Last Tuesday I told the COMP3410 students at the Australian National University that this was my last lecture. What I did not expand on was that this was not just the last one for my series in this course this semester, but I did not intend to give any more lectures at ANU, or anywhere else. It was time I put into practice what I have been learning about blended learning: combining online teaching and live group work.
I don't like giving lectures to groups of eighty or so students. It is very hard to get any feedback. In some lecture theatres difficult to see the students and in some of the old steeply tiered ones I get a a sense of vertigo: looking up from what feels like the bottom of a well.
I never liked attending lectures and thought them not an efficient way to learn. When I arrived at ANU as a visitor I fell into the lecturing role almost by accident, being invited to give one or two and then blocks of six.
For several years I have thought that it should be possible to teach at tertiary level using online systems. The Australian Computer Society (ACS) runs its Computer Professional Education Program as a purely online, postgraduate education course. As Director of Professional Development Board at the ACS, I learnt a lot about the process from David Lindley, who carefully structured the ACS program; see his: "Computer Professional Education using Mentored and Collaborative Online Learning" (in IJCIM special issues on e-learning, Vol.15 No. SP4, November, 2007). However, ANU is an elite, research lead organisation and it was not clear if a completely online course using such techniques would fit in.
Last June I attended a seminar on the MIT iCampus, which indicated that a blended approach to learning would be acceptable and effective at a respected university. The blended approach avoids purely online distance education. Part of the course is online using a course management system, but other parts are in a classroom with lecturers, mini lectures, demonstrations, group discussion, group and individual work. I then went on a year's investigation into e-Learning, flexible learning centre, blended learning and e-Portfolio.
In the middle of this I was asked to run a short course on "Writing for the Web" for a local council. To do this I set up a Moodle course management system and loaded it with a cut down version of the content I had prepared for ANU courses. The council staff set up an electronic classroom and I presented the course live in the room using the Moodle system.
The small group computer assisted approach worked so well that when I was asked to prepare a short course on e-documents at ANU for public servants I used the same technique. This also worked well and I have been asked to give further such courses, but I had the uncomfortable feeling this was not a "proper" university course.
I was encouraged to submit the short course for approval as a formal unit of the Unviersity. This was rejected, not because of the teaching method, but because it was too short and did not have enough content to be a useful size to fit into regular programs.
The pragmatic approach to making the short course longer was to add homework (the short course had been entirely in the classroom). Adding 50% of material the student does remotely online would bring the course up to the required size. This would also turn it into a true blended course.
In the interim the ANU attitude to such courses had changed. The university officially enthusiastically supports them, with funding and staff support for their development. The ANU College of Law offers a Graduate Certificate in Australian Migration Law & Practice using distance education (online) and "intensive" (blended) modes and is approved by the Australian Government. Traditional academics are grudgingly starting to accept there is a role for such techniques. However, what remains are the challenges of the mechanics of having the infrastructure to support the courses, such as speciality equipped classrooms and extensive online systems and how to apply this to advanced courses.
The remaining challenge is how to apply blended techniques to research based learning. With typical vocational online courses one group of people prepare the course and then another deliver it to a large number of students over an extended period. The courses have a very rigid structure and fixed content. This is a very good business model for educational institutions, as they can get the maximum return on the investment in the courseware delivered to a large number of students over a long time.
But research lead education requires new research results to be incorporated in courses quickly. This requires frequent changes to the content and also requires staff who understand the research to help the students. That is a difficult and expensive process. The ACS partly gets around this problem by using open assignment questions in its postgraduate courses: the students themselves conduct the research, looking into the latest findings in ICT. In a way the staff are just there as coaches, to help the students along with the process, without necessarily understanding the details of what the students find. This is the essence of how research is done at universities (I have learnt a lot from the students doing research projects I have supervised). However, more guidance will be needed for the average undergraduate student.
So much for the theory: time to get on and do it. What I am to do is adapt the material I previously prepared for traditional lectures so it can be delivered in a blended mode: short lectures, workshops and tutorials. Ideally the same content can then be used as part of a traditional course, in place of my previous lectures, as short courses in the normal university semester and as short intensive courses.