Blog your way to a bright new future

April 30, 2004

Simply putting written materials online for students to read does not make for a constructive e-earning environment. As Olga Wojtas reports, it requires a totally new approach.

Have you ever wondered what blogging was but were afraid to ask? An online Open University course that starts next month reveals all. The ten-week taster, aimed at teachers, will get people to experiment with blogging, instant messaging and other new communications technology to see how it changes the learning experience.

The course uses about 20 of the 120 "learning objects" on the masters course from which it is derived. Learning objects make it easy to keep a course up to date. If blogging, for example, is superseded by a new technology next year, it can simply be replaced. This would be more complicated if one had to update printed material.

Students are not assigned a tutor but take part in online conferences moderated by two or three academics. This is obviously cheaper, but ten weeks is about the limit for students to rely on their own impetus.

But what is blogging? Martin Weller, senior lecturer at the OU's Institute of Educational Technology, says it involves producing a web log with easy-to-use publishing tools. "It allows readers to post comments so they can become part of a kind of community or discussion. In schools, you can keep group blogs."

The OU differs from campus-based universities, in that its courses are produced by teams of experts, including academics, technicians and designers, who are separate from the tutors. Dean Taylor of the OU's learning and teaching office says the course team decides how different media are used for particular courses, with the aim of matching the technology with the pedagogy.

Campus-based universities are more likely to buy in commercial packages, such as virtual learning environments that mimic the classroom model of learning. Taylor says this is not always appropriate. "Where courses use large narrative texts, it simply isn't feasible to expect students to read these online. If you use online learning, you need to change the material to suit the media, with smaller chunks of narrative text, possibly links to library resources and communication tools, letting students chat to other students."

But economics can militate against supporting e-learning at campus universities. The OU makes a huge investment in developing course materials, which has to be recouped by signing up large numbers of students. James Calderhead, vice-principal of Dundee University, says the University of Phoenix in the US, which specialises in outreach teaching, charges up to 30 per cent more for the same course taught by distance learning as opposed to face-to-face teaching "because its business model identifies the real costs as being much higher".

Alvaro de Miranda of the University of East London's School of Culture and Innovation Studies believes e-learning is being driven by rhetoric about competitiveness and the knowledge-based economy rather than by demand. Research shows that students prefer face-to-face learning and go online only if that is all they can do. "We run a programme with distance learning but the constant demand of students is to have more day schools. The motivation for learning comes from their face-to-face contact with other students," de Miranda says.

New technology may have the potential to foster social links Ñ through chatrooms, for example Ñ but this is not yet being pursued systematically, he says. And many universities are tackling e-learning piecemeal, with individual enthusiasts putting "odd units" online.

Allison Littlejohn, senior lecturer at Strathclyde University's Centre for Academic Practice, says e-learning is a double leap, as it involves not only the need to apply innovative technology but also the process of teaching and learning. Putting lecture notes online may make them more accessible, allowing students with special needs to manipulate them as necessary, but it will not transform tutoring.

Initial research tended to look in isolation at how students worked with CD-Roms or the web, and using technology has tended to be set apart from other forms of teaching and learning, she says. She believes e-learning is often wrongly conflated with distance learning. But academics should be investigating all the ways in which they could teach, using e-learning alongside face-to-face learning.

"Today we work with students undertaking collaborative group design projects. They can upload the resources to a shared workspace so they can all work on documents simultaneously and share them," she says. "That's the kind of e-learning that really enhances the student experience and these are the kinds of areas that campus-based academics need to look at."

ICT in Higher Education, Issue No. 3
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