If you were going to describe your online practices, what would you point out as significant?
Difficult question when you are in the middle of activities. But I’ll give it a try. I’ll give you an overall description which I hope will enable you to ask for what might be appropriate for a book chapter or an article.
First of all we are doing online teaching meaning that the students are fully online with no or almost no meetings IRL. Generally we attract full-time working people. All work within courses are done in our LMS (learning management system). Apart from storage of course material and information to the students, the actual interaction with people and material takes place in the “course room” which is the metaphorical expression for the actual space where activities take place.
The over all structure is specified in the so called study guide. The courses are a mixture of what Mason calls "wrap around" and "integrated model" which means that we specify text books and Internet resources but we also require that students find and contribute with resources which they know of or have found in various databases. It should be pointed out that all our courses are on the advanced level
Most courses have also recorded lectures given by prominent lecturers. These lectures are in many cases recorded live which means that they are not professional productions. Normally they are presented together with slides. There are also short presentations explaining complicated theoretical parts from textbooks. Normally such presentations consists of an audio file with synchronized slides.
The general approach to learning and instruction on which the course is based is computer supported cooperative work meaning that there should be interaction among students as well as among instructors and students. We emphasize particularly interaction among students as a means of learning. It goes without saying that continuous access to computers and the Internet are prerequisites.
When a new course starts we introduce it, if possible, with an optional meeting IRL. It is generally valuable to have seen each other before the actual work starts. In the first meeting we deal with issues such as registration for the course and other practical matters. The main activity, though, should be something of great value for the participants. Normally we also have some group activities to make the participants acquainted with each other. Lunch will give a good opportunity to familiarize (on one occasion we even prepared the lunch together). On several occasions the students have taken photos of each other, photos which later on will be used as identifiers in the course work when people are geographically spread out. The photography sessions are normally quite cheerful events and with the digital camera it is possible to delete and take photos until the participant is satisfied. During the initial meeting we also explain the course structure and what we require of the participants. We will turn to that part now.
Every course is divided into modules. The general idea of each module is presented in the study guide. After that the particular resources and the specified reading is introduced. The assignments are of particular importance in an online course. It must be spelled out what the participants are expected to do and accomplish. Apart from reading (acquiring) the participants should also participate and contribute, meaning that they should not only read and acquire text material but above all make written contributions and discuss other’s contributions. The philosophy behind the acquire-participate-contribute sequence is described in Collis and Moonen’s book Flexible learning in a digital world.
The contributions are mainly of two kinds: seminar entries and discussion entries. The seminar entry is similar to the traditional academic seminar where every participant ideally contribute to the discussion. An advantage with virtual seminars is that participants’ contribution are uploaded in advance so that other participants can read and reflect upon what is written before the actual discussion begins. When seminar entries are uploaded according to a set time-table, the participants are required to discuss the seminar entries. Normally, we specify how participants should respond to the seminar entries. We have found out that it is necessary to give detailed instructions about to whom and how many responses are required. For grading reasons we normally have to tick off what has been completed. Ideally we do not focus on grading.
It is extremely interesting when students end up in lengthy discussions as a consequence of their contributions. These discussions may partly be demanded but the best discussion appear when the students get really interested in some topic. As a course instructor you can benefit a lot from appointing students as moderators for the discussions.
Do the discussions really have any substance?
I think it is fair to say that not all discussions penetrate their issues deeply. This does not mean that discussions are superficial but that they are as deep as possible at that particular moment. When you read theoretical stuff I think you will need time to understand what is in the texts. In this case I do not think you are worse off online compared to being in a classroom.
It might be of value to consider the text mode used in the online courses. In most cases discussions are carried out by written contributions. The delay between production and feedback might be a disadvantage in some cases. Fellow students may not respond in due time and tutors often have several other courses to take care of. However, the time delay is noramally an advantage since participants will have the opportunity to think things over before they respond to something. Synchronous text messaging is often better suited for practical matters or just for a friendly chat.
Ok. This seems pretty interesting but what is your actual contribution to the flexible learning arena?
I think the most interesting part is how you can make the participants collaborate. It is interesting to find out if it is possible to run online education with such great responsibility for the students. It is a way of giving the students responsibility for their own learning and since they are experienced students I think they should be responsible. But the strategy also puts the teacher role in a somewhat ambiguous position.
What does the collaborative approach really mean? Is it problematic in some way?
Well some students might come to the course with an idea of handing in assignments to the teacher. They will soon be aware that this is not the way to do it in this course. Instead they are required to read and think for themselves initially and eventually discuss with others. It goes without saying that it is a quite demanding task to read texts, sometimes quite lengthy texts and then produce a well-formulated account.
Do all succeed?
Unfortunately not. Quite a great number of the students do not finish their studies but it might not necessarily be because of the course structure. In most cases it is because they cannot find time enough to study. I think, generally, they tend do underestimate how much time it takes to be an online student. Besides, they might learn quite a lot even if they do not get the credits when the course is over.
So how would you go about changing your courses in order not to lose so many students?
First of all, I think we should rely on some old reinforcement principles e.g. make the students feel they succeed and progress. It might be possible to divide the courses even more into self-contained modules, the completion of which will make you feel that you have actually laid a part of the course behind you. The visible indicator of this is that your get your credit. However, with too much modularization you run the risk that students lose coherence. I think that also the assignments could be better specified in order to make the students feel they have accomplished something.
Because of the drop-out rate we have also started an informal mentor program. At the moment two former students have volunteered to devote some of their time to helping their successors in the course. This approach is yet to be evaluated but thus far there have been lots of activities.
Ok, this seems interesting but still it will not qualify as a theoretical account of online learning. How about turning to the analytical level? What are your theoretical foundations? On what analytical principles do you base your practice?
First, I think you just mentioned one, namely practice. Previously I’ve been doing studies where I used activity theory as a conceptual framework. Practice is an essential foundation for those theories originating from Marxism. Still, I think the Lave and Wenger concept of Community of Practice is what guides me most in my work. I would really make the participants feel they are belonging to a Community of Practice. This will also be facilitated by the fact that the theory of Community of Practice is one of the study objects in one of the courses. Overall, I think it is appropriate to consider the participants as having a “mutual engagement”, a “shared repertoire”, and a “joint enterprise” in Wenger’s own words (might be wishful thinking, though).
Second, I think the availability and access to technology is important in my courses. Apart from the LMS you should only need publicly available technology (as long as you consider Microsoft Windows applications publicly available). Still, the LMS does not need dedicated software for the end-user. Only software that comes with the OS or that can be downloaded for free is used. Generally we are not dependant on a particular OS even if Microsoft Windows still dominate.
Third, text is interesting. How does text have an effect on the contributions?
These are just three aspects which occurred to my mind. There are probably many more underlying suppositions which I am not aware of because I am so deeply involved in practical matters, as I pointed out initially.
Hm! What you’ve just said isn’t of much value for a theoretical account. Have you any ideas for the future?
Well, I think our courses are rather traditional meaning that they follow the normal semesters at the university. They are not really flexible in that sense. I also think we are pretty traditional when we use our LMS to propagate our views of teaching. Today people talk a lot about Wikis and other collaborative software. I also think that the university generally have to deal with the Open Educational Resources movement (OER). Recently a report (“Giving Knowledge Away for Free”) from the OECD presented by Knowledge Foundation in Sweden sketched out a future scenario with an increasing access to open educational resources. I don’t think there are any strategies for these matters at our university.