The Beginnings of an Online Distance Learning “Manifesto”!

A few weeks ago I was asked to contribute to a discussion which sought to classify how the University of Derby should approach its online distance learning provision in an ‘ideal world’, and whether or not we could align this approach with a wider ethos. Speculating about what an ‘ideal’ distance learning module should comprise of, I began to systematically work through what I deemed to be the best bits of innovative content on our VLE, hoping to be able to formulate the bare bones of what I will pretentiously call a manifesto.

From a learning technologist perspective I’m particularly interested in whether or not this manifesto can potentially define a set of principles to support tutors in uniformly structuring their content, and in-turn influence how that content is delivered to students. A threshold standard designed principally for our online provision, if you like.

Having never lived in anything resembling an ideal or perfect world, the seven points below were as far as I got with said manifesto, but if anybody in the blogosphere has any thoughts about how I can improve or build upon these points then I’d love to hear from you.

So, without further ado.

1. Introducing Content to Students

Working with tutors at Derby, we have found that “talking head” style video introductions can offer the following benefits:

  • provide students with a human element to their distance study (a face to the name);
  • place the content of the module in context with the wider programme;
  • summarise key points;
  • anticipate questions and problem areas;
  • make information accessible, and
  • very importantly, engage and motivate students;
  • allow students to view content on demand throughout the duration of a module and programme.

2. Keeping Students Engaged with their Tutor

Throughout the duration of a module at Derby, we encourage tutors to keep content “alive” by updating topic areas with video and audio to help motivate our students. In an online distance learning environment this type of content is extremely useful because tutors can “react” to particular areas of concern and address them quickly and easily. This strategy is particularly useful for revision purposes.

Hopefully, by making sure our students academic needs are catered for through personalised support, we can keep retention rates high and maintain a significant level of engagement with content.

3. Rich Interactive Content for Case Studies

Case studies are extremely useful when we want students to associate knowledge with action. For our online modules at Derby we often use rich interactivities and video as a “trigger” for building case studies through the use of Wiki’s, supported by discussion forums, blogs and synchronous virtual collaboration.

4. Keeping Students Engaged with their Tutor AND One Another

Increasingly, case studies and groupwork activities are directly supported by the suite of “collaborative tools” we have available at Derby. Our online distance provision widely uses discussion boards, wikis and virtual classrooms for formative and summative assessment purposes.

Virtual classrooms are extremely useful for tutors who want to present content both formally and informally to their students at a distance. Students can virtually raise their hand and ask questions and develop concepts and ideas with their tutor and, perhaps equally important, their peers. This can significantly counter feelings of isolation and detachment and increase a strong sense of cohort identity, particularly important for our online distance learners.

Virtual rooms are also left “open” for students to communicate directly with their peers, without the need for a tutor to be present. In doing this, students can negotiate their own roles within group work activities and impart their personalised knowledge and experience to one another effectively and on their own terms. This facility gives our students both a strong feeling of independence and community.

Virtual rooms can be archived and conveniently accessed online and on-demand at any time allowing a high degree of both freedom and flexibility for our online students throughout their time studying on a programme. Tutors at Derby also regularly use virtual classrooms for induction and revision sessions with their online students. These sessions have proved to be very popular.

5. Remotely Assessing Students

Students at Derby are assessed formally throughout the duration of their module by using engaging and imaginative content, including Wiki’s and Blogs.

Summative (scored) assessment is often completed using secure drop-boxes and intuitive assignment handling techniques with built-in plagiarism checking. We can also test students through secure browsers in a protected environment, by using very-high end bespoke assessment design.

6. How We Package and Present this Content to Students

All of the content we develop is presented to the student as a coherent learning package.

Adhering to the principles of the university’s set of threshold standards, these packages feel and look the same for students on any particular programme and all sit within our single-sign-on Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Because of this high level of consistency, students quickly adapt to the navigation and language of all packs and can concentrate on engaging with the content, rather than finding it.

7. Branded Partnership Content

All content is standards compliant and will behave the same way in almost every commercially available learning platform. Furthermore, it is accessible across a full range of mobile devices, including smart phones and tablets/pads. Because of this, partner institutions can be confident that the student experience will be equitable across the board.

Finally, all content can quickly and easily be “rebranded” for use in other environments and with various external partners.

3 thoughts on “The Beginnings of an Online Distance Learning “Manifesto”!

  1. Speaking as an online tutor working with both an undergraduate and a postgraduate programme and working closely with Chris I would certainly agree with all of the points that he makes, below I have tried to give examples of how Chris’s ideas have worked for me in practice.

    I feel that it is important to develop a variety of methods that are appropriate to the modules/programmes in order to develop a “Learning Community” within the online programmes where there is a sense of belonging to something where we can share ideas, develop our knowledge and achieve both in academic and personal ways.

    To date I have employed to a limited degree the virtual classroom last year – but I will be employing the technology more fully this year. This has something to do with gaining confidence to use the virtual classroom before committing to use it formally. It is really important in terms of quality of provision for staff and students to feel confident about using it.

    The discussion boards on some modules have been very active as a result of both staff and students adopting and maintaining an attitude of curiosity and willingness to share their views experiences and questions.

    Skype has also been very useful – because it does not rely on much investment and is easy to use there is a real sense of students and staff meeting that really helps us to feel that we have a connection and that the programme is not something that people do in isolation with little involvement with academic staff or each other.

    Video clips have been essential because of the nature of the subject area (Psychotherapy & Clinical Supervision) they have provided a means of

    – demonstrating skills
    – As part of the assessment where student are asked to provide an analysis
    – Used as brief communication tools where a quick 3 minute video can explain or introduce things and can be sent by email to all students which has increased the personal touch

    My view of the “Threshold Standard” idea for online that Chris alludes to is that it comes with the same issues that “threshold standards” come with in any other learning methods.

    Some of the opportunities are

    – Where there is uniformity it means that staff and students have a clear idea of how to navigate and engage with the module/programme which helps people to feel confident that they can orientate themselves quickly and thus work effectively.

    – There is a clear idea of what the standards look like – I often feel isolated and wonder if other people’s modules are far more advanced than mine.

    Some of the concerns are
    – Despite efforts to regard the uniformity as operating with flexibility to accommodate different needs for different modules or programmes, some people still view it as the imposition of a template that they must conform to, and thus may not embrace it in the spirit that it is meant. This may then in turn reduce further development and creativity.

    The above are some of my personal musings and certainly do not represent any one else’s position. Thank you Chris for your post which prompted me to reflect on this.

  2. Online distance learning – what a great opportunity! A few years ago I completed some modules of my degree as a distance learner – how different it was then! I felt very isolated and detached from the University and never developed any real feel for the course. There was no opportunity for discussions amongst my peers. No platform where good practice could be shared and built upon, and very importantly, no feeling of a student community. It is very easy to take today’s technology for granted when we live in a world of VLEs, blogs, social networks etc. but it most definitely needs to be harnessed and used to it’s fullest potential. Having used Skype extensively in my teaching as a primary school teacher, I cannot express more strongly the benefits of using a ‘virtual classroom’ where you can actually ‘meet’ face to face. It is far more productive and collaborative when you can see one another. Students can build up a rapport with one another and their tutor, and form their own student community online. To be able to hold online workshops using a tool such as Skype could be a huge benefit for this, one where a time and date is set and students agree to ‘meet’. This allows the interaction between peers and the platform for discussion that my course sadly lacked. I completely agree with Wendy that people need to gain confidence with the technology before committing to use it formally, so that what is delivered is of the highest quality and is there to enhance learning. There is definitely a need for some kind of model/standards to follow to ensure the uniformity of the quality of teaching, otherwise students will have different experiences of learning. This of course, like anything else, brings with it the need for training and monitoring for compliance. It is a new, challenging and very exciting way of learning and teaching, but also one that I feel needs guidance and support. I think your seven points are a really positive and thoughtful start to your manifesto!

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