As a result of the University’s Active Blended Learning strategy, some teaching staff are considering using some contact time to support learners in the online environment as well as in the classroom. There are many reasons why you might choose to do this: perhaps you want to increase the flexibility for your cohort so they don’t have to travel; perhaps you need to help your students develop their digital literacy; perhaps running a teaching session online allows you to do something you couldn’t do in the classroom (like including a guest speaker, or allowing students time to draft and revise before sharing their thoughts). Or perhaps you just want to add some more structure, guidance and feedback to regular independent study activities.
Whatever your motivation, there are some tips that can help you think about how to use that contact time well, and make online learning a rewarding experience for you and your students.
Transparent pedagogy and clear expectations
Recent research with our students highlighted that they don’t always feel prepared for independent study, and often come to university expecting to ‘be taught’ rather than to have to work things out for themselves (the full report can be downloaded here). Scaffolding the development of independent learning skills is a gradual process, with implications for online as well as classroom teaching – particularly as this way of learning may be new to your students too (at least in formal education contexts). So how do you avoid students feeling like they’ve been ‘palmed off’ with online activities, when national level research tells us that many applicants expect to get more class time than they had at school?
It’s worth setting time aside early on to have frank conversations about how learning works at university level, and about how the module will work, but also about why those choices have been made. Students can sometimes be unaware of the level of planning and design work that goes into a module, so it helps to explain why you’re asking them to do the tasks you’ve planned – in the discussion forum, for example, why is it important for them to engage with opinions or ideas shared by other students? You don’t need to be an expert on social constructivism to explain that learning to research, communicate and collaborate online are crucial skills for graduates. And if it’s the first time you’ve tried something, don’t be afraid to say so, and acknowledge that you’re learning together! Keeping the conversation open for feedback on teaching approaches will help improve them in the future.
In conversations about pedagogy, be sure to make space for your students to talk about their expectations and previous experiences. This might help them identify aspirations and areas for development, but it will also inform your planning, and a shared understanding of responsibilities will make the learning process run much more smoothly. Consider co-creating a ‘learning contract’, exploring issues like how often you expect them to check in on social learning activities on NILE, and how (and how quickly) they can expect to get responses to questions they pose there.
A key element of success in any learning environment is trust. This doesn’t just mean students trusting in you as the subject expert, and trusting that the work you’re asking them to do is purposeful and worthwhile (see above). It also means trusting that your classroom (whether physical or online) is a safe space to ask questions, and that feedback from peers as well as from you will be constructive and respectful. Some of this can be explicitly addressed with a shared ‘learning contract’, as above, but it also helps to reinforce this through the learning activities themselves. In the online environment, introducing low-risk ‘socialisation’ activities early on can help to build confidence and a sense of community, which will be invaluable in the co-construction of knowledge later on (see Salmon’s five stage model for more on this). Simple things like adding the first post to kick off a conversation, and explicitly acknowledging anxieties about digital skills, can make all the difference.
Trust also means students trusting that their contributions in the learning space will be acknowledged and valued. Many online tools, such as blogs and discussion forums, are specifically designed with student contribution as the focus, but with live tools, like Collaborate, you may need to plan activities specifically to support this, so that it’s not just you talking. After all, you wouldn’t expect a discussion forum to be composed of one long post from you, so with live sessions, the same principles apply! (see Matt Bower’s Blended Synchronous Learning Handbook for ideas).
On the flip side of this, you also wouldn’t expect a student who was speaking in a live webinar to keep trying if they didn’t get a reply. So using the same principles, if you’re planning asynchronous (not live) learning activities, make sure you schedule teaching time to review your students’ views and ideas, whether online or in the next face to face session. Online, techniques like weaving (drawing connections, asking questions and extending points) and summarising (acknowledging, emphasising and refocusing) are invaluable, both for supporting conversation and for emphasising that you are present in the online space (see Salmon 2011 for more on these skills).
And if some of your students haven’t contributed, don’t panic! There could be lots of reasons for this. It may be a bad week for them, or a topic they don’t feel confident in, in which case chances are they will still learn a lot from reading the discussion. It may be that someone else already made their point – after all, if you were having a discussion in the classroom, you wouldn’t expect every student to raise a hand and tell you the same thing (if you need to check the understanding of every single student, maybe you need a test or a poll instead of a discussion). If participation is very low though, it may be that you need to reframe the question (as a starter on this, this guide from the University of Oregon, although a little outdated in technical instructions, includes some useful points about discussion questions for convergent, divergent and evaluative thinking).
Clarity, guidance, instructions, modelling
Last but by no means least, with online learning it helps to remember that students need to learn the method as well as the matter. A well-organised NILE site, clear instructions and links to further help will go a long way, but nothing beats modelling. Setting aside time in your face to face sessions to walk through online activities and address questions will save you lots of time in the long run.
There are lots of resources online that can help you to design and run effective learning activities online, some examples are below. You might also want to sign up to the CLEO (Collaborative Learning Activities Online) workshop, to help build your skills. It also helps to reflect on your own experiences as an online learner, so if you’ve ever signed up to a MOOC or online course, think about what worked well for you.
I recently read an insightful piece from Charles D. Morrison, which argues, among other things, for a clear distinction between ‘information’ and knowledge’ in educational discourse. Morrison, like many others, holds that while information may be transferred (e.g. through telling or lecturing), knowledge cannot – that is, information must be contextualised, applied, experienced in order to become knowledge. This will be a familiar point to anyone interested in effective pedagogy, but the article is worth a read, not least because it communicates clearly the responsibilities of this for the student as well as the tutor. It’s also a point that bears repeating at this time of year, as we consider the new cohorts of students who have already begun to walk in to our classrooms.
Everyone, students and tutors alike, will bring something slightly different to the classroom. There will be differences in the prior knowledge and skills students have developed, but there may also be differences in the ways these are integrated into their experience – the preconceptions (and misconceptions) they have created in order to make new information make sense to them. This collection of intellectual baggage is what Phil Race refers to as ‘learning incomes’ – and it can really make a difference to how each student engages with new learning, even in the most carefully designed and structured learning activities. How then to ensure that each of these individuals can progress towards common intended outcomes?
Race argues that the best way to do this is to ask them what they already know, using one of our favourite tools here in Learning Design, the humble post-it. In the piece linked above, he describes a simple exercise designed to collate students’ thoughts on the most important thing they already know about a topic, and the biggest question they have. This kind of exercise is useful for helping teaching staff to identify knowledge gaps and misconceptions, but Race also points out another important gain: that “Learners are very relaxed about doing this, as ‘not knowing’ is being legitimised”. This can be particularly important for new students, who may lack confidence in their abilities, because it frames the classroom as a safe space for exploration, experimentation and failure (often a necessary precursor to success!).
If you’re thinking about using a similar diagnostic activity with your new learners this term, you might also find this post from Janet G. Hudson useful, as it includes a few more suggestions on how to gather data on common misunderstandings in your subject. Or, if you’re already using this type of activity, why not share your thoughts below on what has worked well for you?
I want to change my programme structure…
I want to include a placement / work-based learning / a Changemaker challenge…
I want to use a particular assessment or technology…
I want to ensure an equivalent experience for students at other sites…
What do I need to do?
The Learning Design team have collated a document listing the most frequently asked questions from CAIeROs and consultations over the past two years, along with answers provided by the appropriate support teams. Hopefully the guidance here can help you identify the processes and teams that are in place to support you with a range of course design issues including quality assurance, assessment, distance learning and technology issues.
The list has been added to the Sharing Higher Education Design (S.H.E.D.) site on NILE. You can access the site at http://bit.ly/SHED-NILE, but you will need to be enrolled to view the document.
We’ll keep this document updated as new questions and answers come up. Want to submit a question that we haven’t covered? Just email it to the Learning Design team at LD@northampton.ac.uk.
In this video, Anne Segalini – Senior Lecturer in Occupational Therapy, talks through her module team’s approach to Team-Based Learning within Anatomy and Physiology at the University of Northampton.
The session is run within a standard 40 seater capacity room, where students use their own devices to login and access the Blackboard tests. With the readiness assurance tests completed, the students undertake application activities such as assembling a skeleton, or analysing joint and muscle activity through a series of body motions (e.g. putting on a jumper).
This leads to a break for lunch, with students returning to focus on a service user story, with either a guest speaker sharing their conditions and experiences of a particular service as part of their recovery, or a open access resources (such as http://www.healthtalk.org/) and apply “killer questions” related to the stories where students discuss and debate their group decisions over responses.
Click on the image below to watch the video
What is “blended learning”?
“Blended learning” is an umbrella term, referring to learning activity that happens across contexts. The ‘blend’ is usually between learning activity happening inside and outside the classroom, or between learning that happens in real-world and online environments (or both!). Many of us learn in this way every day, informally – we might look up information in books and online, discuss it with peers over coffee and via email, draft new ideas on paper and on the laptop. As technology becomes ubiquitous, we need to be able to take advantage of both physical and virtual learning opportunities, to recognise the strengths and weaknesses of each, and to synthesise learning from different contexts. The challenge for educators is to design the right ‘blend’ of activity – both to support specific learning, and to help students to develop their independent learning skills for the future.
There are two key principles to remember if you’re new to blended learning. The first is to start with the right task for the learning, and then find the right tool (don’t choose a tool and then try to find a use for it!).
The second principle is the ‘blending’ part. The idea of this is that one type of learning activity supports and feeds into the other, and connections and transferability are clear.
Getting started with blended learning
You can ‘blend’ almost any kind of teaching, by starting to add in activities that help students bridge the learning they are doing inside and outside taught sessions. There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach, because each learning activity will depend on what you want to achieve. Starting small, with one type of activity or tool, can help you and your students build confidence and skills, and figure out what works well and what doesn’t. Here are some tips for designing learning activities online:
- Identify learning that can be done outside class time. Sometimes the best way to do this is to think about what you would really like to be able to do with your students in the classroom, and work backwards. Storyboarding can help with this.
- Design the right activity to support the learning. What should the student be doing in order to learn this? Who else should be involved? What resources will they need? Prompts like the Hybrid Learning Model cards can help you to frame different kinds of learning activities.
- Once you have a clear idea of what you want to happen, then choose the right tool to support this type of activity. The University provides a core set of tools that we have vetted for you. Beyond this there are hundreds of possibilities! All of these have strengths and weaknesses, but don’t worry, you don’t need to be a tech guru. The Learning Technology team can help with this.
Many people begin by transferring a learning activity that they already know works well into the online environment. For example, if you would usually ask your students to discuss a contentious idea, or defend a position in a debate, you could do this in an online forum, or if you would usually demonstrate something for the students, you could do this using video. If you’re a little more confident, you might want to think of some ways that technology can extend your teaching and allow you to do things that you couldn’t do in a traditional face to face setting. You might use it to connect students to resources, peers or external experts. You might use it to provide visualisations of text-based materials, or to build knowledge checks that provide students with instant feedback, or to create spaces where they can pool their own resources and ideas to inform their work.
Tips for success
Be clear about the why and the how. Sometimes staff who try blended learning for the first time find that students don’t engage as they had hoped with the online activity. Student feedback tells us this is usually because either they don’t understand it, or they don’t see the value. When introducing online tasks, it helps to make it clear why they are being used, and how they will help students to achieve the learning outcomes. It’s also a good idea to explain any unfamiliar tools or processes in advance, just as you would when introducing a new task in the classroom. If you can, get a student perspective on your design before you launch it – and maybe try some online courses yourself, to see what it’s like on the other side!
Be realistic. Be aware that creating online resources and supporting online activity might require slightly different skills to the ones you use in the classroom, so allow yourself time to develop these. Think too about the ratio of effort to impact for your module – creating complex professional-looking resources requires a big investment of time in advance, although this may be worth it if there is one sticky concept that students really struggle with early in their studies. On the other hand, you may be able to get the same effect by using existing resources on that topic and asking students to critique them, or even by asking students to research the topic and share their own key resources. You don’t need to be a computer genius (or spend months learning complex software) to create that lightbulb moment!
Learn from others. Working in a team can really help here – not just in terms of sharing the workload and learning new skills, but also in setting consistent expectations for students across different modules on the same programme. If you’re stuck for ideas, have a look of some of our case studies, or ask around to see what colleagues are trying.
Do one thing
Ready to give it a try? If you want help figuring out what to blend, at a session, module or even programme level, the Learning Design team can help. If you already have an idea for an online activity, but you’re not sure about the technology, the Learning Technology team can help. Get in touch and we’ll help you get started!
At the end of the second day of CAIeRO, we hope you will feel like you’ve achieved a lot! But we know from experience that you will probably also feel like you have a lot still to do. This is why the last two stages of the CAIeRO process are important.
While all your ideas are fresh in your minds (and ideally while all your team are still together in the room), it’s a good idea to agree on an action plan for the work you didn’t manage to do during the CAIeRO. This might include completing the learning activities for the modules you’ve been working on, reviewing and aligning other modules on the programme, completing quality assurance processes such as change of approval, and further training or development for you and your team. If you have a deadline to complete the work, like a planned start date for a new course or module, start from there and work backwards to determine when you need to complete each step. It’s important to lay out all the steps you need to take, and to put dates and names against them so that you don’t lose momentum. Identify ‘owners’ for each task but also anyone who can help – there will always be other work to do, but shared deadlines can help to make sure you fit in what you’ve agreed to do.
At this point, while you have diaries to hand, you should schedule a follow up meeting to review progress. This will allow you to keep each other on track and keep the modules closely aligned, and it will also allow you to adjust if any changes come up in the meantime. Remember your Learning Designer and Learning Technologist are there to help you throughout the whole journey of design into delivery, and they will be keen to get feedback on what has (and has not) worked well for you and your team, as well as what works well with the students when you start to deliver the module(s). This helps us to get a clear idea of how much work is still to be done, and to schedule support accordingly, but also to shape our support and guidance for future CAIeROs.
Reflecting on CAIeRO
We hope that the CAIeRO process will help you build your course design skills, as well as building a better module. At each stage of the CAIeRO, your learning designer will try to make explicit the principles informing each task, and help you think about how to transfer the work you’re doing to other areas. If you have time at the end of the CAIeRO workshop, you might allow 15 minutes or so for reflection, and try to capture the discussions you’ve had and the reasons behind the changes and choices you’ve made. This will not only be useful when you come to deliver the module, but also when you are thinking about your own professional development as an educator.
We’d love to hear your reflections on the CAIeRO process, and any feedback that might help us improve. If you’d like to tell us about it, drop us an email at LD@northampton.ac.uk.
Stage 3 of the CAIeRO process usually begins at the start of the second day. By this stage you should have your blueprint and storyboard finalised, and a clear vision of your new module design(s). The next step is to start making your ideas more concrete, by creating the learning and teaching activities that will support students to reach the learning outcomes.
On your storyboard, you will have a number of placeholders along the learning journey where students need to learn particular things. Pick one of these to start with, and think about what kind of learning activities might help the students to get to grips with it. Is it a new concept or skill, where they will need some initial information or a demonstration from you (or someone else) to get started? Is it a complex idea or skill they will need some time to explore? Is there an opportunity to let them apply it, through experimentation or practice? Is it an area where they might benefit from sharing knowledge or experience, or being exposed to different perspectives through debate? You might find the Hybrid Learning Model cards helpful here, as they list verbs describing what the tutor and the student can do to support different types of learning.
Creating learning activities
This section of the workshop is sometimes thought of as the ‘e-tivity bit’, but it’s important not to think too much about the technology to start with. Think about the type of activity you think would work best. If you or your colleagues have taught that subject before, what worked well? Once you know what you’d like the students to be doing, then think about the context – is this something that needs to happen in the classroom or outside? Technology can add possibilities and allow us to design learning experiences that weren’t possible in the past – think about linking up live with an expert in the field, or providing your students with world-class open educational resources. It’s also important to make sure that your students are exposed to digital learning practices, and develop the skills they will need to keep learning beyond their degree. But online is not always the best mode for every activity, so if you have face to face time with your students, make sure you use it wisely!
To help you figure out the best context for each activity, it’s important to be aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the tools available to you. Your Learning Technologist can help you with this, and you may also be able to get advice from your colleagues on their experiences. Don’t be afraid to talk about things that haven’t worked well – it may be that there are new tools or skills that could help you tweak that activity so that it works better next time, and part of the aim of the CAIeRO is to develop your skills as well as your module!This is why we will ask you to create at least one online learning activity in the learning environment (NILE) as part of the workshop. You can take advantage of all the skills in the room, and you’ll leave with something real that you can use in your teaching! If you wish, you can use the e-tivity template, which embeds some key principles for online learning activities, including having a clear purpose, active learning tasks and opportunities for reflection and feedback. Or if you prefer, you can design your own.
The reality check
Once you have some learning activities created in NILE, it’s time to take a break while your reality checkers look them over. Reality checkers will ideally be students, but can also be colleagues, externals, anyone who has not been involved in the design of the module so far. Remember too that they don’t have to be in the room, they just need to be able to access the learning environment! The purpose of this stage of the workshop is to get an objective view of what you have created, and to provide constructive feedback to help you improve it. It’s important that you resist the urge to ‘help’ or ‘explain’ things to your reality checkers – remember when your real students come to this activity, they may not be able to call you and ask for clarification! Ideally your activity should stand by itself, with clear instructions allowing anyone who hasn’t seen it before to understand the purpose and how to complete it.
Your reality checkers will complete a feedback form that you can refer back to afterwards. You may also want to ask them to run through their thoughts on the activities, to get some more detail (if they are not in the room you could do this using Collaborate or Skype).
Review and adjust
Once your reality checkers have left, it’s a good idea to take a short amount of time to do some adjustments based on their feedback, while it’s fresh in your mind. Then you’re almost done!
As part of the recent S.H.E.D. roadshow, we invited teaching staff to share their successful practice. The example below could be a useful approach for anyone looking to encourage their students to research and understand their subject, and to share that understanding with their peers.
In a third year module on Biodiversity and Conservation, Professor Jeff Ollerton asks his students to engage with a range of scientific writing published around the subject. This includes articles from peer-reviewed journals, UK Parliamentary briefings, scientific journalism, and more. In this part of the module, students are initially provided with recommended articles, and asked to read them critically, attending to the aims, message and methods, and considering whether the conclusions are justified. They then discuss their views in class, where their contributions are assessed using a rubric that is made available to all students in advance. The students are then asked to identify a paper of their choice and deliver a 5 minute verbal presentation to the class. The grade for this is combined with the contribution grade to make up 30% of the total module grade (other parts of the module are assessed using a report and a group debate).
These tasks not only help to ensure that students engage with research and develop their understanding, but they also build confidence and presentation skills. The attached Assessment Brief gives more detail about the assessment structure.
In this video, recorded as part of the S.H.E.D – Sharing Higher Education Designs, James Underwood (Principal Lecturer in Teachers’ CPD) demonstrates an essay planning technique useful at different levels and in different contexts.
This technique is discussed, as mentioned at the end of the video, in the following paper:
Teaching Students at University of Northampton, along with Helen Caldwell (Senior Lecturer in Education) describe how well and how effectively they feel blogging has become a way to record and assess their work.
A short film edited together for Northampton University School of Education.
To watch the video, please click the image below:
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