Higher Ambitions for elearning?

ha-coverThe UK government recently released a paper: Higher Ambitions: The future of universities in a knowledge economy. There’s a short section on digital learning hidden within this 115 page document on p78-79. Three points emerge clearly:

  1. University leaderships will have to take responsibility for driving the use of new technologies throughout institutions.
    That can be done in a variety of ways as we’re trying to facilitate at the Open University e.g. awareness raising and professional development, enhancing systems, and developing strategies and procedures which promote and remove blockages to the adoption of elearning.
  2. Students should leave university with a competent mastery of online modes of communication and information transfer.
    This means there will be no scope for degree programmes (and therefore probably individual courses/modules as well) which do not incorporate online communication and media. To what extent they will have to do so is the unanswered question. It’s all too easy to pay lip service to the use of online content and communication without fundamentally changing the traditional mode of delivery e.g. by adding a forum or uploading some Powerpoint slides. The next one might help:
  3. Information about how technologies are used in each course will be available to students as they choose their options.
    Many course descriptors already include details of teaching methods and the use of technologies. It’ll be interesting to see whether students will be presented with such information in a consistent way across institutions to allow them to make the informed choices envisaged by the report. For a really informed choice students would ideally be presented with details such as:

    • What types of online communication tools are provided and how are they expected to be used?
    • What assessed collaborative activities are involved?
    • What is the balance of synchronous / aysnchronous collaborative activities within the course?
    • What kinds of online content are made available and how are they expected to be used?
    • How much time are you expected to study online and offline?
    • What are the hardware, software and internet connection requirements?
    • What assessments will be carried out online?
    • What kind of eportfolio facilities are provided and how are they expected to be used?

    And then for an even more informed choice:

    • How did students on previous instances of this course evaluate their use of the online elements of the course?

    And wouldn’t it be great to be able to answer the killer question (pretty much impossible to answer of course because of the range of factors involved):

    • Does the use of these technologies enhance the overall learning experience, the results and job prospects of the students taking this course?

    All this could certainly be useful to students when selecting courses to study. Arguably unless we can include much of the above this cataloguing exercise will achieve little. Providing such detailed information consistently across the courses within one institution will be challenging but I believe worthwhile. Even without the benefits to students it would be useful for institutions to develop a comprehensive picture of the extent and types of elearning being carried out. Across the sector? That would be interesting and would require a standardised data format and a way of aggregating information from all institutions. Another wee challenge for us.

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3 Responses to Higher Ambitions for elearning?

  1. sverjans says:

    Hard to believe that only 2 pages discuss the role of online activities.
    Moreover, am I right in perceiving a very institutional-driven approach, and not a learner-centred one?
    No higher-ed 2.0 yet…

    Thought-provoking post… Thx.

  2. Tim Hunt says:

    2 pages solely about online stuff would be OK if it was taken as read elsewhere in the report that online stuff permeated everything a university does. I have not read the report, but I can guess …

    The problem with Niall’s killer question (and to a lesser extent the others) is that suppose you get one of last year’s students to describe how effective the university’s teaching methods where (I would rather not single out online stuff, we really care about the overall picture). This year’s sixth former reads that when planning where to study next year. That is a minimum of two year’s lag, and with the rate of technology adoption, is that meaningful?

    If we are talking about online communication, should we not instead ask: Where can potential applicants go now, to try out the tools they would use for learning, to communicate with current students about what studying at that institution is like?

  3. munkle marland says:

    It is precisely your present ‘user base’ that possibly needs to be surveyed to a greater extent – people I know using the OU have very interesting reactions to the online learning methods and varied experience using the collaborative facilities, but are rarely asked about them. I’ve no idea what amount of surveying goes on, but it should definitely be a first call to gain a clear picture of the realities. Forget worrying about ‘learn-er/ing outcomes’, worry first about ‘input/crossput’ facilities.

    There are of course two ways of looking at everything:
    a) you might conclude that, If the present interfaces do not convince a majority of the users, you will have a hard time getting them to use any new ones;
    b) nevertheless, new cohorts of students will not be influenced by already acquired experiences, so you always have a ‘tabula rasa’ on which to introduce new features.

    Even so, I suspect that user expectations will be the main issue – but here again, the Catch22 of new technology is also two-sided:
    a) familiarity breeds contempt – so, if they have used better interfaces elsewhere or have chosen to reject some, they will also reject them on the OU environment;
    b) if they are presented with unfamiliar interfaces and these are not intuitive, they will also show reluctance towards them.

    The baseline requirement is precisely what has always been lacking in education: proper familiarisation and full practical training on how to use the systems for both staff and students – preferable in that order! They introduced Moodle over ten years ago at my old institution and the staff still haven’t a clue on how to use even 20% of the facilities properly.

    You are obviously intending to improve things and have put a lot of thought into the above, but there is some way to go when certain elements of confusion still exist in the present system. Presentation of the facilities through user guides is not enough; it is active engagement with these facilities as an inbuilt part of the course that is required. IT courses do a fair bit of this (e.g. in collaborative learning on the use of email/chatroom/forum/netiquette, etc.) but it is still fairly limited.

    Maybe that is an unavoidable problem of large institutions and the disparate staff outlooks on learning … I wish you well.

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