An understanding of teaching, learning and/or assessment processes
Earlier this year I enrolled on the MSc in Blended and Online Education, at Edinburgh Napier University. Alongside having a strong interest in the field, the content closely aligns to projects I am currently involved in a work capacity, and opportunities have arisen allowing me to utilise my learning. One opportunity has been to look at ways of enhancing a sense of community amongst students learning together on a distance online programme.
Improvements to the course included (See Fig. F):
- Asking students to add profile pictures in induction week
- Creation of a separate ‘community’ forum, alongside graded forums
- Ask students to write a small piece on themselves, and their location, within the community (during their induction week)
- Creation of a help and support forum, allowing students to triage support calls them, building that sense of community; peers helping each other etc.
The purpose of these activities are to foster the growth of a community and setting engagement expectations (Palloff, R. M., & Pratt, K. 2003), however they can also have positive effects on the motivation levels of students (Simpson, O. 2012). Gaining first hand experience of being a distance learning student has allowed me to understand the need for a community feel in assisting in the learning and teaching process, within an online environment. A high percentage of the course is completed through asynchronous discussions. Through participating in these discussions I have witnessed an increase in engagement across the module from students as well as an increase in perceived confidence levels (see Fig. A). Another clear advantage of posting and reading others’ opinions, findings and experiences has allowed for a deeper, broader awareness in the area of study.
In regards to the student experience, my overall approach to assisting students through our support channels changed almost immediately as a result of enrolling on the MSc. Whilst I have always provided a high level of day-to-day support, I have become more sympathetic towards students queries which in the past I may have made incorrect assumptions. During induction week on a distance learning course, I chose to create a collection of short video tutorials that showed and explained to students how to access and use areas of their course, including posting and replying to discussions, adding journal content, uploading assessments and editing a group wiki. The idea here was to be proactive, rather than merely reactive to any issues that may arise during course engagement, allowing students the opportunity before they began their studies to locate and understand how to engage with the tools required on their course.
Links to (copies of) my video tutorials:
An understanding of your target learners
As part of my individual project, I created a discipline specific Virtual Learning Environment template course (see Fig. B), which allowed learners (staff in this example) the opportunity to view their content within the new VLE they were moving to, and to experiment with its available tools. Whilst it could be looked at as course design, the course itself was already pedagogically sound, just the platform it was delivered on was being retired.
Initially when I began to develop this structure, I spent a lot of time working through the previous, soon to be retired platform, to gain an insight into the types of activities and content that was being delivered. Whilst this was OK in the initial stages of construction, I soon realised that I’d need involvement from the programme team, to clearly understand how and why they were utilising certain tools and approaches.
Whilst creating this structure, it was key to discuss with the programme team how they approached key areas, one of which was assessment and feedback. Meeting with the learners on a weekly basis allowed for a better understanding of the workflows they previously used, and from this I could help identify if these could be improved, or at worse replicated in the new platform, with an idea to look to improve in the future. One example where an improvement was made was within the grading of formative tasks throughout the programme. I knew when building the template that graded discussions and wikis were required, but after taking the time to sit with the team and work through their existing workflows and requirements allowed me to embed previously externally accessed rubrics into the platform; creating an enhanced and reduced workflow for tutors grading work, as well as students accessing feedback (See Fig. C).
Another area I raised concerns with was the wording of the sequential learning content headings. The programme team highlighted this was an area they had discussed, and to make the change within the migration project felt an appropriate time to make the adjustment. Previously topic content was housed under ‘Week 1, Week 2, Week 3 etc.’ headings. Whilst this theory meant students knew where they were in the studies, it wasn’t a very helpful naming convention when learners look for specific information or content. Within Blackboard Learn I was able to create navigation links which included a relevant topic title alongside the week number. Within the specific content pages themselves, I could then alter the title accordingly, so that it was clear which topic a student was viewing, as well as which week the content is being delivered (See Fig.D).
When working on similar projects in the future I intend to:
- Meet with the target audience (stakeholder) on a regular basis. This relationship was a key to the success of the rollout of the template into live courses.
- Look for areas that can be updated (within the project scope) to enhance the experience of target learners and their students. Working closely with programme teams allows fosters a better understanding of their programme. Alongside my experience and knowledge of tools, resources and policies, I can offer alternative approaches that look to simplify workflows, for both academics and students.
- Maintain a consistent approach when designing course templates; structures, naming conventions, font size and colour, icons etc. The purpose of a consitent template used across a programme ensures the user doesn’t feel lost, and is confident accessing the course content going forward, spending less time figuring out how to use certain tools, and spend more time participating in learning tasks.
Palloff, R. and Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student. 1st ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Simpson, O (2012). Supporting students in online, open and distance learning.