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Module briefing: Technology-enhanced learning – foundations and futures

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On Saturday 17 November 2018, I attended a module briefing for H880 Technology-enhanced learning : foundations and futures which enables students to gain a postgraduate certificate in Online and Distance Learning. It’s a module that may be of interest to many OU associate lecturers, but also to other online teachers or tutors in other institutions, since the module “is aligned with the Professional Standards Framework developed by the UK’s Higher Education Academy (HEA), a framework used for benchmarking success within higher education teaching and support.” The module description goes onto say that: “Students working towards HEA Fellowship will be able to use their work on the module to help them build a fellowship case”.

Unlike other OU modules, this postgrad certificate module will use the learning platform that has been developed by FutureLearn. An alternative description of the module (which is described as an ‘online degree’) can be found on the FutureLearn website as a Postgraduate Certificate in Online and Distance education (FutureLearn) 

For anyone who might be interested, a ‘taster version’ of this course available through FutureLearn, which is called The Online Educator: People and Pedagogy (FutureLearn). Also, on the OU’s own free course website, there’s a course called Take your teaching online (OpenLearn).  

What follows are some of the more interesting notes that I made during the briefing day. A point that I will add is that I haven’t shared everything for two reasons: there’s a lot I don’t know, and I also understand that the module is still being worked on in anticipation for the new students starting in February. A final point is that although I am considered to be appointable (which means that I am eligible to tutor on the module), I don’t (yet) know whether I’ll have a group of students; everything depends on student numbers. 

Pedagogic principles

During the start of the day, Rebecca Ferguson and colleagues from FutureLearn introduced us to the FutureLearn platform. I was interested to hear that there are some clear pedagogical principles that underpin the design of the platform. There are four principles: (1) telling stories, (2) provoking conversations, (3) celebrating progress (through visible feedback), and (4) developing of skills. Of these, I understand that conversations was the most significant, since there is a link to something called the conversational framework, which was something that I blogged about quite a few years ago.  

Platform differences

One of the sessions during the briefing was to talk about the similarities and differences between the OU virtual learning environment (which is based on Moodle), the FutureLearn system, and differences between the terms that are used within the two organisations. One key difference is that the FutureLearn platform is all about learning at scale, whereas the OU VLE is all about facilitating and managing small group access. Another observation is that some pedagogic approaches can be difficult (or can degrade) with scale. An example of this is you can’t apply coaching or small group methods to hundreds of students at a time (unless you have many tutors, like the OU does, of course), but you can deliver lectures to large groups of students.

This difference in scale has influenced the design of the FutureLearn platform. Rather than having a separate area where students can contribute to discussions through tutor group or module forums, students can participate in discussions that are attached to ‘articles’. Articles, in FutureLearn-speak (as far as I understand it) are just webpages, where concepts are presented or explained.

Unlike the OU system, the FutureLearn platform doesn’t have a module calendar that covers the whole period of the presentation. Instead, the course is split up into four units which take place over several weeks. The module registration page gives a bit more information: “H880 is divided into four eight-week programs: Foundations of TEL, Adapting to Contexts, Opening Up Education, and Educational Futures. Each program ends with reflection and assessment. There is a week’s break between each block.”

Assessments

During their time studying H880, students will have to use two different systems: the FutureLearn system to access the module content and to participate in discussions, and the OU system, which students will use to submit their assignments.

The module consists of 3 TMAs (tutor marked assessments), and 1 end of module assessment (which is an extended essay). From what I’m told, students will have to create a learning resource that relates to their own professional teaching practice. In some respects, this reminds me of what students had to do when they studied a module that I used to tutor on, H810 Accessible online learning, where students had to create their own accessible learning resource.

Reflections

I always enjoy module briefing events, and this was no exception. I also felt that this face-to-face meeting was important, since there was a lot of information that needed to be shared with the tutors. There were a lot of differences between the ‘OU world’ and the ‘FutureLearn world’ that needed to be understood, and this could only be really grasped by having a conversion.

A few things strike me: the first is that the module is expected to have an international reach. In my experience of tutoring on H810, there were students studying from all over the world, and I understand that this is an expectation that continues with H880. It was also interesting to learn that due to some of the differences between the platforms, students might have to use different tools to share information and resources with tutors. This, in some respects, can be considered both a challenge and an opportunity!

H880 is going to be the first OU module that will be presented using the FutureLearn platform. In many respects, the choice of the platform appears to fit with some of the aims of the module materials. I also understand that the university will be learning from the experience with the aim of potentially influencing future decisions. From my perspective as a tutor (and secondly, as a staff tutor), this looks like an important and an exciting thing to be doing.

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MOOCs - What the research says

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Friday, 3 Jan 2014, 10:23

On 29 November 2013 I bailed out of the office and went to an event a place called  the London Knowledge Lab to attend a dissemination event about MOOCs.  Just in case you’re not familiar with the term, a MOOC (Wikipedia) is an abbreviation for Massively Open On-line Courses. The London Knowledge Lab was a place that I had visited a few years ago to attend an event about e-assessment (blog post).

This post is a quick, overdue, summary of the event.  For those who are interested, the London Knowledge Lab has provided a link to a number of pages (Institute of Education) that summarises some of the presentations in a lot more detail.  

Introductions

The event started with a brief presentation by Diana Laurillard, entitled The future potential of the MOOC.  During Diana’s presentation, I noted down a number of points that jumped out at me.

An important question to ask is what problems is a MOOC going to solve?  Diana mentioned a UNESCO goal (UNESCO website) that states that every child should have access to compulsory education by 2015.  It’s also important to note that there is an increasing demand for higher education but in the sector, the current model is that there is 1 member of staff for every 25 students.  If the objective is to reach as many people as possible, we’re immediately faced with some fundamental challenges. One thought is that perhaps MOOCs might be able to help with the demand for education.

But why should an institution create a MOOC in the first place?  There are a number of reasons.  Firstly, a MOOC offers a taster of what you might expect as a particular course of study, it has the potential to enhance or sustain the reputation of an institution that provides (or supports) a MOOC, offers an opportunity to carry out research and development within the intersection between information technology and education.  One of the fundamental challenges include how to best create a sustainable business model.

A point to bear in mind is that there hasn’t (yet) been a lot of research about MOOCs.   Some MOOCs clearly attract a certain demographic, i.e. professionals who already have degrees; this was a point that was echoed a number of times throughout the day.

Presentations

The first presentation of the day was by Martin Hawksey who talked about a MOOC ran by the Association of Learning Technology (ALT website).  I made a note that it adopting a ‘connectivist’ model (but I’m not quite sure I know what this means), but it was clear that different types of technology were used within this MOOC, such as something called FeedWordPress (which appears to be a content aggregator).

Yishay Mor, from the Open University Institute of Educational Technology spoke about a MOOC that was all about learning design.  I’ve made a note that his MOOC adopted a constructionist (Wikipedia) approach.  This MOOC used a Google site as a spine for the course, and also use an OU developed tool called CloudWorks (OU website) to facilitate discussions.

Yishay’s tips about what not to do include: don’t use homebrew technology (since scaling is iimportant), don’t assume that classroom experiences work on a MOOC, from the facilitators perspective the amount of interactions can be overwhelming.  An important note is that scaling might mean (in some instances), moving from a mechanical system to a dynamic system.

The third presentation of the day was by Mike Sharples who was also from the Open University.   Mike also works as an academic lead for FutureLearn, a UK based MOOC that was set up as a partnership between the Open University and other institutions.  At the time of his presentation, FutureLearn had approximately 50 courses (or MOOCs?) running.

I’ve noted that the pedagogy is described as ‘a social approach to online learning’ and Mike mentioned the term social constructivism.  I’ve also made a note that Laurillard’s conversational framework was mentioned, and ‘tight cycles’ of feedback are offered.  Other phrases used to describe the FutureLearn approach include vicarious learning, conversational learning and orchestrated collaboration. 

In terms of technology, Moodle was not used due to the sheer number of potential users.  The architecture of Moodle, it was argued, just wouldn’t be able to cope or scale.  Another interesting point was that the software platform was developed using an agile process and has been designed for desktop computers, tablets and smartphones. 

Barney Graner, from the University of London, described a MOOC that was delivered within Coursera (Coursera website).  I have to confess to taking two different Coursera courses, so this presentation was of immediate interest (although I found that the content was very good, I didn’t manage to complete either of them due to time pressures).  The course that Barney spoke of was 6 weeks long, and required between 5 and 10 hours of study per week.  All in all, there were 212 thousand students registered and 9% of those completed.  Interestingly, 70% were said to hold a higher degree and the majority were employed.  Another interesting point was that if the students paid a small fee to permit them to take something called a ‘signature track’, this apparently had a significant impact on retention statistics.

Matthew Yee-King from Goldsmiths gave a presentation entitled ‘metrics and systems for peer learning’.  In essence, Matthew spoke about how metrics can be used on different systems.  An important question that I’ve noted is, ‘how do we measure difference between systems?’ and ‘how do we measure if peer learning is working?’

The final presentation of the day, entitled ‘exploring and interacting with history on-line’ was by Andrew Payne, who was from the National Archive (National Archive education).  Andrew described a MOOC that focused on the use of archive materials in the classroom.  A tool called Blackboard Collaborate (Blackboard website) was used for on-line voice sessions, the same tool used by the Open University for many of their modules.

Towards the end of the day, during the start of a discussion period, I noted of a number of key issues for further investigation.  These included: pedagogy, strategy and technology.

Reflections

In some respects, this day was less about sharing hard research findings (since the MOOC is such a new phenomenon) but more about the sharing of practice and ‘war stories’.

Some messages were simple, such as, ‘it’s important to engineer for scale’.  Other points certainly require further investigation, such as, how best MOOCs might potentially help to reach those groups of people who could potentially benefit most from participating in study.  It’s interesting that such a large number of participants already have degree level qualifications.  You might argue that these participants are already experienced learners.

It was really interesting to hear that different MOOCs made use of different tools.  Although I’m more of an expert in technology than pedagogy, I feel that there is continuum between MOOCs (or on-line courses, in general) that offer an instructivist (or didactic) approach on one hand, and those that offer a constructivist approach on the other. Different software tools, of course, permit different pedagogies.   

Another (related) thought is that learners not only have to learn the subject that is the focus of a MOOC, but also learn the tool (or tools) through which the learning can be acquired.  When it comes to software (and those MOOCs that offer learners a range of different tools) my own view is that people use tools if they are sure that there is something in it for them, or the benefit of use outweighs the amount of investment that is extended in learning something.

In some respects, the evolution of a MOOC is an exercise in engineering as much as it is an exercise in mass education.  What I mean is that we’re creating tools that tell us about what is possible in terms of large scale on-line education.  Some tools and approaches will work, whereas other tools and approaches will not.  By collecting war stories and case studies (and speaking with the learners) we can begin to understand how to best create systems that work for the widest number of people, and how MOOCs can be used to augment and add to more ‘traditional’ forms of education.

One aspect that developers and designers of MOOCs need to be mindful of is the need for accessibility.  Designers of MOOCs need to consider this issue from the outset.  It’s important to provide media in different formats and create simple interfaces that enable all users to participate in on-line courses.  None of the presenters, as far as I recall, spoke about the importance of accessibility.  A high level of accessibility is connected to high levels of usability.

Just as I was finishing writing up this quick summary, I received an email, which was my daily ‘geek news’ summary.  I noticed an article which had an accompanying discussion.  It was entitled: Are High MOOC Failure Rates a Bug Or a Feature? (Slashdot).  For those who are interested in MOOCs, it’s worth a quick look.

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