On the 16th April I delivered a staff development session ‘Designing your online or blended learning course’ at the Wrexham campus (PowerPoint Presentation below)
During the session a couple of themes emerged:
In discussion with the attendees the main driver for migrating at least part of their teaching to the digital medium was to support their learners, especially those studying part-time and those on placement away from the university. For part-time students, the flexibility of online study combined with some face-2-face contact in a ‘blended’ (not a term I like but is one that seems to be popular and understood) learning structure was seen as an attractive option. For placement students, the possibility of remaining in contact and providing on-going support was also desirable as students can sometimes feel isolated when away from the campus.
Two main challenges to moving ‘online’ were identified; a lack of understanding of best pedagogic approach and a lack of technical skills. Attendees recognised that moving online meant that simply transferring their classroom methods and, in particular, classroom materials such as handouts would be insufficient but struggled to identify how to modify their approach for best practice. I found this to be refreshingly honest and welcomed the fact that colleagues recognized they would have to change their approaches, as it seems to me that many teachers do not. In terms of acquiring technical skills, this was seen as a significant challenge, much greater, I suggest, than it actually is. I am a believer in the KISS (“Keep It Simple Stupid”) approach and, even with limited technical skills, provided the pedagogy is right, basic technologies can be used to great effect.
My talk centred on two main aspects of online (or blended) learning and teaching.
The issue of self (slide 17) and the essence of community (slide 18).
These apparently conflicting attributes are, to my mind, core to successful online learning and teaching. ‘Self’ or ‘presence’ of both the tutor and the learner is rather difficult to define. In the classroom both tutor and learner project their respective personalities, whether that be through verbal interaction or body language and this can be difficult, if not impossible in terms of body language, to transfer to the digital medium. I would, however, argue that the tutor’s personality can be transferred by careful programme structure, by injecting personality into the content and by appropriate communication. For me, course materials should reflect the personality of the tutor and this is a different approach to that normally employed in the classroom, where the tutor’s personality is apparent from the ‘delivery’ rather than the ‘content’. Learners also need an avenue to express their own personality; in my online course we make extensive use of forums including a ‘café’ forum which is used for general ‘chit-chat’. I think we all recognise that traditional classroom study is more than just the course; it is also those informal interactions that occur in the corridor, the coffee shop or wherever; online we need a similar environment.
Leading on from the concept of self is the idea of community. Forget what has been said about the isolation of online study (outside of MOOCs), generating a sense of community online is achievable but requires a different approach. For me, allowing personalities of both tutor and learner to emerge and by facilitating both formal and informal discussions, communities will evolve; in some cases it is almost impossible to stop them! Establishing a community not only eliminates the potential of isolation, it also provides a support system for both tutor and learner.
As the staff development session ended I was struck by two things; colleagues were excited about the possibilities offered by online teaching but also realistic about the challenges they face in doing this successfully; if only more realised that ‘going digital’ is not as simple as it may, at first, seem.
I am optimistic about, and look forward to, future developments at Glyndwr.