Tips for preparing and presenting online learning

This week we had a group of library staff contribute to a roundtable discussion about online training. We were lucky to have visiting Australian Tom Worthington* talk to the group. These are some notes from the wide-ranging discussion.

Online approaches

In face-to-face teaching, a unit in philosophy taught over a semester is very different to a single training session in how to find something in a library catalogue. However in practice in the online world they are the same.

Tom noted that five years ago he decided to stop giving lectures and only deliver courses online. It has taken that time for him to feel comfortable with the online delivery.

The electronic equivalent of the traditional lecture is you prepare a reading block, mail it to the students, give them exercises to do, they write it down and you give them comments. But there is an opportunity to do much more. An example is the book “ICT Sustainability: Assessment and Strategies for a Low Carbon Future“, used for an ANU course.

The ‘flipped classroom’ is an approach where the online component is first. However unless you give them a task they will come to the first day full of excuses. The convenor can give students blocks of exercises. At the face to face section you can have the informal discussion and help them with problems. That works well.

Text based courses can use video that someone else has recorded on the topic. The process is the students:

  • Read the summary of the course
  • Do the readings
  • Do the test
  • Then have a discussion online or in person together.

Asynchronous courses ask students to contribute to an online text based forum. As an example, the questions for week one of “ICT Sustainability”.  The students might be asked to answer questions – find a paper or video on the topic, say why it is relevant. They should post to the forum by the middle of the week, must reply to two other posts by two students by Friday. Then use peer assessment to mark each other’s work. It is good if their contribution is used in some way. Usually allocate 10-20% of the marks to their contribution to the marking of each other’s work. Students will go to remarkable lengths to get small number of marks. Needs to make sense to the long term goal of the student.

One way of presenting a course is to provide small ‘units’ of information which are not timed. At the end of a unit the student does a test and when they pass they move onto the next section.

Using traditional eLearning you would have at most 24 people in each group – you usually still have ‘loud’ people you have to tell to stop writing/talking.

Course structures

There are standards for learning materials. The University provides considerable resources for Learning Aims and Outcomes.

It helps to have rigid statements about what the course is about. These should include learning objectives, how the course is broken up eg: two components and three sub components. See the introduction to “ICT Sustainability”.  Without this structure the student does not know where they are up to. You need to show participants there is a plan.

Tom noted it is important to tell participants why the course will be useful to them and how it will be useful to them. It is very important to provide markers throughout the course. Where are we up to and what is this for? Eg: this will increase your chances of getting a paper published.

It is all in the preparation

Academic bravado is ‘I have a lecture in 5 minutes, I had better get something together’. With eLearning you have to design all the materials and exercises in advance before they start. Gather the materials together – but you always need to consider licenses. A repository – equivalent of an electronic book, videos and quizzes.

Don’t add things on the fly. Once it starts you need to keep things stable. You can take online material and deliver it in person easily. It is much harder to do it the other way.

Preparing online courses is very labour intensive and traditional universities do not provide for the preparation time. However the delivery is much quicker. If you are at the distance education university this is built into the system. But in a traditional university you only get paid for delivery. So first time you run a course, it is at a ‘loss’ but each time after that it is easier. So try to minimise the material beforehand.

The question about the inability to get feedback from people was raised. With online fixed courses you don’t have a way to improve the content for your students. Tom suggested observing the test results helps. The dropout rate is an indicator (and you can always ask people why they dropped out). You can look at what they have been accessing. There is considerable research on ‘Learning Analytics’ and products for extracting the data from Moodle.  There may be things they have not been looking at – it might be the link has broken. The flipped classroom will give people the chance to fix things.

Some concern was raised about reusing information. One person noted that ‘internalising the material requires creating it myself’. The group agreed it was important to ensure the information is stitched together well so there is a real narrative. Tom noted we do have standardised educational materials – they are called text books. You can still use text books in an online course. If we have standard published sources then we should use them.

Preventing cheating

If you just give students reading materials online then they will not read it. You need to give them tasks to do and monitor the results. Give them multiple choice using immediately marked systems. Them knowing there is a test at the end increases their education (even if they get all the answers wrong). Even if the test is not for credit, students will still cheat.

Ways to prevent people cheating at online tests:

  • Limited number of attempts
  • Questions are selected from a bank at random
  • Positions of the multiple-choice answers are randomised
  • If numeric answers, the system generates a random set of values so each student gets a different question

Note that young digital natives are still academically illiterate – they do not naturally know how to write things with proper referencing. They write assignments with broken jargon, not proper referencing and will copy things from Wikipedia. Tom said that he doesn’t call it ‘plagiarism’ in the first few weeks, they call it ‘poor referencing’.

Encouraging attendance

The conversation moved to the library training environment, where we often have an opportunity to see people only once face to face. Students need to get feedback on the quizzes – there might not be anything after that.

There is nothing telling the students they have to go to these sessions apart from them thinking it might be helpful. So how do we leverage off a one off teaching slot? In that one off session – eg: ‘How can you become an expert in 10 minutes’ – can we replicate that type of activity online in the same sort of way?

Suggestions for encouraging attendance included:

  • Doing this as part of something for someone they respect.
  • Provide students the materials in the live sessions eg: worksheets and reading and exercises, then collect them into a coherent ebook, step by step.
  • Give them a certificate at the end – shake their hands and give it to them.

Getting university buy-in

Tom suggested that it is a good idea to tap into the national standard for what a student needs to do in a particular area. Each department will have their own way of doing it.

He suggested going to the international standardised skills framework, finding the skill that is relevant, and using the text describing this to be part of the course outline. Accrediting bodies in some areas will be useful for this (for example Engineering). You can use the description from this body. Doing this makes it easier to get a course approved. The Executive of institutions will support that kind of course.

Examples include the Skills Framework for the Information Age (SFIA), which  is a computer science based set, and there is the Seoul Accord.

Online course technologies

Cambridge University uses the Moodle Virtual Learning Environment, which Tom noted is the equivalent of buying a Vauxhall – can buy lots of parts and find lots of people to fix it. It is not very exciting. But it is fine.

Moodle is not really built for creating an ePortfolio which shows evidence the students know how to use something. They collect material into your e-portfolio and then you present it. Use simple social media where you say “please work on this and discuss it”. This can shows evidence the student knows how to use something. One tool is the Mahara open source ePortfolio program.

Recording technology

Recording lectures is a challenge at Cambridge where there are not universal recording facilities in lecture theatres. But Tom noted that while sometimes having good technology can be useful – a document camera can show students how equations are done for example – using simple tools can work.

If you are giving a presentation, simply set a recording device on the desk. Students really like the recordings of a presentation. Tom noted that when recording something to go online is it much easier to give a presentation to a live audience rather than to an empty room. Note it is important to consider the legal issues of recording people – when they approach you to speak privately about something you need to turn the microphone off. It is also important to remember to repeat questions asked by the audience into the microphone.

Recording helps international students. They listen to the recording a minimum of six times. If use echo360 active learning program you can see how many views each part of the course is being looked at.

People are prepared to listen for 6-20 minutes. When putting recordings online you can have a talking head or show the powerpoint slides. A good way of presenting a video recording is to show a talking head for the first few seconds to see a human, then flip to powerpoint slides then have the human again at the end. An alternative is to just use a static photograph. People will treat a smiley face as a person.

Tom noted that he has never been to a webinar session at university that worked properly. You spend half the time trying to get the technology to work. It is necessary to train people in the technology. Unless there is a need for a live session don’t do it. Digital native young people still have trouble with the technology.

Examples of good online teaching

Universities UK have Open Learn and the Australian equivalent is Open 2 Study. The way these are set up – you do a short course for free then you can enrol in the longer one for a cost. The courses all started at 12 weeks, and they are now four weeks. MIT have created Open EdX.

Other useful links:

* About the speaker

Tom Worthington, is an independent computer consultant and educator. He is an Adjunct lecturer in the Research School of Computer Science at the Australian National University and a member of the ANU Climate Change and Energy Change Institutes. Also Tom designs and teaches on-line courses for the the Australian Computer Society (ACS) Virtual College. He was previously an IT policy advisor at the Australian Department of Defence. Tom is a Past President, Honorary Life Member and Fellow of the ACS, as well as a voting member of the Association for Computing Machinery and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Published 23 July 2015
Written by Dr Danny Kingsley
Creative Commons License

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