July 29, 2016

Online learning for beginners: 6. How do I start?

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Seek professional help from your institutional teaching and learning support staff

Seek professional help from your institutional teaching and learning support staff

This is the sixth in a series of a dozen blog posts aimed at those new to online learning or thinking of possibly doing it. The other five are:

Warming up

If you have been following this series of blog posts, you have already started. It shows that you have an interest. However, you should see these blog posts more as a warm-up than the real game. Warm-ups are valuable. They save you getting hurt when you start playing, but they are not the real thing. So here are at least two quite different strategies for getting started into the real ‘game’ of teaching online.

1. The professional strategy

I have outlined these as a series of steps, but some of these can be taken concurrently; they are more in order of importance than in sequence.

Step 1: Contact the professionals

There should be in your institution a group of people who specialize in supporting online learning. There may be a unit in your faculty or department, or a central unit, with a title similar to ‘Centre for Teaching and Learning’ or ‘Centre for Learning Technologies.’ However  the people with the real expertise are often found in Continuing Studies or Extension departments, under such names as the Centre for Distance Learning or the Centre for Digital Learning. This is because historically such units were responsible for the design, development or delivery of distance learning, but as a result they were often the first adopters of online learning. They often work with faculties in helping develop for-credit online courses as well as non-credit courses.

Be careful, though. Some faculty development offices are staffed entirely by people who are experts in face-to-face teaching, but have no experience or may even be hostile to online learning – so make sure they do have the expertise. If not, some other steps are suggested below. Similarly, some IT support groups may have expertise in online learning, but others may do no more than provide training in the use of a learning management system or lecture capture system. You will need more assistance than that, although learning how to use the technology is important.

The reasons for contacting the professionals are obvious but still worth stating. First they may have access to money to provide release time for you to spend the necessary time to develop your first online course. Second, they should have instructional designers who can walk you through all the necessary steps to ensure a high quality online course. These professional departments should also have technical support staff who can help with the use of specific online tools, such as a learning management system, video recording, wikis and blogs, and web design.

When you first approach them, tell them of your interest. The first meeting needs to be an open, exploratory discussion between you and someone from the support unit. Keep an open mind. Listen to what they suggest and what they can offer, and whether this fits with your interests and needs. (Reading these blog posts and dipping into ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘ would be a very good preparation for this initial meeting.)

Step 2: Get your department onside

Talk to your department head about what you are thinking of doing, and find out if there are colleagues in the department who are already doing online learning in some form or other. It will be much easier for you to get help and encouragement if the academic department already has a strategy or plan for online or flexible learning. Indeed, academic departments should be thinking about online learning at a program level. How much online learning should there be at each level as students progress through a degree program? Where would your course fit in this plan?

Unfortunately, academic departments often don’t have such a plan or strategy. But once you start moving into online learning, you should have a voice in initiating or shaping such a plan. The earlier you make contact with your department head and colleagues and let them know of your intentions, the better.

Step 3: Think about what kind of online course you are interested in

In the first and fourth posts in this series, I described a number of different types of online course, from blended, to hybrid to fully online, using recorded lectures (not recommended) or an instructional design approach (highly recommended). Also think carefully about the needs of your students as well as the pedagogical reasons for going online. What type of online learning will best suit your students? Teaching in a Digital Age will be particularly useful in helping you make these kinds of decisions (see Follow Up below).

However, in your context, whatever I may personally recommend, which makes the most sense to you in your context? For instance, if you are unfortunate enough to be in an institution where instructional design support is not available to you, then recorded lectures may be a better option.

Also, NOT doing online learning, because the support is just not there, should also be an option. Better not to do it than to do it badly. But make sure you have explored all the possibilities before coming to this decision, and let your head of department know why you are making this decision.

Step 4: Develop a work plan

All teaching, face-to-face or online, needs careful thought and preparation, but moving into teaching online for the first time is particularly demanding. Depending on whether there is already a curriculum and learning materials in place or not, it can take up to nine months preparation before an online course opens. If the course is to have a substantial amount of online work for students, then they need to know well in advance before enrolling. Students also need to be prepared for online learning (covered later in these posts).

This is where having instructional design support becomes particularly valuable. A good instructional designer will walk you through the process and guide you on what and when you need to prepare. But even if (or especially if) you don’t have instructional design support, a flexible but detailed plan of what you will need to do is essential. And give yourself plenty of time to get all the ducks in line.

2. The amateur strategy: just do it!

Your institution may not be able to provide you with any support or all this might seem too much or unnecessary or you just want to get on with it, in which case, just go ahead. However, this should be a fall-back position out of necessity, not a first choice.

If you do decide to go it alone, I do strongly recommend you read Teaching in a Digital Age before starting, so you have some idea about what the possibilities are and some of the dangers. In particular, read Chapter 11, ‘Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age’, which includes nine steps to quality teaching, and Appendix 1, Building an Effective Learning Environment. This is not enough, of course, but better than doing nothing in the way of preparation.

Implications

  1. Teaching online is a professional activity with a strong knowledge base. It is not something to be done lightly or without proper preparation.
  2. In most cases, there should be professional help available. Seek it out and listen to what they have to say. If there is none in your institution, perhaps it’s better not to go down this route.
  3. Your online teaching strategy should really be part of a wider strategy for teaching and learning within your academic department. Your first online course should fit within this strategy; if there is no strategy or plan for online learning, get involved in creating one.

Follow-up

Hard to know where to begin here, other than read through ‘Teaching in a Digital Age.’ In particular read:

Contact Uncle Tony

As a last resort, if you have tried to follow all the steps in this post, but still have problems, drop me a line at tony.bates@ubc.ca. I will need to know about the context you are working in, the particular problems you are facing, and why you can’t get help in your own institution or locally. I will then do my best to advise you.

Up next

‘Why not just record my lectures?’

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or plain disagree, please use the comment box below.

Online learning for beginners: 1. What is online learning?

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Student at computer at home 2

Getting started in online learning?

Every day, someone new either thinks about doing an online course, or is pressured into doing one. You may have quite a lot of prior knowledge about online learning (or think you do), or may have no knowledge at all. The most important thing to know though is that you probably don’t know enough about online learning, especially if you are just starting out (which defines you as wise, according to Socrates).

I have been teaching and researching online learning for nearly 30 years (yes, online learning started that long ago). Over that time, a great deal of research and evaluation of online learning has been done. Although much more could be done, and not all the work has been of high quality, nevertheless there is a great deal now known about what works and what doesn’t in online learning. Learning by experience is often a good way to learn, but it can also lead to frustration and, more importantly, students may suffer from the instructors’ lack of experience or ignorance. Thus at least knowing the basics before you start can save you not only a lot of time, but also will help you develop better courses from scratch.

I have written a 500 page, free online open textbook on Teaching in a Digital Age, which draws extensively on the latest research into online learning, and is meant as a guide for practitioners. Unfortunately, though, there are very few short guides to online learning, to help you make the decision about whether you should make the effort to do it properly.

So this is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at those new to online learning, particularly but not exclusively for those in the post-secondary education sector. I am hoping that these blogs will not only provide some of the basic knowledge you need before starting, but will also lead you to go further by digging into the parts of Teaching at a Distance that are relevant to you at any particular time.

Online learning: a definition

There is no Academie Française or Academy of Science or Technology that provides an ‘official’ definition of online learning. It is what people say it is, so I can only give you my personal definition, which is as follows:

Online learning is any form of learning conducted partly or wholly over the Internet.

The continuum of online learning

I have deliberately chosen a very broad definition of online learning, because it comes in many different varieties (there will be another blog post on the different varieties of online learning). My definition means that learners will use a computer, tablet or some other device for their learning, and it also means that at some point in their studying they have to go online – through the Internet – to access information or communicate with an instructor or other learners.

I therefore see teaching as a continuum:

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

From Chapter 9.1.2, Teaching in a Digital Age

  • at one end, there is teaching with no use of technology, which therefore is NOT online learning, but ‘pure’ face-to-face teaching. However, teaching without any technology is very rare these days, at least in formal education;
  • then there is the use of technology as a classroom aid, which may or may not be online learning. For instance an instructor using a projector and Powerpoint slides would not be using online learning, but students being directed to use a device such as a laptop, tablet or mobile phone to look at a web site during a classroom lesson would be a form of online learning, but the classroom would remain the main means of delivery. However this could be considered a sub-branch of online learning, called blended learning;
  • so, as with most continua, we get to a point where definitions become a little less precise, and this is blended learning, which again can mean a number of things, but in general means a combination of face-to-face teaching and a significant use of online learning, especially outside the classroom. This can take a number of forms:
    • a flipped classroom is one where student do preparation online before a classroom session (for instance watching a pre-recorded video lecture, and/or online reading);
    • hybrid learning is one where the whole classroom experience has been redesigned to focus on what the instructor thinks is best done online and what is best done face-to-face; in hybrid learning students may spend 50 per cent or more of their time learning on line;
  • lastly, fully online learning, where students do not come to campus at all, but study entirely online, which is one form of distance education.

Note though that online learning can include learning with or without an instructor physically present, and that a computer lab where everything is already pre-loaded on the computer would not be online learning. (This form of learning is still found in some countries with poor or no Internet access).

The important thing to remember is that online learning is primarily a mode of delivery, a way of delivering education to learners, NOT a particular method of teaching. Online learning can support a wide range of teaching methods. For instance lectures can be delivered in class (face-to-face) or over the Internet, as can experiential learning, constructivist approaches and many other teaching methods. This will be a topic of later posts.

We shall also see that online learning, like face-to-face teaching, can be done well or it can be done badly, but that too is a topic for another post.

Implications

With the increased use of online learning, every instructor now has to ask themselves two important questions:

  1. Where on the continuum of teaching should my course be, and on what basis should I make that decision?
  2. How do I decide, in any form of blended learning, what is best done online, and what is best done face-to-face?

Teaching in a Digital Age attempts to help you answer such questions, but in order to answer those questions well, you will need to read a lot of the book.

Follow-up

So in the meantime, if you want to know more about what online learning is, here is some suggested further reading (no more than an hour). Just click on the link:

  1. From the periphery to the centre: how technology is changing the way we teach, Chapter 1.7, Teaching in a Digital Age
  2. The continuum of technology-based learning, Chapter 9.1, Teaching in a Digital Age.

Up next

‘Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching?’ (to be posted in the week July 18-22, 2016)

Your turn

If you have comments, questions or just plain disagree, please let me know.

Students in small group online 2

Getting faculty and instructors into online learning

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Online learning: easier than assembling a BBQ! Image: Professional Assemblers

Online learning: easier than assembling a BBQ!
Image: Professional Assemblers, 2016

I mentioned in an earlier post that we don’t always do a very good job in helping people new to the field of online learning to understand what is already well known in the field. As a consequence, errors are made and wheels are re-invented or discovered. To some extent, this is inevitable. We learn better by doing than being told, but it can also lead to frustration or people just giving up. (“I tried online learning once, and it was terrible.”)

Now the best solution of course is to get them to read my online, open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, which is a guide to teaching and learning online. But it’s over 500 pages long, so how to get them started in the first place, how to help them get rid of the hoary old myths, so that they are interested enough to take it seriously and start learning properly about online learning?

To do this, I’m going to run a series of short blog posts which I was tempted to call ‘Online Learning for Dummies’, after the very successful series of ‘how to’ books. However, I don’t think this title would go down well with faculty and instructors, so I’m going to call the posts ‘Online Learning for Beginners.’ Think of it as similar to Playboy or 50 Shades of Gray for teenagers, to be read and hidden under the bed before they go on a real date. (Although I promise you, these posts won’t be nearly as much fun).

Each post will be short – less than 800 words – and can be read in less than 10 minutes. But there will be quite a lot of them:

  1. What is online learning? (A definition)
  2. Isn’t online learning worse than face-to-face teaching?
  3. Aren’t MOOCs online learning?
  4. What kinds of online learning are there?
  5. When should I use online learning?
  6. How do I start? Who can help me?
  7. Why not just record my lectures?
  8. But won’t online learning be more work?
  9. What can I do for myself? (Each a separate blog)
    • get help from professionals/experienced colleagues
    • sources (books, journals, conferences)
    • courses
    • start small (blended)
    • nine steps to quality online learning

You could call this the nine or ten myths – or mythteries – of online learning. I know this kind of thing has been done before (but not by me) but it probably needs to be done over and over again as new people are always arriving at the door.

Now for most of my regular readers, this will be boring stuff, things you already know, but what I’d like you to do is to gently direct these posts in front of faculty or instructors who are currently hostile to online learning or are nervous about taking the plunge, and especially to those who have already jumped in without their shorts on. And I suggest you don’t pass on this particular post to faculty!

However, as always, your advice, suggestions and downright criticisms are always welcome.

Image: Used.ca, 2016

Image: Used.ca, 2016

Brexit and online learning in Europe

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Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Image: The Millennium Report, 2016

Little England triumphs

Well, Little England has triumphed at last. The votes in suburban and industrial England and Wales were enough to defeat Londoners, Scots and the Northern Irish. So not only can we expect the future dismantling of the European Union, we will also probably see the end of the United Kingdom. Poor Queen – she must feel sick as a parrot as she considers the consequences. Also the old, as always, punished the young. The young mainly wanted to be outward looking Europeans; the old outvoted them, forcing them to remain in Little England (unless, like I did, they can escape).

It was not a surprise to me. Right up to the closing of the voting, and despite a last day uplift in the Remain support in opinion polls, and despite the bookies and the smart money, I was convinced that Britain would leave. Like most referendums, it was driven by emotion, not logic, and for many Brits, when they got in the voting booth, their emotions would take over.

Freedom!

Punish the bastards (the bastards being ‘them’, the invisible but omniscient ‘elite’ who have got us into this mess.)

Back to the glory days when Britain ruled the world and England won football matches.

No more Frogs and Krauts telling us what to do.

No more invasion by Syrians and terrorists.

How predictable. How sad.

It is a disaster that could have been avoided. David Cameron is staying on for three months ‘to steady the ship.’ Sorry, Mr. Cameron, but the ship has already sunk, and it was you who pulled the plug when you thought a nice little referendum would get those pesky Euroskeptics in your party off your back. What a petty motivation for destroying not only a country but a continent.

Well, of course, it won’t be as bad as that, will it? The panic and shock will slowly dissipate, the money people will work out new ways to make money, and Putin won’t be nasty and invade the Baltic states, will he? People are resilient and will find a new way through.

So let’s look forward and see what the implications are for online learning in Europe, which is almost as important as the Euro nations soccer championship (will England be disqualified now)?

Then

In the 1990s, there wasn’t a lot of online learning happening in Europe, although there were several big open universities: the UK Open University was dominant, but there were also sizeable open universities in Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. In online learning, some Norwegian distance education institutes, such as NKI, were launching online courses. When EDEN, the European Distance Education Network, started in the early 1990s it was mainly dominated by the big open universities, but it began to expand its membership by dropping institutional membership and moving to individual membership. This was important in bringing in many new participants, some of whom were European leaders in online learning. But the UK OU was still the major player, even though it was relatively slow in moving to online learning.

At the same time, the European Commission had launched a number of major funding programs that focused on ICTs (information and communications technologies) in education, such as the DELTA program. These were often large, unwieldy projects that required participants from several countries, particularly from those countries that were struggling economically or were ‘new’ to the EU, and also required sometimes a minimum of three industrial partners. Although such projects often got bogged down in trying to balance the interests of all the participants, were often slowed down by stifling bureaucratic requirements from the EC, and one or two participants from more economically advanced countries ended up doing most of the work, these programs were useful for widening the expertise in the area of online and digital learning across a large number of member states and brought new players into the game. However, in the early 1990s there were only 12 or so member states.

Now

The most significant change has been the expansion to 28 states, incorporating most of the Eastern European countries that were part of the Soviet Union. The EC still has major programs that provide funding for ICTs in education projects (although digital is now the more favoured term). More importantly, many more countries all over Europe now have substantial experience in online learning, as was evident from the recent EDEN conference. Nevertheless, Britain is still a dominant force in this area and has been a major contributor to EC programs in online and digital learning.

Not only will the withdrawal of UK participants be a major blow for many of these European projects, but also UK universities and consultants in the field of online and digital learning will lose out on major funding opportunities and the opportunity to learn from working with European partners. This may not be as bad as in other areas of collaboration or business, because academics and educators will still go to international conferences and share experiences, but nevertheless there will be a net loss both for British and European online practitioners.

What went wrong?

There are people closer to the action who are better placed than I am, but here’s my two cents worth, anyway:

  • Europe got too big, too quickly. It was difficult enough to get consensus with 12 countries with relatively similar economic and social contexts, even if the languages were different. Expanding to 28 countries covering an immensely wide range of languages, cultures and above all, economic circumstances without a change to the overall governance/political model has led to gridlock in decision-making;
  • as a result, the European Union has failed to deal adequately with its three most important challenges: the recovery from the economic recession in 2008; the immigration crisis; and its relationship with Russia. It has showed weakness in responding to each of these admittedly difficult challenges, with negative implications for the average Joe and Joe-ess in Europe and Britain;
  • Britain too suffered badly from the economic recession. Most of its major banks went bankrupt and had to be bailed out with taxpayers’ money. Many of those bankers are still in place, earning almost obscene amounts of money. Although the economy has picked up since 2008, the British government has been running an austerity-focused economic policy, which hits hard unemployed and low income workers and families. Many working class people in the former industrial parts of England have been unemployed through five generations, since the devastation of UK manufacturing industries in the 1980s. Both of the two major political parties have been run until recently by ‘establishment’ figures from public school/Oxbridge backgrounds. A major theme in the run-up to the referendum was the rejection of advice from ‘experts’ (economists, politicians, international leaders and think tanks, the Bank of England) who were seen as an untrustworthy elite who benefit from the status quo. The class war is alive and strong in the UK and getting worse, as a result.
  • at the same time, fed by a viciously simplistic and racist tabloid press, many middle class Brits feel that they are no longer getting the respect they feel they deserve; the Empire has crumbled and their culture is being threatened by a wave of immigrants. England is already full. Last year, Britain, which has a population of 54 million and is geographically smaller than the Canadian Maritimes, took 360,000 immigrants, compared to the whole of Canada (population 34 million), who took 260,000. There are genuine fears that immigrant numbers will increase much more over the coming years, as the Middle East disintegrates further. The Leave proponents deliberately played on these fears.

So in this referendum, there was what we have also seen in the run-up to the USA presidential election: a weird alliance of what appear to be extreme right and extreme left wing voters rejecting and overwhelming the moderate, ‘rationale’ centre in politics. However, unless the genuine grievances of these groups are addressed, we will see similar so-called ‘irrational’ political upheavals in the future. In particular, the widening gap between rich and poor needs to be addressed or we will all end up victims to so-called ‘irrationality’.

 

Talking numbers about open publishing and online learning

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Screen shot from my blog site analytics today

Screen shot from today’s analytics page from my blog site

Please forgive me here for a little self-indulgence. By sheer coincidence, two statistics converged yesterday.

2 million blog post hits

First, I passed the 2 million mark for the number of hits on this web site. This is by no means a challenge to Justin Bieber or Donald Trump, or even Stephen Downes, but I think it is a reasonable accomplishment for a relatively serious blog devoted to rather lengthy posts about online learning and distance education.

The web site is just under eight years old, having started in July 2008, and currently is averaging about 35,000 hits a month (which is remarkable as I have been posting less than once a week over the past few months, thus defying the first rule of blogging – publish daily). However, the continued activity despite the lack of many new posts in the last year is particularly satisfying, because it means that the site is being used as a resource, a place to go to regularly for information on online learning and distance education.

The table below gives a list of the most popular posts, but it should be remembered that the older the post, the more hits it is likely to get:

All time hits 2

For instance, ‘Recommended graduate programs in e-learning’ and ‘What is Distance Education?’ were posted on the original web site when it first opened. The largest supplier of free online learning (posted in April, 2012) is ALISON, and the number of hits reflects potential students looking for (objective?) information about ALISON, especially what its certificates are worth. In this case, the comments from ALISON users are probably more valuable than the original article.

A short history of educational technology‘ is a much more interesting phenomenon, being posted as recently as December, 2014, as a draft for my online textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’. At the moment it is getting over 200 hits a day, and it appears that it is a set reading for one or more online courses.

On the other hand, ‘Can you teach real engineering at a distance?’ is seven years old, but is still very active from student comments, including yesterday. This post in particular reflects many potential students’ frustration with the lack of accredited online courses in engineering, especially in Canada.

What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs‘ is an interesting measure of the interest in MOOCs over time. Most of the hits came in the first year (August, 2012), although it is still averaging just under 200 hits a month, and 3,000 over the last year. However, in the last twelve months, ‘Comparing xMOOCs and cMOOCs: philosophy and practice‘, a draft for the book, has overtaken it with nearly 5,000 hits this year.

The data therefore suggests to me that the site is used as much by potential or actual students as by faculty and instructors – or at least it is [potential] students that drive the large numbers of hits.

And the best ever 3,190 hits in one day? Well, that was ironic. It was the day after I posted ‘Time to retire from online learning?‘, when I got almost 2,000 hits that day on that post. It’s been downhill (gently) ever since!

32,000 book downloads

Also yesterday ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ not only came out in a French version, but the English version has now passed almost 32,000 downloads of the book (18,003 from the BCcampus Open Textbook web site, and almost 13,928 from the Contact North web site).

Again, this isn’t the Da Vinci Code in best sellers, but these are downloads within a 15 month period for a 500+ page textbook aimed at faculty and instructors. My best-selling commercially published book aimed at faculty and instructors, ‘Effective Teaching with Technology in Higher Education’, published by Jossey Bass in 2003, never got close to 10,000 in sales.

Conclusions

So a lesson for writers: open, online publishing will almost certainly reach more readers than a commercial publication or an academic journal. Whether it will have as much influence will depend on other factors, such as judging the market, the quality of the book or paper, its timeliness, the need of the readers, and your prior experience in publishing. What open publishing will not bring you is direct income from the book, or promotion or advancement to an academic position, although that too may well change in the future.

For a more detailed discussion of whether open publishing is worthwhile, see ‘Writing an online, open textbook: is it worth it?’ Nothing that has happened in the last 12 months has made me want to change what I wrote then.