Thursday, January 15, 2009

My First Blended Course

Having finished the design of a new masters level e-learning course on "Green IT Strategies" for the ACS Computer Professional Education Program, I thought I would see if what I had learnt was applicable to a traditional university course, to turn it into a part online, part classroom blended course. This would be an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary development, making maximum use of the existing material.

Since 2001 I have been teaching web design at the Australian National University. This was originally part of the course "Internet, Intranet, and Document Systems" (COMP3400/COMP6340), now "Networked Information Systems" (COMP2410/6340).

COMP2410 is run with traditional face-to-face lectures and tutorials. Over they years the tutorials have tended to use more computer support, with the students following a set of web based instructions and using web based materials to complete exercises (such as to test the accessibility of a web page). The lecture notes are provided via a web site, but are essentially in the form of print facsimile. Some lectures were recorded for online replay using the ANU's very well designed, but over-ambitiously named "Digital Lecture Delivery" system.

The ANU has a Learning Management System installed, using the Web CT product, with an entry for each course. However, Web CT was not used for the web design course, apart for providing an interface to the audio recordings of lectures. The reason for the LMS not being used more could form the subject of several PHDs.

Most of the lecture notes for the course are prepared in the form of PDF files. Because I was teaching web design, I made a point of preparing my notes in the form of web pages. Over the years I experimented with different ways to format the materials and to combine text with presentation slides: 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006/2007 and 2008. The results were not all that successful. Also the content tended to grow in length and complexity.

Late last year one of the student feedback forms for another course where I use a similar web format was critical of the readability of the notes and the quality of the presentations. These were valid criticisms and confirmed my decision not to give any more conventional lectures (see: "My Last Lecture").

In "e-Learning Course on Green ICT Strategies" I documented my progress on designing an e-learning course with the expert advice of David Lindley, Academic Principal of ACS Education. The Green ICT course does not start with the first batch of students until next week and no doubt there is much more to learn, but I can see now how such courses are prepared. However, the ACS course is designed for mature working ICT professionals, using purely distance education e-learning and in what is essentially management skills. The ANU courses are more technical, and have students expecting more hands on help.

What prompts me to look at this now is that ANU is selecting a new LMS to replace Web CT. This will be available for piloting during semester 1 2009 (the particular LMS package to be used has not yet been announced). It would therefore make sense to put the revised content in the new system.

Previously with the notes for the web design course I attempted to provide both extensive written notes, as detailed as a text book, and presentation material (slides) suitable for use on a computer project screen in a classroom. I had several attempts at using CSS and JavaScript to combine both versions of the material in the one document. This was intended to reduce the maintenance problem, maintaining multiple copies of material, to reduce the sizes of the files used and to avoid using proprietary technology, such as Microsoft PowerPoint. The results, as noted by some of the students, were not all that successful.

The Green ICT course is purely online and as a result does not have presentation slides. The notes provided are more cryptic that those I was previously preparing. I noticed that the course I modelled Green ICT on used minimal formatting in the PDF documents. These used headings, subheadings, bullet points, bold, italics and the like. There was not extensive use of colour or graphics. I found I could reproduce this format reasonably well using the online Moodle web editor, producing simple web pages in place of PDF files. This makes preparation and maintenance much simpler than using PDF and an external tool.

The Green ICT online course essentially consists of: "read this introduction, now read this external reading, answer these questions, discuss, do this assignment". There is no presentation from a teacher and no multimedia equivalent, such as a video or slide show. Will this same approach work for an ANU course?

My intention would be to add another element to the process, which would be seminars or demonstrations. These would have a live presenter in a classroom. Unlike a conventional lecture, the detailed content of the course would not be covered. There would be none of the "repeat each important point three times" technique. Instead it would be assumed the students had read the readings and were interested enough to see an example of them put into practice. The presentations would be audio recorded, with notes and/or slides available. Screen casting or video would be used if this is available in the live presentation site.

The tutorial/workshops should translate into the on-line environment reasonably well. In this case the students would get the same web based instruction sheet. They could attempt the exercises themselves or attend a face-to-face tutorial.

The detail and complexity of the lecture notes would be reduced by relying on the textbook. Previously I was reluctant to use a textbook for a web course, as it seemed to be contradictory to teach the use of online design using a printed document. Those electronic books which were available were of poor quality and used various proprietary formats making access difficult. However, Web Design in a Nutshell: A Desktop Quick Reference, by Jennifer Niederst Robbins (O'Reilly Media, Inc. 2006) is available online to the students, via the library. The layout is a very conservative conventional book format, but is reasonably readable. The students can also buy the conventional printed edition if they wish.

My task then is to simplify my previous material, convert it to a simple web format as used by LMS (I can use Moodle while waiting for the new ANU LMS), referecne the text book and incorporate the tutorial exercises. Then I need to be able to convince my colleagues that this will work and will be acceptable (I only teach part of the course).

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