This report details the progress made in engaging e-learning as an essential component of teaching and learning at the Westminster Institute of Education, and in so doing, describes the role of the Institute’s learning technologist, emphasising the need for University-wide knowledge and experience-sharing. It highlights particular initiatives made by and for specific courses, the challenges that these have posed, and how they are being overcome.
Jim Hyndman, Westminster Institute of Education, Oxford Brookes University
In September 2003, the Westminster Institute became the first school at Brookes to employ a dedicated learning technologist. The value of various learning technologies – especially Brookes Virtual (i.e. WebCT) – to existing courses was definitively demonstrated by the successful engagement of Brookes Virtual with the Institute’s most populous course, the Primary Postgraduate Certificate of Education (PGCE), although the institute has been involved with e-learning initiatives since 1998.
From early 2003, Primary PGCE students have accessed core learning and administrative material via Brookes Virtual. Students learn of key dates and organise social schedules through an online calendar and maintain contact (especially when on placement) via an online discussion board.
‘The project has been to some extent experimental this year. For example, development of course materials is a continuing process, while we are learning all the time about how to guide effective online discussions. However, we have been struck by the enthusiasm with which students have engaged with Brookes Virtual – to the extent that they are now agitating for continued involvement once they have completed the course. Tutors too are excited about the community of learners that is developing through both the Discussions and the sharing of resources,’
says Jonathan Allen, Primary PGCE Course Leader and Senior Tutor for e-learning.
These benefits led Jonathan and colleagues to plan a phased engagement of each of WIE’s courses with Brookes Virtual. The resulting e-learning strategy addresses each department within WIE and sets specific goals related to Learning and Teaching objectives. Its implementation required the services of a dedicated Learning Technologist, and the author was appointed to this position in September 2003, in accordance with the University’s e-Learning Strategy that recommends the appointment of a learning technologist in each School.
At the Institute, the technologist is a member of the E-learning Steering Committee that resolves funding issues and determines strategy; this group forms the core of the larger and less formal Web Writers Group, a rostrum for the sharing of ideas in learning technology across the Institute. At University-level, the author is part of the Learning Technologists Forum, headed by the Media Workshop, which emphasises teamwork and knowledge-sharing between the technologists from faculties throughout the University.
The Forum meets monthly and it is the principle conduit by which the latest learning technologies and initiatives become known by different departments, via their respective technologists. It achieves this through enabling the pooling of the latest in learning technology from each department, and its consequent propagation to the other departments.
The Forum has recently compiled an Intranet site, accessible by any member of staff, of courses across the university that make exemplary use of Brookes Virtual (see http://mw.brookes.ac.uk/open/ ). This enables technologists and staff alike to draw from a wealth of positive experience in using Brookes Virtual.
At the Institute, there are now 61 live Brookes Virtual courses. The separate subject areas of the Primary PGCE have continued to grow and course material has been developed in a variety of media, including video clips. Jonathan and colleagues maintain a lively discussion forum through regular e-moderation.
Tutor enthusiasm for online learning is very important in the timely and successful engagement of any course with Brookes Virtual. It comes about when the system is perceived as a tool that both facilitates the delivery of existing material, whilst enabling students to access relevant information that they would not otherwise be able to do. This amounts to a genuine ‘enrichment of students’ learning experiences’ and ‘broadening of students’ horizons’ (to borrow familiar phrases).
Part of the technologist’s role is the active marketing of Brookes Virtual as a tool that enables students to realise their learning objectives more effectively and efficiently than if conventional methods of teaching were all that was available to them. Regular workshops, open to all staff, are instrumental in raising awareness of the potential benefits of Brookes Virtual.
Clearly facilitating such ‘cultural change’ is a challenging agenda, but until technologists tackle it (but do so sensitively), many staff will continue to regard Brookes Virtual as a time-consuming chore.
As with any cultural change, this is led by minority: technologists and perhaps 10 – 20% of tutors who are readily able to perceive the immediate benefits – and more importantly the ‘broadening of horizons’ – that e-learning can and will eventually bring.
Students’ demands are likely to initiate change faster than any change imposed by technologists or strategies. If some modules of a student’s course have a strong and effective presence online, then students are likely to see no reason why other modules should not do so, and respond by demanding the more effective online presence of course components, and more e-moderation. This is necessarily at the expense of time spent on other forms of teaching.
Technologists can make students aware of what online learning can offer them through the intense development of specific course components. This is the strategy behind the development of Brookes Virtual courses that act as a ‘foyer’ or ‘portal’ through which all course participants should pass in order to access other subject-specific Brookes Virtual courses. The development of the ‘portal’ course is down to the technologist and e-learning enthusiasts involved in the course. It may not be possible to develop a subject-specific Brookes Virtual course that is linked to from the portal, but it is possible to show students what can be achieved with Brookes Virtual by developing the portal itself.
The Centre for Advanced Professional Practice (CAPP), aimed at the Continuing Professional Development (CPD) of professionals in education, and the Secondary PGCE both adopt this approach: a generic CAPP Brookes Virtual course has been created, known as the CAPP ‘Foyer’. This contains links to all the CAPP Brookes Virtual courses. Those CAPP modules that are not represented by their own Brookes Virtual courses are represented in the CAPP Foyer by private discussion groups and shared folder areas.
The Foyer also contains all information that is common to all modules, and an overview of each of the modules.
The Secondary PGCE ‘portal’ has the same function: it allows some tutors to develop their own Brookes Virtual courses, whilst giving all Secondary PGCE students some online material, and the opportunity to participate in discussion groups. The Religious Education group are currently offered course material online, and participate in discussions. Online materials for Music and Science are now under development, and from September all students will be able to access core material online.
Where the benefits of Brookes Virtual can be clearly seen, headway is rapid in developing Brookes Virtual courses. CAPP programmes are delivered outside working hours all over the country. Brookes Virtual is reducing time spent on travel, allowing its re-investment in the further development of online materials and in effective on-line moderation, resulting in a net increase in tutor-student contact time.
By September 2004, all CAPP programmes will have a presence on Brookes Virtual – the ‘foyer’ approach allows tutors of some modules to rapidly develop their own Brookes Virtual courses, whilst participants of other modules are guaranteed access to private discussion groups, and to the online learning and administrative material that is common to all modules.
In one online CAPP module, ‘Literacy Difficulties’ (Georgina Glenny), participants take turns in moderating discussions, and the moderators submit a resume of the discussion that is assessed. A set of references for each discussion is provided.
In addition to postgraduates, a programme of small-group hands-on induction sessions to Brookes Virtual ensures that BA students also now have active discussion groups, and it is hoped to extend this programme to all students at the Institute.
Students also need frequent encouragement that can be offered by the technologist through regular, short workshops where students can air their concerns, and aspects of their initial induction to Brookes Virtual reiterated, an approach adopted for the Foundation Degrees where students are each loaned a laptop.
We also intend to host our undergraduate modules online – and currently learning materials of the Sports Psychology, and Communication, Media and Culture modules are being developed for presentation through Brookes Virtual.
Students should have confidence to access Brookes Virtual. This may be addressed through a Brookes Virtual session being incorporated into their general induction, as is planned for all students joining the Institute this September. The technologist also needs to ensure that all students may access at least one course. This involves contacting course tutors and course administrators, so that the course creation forms are signed and students are subscribed to the course. Administrators can also be encouraged to add administrative materials, such as the course handbook, and enter course dates onto the virtual calendar.
The technologist can also actively help tutors in developing and hosting learning materials on Brookes Virtual, in setting up discussion groups and shared file areas, in creating quizzes and so on. Tutors also need to be made aware that discussion groups will not succeed unless they are prepared to visit them at least once every couple of days and reply to student postings. Once staff are prepared to invest time in their discussion groups, ideas and opinions are shared, commented upon, and developed; the postings themselves become valuable resources after a while. Within Brookes, the Oxford Centre for Staff Learning and Development provides expertise in pedagogical issues related to e-learning, and run regular courses which tutors are encouraged to attend.
There are great challenges ahead for all HE institutions in developing and applying the new methods of learning that ICT offers, and within Brookes we are very fortunate in having a network of support and development that comprises a vibrant e-learning community within the University. This must be maintained and built upon, for all of us in HE are embarking upon a new phase in learning and teaching that will bring about changes that may be difficult to foresee, but that if tackled with sensitivity, foresight and collaboration, will lay solid foundations upon which future generations can continue to build, and from which they will benefit considerably.
Jim Hyndman has been involved with e-learning since working as a Web-based course designer for Oxford University’s Technology Assisted Lifelong Learning group, from 1998. Jim went on to co-lead the e-learning programme at University College Northampton, and as Learning Technologist at the Westminster Institute of Education, He is dedicated to ensuring the Institute’s realisation of an ambitious and progressive e-learning agenda that recognises e-learning as a core process of effective education.
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