To LEARN or Not to LEARN, That is the Question

By Dr. Keith Dixon, Accounting and Information Systems

Student expectations

I very much tend to overuse LEARN. That is, compared with what the majority of students want or expect, and with what they are used to on other courses. I’ve asked my students about this and find their expectations and their preferences vary so much that I doubt there’s a way to satisfy all the people all the time. But that’s no different from some students preferring lectures they can attend and others just wanting video recordings of the lectures with the PowerPoints and the notes, and others preferring tutorials, interactive classes, group assignments or fieldwork. And some students being anxious to know the exam questions, so that they can reproduce the answers the examiner regards as correct, and others wanting challenging assessments, to engage them or differentiate them from the pack. Seen alongside all this, LEARN does anything from adding to the comprehensiveness of the learning structure and process of a course in a programme with which a student is enthusiastically engaged, to being a recently added element that increases the complexity and work burden associated with the student’s weekly life, which of course is conducted not only on campus but also outside campus, increasingly in paid employment in order to make ends meet.

Distance delivery experience

By way of personal background, I should explain that some of my career has been spent at universities whose mode of learning delivery included “distance”, and indeed in one case was entirely “distance”, unless one counted the really exciting days and nights of “the residential school”. The significance of this experience was that I learnt about designing and writing courses for students. There were two parts to this design and writing that particularly stand out: each student was to learn separately from other students by following a programme of activities, assessed and otherwise; and the programme, including the activities, assessments, content and course narrative were all written, which mostly happened before the course started—even the communications during the course, to maintain a dialogue with the student, were mostly planned and composed beforehand and released by the system as the course proceeded.

Too many messages?

So, how do I overuse LEARN? First, I send out too many messages to “participants” using the News Forum. Every LEARN site has one and, as well as being readable on the LEARN site, the messages are supposed to reach email inboxes the students are allegedly accessing hourly or daily. The messages start with a Welcome message, sent somewhere between the students names being added to the site eight or nine days before the first “lecture” and when I can see that most of the students’ names on the SMS course list are present on the site—it’s annoying that the students with PRE status don’t seem to have LEARN access, sometimes until after the first “lecture”, unless I take the trouble to manually enrol them onto the site. This first message is aimed at pointing the students towards the LEARN site and items there and elsewhere that I think should help them “plan their studies”. Frustratingly, this message doesn’t always provoke action, as evidenced by the number of participants who show as “Never” having visited the LEARN site by the time of the first “lecture”.

Unprepared students

I also send messages out before classes, forewarning students of the agenda for the class and what activity (e.g., work through a case study or document, go on a field trip, go surfing) to do beforehand to prepare for the session content and activities. I also send messages out after classes, putting the class in context, tying up loose ends, etc.; often a message of this sort doubles up as the message forewarning the next class. These messages vary in impact from students who regularly do the preparation, to students who seem nonplussed about the materials and activities I refer to when arriving at a class; what’s worse is that the students who do prepare are easily discouraged by those who don’t, and so stop, or pretend to stop, preparing or choose to stay away from classes and work at home alone away from the other students.

Programme of study format

Second, I write the LEARN site as a programme of study. This includes using sections for each topic or theme, or as separate resource areas; these are in addition to sections for Orientation, Learning and Study Skills, and Assessment. This can confuse students who might be more used to LEARN sites limited to separate sections for Lectures, Tutorials and Administration, with perhaps sections containing the Reading List, and Past Test and Exam Papers. The programme of study format occasionally annoys students merely wanting the PowerPoint slides for the next lecture, or the task or questions for the next tutorial. I have reduced this annoyance by using images with “Slides”, “Tutorial” and “Lectorial” placed next to the relevant items on the programme pages.

Using a variety of media

In the programme narratives, I include a lot of images to brighten up and convey something about the materials, and I usually attach some text to each item, including the abstract of articles, the synopsis of case studies, some comments about the YouTube or other videos—putting the video URL as an Internet link in or near the comments means the video is embedded and shows as a picture, which plays when clicked—and some comments about how to use the quantitative questions and answers—doing exercises, problems, etc. is essential to learning to keep books, perform calculations, etc. However, when it’s all present, I get what amount to complaints about this looking like too much material to be studied and too much work. This is notwithstanding that some students want this, others want that and still others want something else; by satisfying many of these disparate needs, it can look like there’s too much, particularly so for a student who has “Never” accessed the LEARN site before and isn’t up with the course story.

Assessment and Gradebook

Third, I use the assessment and related functions on LEARN to distribute tasks, organise groups (using the group and groupings functions), collect assignments, mark them and provide feedback (or “return them”), and notify marks and show accumulating marks (through the Gradebook function). I also administer electronic, time-limited end-of-course assessments (akin to an exam) using the assessment function. And if an exam or test is of the traditional format, I still notify the question and paper marks through the LEARN Gradebook function, so again allowing students to see, all the way through to the end, the accumulating marks for the course I have recorded for them—our student advisors can access the LEARN site and see these too. The only thing I find LEARN can’t handle are large files resulting from students submitting assessments on video (e.g., an oral reflection, a presentation) but this is easily overcome by using clouds, YouTube, etc. Students are generally happy and comfortable with this use of LEARN as an assessment process tool.

Forums

Fourth, I use forums, especially to deal with queries about traditional tests and exams. On some of the courses, students are encouraged to complete past papers. They will come up with matters on which they are unsure, stuck or perplexed, as well as ask about what’s going to be on a paper whose access is secret until the start of the test or exam. I find students are reluctant to direct their questions through these forums, and so I cut and paste the personal emails I receive into the forum, without giving the name of the student, thus “A student writes: blah, blah, blah”. Sometimes I’ll respond straightaway, or I’ll answer with a question and invite other students to write. Even then, most students are reluctant to do so, and so at some point I’ll go back and respond some more, if needed.

Accessing Learn

Fifth, I use “Participants” to check on whether students are accessing LEARN regularly—I send out a couple of messages each course to the “Nevers” and the ones who stop accessing over the lecture breaks. I’m aware that these breaks are frequently referred to as “holidays”, despite the assignments many courses set to be handed in on the first day or so when lectures resume and the tests many other courses require to be sat then as well—I try not to set assignments or assessments to coincide with these, whether administered on LEARN or otherwise. LEARN seems to be useful for students whose perceive their last week of term or first week of the next term is too full of assessments that they can’t attend classes. I also use LearnTrak to see how few materials most students are accessing, or how many materials most students are ignoring, and the opposites. I despair at how many surface learners we seem to have, judged by those whose only interest is in the PowerPoint slides from the “lectures”, but can be amazed at the ideas, etc. students can come up with, particularly to get them through the assessments. Perhaps too many of the required assessment answers are too predictable for the students, or are just common sense or common knowledge!

Keeping up to date

Sixth, I battle to keep the LEARN sites I use up to date, accurate and in order. One thing that I’m conscious of is just how easy it can be for a LEARN site to get too far “ahead” of a new cohort of students, particularly if you start from what the LEARN site has come to look like by the end of the previous presentation or occurrence. In revising a LEARN site, I find the “Show all” view and “Find” function are handy for checking dates, especially if using the same LEARN site for a course running in both semesters.

Too much information?

Turning now to the questions of why I overuse LEARN, and what should I do about it, part of the problem is me being too enthusiastic at times and not giving the students enough consideration. It’s just too easy to find and share four or five relevant links/items, when one or two will do. It’s just too easy to send out all points bulletin messages about the learning journey ahead, without considering what happens if the messages don’t get through, or get through but are ignored, etc. If most students want to hear everything in lectures, including signals, etc. to do with what to study and how to study it, then the written messages and materials make the course look disorganised to them and hinder rather than help course communication—I’m alluding here to the point above about students being nonplussed about the materials and activities I refer to in a class on the understanding that the LEARN messages got through and were read, if not actioned.

First encounters set the norm

Part of the problem is what students are used to on other LEARN sites, especially whichever ones they first encounter at the start of Year 1, Semester 1—first courses shape expectations in many other ways. Other LEARN sites that set the norm are those associated with courses that are very much face-to-face, on which LEARN is just an easier, quicker and less costly way of distributing lecture and tutorial materials than dictating them, or duplicating, photocopying or printing them and physically handing them out. Besides, like their teachers, students are having to learn to use LEARN sites, and the more experience the teachers have of the sites, so the gap can widen between what the teacher provides and what the student can cope with.

Learn just for distance learning?

Part of the problem is institutional. LEARN has gradually expanded in use and usage to what it is today. This has occurred in a tacit way at least as much as a systematic way. As with the rest of teaching, LEARN competes with publishing research for the time of the teachers cum researchers who run most courses and design, maintain and use most LEARN sites. Within teaching, LEARN is probably more about learning by students outside classes, at a distance even, than about teaching by teachers through taught courses in which the lecture method predominates. Mention of distance learning, blended learning, student-centred learning and the virtual learning environment in the same breathe as LEARN doesn’t enamour LEARN to quite a lot of academics.

Conclusion

In conclusion, perhaps LEARN is not worth the time or the hassle, not the way I’ve used its many facets for recent school-leaver and inexperienced international students. I based my methods of using LEARN on my distance teaching, which was mainly with mature adult students, whose experience often extended to office work spaces and life generally. These students were far more likely to be studying out of choice, albeit often to improve their lives and work circumstances, whereas most of our students are with us as if university degree study is now compulsory. The aforementioned mature, work-experienced students were also far more likely to be good at time management and application, whereas many of our students seem to be muddling through timewise and fitting “full-time” study into week in which they are also working for pay for 20–40 hours, the job being about having money to live on and meet study costs over and above what’s covered by a student loan or allowance, private loan, scholarship, parental contribution or whatever. Perhaps I should move closer to lecture method courses and cut down the LEARN content; I should arrange what LEARN materials I do post under Lectures, Tutorials and Administration; and I should limit assessment to traditional tests and exams, and revert to the once common practice of posting assessment results on the notice board in the corridor.

Going Digital – A brutally honest account, by Ekant Veer


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Preamble
Let me start by saying UC needs a more effective digital presence – even if all our key first year papers went digital next year we’ll still be playing catch-up to make institutions around the world.  I am definitely on the side of a more effective digital presence that complements and supplements our in-class presence (not replaces it – I still want a job, after all!).  HOWEVER, Going Digital isn’t just a matter of flicking a switch and making students watch Echo recordings – for me, it requires a fundamental shift in your understanding of how digital students engage with materials and how best to support them.  This is my brutally honest account of the going digital process with Marketing Principles (MKTG100) – we still haven’t launched the digital course – so I’m going to focus more on the early stages of digitisation in this post – maybe I’ll be back in a few months’ time to tell you it all turned to crap and we should run for the hills – let’s see!

Full of Fervour
I’ve been wanting to do more digital offerings for some time now.  I see the benefit of it not just as a means of reaching new students but also as a way of supporting our on-campus learning experience.  I decided I wanted to be the change I wanted to see in the world and digitise one of my papers.  Not just provide online slides, but create an entire virtual delivery – something crazy, just to show that it can be done.  I wanted all student engagement, course content, assessment and feedback to be online.  I wanted to create a sleek, professional delivery that can be completed from someone in the library or someone in Uzbekistan.  As long as you have reliable internet access, you should be able to complete the course (which may actually put our library based students at a slight disadvantage over our friends in central Asia).  I was going to do this and, with the generous support of the College of Business & Law’s Teaching and Learning fund and some seeding money from my HoD, I had financial resources to kickstart the project.  I also had the support of UC’s E-Learning team (trust me, use them! They’re amazing!).

Ahh, hell…I actually have to do this!
The fervour wears off pretty quickly when you realise the size of the task ahead of you.  With the support of my amazing PhD student, Maja Golf-Papez, we came up with some best-practice models from digital courses around the world.  The sorts of courses that suit a digital delivery tend to be elementary in nature as the focus is on content understanding, rather than critical thinking.  This is not always true, but a good starting point.  My 100 level Principles of Marketing class (MKTG100) was a perfect candidate.  I have taught the paper for a number of years, so know the material well; the content evolves, but the basics keep relatively stable, meaning I don’t need to update the material every week; and it doesn’t require any pre-requisite courses, which may deter students from taking part.  Essentially, we have a course that someone can pick up and not worry about course clashes, but still learn something valuable from.

But actually turning a very successful and fun course into something digital hurt a little.  Was I still going to be able to offer the same learning environment and student experience? Will students still understand the material? Will there still be the same level of engagement that you need to really get to grips with some of the conceptual application?  Not only am I starting to be deterred by how difficult it’ll be to digitally create a course, but also whether it’ll be an effective delivery that is up to my and my College’s high standards.  Shit…

Eating the Elephant
With a task this big, it has to be done one bite at a time.  And it’s always easier when you have help.  Maja and I identified 3 main areas we need to work on to make this a kick-ass digital delivery:

  1. Content – the material needs to be good – this was on me, as the lecturer.  I can’t suck at this or create content that doesn’t interest students or is meaningless in practice.
  2. Assessment – we need to find a way that we can assess students in a manner that does not require their physical presence (it wouldn’t be a digital course, otherwise!), and isn’t open to abuse from plagiarism.
  3. Student experience and engagement – we need to make sure students don’t feel like they’ve been forgotten about.  How do we make sure they still feel part of UC and part of the course, as much as our in-class students do.

With regards to the content I could have created cool videos of myself doing energetic lectures, but not only does that eat up a lot of my own time, but it also dates very quickly.  Students can tell when  you’re out of touch and out of date – so, a simpler and more updateable method was to use powerpoint slides with a voice-over.  Maja’s early research did show that this does impact student experience; however, so we are creating some short, 30 second or so intro videos for each week to make students realise that I am human and I do exist.  Humanising the digital environment will provide a far greater level of connection than simply throwing up some readings and slides.

The assessment needed to change.  We need to still have a large invigilated exam – this is unavoidable and will mean that students either come to UC at the end of the semester or find an invigilated space nearer to them (at their expense).  But during the semester we had to still provide assessment so that students can gauge their own progress.  We could create essay style exams every week to avoid plagiarism issues, but that would cost significantly more in tutor marking  than we currently use.  MCQs can be automatically assessed on Learn, but are open to abuse.  We’ve found a solution that works for us, but I suggest you talk to the E-Learning team to find one that suits you and your course.  Ours has ended up becoming a mixture of 6 MCQ quizzes worth 5% each and 2 short answer questions worth 10% each that are presented throughout the semester.  The relatively low grade value associated with each quiz means the temptation to plagiarism is lowered and by spreading the assessment throughout the year they can keep up with the work and stay motivated to carry on.  Assessment is completed at the student’s leisure – if they want to work ahead and complete  quiz 3 weeks in advance of the in-class cohort, they can.  Everything except the short answers are marked automatically, so they can get instant feedback (and the MCQs are from a large bank of questions, so the likelihood of two students getting the same questions in minimised).

We all feel the same…
I wish I could say that I have this under control.  That this is easy and anyone can do it.  But the pressure to do well coupled with the fact that I haven’t done this before is stressful.  But I also know that if no one tries this on a big UG class we’re never going to progress as a learning institution.  I appreciate many don’t like the idea of digitisation, but I equally don’t like the hassle of sleeping – it gets in the way and distracts me from things I want to do, but I also know I need to do it to stay fresh and useful.  Get in touch with the E-E-Learning team and get the help you need if you have a passion for this – again, I have no idea how this will work and whether the students will appreciate this, but that’s all going to be measured and monitored throughout the S2 delivery.  If, in the first year, I can avoid shit hitting the fan, I think we can build upon the course to offer it again in the future.

Good luck and you’re not alone in this!

My key tips:

  1. Pick an appropriate course for digitisation – not all courses suit a virtual delivery
  2. Have a kick-ass PhD student who works hard – you can’t have Maja, get your own
  3. Be passionate about the student experience, not avoiding in-class teaching
  4. Have an assessment protocol that encourages regular monitoring of student progress.
  5. Be flexible with your delivery – what works in class won’t necessarily work online
  6. Be ready to pay – I’m talking to the HoDs and T&L committees out there – faculty need financial support to develop a course – not much, but enough to get the program going.
  7. USE THE E-LEARNING TEAM!

'e' as for enhanced and expanded