October 23, 2014

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 5: Master the technology

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In this post I argue that taking the time to be properly trained in how to use standard learning technologies will in the long run save you good deal of time and will enable you to achieve a much wider range of educational goals than you would otherwise have imagined..

This is the sixth in a series of 10 posts on designing quality online courses. The nine steps are aimed mainly at instructors who are new to online learning, or have tried online learning without much help or success. The first five posts (which should be read before this post) are:

Nine steps to quality online learning: introduction

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 1: Decide how you want to teach online

Nine steps to quality online-learning: Step 2: Decide on what kind of online course

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 3: Work in a Team

Nine steps to quality online learning: Step 4: Build on existing resources

A condensed version covering all the posts in this series can be found on the Contact North web site: What you need to know about teaching online: nine key steps‘.

There is also a version in French: Ce que le personnel enseignant doit savoir sur l’enseignment en ligne: neuf étapes clés

Deceptively easy technology

I’m going to be discussing here the following types of online learning technologies:

  • learning managements systems (such as Blackboard and Moodle)
  • synchronous technologies (such as Blackboard Collaborate and Adobe Connect
  • lecture recording technologies (such as podcasts and lecture capture.)

You need to know not only how to operate such such technologies, but also their strengths and weaknesses.

These technologies are deceptively easy to use, in the sense of getting started. They have been designed so that anyone without a computer science background can use them. However, over time they have become more sophisticated with a wide range of different functions. You won’t need to use all the functions, but it will help if you are aware that they exist, and what they can and can’t do. If you do want to use a particular feature, it is best to get training so that you can use it quickly and effectively.

To give one example. With an online course with a large enrollment, there are likely to be several different sections, with perhaps several different instructors. However, the content is likely to be the same for each section. It is possible in some LMSs to enter the content once, then divide the students between different sections, rather than copy and paste the content into each separate section. If set up properly, any change to the content – such as a new url or reading – can also be added once only, with each section getting the new version automatically. However, (a) you need to know the LMS has that feature (b) you need to know how to set it up this way. You also need to know how to keep sections apart, so that each group can have its own version of materials, if necessary. You will also need to decide if individual instructors sharing the same course material can change material centrally and if so, what the procedure is for informing the other instructors.

Furthermore, new functions are constantly being added to existing LMSs. For instance if you are using Moodle there are ‘plug-ins’ (such as Mahara) that allow students to create and manage their own e-portfolios or electronic records of their work. The next wave of plug-ins is likely to be learning analytics, which will allow you to analyze the way students are using the LMS and how this relates to their performance, for instance.

Thus a session spent learning the various features of your LMS and how best to use them will be well worthwhile. The same applies to synchronous technologies such as Blackboard Collaborate. Also it is worth knowing how to incorporate or integrate Collaborate or Adobe Connect with your LMS – or whether it might be better to keep them separate.

This training should be provided by the centre or unit that provides faculty development and/or learning technology support. If your institution does not have such a unit, or such training, I would think very carefully about whether to use online learning – even the most experienced instructors occasionally need such support. Also, just like any profession, you will probably need at to spend a little time least once a year looking at any new features added during the year.

Relate your technology training to how you want to teach

There are really two distinct but strongly related components of using technology: how the technology works; and what it should be used for. These are tools built to assist you, so you have to be clear as to what you are trying to achieve with the tools. This is an instructional or pedagogical issue. Thus if you want to find ways to engage students, or to give them practice in developing skills, such as solving quadratic equations, learn what the strengths or weaknesses are of the various technologies for doing this.

This is somewhat of an iterative process. When a new feature is being described or demonstrated, think of how this might fit with or facilitate one of your teaching goals. But also be open to possibly changing your goals or methods to take advantage of a tool in enabling you to do something you had not thought of doing before. For example, an e-portfolio plug-in might lead you to change the way you assess students, so that learning outcomes are more ‘authentic’ and evidence-based than say with a written essay. (This will be discussed further in the next step ‘Setting appropriate goals for online learning.’)

A recorded lecture from MIT

Why not just record my classroom lectures?

Podcasts and lecture capture enable lectures to be recorded, stored and downloaded by students. So why bother to learn how to use other online technologies such as an LMS?

Although this may appear to be much easier for you as an instructor, you are likely to end up doing more work because you are likely to be inundated with individual e-mails, or have a very high student failure rate. In other words, students in general don’t learn well online in this way. There are several reasons for this:

  • online students need a sense of ‘presence’ of the instructor when studying online. They don’t get this from recorded lectures alone. They need regular and ongoing contact. If this is not ‘managed’ properly by the instructor, you are likely to get lots of e-mail. An LMS provides a variety of ways for you to be ‘present’ online, such as facilitating online discussion, adding materials or personal contributions regarding difficult ideas or concepts, providing online feedback to individual students on their online work, etc.
  • online students have to fit their studying with other aspects of their lives, such as work and family. Usually there is a much higher proportion of students online working full time and with families than in fully face-to-face classes. Long lectures don’t in general work so well for these students.
  • downloading one hour long video lectures takes time, depending on the bandwidth, but can take up to 10 minutes of ‘dead time’ while the video downloads.
  • attention span decreases even more rapidly online than in a classroom lecture.
  • online students also tend to study in smaller ‘chunks’ of time (because of their other life style commitments), so a 50 minute lecture doesn’t work so well for them. Retention tends to be better when studying is spread over frequent but shorter periods of time. An LMS is really good for doing this.
  • over 60 years of research shows that lectures are a poor medium for instruction (see Christensen Hughes and Mighty, 2010). A great deal is missed or misunderstood, and even more is forgotten immediately the lecture ends. Quality online teaching is based on research that has identified how students best learn (see E-learning quality assurance standards, organizations and research). Asynchronous learning combined with a selective use of synchronous technologies provides better results.

This is not to say that the occasional recording from you as the instructor would not be valuable. However, it is best to keep it to 10-15 minutes maximum, and it should add something unique to the course, such as being about your own research, or a guest professor being interviewed, or your relating a news item to issues or principles being studied in the course.

Delivery of content is much better done through the LMS, where it is permanent, organized and structured (see Step 7 later), available in discrete amounts, can be accessed at any time, and can be repeated as often as is needed by the learner.

If you must use lecture capture, think about structuring your in-class lecture so that it can be recorded in separate sections of say 10-15 minutes. One way of doing this is pausing at an appropriate point to ask for questions from the classroom students, thus providing a clear ‘editing’ point for the video version. Then provide online work to follow up from the lecture, such as a discussion forum or some online student research on the topic.

Conclusions

Online learning technologies such as learning management systems have been designed to fit the online learning environment. This requires some adjustment and learning on the instructor’s part. Like any tool, the more you know about it the better you are likely to use it. Thus formal training on the technology is necessary but need not be onerous. Usually a total of two hours specific and well organized instruction on how to use an LMS should be sufficient, with a one hour review session every year.

The harder part will be figuring out how best to use the tools educationally. This requires you to bring a clear conception of how students best learn, how you need to teach to match that, and how to design such teaching through the use of online technologies.

Next step

The next step will focus on setting appropriate goals for online learning and will address some of the pedagogical issues raised in this post.

Questions

1. How much formal training have you had on your institutional learning management system? Is this enough or are you now fully confident that you know all the features and how best to use them?

2. When should you use a synchronous technology such as Blackboard Collaborate? What are the disadvantages of synchronous technologies for online students? (see Models for selecting and using technology: 4. Synchronous or asynchronous?‘ for more on this).

3. Should you rethink entirely your teaching when moving online or could you use mainly your classroom material? What would be the possible disadvantages of using recorded lectures online?

Reference

Christensen Hughes, J. and Mighty, J. (eds.) (2010) Taking Stock: Research on Teaching and Learning in Higher Education Montreal QC and Kingston ON: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 350 pp, C$/US$39.95

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