Sunday, April 25, 2010

How to design a tertiary level e-learning course

Last week I attended the Australian Institute of Training & Development (AITD) National Conference at the Australian Technology Park in Sydney. What I found interesting were the similarities and differences in the technology used for vocational short courses and university courses.

Training Materials for Open Source Software

While at the conference I had a call from an open source software company asking me how difficult it would be to develop e-learning courses to accompany new open source software products. It is difficult to get open source training materials to accompany new software. This is partly a matter of glamour: plenty of people want to help with the software, but the testing and training is not seen as prestigious. Also many open source products grown organically, so the training can't be planned from the start. Also until an open source product is proven, there can be reluctance to invest time in learning to use it. In addition skills in using a software product are seen to be low level.

Using Open Source Software Training for Higher Level Skills

One way around these problems might be to provide open access training for skills which can be sued with open source software. So for example, rather than training in how to use the word processor, teach how to produce documents using a word processor, with skills applicable to Microsoft Word as well. This also gets over the problem of having to provide exact screen shots with sets of keystrokes applicable to a particular version of a particular software package. Instead the student can expect that the exact keystrokes for the package they have will differ.

Top Down Course Design

The Integrated Content Environment (ICE) is a free web content management system from University of Southern Queensland (USQ) specifically designed for university courses. There is a USQ course template intended for the ICE system, but which can be used with just a word processor. This has the usual headings required for a course, such as the Course overview, Learning objectives, Graduate Qualities & Skills, Assessment, Study schedule, Course resources, Textbooks, Selected readings and Assessment. This is then followed by a list of modules, each with a name, table of contents, overview, Key terms/concepts, Learning Objectives, Assessment Tasks, pre and post module tests and sub topics, Module resources, Textbooks and Selected readings.

This may seem a very mechanical process, but beginning course designers can find themselves in a similar situation to one of their students trying to start an essay and not knowing where to begin. The structure provides a place to start.

Work Required by the Student

The University of Sydney provides a useful over. view of a university program in Australia. USyd describes a a normal full-time study load as 24 credit points (4 units of study) per semester. Each semester is 13 weeks of classes, followed by a study week and an examination period of two to three weeks. The 24 credit points involves an average of 9 contact hours per week (lectures, tutorials and seminars), plus up to 27 hours private study per students. Assuming the student is undertaking 4 units of study (called units, courses or subjects, depending on the university), this works out to 9 hours each. A figure of 9 to 10 hours is the typical among of time students are told they will have to student for an on-campus or off campus e-learning university course. It is a shame this can't be resourced to 7 hours a week, as it would then be a handy "one hour per day".


USyd describes assessment as varying from a 6000 word assignment and no exam to a 4000 word assignment and two hours of examinations. Assessment can include group work, presentations and take home examinations. While not mentioned by Usyd, e-learning courses can use traditional written assignments, online group discussions and online examinations.

As an example assessment my Green ICT Course, has contributions to weekly discussion forums (20%) and two assignments (40% each). This equates to 50 words per point for the assignments. The green course requires the student to also discuss topics in a weekly discussion forum. There are 12 weekly forums. Each student is required to answer questions and also reply to other student postings. Assuming that the 60 words per point applies, this equates to the students writing 100 words per week (about two paragraphs).

A 6000 word assignment for full course assessment equates to 60 words per percent. The University of Melbourne sets 4000 words for undergraduate and 5000 words for postgraduate subjects. UniMelb equates one hour of examination and ten minutes of individual oral presentation to 1000 words of assignment.

One issue with reliance on written assessment can be academic writing abilities. USyd requires proof of proficiency in English for those where English is not their first language (IELTS Overall band score of 6.5 or better with minimum of 6.0 in each band or similar). However, even those with English as a first language and particularly those from a technical background, can difficulty. Universities usually have a have learning centre (such as the ANU Academic Skills & Learning Centre) to help students. Unfortunately few of these centres cater for online remote students.


There appear to be fewer clear cut rules about examinations. The University of Melbourne equates an hour of examination to 1000 words of assignment (working out to 3 minutes per percent of assessment), or ten minutes of individual oral presentation.

UNE define a "university examination" as making up at least 30% of the assessment for a course. An online examination is considered "unsupervised" and in a similar category as a take home examination, made available to students for a week or less. While not mentioned in the UNE rules, an online examination will typically may set a time limit for completion, that is the student may have a week in which to attempt the examination, during that week once they start the examination, they may have tree hours in which to complete it. These definitions may seem archaic and irrelevant, but form example if an online examination was limited to only a fixed few hours this would cause problems depending on the time zone the student was in any local festivals. For this reason UNE does no permit supervised examinations to be held at night, on Sundays or public holidays or in most university vacation periods. Setting a period of at least a week would overcome most of these restrictions.

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