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 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.


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?

Zemanta Pixie

Paper to Digital: enriching a learning package

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. Continue reading “Paper to Digital: enriching a learning package”

Moving into Moodle: the experience for a Mac user

The past couple of weeks have been busy for most academics in
Australia. If they’re not grabbing the last of the summer before term
begins … and it’s been a miserable, wet summer for most of us …
then others are jetting home from far-flung cold climes. Most probably,
like me, they’re prepping for the first semester of the academic year.

Use your Moodle!
Image by scholz via Flickr

The past couple of weeks have been busy for most academics in Australia. If they’re not grabbing the last of the summer before term begins … and it’s been a miserable, wet summer for most of us … then others are jetting home from far-flung cold climes. Most probably, like me, they’re prepping for the first semester of the academic year.

When in work mode, it’s been a coming to terms with Moodle (modular object oriented dynamic learning environment). My university has moved on from Web-CT (hooray!) and adopted this entirely new, open-source CMS (course management system) or, if you like, LMS (learning management system). For many of the faculty, it’s been training sessions, playing in the sandbox with dummy courses, importing materials from the old system into the new, or just creating new stuff within Moodle. First impressions? There’s a huge improvement over the former system Web-CT with its ‘pushy’ focus, dull dull look, its lack of flexibility, lack of intuitive direction, and endless clicks to get what the user wants. Moodle support is good with simple, focussed screen-help at every step of the way, as well as a robust support community. The prognosis is good, though IMHO it still takes too many clicks to get around.

I’m a Moodle newbie, so every step along the way has been a discovery. Perhaps the most significant is how the usability of my platform of choice (Mac) differs at a profound level from the Windows environment. I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing Moodle has been developed by Windows users for Windows users … it just feels that way as one works round the screens, gets materials in and out of Moodle, and interacts with users. Perhaps the uni’s Moodle elves will look into this soon. Either that or clever hackers (cough) user-community members, will in the spirit of Web 2.0 spread the goodness.

I’m sure my blogging and wiki experiences put me in front of some other colleagues when it comes to intuition about how the Moodle interface works. On the other hand, not being a Windows user has meant I’ve been stymied by one of those by-now essential functions … drag and drop functionality. Working through hierarchical lists and folders when uploading files feels Web-CT-like still. I did enjoy the simplicity (comparatively speaking) of editing an imported question bank in Moodle. I had the materials on a couple of screens, not buried away in nested folders as in Web-CT. It was then a snap to organise these questions into Quizzes. A much simpler interface all up! I’m finding very irritating the fact that you have to reselect check box preferences every time you leave and come back to a screen. C’mon,surely you can save your preferences?

This feel for the interface throws up an interesting issue and one that goes beyond what platform we use. That is where the ‘typical academic’ is right now in terms of familiarity with the online environment for e-learning whether mediated by Windows or Mac. Not surprisingly, many colleagues are wary, unsure, and would rather stay with the known rather than step into unchartered waters. There is no doubt however, that we are already beyond the turning of the tide. One of the big questions in professional development has to be, how do we encourage colleagues to try, and then to embrace e-learning and the whole darn Web 2.0 revolution? Softly, softly … one step at a time.

Now as far as I’m concerned all I need to do is work on getting my enhanced podcasts out of Garageband and into Moodle. Move over Breeze … I’m on to it!