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.