How to develop a flexible learning course

…as if it were an easy thing to do.

No, this post will not be about the definitions of blended vs online vs technology-enhanced vs e-. Here, I’d like to put down on paper screen what I consider necessary steps in and elements of development of a HE course for adult learners delivered at least partially on an off-campus basis, through an electronic platform, typically a VLE.

In another post, I wrote about the roles of Learning Technologists in face-to-face and blended learning institutions. While the distinction obviously isn’t clear-cut, it may be useful to consider how Learning Technology departments can play a more strategic role in developing blended and distance learning provision.

All budgetary and resource-related considerations aside, a good starting point would be identifying staff interested in developing their blended learning content, by either extending invitations to all staff or approaching course leaders who may be thinking, for various reasons, about changing the mode of delivery of their courses.

The next step could be the exploration of the interested academics’ teaching styles and approaches to online learning and teaching through, for instance, personal interviews, to create an atmosphere of reflection on the effectiveness of own online teaching practices and to develop a shared understanding of effective blended learning.

It is also crucial to be aware of online students’ expectations through surveys, interviews as well as research into existing literature.

Starting points
  • establishing module aims and learning objectives
  • identifying type(s) of content typical of the module/discipline (some disciplines may be more text heavy, others will make more use of demonstrations, etc.)
  • students’ needs and expectations
  • degree of willingness to engage in the blended learning scenario on the part of a lecturer (awareness of time and effort needed); how comfortable the lecturer is, what support they will have
Assessment: aligned with content and learning outcomes
  • regular formative and summative assessments, rather than huge assessment at the end
  • self-monitoring tools and opportunities for reflection on knowledge acquired and progress made
  • strategies for prompt formative feedback: transparent and timely
Content delivery methods
  • introduction with aims and objectives, establishing teacher’s presence through a video
  • intuitive, bite-sized chunks organised into meaningful units (e.g. workbook form in VLEs), with clear introductions explaining the purposes of the material
  • consistent presentation across units and modules, e.g. standard module menu, standard structure, visual elements (logos etc.) to emphasise course and university identity
  • varied modes of delivery: text, video, visual, slideshare, charts, graphs, pictures etc.
  • clear structure and clear pathways/signposting, e.g. adaptive release of content, checklists at the beginning of a unit, calendar provided in advance.
  • various types of activities: real life, problem solving. Engaging but at the same time challenging enough not to cause boredom.
Communication, collaboration and interaction strategies
  • regular interaction: a discussion forum for every substantial chunk of material with some problem solving activity with clear goals and clear purpose
  • contact with tutor: ask a tutor a question kind of thing
  • contact with tutor: regular chats where students can ask things about assessment
  • activities based on collaboration
  • there are opportunities for student feedback and students’ voice is ‘heard’
Student support strategies (to prevent feelings of isolation)
  • study tools module/online induction
  • support materials and helpdesk
  • regular synchronous support slots (online chats, skype, conf calls)
  • strategies for early detection of potential engagement/retention problems
  • community building strategies: online space for students

Possible challenges to address:

  • technical obstacles –> helpdesk, study tools
  • study skills obstacles: procrastination, poor time management –> training in study skills, raising awareness, clear deadlines, clear instructions how long tasks will take, clear structure of the module with checklists for self-monitoring of progress
  • non-traditional mode of delivery –> increased teaching presence, contact details easy to find, prompt replies to student messages, visible and useful teacher participation, personal element – videos of a “talking head”

Useful resources:

Online Instruction Rubric (California State University)

Quality Matters HE Rubric (try googling it…)

Example of grading rubric for discussion boards

Writing learning outcomes (Oxford Brookes)

An interactive representation of Bloom’s taxonomy, useful when designing learning objectives and accompanying activities.

Solent’s standard for online and blended learning courses, exploring the concept of ‘effective flexible delivery’. It is based on a survey of online components that were felt to have fostered student engagement and learning, both within and outside the academia. The standard is an important tool helping creators of flexible provision maintain consistent quality in their courses.

Engaging blended learning students: an evolving approach to engaging students through the VLE – an article on developing blended learning courses. The authors materials need to be ” intuitive, easy to access, clearly introduced and well signposted” “minimum levels of support and collaboration required in order for students to feel both engaged in and to gain maximum benefit from the learning processes”

Excellent analysis of instructional design in MOOCs