One of the things I love about the summer break is that it gives me time to learn new things. Normally this means working my way through as many books as I can read before I have to go back to work (when my time for recreational reading evaporates). In summer 2015/2016 I decided to direct my learning in a different direction and explore the blended and distance delivery landscape.
For those not familiar with these terms, blended delivery refers to education programs where at least part of the content is delivered other than face to face, typically using digital or online media. Distance delivery, as the name suggests, is where students learn at a distance from the physical campus of the learning institution. In both cases the student typically has some control and freedom over when, where, and at what pace they learn.
In the first two months of 2016 I took part of various learning activities including a summer school course at the University of Canterbury and several Coursera courses. The following is a review of these two approaches to teaching and learning.
Course 1 – Introduction to Linguistics, University of Canterbury Summer School
I am fascinated by the way people communicate, so this six week, 15 credit course beginning in January seemed like a good idea at the time (though I soon realised that fitting 150 learning hours into six weeks would be a challenge). The content of the course was delivered through the University of Canterbury’s Learn (Moodle) platform using Echo360 and various readings and worksheets. A course textbook was assigned, and each week there was a one hour lecture on site at the university to work through the worksheets. Learning was assessed through weekly online tests each worth 5%, a written assessment worth 40%, a 20% test in the 3rd week and final test worth 20%. Both tests were completed in person, on site at the University of Canterbury.
My first week started with a technological hiccup as I found myself unable to log on to Echo360. The course co-ordinator was really helpful and when this wasn’t immediately solved by ICT I received an extension for the first test. From my own teaching I am aware that such log in issues are not uncommon but it was interesting experiencing it as a learner. Once I did sit the on line test I was very impressed, as learners were allowed three attempts at each test. This allowed me to use the test to pinpoint areas I hadn’t yet understood, to work on them, and then try the test again. Each attempt rearranged the questions to avoid rote learning. By having these weekly tests it pushed me to keep up with the material – I suspect if these tests were not required I would have done what many students do and let my learning slide towards the latter half of the course.
The interesting thing about being a learner is that you find yourself doing things you tell students not to do. I am embarrassed to say I turned up to my first tutorial under prepared and struggled to keep up – this would not happen again, as it was clear this was wasting an opportunity to learn. The tutorials were delivered by a teaching assistant who was delightful to work with – she guided us skilfully through the various worksheets, although 1 hour each week never seemed like enough time.
With limited class contact time, the Learn forum was a good way to seek clarification about various aspects of the course, and the course co-ordinator and teaching assistant were very responsive. I was surprised that very few students made use of the forum to ask questions. The majority of students did not use it more than once, and while a couple of other students asked several questions, I ended up being largely dominated by my questions. Even when I posted a chart I had developed to help remember vowel sounds there was limited response from other learners. While educators talk about learning as a social activity I suspect many learners still view it as an individual pursuit.
Prior to the first class test, the course co-ordinator used an online chat forum for live discussion of questions from students. While learners were a little slow to ask questions to begin with, soon questions and answers were filling the chatroom, and I thought this was a very useful exercise.
There were many aspects of this course which worked well for me, however, there were some that didn’t. I was not a big fan of the recorded Echo360 lectures – they were too long (some went for more than an hour!) and I would have much preferred to read through course notes or a textbook, however, for this course the lectures were central to the content. Alternatively, breaking up the video into 5 to 10 minute sections such as those used for Coursera or Lynda.com are a far more effective way of delivering content.
I did not feel the textbook was necessary for this course (and luckily I was able to borrow a copy rather than buy one). Each week there were additional readings from other books provided on Learn, which sometimes made it unclear about what we did and didn’t need to know. The different readings sometimes used different terminology which was confusing. This has led to some valuable reflection for my own teaching as I am sure that my terminology is not always consistent – as experts it is easy to use different terms interchangeably without realising the confusion this can create for learners.
The first exam was returned to us in class to check, however, we were not allowed to keep it. Personally, I do not think this is good educational practice, as it removes an opportunity for students to get a thorough understanding of what they do and don’t understand.
Overall, I think the Introduction to Linguistics course was a good course. The fact that it has been compressed into 6 weeks produced some challenges – at the end of the course there were only a few days to learn and process the final materials for the final test. However, the staff was really responsive and accommodating – I was allowed to sit a test at a different time when I had to be out of town on business, and they responded to questions really quickly online. The online tools were excellent, although I think shorter, sharper videos would further enhance the course.
Course 2 – Inspiring & Motivating Individuals, Coursera
As a Head of Department I see my role as one which should support and motivate the people around me. In looking for online courses to learn more about working with my team I found a number of relevant courses on Coursera
Coursera is one of the most popular, for profit MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) delivering content to a worldwide audience. A wide range of courses are available from many different institutions including Princeton, Stanford and CalTech. The courses are well resourced and this shows in the fairly slick delivery.
When MOOCs were first developed they focused on content delivery only, and this was typically provided free of charge. However, many MOOC courses now provide assessment, for a price. Upon successful completion of an assessed Coursera course/programme certificates are issued to confirm the learners’ achievement. This is something I wanted to explore further.
Inspiring and Motivating Individuals is a one of 5 courses which makes up the Leading People & Teams specialisation based at the University of Michigan. Each course costs $95 US if you want to be formally assessed. Alternatively you can sign up for free to access the content.
Delivery of the course content is through a series of videos, each video typically running between 3 to 5 minutes. The video typically shows the lecturer speaking, and I constantly found myself pausing the video to take notes. This was easy to do because the videos were so short. Although it wasn’t done in this course, other Coursera courses overlay key points onto the screen alongside the lecturer. I think this is an excellent approach. Having the content delivered as a series of short videos makes it easy to manage my time as a learner. Every 5 minutes I could decide whether to keep studying or to come back to it later.
After every 3 to 5 videos there was a short multiple choice test (8 to 10 questions) which was helpful to test how much I had learnt. I could repeat these tests as often as I wanted to, to improve my score but in practice, I found I only needed to repeat them once or twice (if at all) to get what was considered a passing score of 8 or 9 out of 10).
There were also a couple of more substantial assessments, where I was required to apply what I had learnt to a case study relating to my job. These were online – the assessments were well written with a clear marking rubric. Once the assessment had been submitted you were then required to read and mark (using the same rubric) the work of 5 other students on the course. This was interesting as it gave me insight into the jobs and lives of other students. Many were from countries where English was not their first language, and where there were interesting cultural differences in their workplace. At first I wondered about the veracity of having my work marked by peers, however, the marks I received seemed quite fair, apparently an average derived from the marks of my five peers. They could also leave comments, which was not widely used, but I did have a wish of “good luck with that” from someone when I described how I was approaching a challenge at work”.
The course was scheduled to run across 4 weeks, however, learners could move through it faster. I took one week to view all of the content and complete most of the assessments, but had to wait to complete the final assessment while I waited for feedback from an earlier assessment.
The course had a forum in which the lecturers encouraged participants to discuss key ideas, however, this was not used by all learners. I only used it initially as once I accelerated my pace I found the fora lagged behind where I was.
Coursera courses are designed to suit the busy professional. The learner can proceed at their own pace, and for the more popular courses if you miss the final deadline you can be automatically enrolled in the next occurrence of the course for free. The delivery works well for subjects which are content rich. Learner identity is verified using by matching your image from the computer camera with ID such as a drivers licence.
Overall, I found Coursera to be a convenient and flexible learning platform. Videos were of high quality and could be sped up or slowed down to adjust for fast or slow speakers. The assessments seemed fair and reasonable although it seems strange to only have peers and not lecturers involved in the marking process. It is a format that is well suited to content that is relatively straightforward where assessments involve rechecking key facts or simple application of ideas.
Blended and distance delivery have come a long way in the last decade, as different platforms merge evidence based teaching practice with new technologies. The blended and distance courses described above demonstrate some of the ways technology can now support learning through:
- Well organised learning platforms (e.g. Learn/Moodle)
- Efficient self-paced delivery of content through short, well designed videos
- Worksheets to support active learning with tutorial staff
- Online tests to encourage progressive learning, with multiple attempts allowing the student to identify areas that need more work
- Online fora for asking questions and sharing resources
- Peer assessment using clear and detailed marking rubrics
Experiencing these as a learner helped me understand the importance of clarity, excellent learning support, and efficient use of my time. I would recommend all educators take the opportunity to explore learning from the learners’ perspective.
Featured image: Flickr CC, Moyan Brenn.