Monday, April 16, 2012

Integrating Online Learning into Campus Life

In "The growing pace of online education" (29 February 2012), Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ian Young, asked what might be the role of on-line education at the Australian National University (ANU). In my view online education should be integrated into campus life and not seen as separate. Students should not need to choose if they are "distance" or "local" when starting a program, but instead be able to select topics of interest and decide if they with be on or off campus, as their circumstances change. All students should be able to mix in the same classes, not be segregated by teaching mode, as is done at some institutions.

At Research School of Computer Science (RSCS) I teach a course which was designed from the ground up to be entirely online: COMP7310 ("ICT Sustainability"). This has been running since 2009 and won an award from the Australian Computer Society for ICT Education in 2010. While some of my students are in other countries, many are on campus and come in for face-to-face help with their studies.

The ANU College of Engineering and Computer Science (CECS), which RSCS is part of, also has been pioneering "blended" courses, with both online and off-line components, as part of the Engineering Hubs and Spokes Project. I suggest extending this blended approach to flexible learning, to allow students to undertake parts of courses either online or in the classroom, depending on their needs, day to day.

Flexible Learning

With the flexible approach, the on-line system would provide a framework for courses, dealing with the day to day administrative detail, freeing teachers to teach and students to learn. Components of courses which are suitable for online delivery can be placed online. Those components which do not suit online delivery can remain in the classroom. Many components will be offered with both options: online or in the classroom. The students should be able to choose from the options, day to day, based on circumstances.

Simple Template for Courses

My ICT Sustainability course was designed using a template from the Australian Computer Society's Computer Professional Education Program. This uses a constructivist approach to education, derived from the UK Open University. Subsequently I have been a student of courses at USQ, which use a similar format. This approach should suit many task oriented courses.

My ICT Sustainability course consists of a book of course notes and a Moodle Learning Management System (LMS) site (ANU brands its implementation of Moodle as "Wattle"). This approach can be used to ease the development of online courses, providing a familar framework of a "book" combined with class activities, translated to the online environment.

Book of Course Content

The course notes (equivalent to about 130 A4 pages for a one semester coruse) are provided to the student at the beginning of the course. The notes are provided via the LMS as an eBook, in web format. The notes contain all the assessment items, weekly notes (about eight pages a week), a list of suggested readings and weekly activities for the students.

The eBook is formatted like a conventional printed book (and is also available as a printed book). There is a table of contents, an introduction, sections, chapters, headings and sub headings. There is only one column of text to make the notes easy to read on screen, including on a smart phone or tablet computer. Each module of the course corresponds to one week's work and to a chapter in the book.

The student can take an electronic copy of a chapter, or the whole book, of off-line use, or print out a chapter or the whole book. The notes are checked before each semester and unless a correction is required, no changes are made to the book during the course. This gives the student a solid point of reference in what otherwise can be a confusing shifting cloud of online materials. The student can see where they are up to in the course and what come next.

The document format is not important and any web based formats could be used, and I have produced my course notes in as an IMS Content Package, Kindle and ePub eBook formats, as ordinary web pages and in PDF, as well as a paperback book. But as ANU use Moodle, I found the Moodle Book Module format, built into Moodle, the easiest to use. This allows the student to view a chapter on screen and download or print it, or the whole book.

Ideally, all the course content should be in one file, so the student can download it all at once. But a reasonable alternative is one file per module or week of the course, with a table of contents to link all the modules. The important point is not the technical format, but to provide the course material in one clearly laid out package.

LMS for Course Coordination and Activities, Not Content

The content for the IT Sustainability course is provided in the book of course notes. This then frees up the LMS to be use for coordination and activities. I use a simple course design, which has a link to the course notes, the message system for contacting the tutor and a list of assignments at the top of the screen, then an entry for each week of the course in sequence below.

The entry for each week of the course in the LMS is only a few lines of text. This has a title, a couple of sentences of description, a link to the course notes for that week and a forum for that week's activities. Some weeks have additional material, but mostly there are just the two entries.

Each module is revealed progressively at the start of the week for that module, so as not to overwhelm the student with material (but they can read ahead in the course notes). Each week the forum is loaded with a thread for each student task, with text copied from the course notes. This provides a place for students to post their answers and discuss.

Small Weekly Assessment for Formative Feedback

On-line courses can make the students feel disconnected and they may neglect their studies as a result. One way to overcome this is with online forums where the students interact with their tutor and each other. But students still need an incentive to take part and a way to know how they are doing.

The ICT Sustainability course allocates 24% of the assessment (2% per week) to small student tasks. This is enough to keep the students studying, and have them pay attention to weekly feedback from the tutor. Automated quizzes could also be used for part of this feedback and assessment.

On-line submission of Assignments

The ICT Sustainability course has two assignments as the major assessment, at mid semester and end of semester. These are submitted online using the LMS.

RSCS has its own submission system designed for complex computer projects having large numbers of files, which is more suitable for some assignments. USQ uses a bespoke submission system, rather than the LMS.

The submission system used is not important, provided it allows for the student to resubmit updates to their assignment up until the deadline. Students can then be encouraged to submit an early draft and then refine their assignment.

One problem for educators is late submission of student work. One way I have found with my ICT Sustainability course to encourage submission on time is to impose a 100% penalty for late submission (unless there are genuine grounds for special consideration). Students submit early because they have to, but then go back and refine their work.

Real-time events face-to-face, store and forward forums online

The ICT Sustainability course was not adapted from a lecture based course, so there were no lectures to provide as video. Instead the students read the text based notes. Where pre-made videos on the topic are avialable, these are used, but not relied upon.

If lectures are provided for a course, these can be recorded and provided to the students. The ANU has its own bespoke Digital Lecture Delivery (DLD) System. This system has the advantage of offering a downloaded version of the recording which the student can play off-line later. However, the details of the system used to record and provide video or audio lectures are not of great importance, what is important is providing cross-references between the video and the course notes.

On its own, a recording of a lecture is of little us, so the content of the recorded lectures has to be accompanied by course notes and there has to be some way for the students to match what is in the lectures to the notes. Current digital video formats do not make it easy to index digital video, but new HTML5 features could improve this. In the interim, the lecturer should provide a run-sheet for each lecture, which gives the time when each major topic in the notes is discussed in the recording. If additional material not in the notes is discussed in a lecture, accompanying material for that should be added to the LMS.

I suggest avoiding the use of live videoconferences for lectures and large student workshops. These live events are inconvenient for the student and the technology is still unreliable. The Engineering Hubs and Spokes Project has made good use of short, prerecorded, scripted and edited audio/visual presentations in place of some lectures. Audio or videoconferencing can be used for individual students or small groups.

Teach Students and Staff to Communicate On-line

Current online learning is mostly text based. This is challenging for international students and for students of technical disciplines, such as computer science, who are used to communicating in computer code and equations, rather than formal academic English. This is also challenging for staff who are used to talking in a lecture theater or a tutorial room, not an online forum. Being able to communicate online is a new basic skill for academia and industry and so should be part of all university education programs.

Many of my students require help with writing. This involves small exercises in the first few weeks to see who needs help and then referring those to the ANU Academic Skills & Learning Centre. Such services will need to expand to cater for online students and to help with the forms of writing used in online forums.

The Educational Development Group of CECS, run a Teaching Quality Program (TQP) for tutors each semester. This is a total of seven hours, with a three hour induction session ("Introduction to Tutoring in CECS") at the start of each semester and a one hour seminar every second week for four weeks. This teaches time management, plain English and marking, small group teaching and codes of practice. This program could be adapted for flexible delivery, expanded to the equivalent of a full week (10 hours) and offered to all students and staff. The ANU currently offers teaching staff a 20 hour, intensive mode introductory course on university teaching. This could be enhanced with a flexible version of the CECS Teaching Quality Program, followed two new 10 hour advanced flexible teaching modules. Staff would then progress through three stages of teaching: first as a tutor, then more intensive teaching and finally (for some) designing courses themselves.

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