Friday, April 05, 2013

Putting an e-Learning Course on Auto-pilot

As I will be overseas at a conference and perhaps unable to access the Internet for some days, I had to consider how to look after the students in my on-line ICT Sustainability course. Obviously, there is a second lecturer, as with any course, to step in. But I took the opportunity to see how much of the course routine could be automated. This also requires dealing with the confronting fact that much of what a teacher does the students do not notice or value.
  1. De-clutter the course page:  On-line courses can suffer from confusing content. Moodle in particular has by default one long web page, which can result in all the important information disappearing off the bottom of the screen. I arranged the course page with future modules hidden until the week they are presented. Each week I would manually reveal them. But even so I realized I had a paragraph of summary text for each module which took up space, but was not really needed. So I put this text in the HTML "TITLE" tag of the module name. This way the description will popup when the student puts their pointer over the title. Also I put a hypertext link on the title to the relevant section of the course e-book, for student who wants to read ahead. This way students can prepare for later sections of the course, but are not confronted with a lot of intimidating looking material they do not need to worry about yet.
  2. Set dates on the weekly content, so it will be revealed automatically each week: Rather than manually reveal the content of the module each week, I used the feature of Moodle which allows this to be hidden until a set date. Unfortunally Moodle does not seem to have a way to do this by default. If using a weekly course format, it would seem logical to have a way to hide each week's content until that week starts. But instead I had to set a date on each item of content for the week. This does allow for fine tuning, as I actually reveal the new week's work on Saturday, although the course weeks officially starts on the Monday (some students students like to get a head start working on the weekend).
  3. Set dates for assignment and survey reminders: Normally I would post a reminder a few weeks before assignments are due and a stronger one in the final week. I was able to use the same hide feature to automate these as well.  Also I included a reminder to do fill in the student feedback survey in the final week. One problem is that these reminders only appear on the web page. There does not seem to be any easy way to have them sent as notifications to students (such as by email).
These may sound like obvious and easy steps to take. But getting automated reveals to work is error prone. It could be very confusing for students if the forum needed to post their work does not appear at the right time, or the notes to help them disappear.

It would be interesting to take this automated approach further. As an example, the weekly marks for student forum postings could be changed from tutor to student peer assessment. This just requires a simple change in the Moodle settings. The education research literature shows that peer assessment is at least as good as tutor assessment. But would require providing the students with more guidelines on how to peer assess.

It may hurt my pride as an educator, I suspect that student's learning will not suffer from such automation. Feedback for common problems (such as forgetting to contribute to weekly forums) could be automated and also perhaps an automatic  "congratulations" to students getting top marks. While education forums are full of discussion of MOOCs with video lectures and highly sophisticated AI feedback, I suspect it is these simple techniques which will make the difference.

On the subject of Massive Open On-line Courses, after giving my "MOOCs with Books" talk at CPUG last night, I popped into the computer student club room next to the famous room N101 at the ANU Research School of Computer Science. Several of the students mentioned how they were taking MOOCs, as part of their ANU degree. There seem to be some informal arrangements where lecturers agree students can do a MOOC instead of part of the ANU course. Obviously the student would still have to provide evidence of their learning at the end of the course, as most MOOCs have no formal assessment. But this shows the students are leading the way with new educational techniques, and the staff have much to learn from them.

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