either listen online or download to their own mp3 devices. (A)

YouTube Now this is one app that doesn’t need talking up with students. Most use it pretty regularly, but making the leap from online entertainment to learning resource needs guiding. I linked videos to blog posts as discussion tools, and encouraged students to do likewise. (B+-A)

Summary I’m settling into a pattern with my use of Web 2.0 tools. Blogs are becoming my writing tool of choice for class and individual reflections with Google Docs out there for collaboration on individual student projects. Linking to Flickr and YouTube within posts beefs up the potential for discussion within the blog. Moodle is here to stay within the university system, and finding a way to integrate blogging within this platform will be the next step in creating a one-stop for students to work online. At the moment blogging is not available within Moodle.

And I see iTunes U has come to Australia this week. Wonder how that will work out?

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Author: Kate Wilson

Actor, director, teacher, dabbler with paint, serial traveller.

11 thoughts on “My e-learning report card”

  1. Sarah
    thanks for your video comment. I’d respond via Seesmic if I had a bit more light here in my study right now. Apart from bad hair, looks like there’s another problem with using video comments!

    Look I hear what you say about the carrot/stick approach to engaging students in online learning. And like you, I was once turned off by the approach you mention i.e., ensuring students engage by making the engagement assessable. However, sometimes taking the pragmatic approach forces the issue. I keep getting the image of diving into the water to avoid the inch by inch shivering approach. It’s not that bad once you’re in.

    BTW, I think it is possible to assess student engagement in discussions but first you’ve got to get them in there and doing it. There’s a whole new set of challenges for us educators. You’re right about time of course. I think just plugging away will do it and then suddenly it will be all happening around us. That’s my hope anyway.

  2. Hi Christine
    Thanks for your visual note. I’m having a fine old time trying to get Seesmic to work today. Visual’s fine but audio sounds like an old record playing slowly, slowly. I’m going to have to tweak this one before I can get back on camera.

    Anyhow … I think you’re right about 5 years as a take up time for an organisation. We shouldn’t forget we’re pathfinders either and keen ones at that. I try to use modelling as a pedagogical approach and as I get things wrong, try things out and find patterns in my own usage of the many and diverse tools which arrive daily, I can see how just trying things out to be comfortable really does matter. We can’t keep up with the rush of technology even if we try.

    I hope that in an undergrad program I can at least get students to have a go so that by the time they’re ready to enter their chosen professions they will at least be fearless on the web. That’s the goal!

    So … yes let’s relax about it and keep plugging away. And speaking of plugging away, I’m off to chase up my Seesmic bug.

  3. Loving your idea of modeling as a pedagogy – thats something that was talked about a lot last night at the oz/nz educator’s flashmeeting. A great idea and something I’m going to do more of.

  4. ‘Ownership’ is a great term. I think when we claim to own something, it’s because we see value in it, and because that value has meaning of some kind to us.

    I’ve found that if a student/colleague finds value in one of these tools then they will attempt to claim it and own it for their own use. BTW I think I’ve tossed away the idealistic notion that my students are learning for the love of it, or is that just cynical me. I think I believe deep down that they will come to love learning in time, and if they are that way disposed. It’s only now that I think I can see some value in the torture I endured in school with algebra!

    BTW I think introducing your team to del.icio.us in a 7 week program is a great idea. It’s a five-start web tool that introduces so many of the principles of e-learning. Good luck!

  5. Hello,

    I am a teacher desiring to implement a class blog for my students next year. I browsed through several listed in a “Google” search, and I noted quite a few class blogs listed were either rarely used or now defunct.

    I would really appreciate hearing from you about your experience with using a class blog. I teach an Academic Literacy class for all our freshmen at Oaks Christian High School, and though I’ve maintained class web sites for years, I have not ventured into blogging. I am still formulating my ideas for how a blog might be used and so I am browsing and gleaning ideas from others.

    Any advice and words of caution will certainly be appreciated. By the way, I realize that this is an extremely busy time of year, so I’ll understand if you are unable to reply.

    ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
    Laurie Hagberg
    Oaks Christian School – Academic Success Counselor
    Web Home: http://www.hslionsden.com/home
    Mrs. H’s Lions’ Den: http://www.hslionsden.com
    ADHD/Special Needs: http://www.adhdkids.info
    ~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

  6. Laurie
    nice to hear from you. Yes, a busy time of year but never too busy to say hello to a colleague! We all need a bit of time out. Hope your summer so far is treating you well.

    I’m happy to respond to your query and open up the discussion on the pros and pitfalls in class blogging. It’s one that comes around quite a lot. Class blogging or individual blogging for class work are two areas I have some experience with, and I’ll pass that on to you with a couple of references to other posts which you may or may not have met.

    I guess the first thing is to find out what your school’s policy is on blogging. Do this before you begin, and if there are queries raised by any authorities (from colleagues, principal through to school board members), be ready to respond. Last year an Australian colleague (who was a genuine pathfinder in his use of blogging in education with a terrific bunch of 8 year olds) ran into difficulty with a state education authority. The potential for child abuse weighs heavily on the minds of all people of good will, and bureaucratic organisations sadly have little choice but to wave over perfectly innocent projects like this one with a ‘stop’ sign. The issue over heavy-handedness, the use of images online, the open-ness of the blogging platform etc., were all debated strongly amongst educational bloggers. It was a good if at times emotive discussion, one that had to be had, and ended being fully supportive of the teacher in question and his approach to class blogging. You can check it out by typing in ‘mini legends’ or ‘Al Uptom’ in a search engine, and then by following some of the threads for further information and updates.

    In terms of the platform for a class blog, I’d use Edublogger which has built in administrative capacity for large numbers, and which has been designed for educational use (it’s bolted on to WordPress so you know you are getting a great ‘back-end.’) There are built-in widgets and an online help + great community of fellow educators to help out if you get stuck.

    The next thing is to sketch out how you see the blog being used by you and the class. Will it be an all-in, everyone-respond with you (or an assigned student) leading the topic discussions? If so, you are not going to need individual pages or blogs. I assume by ‘class-blog’ you do mean a blog that provides individual students with an opportunity to contribute to a class-focussed project or theme, so I’m writing with this in mind.

    If you require each student to have his/her own page, then you could go the way I did with a reflective blog on a group project. I set up the blog, assigned an individual page to each student and they wrote their own entries as they went. Individual pages can be password protected for confidentiality and they share the password with you. I would imagine that younger children may not have a problem with this, older ones like a bit of security. This approach is a little more complex in terms of organising entries, and you will need to spend some time teaching students how to write in their ‘pages’ instead of ‘commenting’. You are a blogger, so you will know what I mean here in terms of dating entries etc.

    The third way would be for you as the admin to create individual blogs via Edublogger for each of your students, and link each of these to a class home-room page in the sidebar. Each student can then design his or her blog … a great exercise in aesthetics/design/organisation in itself … to suit, password-protect if s/he wishes, and they are all just a click away to read and comment. Meantime you as the class-page admin can keep the focus on the main page with posts, and general comments to everyone. They in turn, should be hotlinked back to the class page. The student blog can become the basis for an individual student portfolio over time, a bit like a precious journal/photo-album. This last choice is the way I’d go next time I set up a class blog focussing round a group project.

    You should also have organised how you want students to respond in terms of style and frequency of posting: text, photos, videos etc., but I guess this is no different from the way we’d set up expectations in terms of material assignment submissions.

    Lastly … this post is getting a bit long, I’d take the students step by step through the process you have used. Show them how you went about choosing which approach to use, how the whole business of blogging works. Demystify the whole back-end thing, so that they are confident about the tools they are using as well as their content. We tend to take pencils and paper for granted, but there is still a lot of mystery and anxiety (I call it ‘digi-phobia’) hovering around e-learning.

    And then, go to it. Enjoy!

    I’m sure others will join in here with their tips. Check out also Sue Waters’ great Edublogger site at http://theedublogger.edublogs.org/. Sue is a prolific and supportive e-learning mentor, and the site is full of great information, easy to follow and practical support and a good site to get a chat going if you need assistance.

  7. Correction to the above. Should be ‘Upton’ not ‘Uptom’. That will teach me trying to proof read on a small laptop screen!

    Apologies! And let’s hear it for a great teacher Al Upton.

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