Friday, June 10, 2011

Learning University Teaching: Lesson 3

This week I attended day two of an introductory course on university teaching. The third day next week is about "Diverse Students, Inclusive Teaching and Flexible Learning".Here is my thoughts in preparation:

Diversity and Inclusion

The university has an Equal Opportunity Policy to "promote inclusive work and study environments that value the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives of the University community". This is largely defined in terms of Australian federal and ACT legislation on age, race, sex, human rights and disability. Equal opportunity in education is not defined in the policy, but is described as including:

"... the principle of selection and assessment of students on merit, which precludes irrelevant personal attributes. Fair and transparent processes are applied in assessing the capacity of a student against specified requirements to access and participate in educational programs."

The university aims to promote inclusive study environments:

... to improve access, participation and inclusion of particular equal opportunity groups who have been traditionally under-represented, through review of policy and practices and implementing special measures ...
Inclusion can be by specific programs for diversity groups. Some initiatives listed in the policy are the: Indigenous Higher Education Centre and the Disability Services Centre. One measure not mentioned in the policy, but implied, is measures to increase diversity of staff. In 2009 I gave a talk on "Social inclusion and cooperative education with ICT" to the Australian Collaborative Education Network (ACEN).

Designing learning activities for flexibility and engagement with technology

At the implementation level, technology can assist with inclusiveness in education. For several years I have worked on the use of technology for providing greater access to information and services to diverse groups by the use of computers and the Internet.

I was an expert witness in the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission case over the accessibility of the Sydney 2000 Olympics web site to people who are blind. The complainant won the case and this established that anti-discrimination law applied to the web. Previously it was not clear if web pages had to be accessible to people with a disability. This case established, where possible, web pages must be made accessible. It is not enough to wait for a blind person to ask for access: where web pages can be designed to be accessible the law requires they are. I teach how to do this to university web design students and was invited to explain it to Chinese government officials for "
Making an Accessible and Functional Website for the 2008 Beijing Olympics".

The university is subject to the Disability Discriminate Act and so is required to make its web pages accessible to the disabled. The web based e-learning software used by the university has provision for this built it. A few simple techniques, which are also good teaching practice, are all that is needed.

In my view teaching the principles involved to course designers can help not only with accessibility for the disabled, but for students generally, by providing options.

Accessible Design is About Providing Alternatives

The most basic technique used in accessible web design is to provide the content in alternative formats for people with different needs. As an example, for those who cannot see an image, provide a text caption and, if necessary, a detailed description.

Providing alternatives can promote more i
nclusive learning. Instead of just giving a lecture by standing and speaking, the course designer can provide the materials in several other ways and allow the student to choose which suits them best.

Most university lecture theaters are now equipped with sound reinforcement, for those with hearing problems. The same audio system is connected to the Digital Lecture Delivery system, allowing audio (and optionally what is on the video display) to be recorded. This can be used by those who cannot get to the lecture, but also those who have difficulty with the language and want to hear it again, or simply have difficult with the lecture content and want a review.

Also it can be useful to provide the materials for a lecture to students with a disability in special formats and in advance of the lecture. But rather than just do this for some students, it can be simpler to provide these materials to all students, via the Learning Management System, so they can prepare and also follow along. This does not require the lecturer to prepare a word for word speech of what they are gong to say, nor does it require them to keep rigidly to the prepared agenda. The lecturer can provide notes which accompany slides (on their own slides are of very little use to students).

Some students have disabilities which create problems for them in sit-down, time-limited, no-notes, paper based examinations. The university polices allow for special provision for such students, to prevent discrimination. The
Disability Services Centre will assist with Special (Alternative) Exam Arrangements. However, examinations do not resemble the tasks which students will be later called on to carry out and so are not a good test of learning for any student. Therefore a better option is to replace the paper based examinations with a more realistic forms of assessment for all the students. At the same time this can take into account inclusiveness. This way a special set of assessments is not needed to be prepared and administered: the same test is used for everyone. The university does not require an "examination" for a course: other forms of assessment are permissible and I had no difficulty having courses approved with no examinations.

The university's learning management system is based on Moodle, a very flexible world leading Australian developed system. By using the features of the system and taking into account accessibility guidelines, it is possible to provide course content for a broad range of student needs. It also possible to use the system for assessment. This lessens the administrative burden on teaching staff while providing more flexible learning.

One example of the advantages of this approach is
mobile learning. The use of smart phones and tablet computers (such as the Apple iPhone and iPad) has become popular at universities. Provision of course content for these devices would normally require the creation of special "Apps". However, these devices use the same web technology as used by desktop computers and the same accessibly guidelines for the disabled also take into account the needs of mobile users. Therefore content created with accessibility in mind will work on a mobile device with little or no extra work required.

Flexible, e-Leraring and Online Learning

The use of computers for learning is at least 40 years old, with the
PLATO system of the University of Illinois in the 1960s. Early systems were designed to teach by rote, with the student presented with facts and tested for recall. Early systems used bespoke formats for encoding information and tests. Current systems use the same web standards as used for web pages and databases.

There is a close resemblance between the formats used for e-learning content and that used for e-books. It is reasonably simple to create content in a word processor and transfer it to the LMS and also publish this as an e-book. The text book for my course Green Technology Strategies is available for the Kindle and other ebook formats, as well as a paperback and hardcover printed book. The content for all these is generated from the same files in the Learning management System. On Wednesday I discussed how to do this in a talk at the Web Standards Group: "Online Education With Web Standards, Tablets, eBooks and Smart phones".

The university is introducing the use of e-learning to lecturers and students in a evolutionary way. The web based system is introduced as a supplement to traditional face to face courses. Materials which were previously provided on paper (or in the case of audio lectures on tape) are provided on-line. Forums are used for announcements about the course. There is no requirement to replace other learning techniques with the on-line system, but lecturers are provided with training and encouraged to use the feature's, where applicable. I have perhaps taken this more than most, having given my last lecture.

Learning As a Group On-line

The current trend is to incorporate some features of social networking, where students learn as a group and learn to work as a group. Computer scientists know social networking as a form of "computer mediated communication" and have been researching its use for decades. Learning Management Systems now incorporate facilities for on-line discussion groups and work together. This provides a safer "walled garden" alternative to commercial public social networking products.

E-learning is Traditional Learning

It can be very easy to be sidetracked by all of the e-learning jargon and computer gadgets. It should be noted that the idea of a teacher encouraging students to explore a topic, discuss it with each other and with the teacher, is not new. Using a computer system as the medium of communication is simply a new way to carry out traditional teaching.

After a spending a decade looking at how to do use technology for education, the results look remarkably like traditional education. Having been trained in video production at the ACT TAFE, I found limited use for this, due to the cost and complexity.

Instead of video my Green ICT course consists of a text book, readings and weekly tutorials. The formative assessment is by questions for students to answer individually in the tutorial and then discuss, with feedback on their contribution given to each student privately every week. Summative assessment is by written assignments. All of that could be done face to face and on paper. However, instead the text book is an e-book, the reading are online (including some video), the tutorials are held via an online forum, assignments are submitted online and feedback given the same way.

This is all done within the LMS, so students need not attend the campus. The materials have designed so they should work reasonably well on mobile devices and for students in remote areas with limited Internet access, as well as for those with a disability.

In addition the tutorials are asynchronous: that is students can post their input over a period of several days and need not be online at the same time as the teacher, or the other students. This makes the course much more inclusive, removing time restrictions which prevent student taking part in real time courses.

Every course need not eliminate face to face participation, but can make it optional, where it is not essential.

ps: I will discussing how images and video can be used simply and efficiently in courses in Wattle Wednesday, 29 June 2011.

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