Online learner support: some resources

This post includes some of the useful resources I came across when researching the topic of online learner support. 

One recurrent advice for effective online learner support is the inclusion of collaboration in the learning design so that students learn to rely on one another and feel a part of a community of practice.

For example, in her article “Rethinking Learner Support: the challenge of collaborative online learning” (p. 114), Mary Thorpe emphasises the importance of group learning and collaboration as part of learner support in online environments: 


“The availability of learners to each other and to the tutor asynchronously and well as synchronously has the potential to overturn the emphasis in distance education as an individualised form of learning. The potential to create extensive dialogues and interchange electronically means that online teaching is often prioritising the learning group as a chief resource for learners and the focus for the tutor, rather than the needs of each individual learner, though these too can be accommodated in the pedagogical design supports that.” 

This webpage provides a list of practical steps that teachers can take to facilitate learning in a culturally and ethnically diverse student body. A number of these steps will also apply to instructional design for online contexts.

This book by J.E. Brindley, C. Walti & O. Zawacki-Richter (eds.) includes a selection of papers on various aspects of online learner support.   


This article by Ivan L. Harrell II provides a usefully concise description of learner support in online environments with an extensive reference list.


On the importance of scaffolding in online learning design see this article by Stacey Ludwig-Hardman and Joanna C. Dunlap


This useful resource by Catherine McLoughlin discusses a possible model for learner support in an online environment. 

Diversity and learner support

As part of my ongoing education in instructional design and learning technologies, I have been studying learner support as informed by the social and cultural context of learners. Here are some results of my research. 

Implications of learner diversity and inclusion policies for learner support

This short video presents challenges related to cultural diversity in distance learning settings. While set in the US context, it discusses issues directly relevant to the increasingly culturally-diverse student body in the UK and elsewhere.




Research has shown that students “value having their academic and social identities acknowledged and their particular needs addressed” and they “appreciate the teaching that does this” (see this HEA research briefing for more details).

The changing educational landscapes and the inclusion of new technologies, pedagogies and learning scenarios result in the need for incorporating learner support already at the level of instructional design. With increased flexibility of online educational delivery (where materials are often not provided to learners in a ready-made form but rather negotiated dynamically in response to student needs, aspirations and motivations), learner support can usefully be conceptualised as a “triangle” between interactively created course content, tutor and learners. 


Understood in this way, the design of learner support should include the following issues:

  • emphasis on the value of cooperative, experiential and problem-based learning, encouragement of such learning;
  • more explicit inclusion of learning communities in learner support processes; encouragement to utilise communities of learners more extensively as a support tool that strengthens a learner’s sense of belonging, provides a social support network, facilitates acquisition of knowledge and skills through learner to learner contact and helps learners negotiate administrative systems (see this resource, pp. 13 onwards);
  • facilitation of group-based work through support from tutor to tackle problems, managing group processes, asking students to work with others they never worked before, building in low-risk encounters so that students get to know each other in structured ways across any boundaries;
  • emphasis on the value of diversity e.g. by designing tasks where cross-cultural engagement is necessary to complete the task successfully;
  • encouraging learners to reflect on cross-cultural differences, e.g. by designing activities where they need to consider how knowledge, content or professional practices may be alternatively conceived of in different cultures;
  • scaffolding built into course/module design;
  • stress on implications of flexibility and importance of time management and taking responsibility for own learning- planning that is sensitive to students’ other commitments.

You may find this article on facilitating online learning processes in a virtual learning environment useful to help you apply learner support processes and procedures in actual teaching practice. 

This article on getting students online and keeping them engaged using synchronous and asynchronous online learning processes and methods can help you to see whether your online teaching practices facilitate student engagement.   

CPD in online learning and teaching

Here is another free MOOC in learning design focused on digital tools and creative techniques, starting on 19 May. Worth checking out! Just go to the website, register in their Moodle and wait for the confirmation email to arrive. 

Here’s how they advertise the course:

MirandaNet is a partner in an EU project called HandsOn ICT with colleagues in Greece, Spain, Slovenia and The Netherlands. We are looking for educators to participate in a free, open and online course (MOOC) that will help you reign your Learning with ICTs and Creativity.

In the context of the HANDSON project (http://handsonict.eu/ ), we are offering a course for teachers in Higher Education, Vocational Education Training and Secondary Schools. It is a 5-weeks MOOC about Designing Learning with the use of digital tools and creativity techniques.

This MOOC course is based in the use of Learning Design, an innovative methodology that encourages  teachers to support the other course participants in developing the design or redesign of learning with digital technologies. With the help of a mentor, you will be able to redesign your learning proposal and face specific challenges through a creative learning design methodology.
Learning design has proven to be a very powerful tool for anyone involved in the curriculum design. The course will follow a structure based on a project design, starting from the identification of a challenge, exploring the context, providing different and creative solutions and implementing a specific one to be validated. It is a very practical and teacher oriented methodology with a lot of potential for the creation of innovative solutions. 

ocTEL registration is now open

This came in the email today. I have just registered and really looking forward to the experience!
*******************************************************************************************************************  

Registration is open for the Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning (#ocTEL). 28 April 2014 #altc http://go.alt.ac.uk/octel-register 
ocTEL – Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning – start date 28th April
The Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning (ocTEL) is back! Starting on the 28th April 2014 you will be able to participate in this online course designed to help you better understand ways to use Learning Technology for teaching, learning and assessment. The course has undergone a revision and now is shorter (six weeks plus induction week) and we are working on incorporating new features including Open Badges for accreditation. Register now at http://go.alt.ac.uk/octel-register

CPD in online teaching and learning

Online teaching and learning is gaining momentum with many educational institutions and commercial organisations gearing towards online provision of educational and training content. This dynamics has been recognised by education providers, which started catering for the needs of educators and training professionals by offering courses in online pedagogies and technologies.

Here are a few of such courses:
  • Oxford Brookes University offers a free course in Online teaching via its Moodle platform. Enrolment (non-assessed) is free and the course runs from 10 March to 4 May 2014. 
  • MIT Media Lab offers a free course in Learning Creative Learning which, while not strictly on online learning, covers creative learning pedagogies and aims at creating a community of educators, designers and researchers. Runs for six weeks starting 18 March 2014. 
  • ALT offers the ocTEL (Open Course in Technology Enhanced Learning), which aims to help educators understand how to use technology to enhance teaching practice. Information and materials from 2013 edition are available online. It is possible to register interest in next editions on the course. 

Bett 2014

In late January I attended the Bett, one of the biggest and greatest annual trade shows in the UK devoted to learning technologies and the uses of information technology in education. Previously The British Educational Training and Technology Show, it attracts around 30000 visitors and 700 exhibitors, and after years at Kensington Olympia it is now hosted at the ExCeL Exhibition Centre in London, which testifies to its dynamic growth and development.

For me, the highlight of the show was not the exhibition itself, but the large number of talks, seminars and workshops offered as part of the event. They provide excellent networking and CPD opportunities for anyone interested in learning technologies, both in the education and business fields. I had a chance of attending a few and found them very informative and inspirational.

This year’s highlights and presentations are available online:

The Best of Bett 2014

Seminar Presentations

The Role of Technology in Education

Bett Show YouTube channel

Learning Technologies 2014

Learning Technologies 2014 will take place in London on 29-30 January. One of the biggest exhibitions in the entire L&D sector, it combines a conference and an exhibition with a number of free seminars.

It is geared primarily towards L&D sector, however HE professionals can also benefit from the latest insights and ideas. There are sessions on motivation, social learning, specific e-learning technologies and software, use of analytics and many others. The keynote lectures from the conference, which runs in parallel and requires previous registration and payment, will also be broadcast to non-paying exhibition guests.

ALT conference 2014

The annual conference by the Association for Learning Technology will this year take place in Warwick, UK, 1-3 September 2014. This year’s topic is “Riding Giants: How to innovate and educate ahead of the wave”. The call for research papers has already been published, and the registration details will follow soon.

As an Associate Member of the ALT, I am definitely planning to go in order to experience the collaborative environment where ideas are being developed and shared among colleagues. 
Talks from previous editions of the conference are published on the ALT YouTube channel and definitely worth perusing.

E-learning project management

Recently, I have come across this interesting video about e-learning project management. Although it has been created with e-learning professionals in commercial organisations in mind, it may also be applicable in educational organisations, such as universities. 

In the video, the author, Claudia Dornbusch, identifies 7 basic stages in an e-learning project development:

  1. Planning
  2. Content gathering and analysis
  3. Instructional design
  4. Storyboarding
  5. Development and production
  6. Quality assurance
  7. Integration and delivery
The planning stage involves identifying steps to be taken, responsible parties and due dates, among other things. 
During content analysis, we identify the existing content and any content gaps that need to be filled. Then the SME, or subject-matter expert, produces the content required. Typically, in the HE environment, the SME is at the same time the designer and developer, but it can be useful to think about these roles as separate. 
The instructional design stage is the one that matters most for a lecturer designing an online learning event for her students. This is when the goals and objectives are identified and the instructional strategy determined. Instructional strategy is how the content is going to be transformed into an engaging online experience. This is where we need to think about students’ motivation and the purpose behind the learning event.

Storyboarding consists in designing the layout for each page of the course. Depending on the type of content we design and the type of environment we are working in, this may already be partly determined by the VLE implemented at a given organisation. At the same time, even with a pre-established VLE layout in place, it is vital to consider the type and amount of information provided on each page or in each section of the learning event.

During development and production the actual online learning event is created.

Quality assurance is an important stage which should not be neglected. A learning event that is well-planned and well-executed increases learners’ levels of motivation and engagement.

During the integration and delivery the learning content is integrated with the existing learning environment, for example made available to learners in the VLE.

My experience as an educator within the HE context suggests that in actual practice several of the above stages happen simultaneously, given that many of the roles such as the PM, the SME, the developer etc. are performed by one individual. However, due to their different nature and function in the process, it may prove useful to think about them as separate steps that contribute to creating a stimulating online experience. 

Student motivation in blended learning

One of my main areas of interest with regard to learning technologies  is student motivation with relation to blended learning and the use of learning technologies. Quite a lot of research has been done so far in the field of student motivation in general, and some of these observations can be transferred onto the field of blended learning.

For example, Ellis, Ginns and Piggott, in their article “E-learning in higher education: some key aspects and their relationships to approaches to study” note that previous scholarship has identified four main factors that may affect student motivation:

  1. interactivity, 
  2. approaches to e-moderating, 
  3. issues related to course/module design, and 
  4. workload awareness. 

In other words, a good blended learning module should be built around interactive activities (which, in turn, should be closely aligned with the aims and learning outcomes of the module) which give students at least some control over their learning. The teacher’s role in this context is discussed mainly with regard to feedback and e-moderating in order to help learners reflect on issues under consideration.

The overall course/module design should follow the principles of constructive alignment, and should take into consideration workload requirements placed on students, since research shows that learner motivation and perception of the quality of the e-learning experience are significantly associated with perceptions of appropriate workload (i.e. the amount of online work on top of in-class activities).

The authors present a case study of over 200 undergraduate business students who were required to participate in online activities as part of a module they took. The study showed that students were particularly positive about learning from their peers’ contributions. In this sense, online activities (in this case sharing resources and opinions on a discussion board) prove to be well-suited for sharing of alternative perspectives.

Interestingly, students were largely neutral about the impact of the module website design on their experience. At the same time, their responses often revealed concern about the amount of additional workload related to adding e-learning activities to existing face-to-face activities without allowing for the additional time needed to complete them.

The researchers interpret their findings as an evidence of “the importance of careful structuring and design of e-learning activities and resources, especially in relation to the broader student experience” (Ellis et al. 2009: 316). This confirms the importance of careful design of online learning experiences so that the purpose behind using the electronic medium as well as the aims and objectives of the learning event are clear to the learners. This will hopefully result in enhancing their motivation, which should be our main focus in instructional design.

So the take-home point is as follows:

We cannot assume that the mere presence of e-learning activities and materials supporting a face-to-face experience of learning will improve the quality of the experience. How students perceive and use the activities and materials represent one of the keys to unlocking the full value of e-learning in the student learning experience at university.