Friday, January 27, 2006

Isnt it just spoon-feeding?

When you set up an online learning environment, you structure a number of resources and activities. The question is often asked: “Isnt it just spoon-feeding?” And in education, and particularly higher education, we have to take this question seriously.

I approach the question as a designer, and there are several design options:

1. The overall principles

1.1 Activities
Online learning works best if there are activities associated with every chunk, or learning object. This can range from 'make a summary' or 'think of an example from your own experience, and make some brief notes on how it might apply' to doing a substantial piece of work: computational, programming, analysis, research, etc.

The point is that 'read and digest' is not really enough.

1.2 Discussions
Online discussions can provide really valuable learning environments - for 'moderated peer learning'. That means you have to set up a successful workshop online. And if you do, substantial amounts of learning take place between the learners, and all you have to do is guide, prompt, sum-up, etc.

The point is that this is the key 'value-added' in online learning, and you can set it up by designing a series of activities, many of which (not all, necessarily) ask the student to do the activity and then to post a reflection on that activity (not necessarily the whole activity) to a discussion forum.

Discussions work best when they are (or at least start off as) quite specific, focused, and limited in scope. If they are too broad, they tend to go off into many directions, and the ‘thread’ of the discussion is lost.

2. Options

2.1 Discussions
The simplest way to design discussions is to incorporate a discussion in every activity (and Learning Object). Alternatively, you can decide which of those activities you think must have discussions, and which you might like to add later, when you set up the discussion forums (which can be set up in 20 minutes).

The way you run your discussion board depends entirely on how you approach your own teaching, and my teaching style comes out clearly in the particular choices I make in setting up a discussion board, and managing and changing it as I go along. I’m a fairly opportunistic facilitator, and I like to ‘fold back in’ discussions from one part of the forum to another. That builds in lots of reflective practice.

2.2 Self managed learning
The template that we use (TEX 3) has been deliberately designed to set up the opportunities (and even obligations) for students to become (and learn to become) self-managed learners. The idea is that we give them an outline of the topic, links to resources, and an activity (which is often feeds into a discussion) in the main (central) body of the template. These resources are the ones they really must be familiar with if they are to do the task adequately.

Then we add further resources in the next layer (Useful links, on the right) and even further resources in the third layer (See also, bottom right). This gives them more resources than they need, and you can put some pretty challenging stuff into the ‘See also’ section.

This should be a cumulative set of layered resources, that you add to from time to time, or with successive presentations of the course, but it can also be an opportunity for students to send you useful links that they have found, which you can choose to add for the next presentation, or not.

Over time, this enables the online template to become a very rich, structured, environment, in which the bottom line, required, readings and techniques are right there in the middle, with structured, easy to navigate links to a wealth of further resources on the outside. This (in principle!) gives the learner a rich environment to explore the topics, but also puts the onus squarely on them to construct their own learning path through these resources, and contribute more of their own too.

That’s the idea, anyway. I like to think (?) that it’s the opposite of spoon-feeding, as you can design a set of rich, layered, intuitively navigable resources that no student could possible use all of, and which are supportive in the centre, and ever more challenging as you move out into the more peripheral resource links.


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