Are teacher-led and learner-led approaches compatible?

tug of warAs learner-led/learner-centred learning and teaching oriented methods and principles gain attention and popularity, teachers, curriculum developers, and instructional designers are incorporating them into learning activities and courses. Many report mixed results and issues when they do so. The following article examines one possible contributing factor to such results and issues.

Defining terms

Firstly, I’m not arguing that teacher-led and learner-led views of learning and teaching practice are absolutes or binary states. I view them as being on the same scale from extremely prescribed and controlled by the teacher, e.g. the stereotypical Victorian school master, through to entirely self-organised, defined, controlled, and sustained learning by autonomous learners themselves, e.g. special interest groups and communities of practice, and I believe that most online curricula and learning and teaching practices are situated somewhere in between.

Teacher-led <———————————————————————–> Learner-led

Teacher vs. learner-led scale

When tensions arise

With the best of intentions and carefully and skilfully constructed learning activities, teachers, curriculum developers, and IDs can inadvertently create relational and motivational tensions between teachers and learners, and among cohorts of learners by the way they mix teacher-led and learner-led activities. Here’s a typical case scenario:

An experienced, well-informed teacher has developed an online course that is predominantly teacher-led. The course uses online presentations, readings, webinars, and forum discussions which are intensively monitored led by the teacher. The teacher conscientiously provides guidance, instructional scaffolding, and links to further resources at every turn. The teacher then decides to introduce some learner-led projects, problems, or tasks to the course (Perhaps as a way to make the course less labour intensive for the teacher?).

However, only a small minority of the learners participate as much as expected and/or required, and the majority go “off track”, waste time, and/or complain about aspects of the activity or the whole activity. The learning outcomes are mediocre at best or even poor, and it’s difficult to regain the previous “learning momentum” of the course.

Why did this happen? Is there something wrong with the activity? Is there some way to make it more productive? I suspect that in most cases, the activity is adequately designed and not the main contributor to the issue.

What contributes to these tensions?

If a course is predominantly teacher-led to start with, it creates an atmosphere and learning experiences that set up learners’ expectations that are aligned with being led and having critical learning decisions being made for them, or the feeling that any decisions they make need to be validated or approved by an authority figure; the teacher.

Additionally, some of the prerequisite conditions necessary for learner-led learning to occur, e.g. social presence and building autonomous, mutually respectful, and productive relationships between teachers and learners, and among the learners themselves, may not be in place and may have gone unnoticed since they aren’t critical to the success of teacher-led approaches. When suddenly faced with the responsibility of thinking autonomously, analytically, and critically, and having to work closely with peers, who they may or may not have got to know very well, and without the supervision, guidance, and approval of their authority figure (the teacher), the majority of learners’ expectations are not met; they feel lost, unsupported, and confused.

In my experience, the majority of learners are perfectly capable of being autonomous, thinking analytically and critically, and taking responsibility for their learning; most people do so from an early age in their public and private lives outside of education. However, because of most people’s previous experiences of education and strongly held cultural beliefs about it, we need to be explicit when asking learners to do so in situations and environments labelled “educational” and cultivate the atmosphere, and provide the environment, support, and resources that are necessary. Learners need to get to know each other and learn about what each of their peers on a course has to offer with regards to the subject matter and learning objectives. They need to build interpersonal relationships and cultivate trust so that they have the confidence to explore, experiment, and take risks and feel that they have the interest, approval, and support of their peers as well as their teacher.

In conclusion

I’m not arguing here that teacher-led and learner-led methods and activities are inherently incompatible, just that from what I’ve seen in practice in the majority of instances, both in face-to-face and online contexts, tensions and issues can and do arise when certain conditions and factors aren’t taken into consideration. When we break with educational traditions and orthodoxies, and/or atmospheres of learning that have been cultivated within organisations, we need to be explicit about what we’re doing and why, and ensure that the prerequisite conditions are in place for learner-directed learning experiences to be purposeful, successful, and productive.

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What can learners and teachers do to limit corporate surveillance while working online?

Big Brother Google is watching youSince security and surveillance expert Edward Snowden blew the whistle and leaked damning NSA documents to investigative journalists Laura Poitras and Glenn Greenwald, the implications and ramifications of the NSA’s dragnet surveillance, partly enabled by IT giants like Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, have been cause for concern everywhere, and not least in elearning. As educators we bear a responsibility to our learners and other educators to protect their basic civil rights wherever and whenever we can. By being well-informed about internet surveillance and the tools and strategies available, we can offer useful, effective advice and help to reduce both the quality and quantity of personal data collected from them in the course of their online studies and work.

Why is internet surveillance an important issue?

First, here’s the scary bit. Below is an interview with a Journalist who’s looked into the business of internet surveillance:

“Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Julia Angwin joins us to discuss her new book, “Dragnet Nation: A Quest for Privacy, Security and Freedom in a World of Relentless Surveillance.” Currently at ProPublica and previously with the Wall Street Journal, Angwin details her complex and fraught path towards increasing her own online privacy. According to Angwin, the private data collected by East Germany’s Soviet-era Stasi secret police could pale in comparison to the information revealed today by an individual’s Facebook profile or Google search.”

So, What can learners and teachers do to limit corporate surveillance while working online?

What advice can we give and what measures can we put in place? Are they practical, understandable, and easily do-able? Here’s some practical suggestions to get the ball rolling…

Turn off local storage on Flash Player

Turn off local storage on Flash Player: Local Shared Objects (LSOs) are used extensively by surveillance organisations, including Google, because they reveal more information about users’ computers and software, making it easier to uniquely identify individuals, and LSOs aren’t deleted when you clear/purge your browsers’ cache, i.e. they’re more persistent. The benefits of allowing LSOs is minor and easy to live without.

Install a cookie manager

Along with your IP address and HTTP headers, cookies are the primary means of identifying and tracking individuals. There are several cookie manager extensions/plugins available for browsers that manage cookies for you. Those that you want to keep, e.g. for sites that you want to remain logged into, you can white-list them, everything else gets deleted when you navigate away from the site. My favourite is Self-destructing cookies for Firefox.

Block JavaScript from surveillance sites

This one’s a bit more problematic and can “break” page displays on some sites. If at all practical and workable, JavaScript blocking prevents some very detailed surveillance from taking place. From my experience with using free and open source web analytics software, I’ve witnessed how rich and detailed the collected data can be. There are two main approaches; white-lists and black-lists. A white-list is a list of approved sites to allow JavaScript from, a black-list is a list of sites to block JavaScript from. Both require someone to maintain the lists and block or allow new sites as they come up: many sites nowadays use CDNs and/or 3rd party libraries for JavaScript libraries and blocking them can make many sites unusable. In short, you have to maintain a list of legitimate JavaScript CDNs and 3rd party libraries as well as for the individual sites. I use a white-list plugin for Firefox called NoScript.

The added benefit of JavaScript blocking with white-lists, is that they also prevent the vast majority of web malware attacks. JavaScript has consistently been identified as the primary technology used in malware attacks by all the major anti-virus firms.

Use privacy protecting search engines

Rather than use Google, Yahoo!, or Bing as your search provider, why not use one of the more ethical and privacy protecting services? They don’t store your search history or your IP address and as an added advantage, they don’t filter their search results according to a personal search history profile thereby preventing the “filter bubble” phenomenon which can hide useful, relevant results from users.

Automatically generate random tracking noise

The browser plugin for Firefox and Chrome TrackMeNot periodically generates random but convincingly genuine search strings and sends them to search engines that may be tracking you. This “muddies” the profile they can build up on you, making it less accurate and less revealing about you.

Use different browsers

Using different web browsers, e.g. Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, Chrome, Chromium, and Opera, for different purposes puts up barriers between surveillance companies that use the same tracking techniques, e.g. “+”, “Like”, and “Share” buttons (In many cases, you don’t have to click on them, they’re watching you anyway), across multiple websites. For example, use one browser for searches and another one for social networking sites, and another one for logging into email (or better still use a free and open source email client that doesn’t send tracking data to surveillance companies, e.g. Thunderbird.

Use a privacy protecting proxy

This is one that organisations’ IT support can implement on their users’ behalf. A proxy can filter out personally revealing information from HTTP requests and in some cases hide users’ IP addresses.

Why if my school/college/university/institution has switched to using Google services?

It would be expensive and difficult to switch back, so more than likely not a feasible option for many organisations. The best advice I can think of is to create Google accounts specifically for use with that educational organisation and don’t use those for anything else and, if you already use Google services, e.g. GMail, Google+, and/or GCalendar, migrate to a different service provider; preferably a more ethical one, if that’s possible. The idea is to create as many barriers as possible between your private life and your studies and work, and reduce the quality and quantity of your personal information and internet usage habits that are available to one single surveillance organisation.

Use TOR

TOR (The Onion Router) is at the extreme end of anti-surveillance techniques. It’s quite restrictive and only practical for searching for and viewing a narrower range of web media, e.g. viewing Flash-based media such as video and audio can reveal personally identifiable information thereby defeating the purpose of using TOR. TOR would be particularly useful for users researching politically and culturally sensitive topics, e.g. child abuse, sexual behaviour, terrorism, copyright infringement, and political activism, that might lead to inappropriate interventions by security and law enforcement agencies (or get followed around the web by some highly inappropriate targeted advertising!) It’s widely used by journalists, political activists, and people who want to circumvent censorship and surveillance around the world. TOR comes in a ready configured, optimised, easy to use, standalone package called the TOR Browser Bundle which can also be run from a USB thumb drive or CD ROM.

In summary

These measures cannot prevent surveillance entirely but they can significantly reduce the quality and quantity of data that corporations and government security agencies can collect about you. If you can add suggestions to this list that are practical, understandable, and easily do-able, please participate in the discussion. I’ve linked to this article from Moodle.org community forums. Joining Moodle.org is free and quick, and a great place meet elearning professionals and discuss things that matter to you and to them. (Disclosure: Moodle.org uses Google Search and Analytics but I’d like to get that changed!)

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Update: Do you want to get started with Moodle?

BitNami MoodleBack in 2012 I wrote the article, Do you want to get started with Moodle? which turned out to be one of the most read and most cited articles on this blog. A lot has happened with software and web tools in the following two years so I’ve decided to write an update to it. I’ll be featuring a free and open source localhost server and web app installers from BitNami. For the record, I have no affiliation with BitNami or anyone from BitNami and have had no contact with them about writing this article.

Why run Moodle on your computer?

There are many benefits to having your own version of Moodle on your personal computer. Here are a few examples:

  • An easy way to try out and learn to use Moodle for free without making any commitments, renting servers, etc.
  • A safe sandbox where you can try things out before putting them out on the world wide web.
  • An offline environment where you can create, develop and test learning activities, resources, and courses in private before uploading them onto a public server.
  • Moodle pages will load faster, shortening the time it takes to develop activities, resources, and courses.
  • Install, test, and make sure that 3rd party Moodle plugins and services work as expected and meet your specific needs on your computer rather than on a public server.

Why write this update?

Since I wrote the original article, I’ve run into some technical difficulties with more recent versions of the localhost server (Wampserver) software I originally recommended, especially for running more recent versions of Moodle, e.g. 2.5 and 2.6. In my search for solutions I came across a number of other developers and Moodle users that were having similar issues. The solutions were far from simple or easy to resolve and so I thought it would be a good idea to find something simpler, easier, and less problematic to run Moodle on your local computer.

Why BitNami?

BitNami provides free and open source localhost installers that anyone can install and get working with the minimum of technical knowledge and, as you’ll see later in this article, the process is about as simple as it can be. There are two main options to get started with BitNami and Moodle. Let’s get started…

Option 1: Install Moodle only

The first and simplest is the all-in-one Moodle installer (-AMP stack + Moodle), which is available on Linux, Windows, and Mac. Download the appropriate one for your operating system, run it, and follow the onscreen instructions.

Important! When you have completed the installation process and you have your Moodle installation up and running and you are logged in, edit your user profile, change your user name and password, and write them down. If you don’t, you can end up getting locked out of your Moodle when you log out and have to uninstall and go through the installation process again.

Option 2: Install Moodle + other web apps

Using the previous installation method makes it difficult to install other web apps alongside Moodle, e.g. WordPress, Joomla, or ownCloud. Luckily, BitNami provides a basic “-AMP stack” installer (AMP = Apache + MySQL + PHP) which allows you to install any number of web apps along side each other. This provides a base localhost server that you can install Moodle and other web apps onto:

Important! The BitNami -AMP stack installer will ask you to provide a database password. Write your database password down and keep it in a safe place. You’ll need it to install Moodle and other web apps. Now you’re ready to install Moodle. Here are the modules to download and run that install Moodle on your -AMP stack:

Important! Again, as with the stand-alone Moodle installer, when you have completed the installation process and you have your Moodle installation up and running, and you’re logged in, edit your user profile, change your user name and password, and write them down.

Moodle logoWhat’s next?

If you’re new to learning management systems in general and/or Moodle, please be aware that they are large, complicated, but powerful and flexible software and so it takes time and effort to learn to use them. Be patient with yourself and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Whatever your interest or area of expertise, there are many books, tutorials, and courses available to help get you started. I also recommend:

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Using chat to facilitate more interactive classes

chatHere’s how you can make your face to face lessons more inclusive and interactive quickly and simply by using a chat session during class, and open up a range of benefits that aren’t immediately apparent.

How does it work?

Before a face to face lesson or lecture begins, the tutor/teacher/TA opens or schedules a chat room in the course on the school’s, organisation’s, college’s, university’s, or institution’s Moodle*. All the class participants login and join the chat session. They can use their laptops, netbooks, or mobile devices. Now everyone can submit questions, requests, and comments and everyone can see each others’ during the lesson or lecture.

*Or any chat client on an elearning platform that has appropriate user management, privacy, and oversight facilities (e.g. most commercial chat services such as Facebook, Google+ don’t allow right of audit, which is necessary addressing ethical and behavioural issues), and that admins, teachers, TAs, and learners can access transcripts of previous sessions for learning and professional development (PD) purposes.

How does this affect the classroom dynamic?

  • All learners, even in a relatively large class, have the opportunity to participate in significant and meaningful ways.
  • Learners don’t have to raise their hands to interrupt the flow of the class just to have their question, request, or comment expressed and considered.
  • Less gregarious learners don’t have to compete for attention/get noticed and can therefore contribute their questions, requests, or comments more easily; everyone has an equal voice.
  • Learners can see their peers’ questions, requests, or comments whether they are addressed/focused on or not in the lesson.
  • Teachers/tutors can choose which questions, requests, and comments, in what order, and when to address/focus on.
  • Points raised by learners can be dealt with appropriately and in a timely manner and never “get lost in the moment.”
  • The transcript of the chat session is an invaluable record of what actually happened and when during the class, making it an excellent resource for critical reflection.
  • Teachers/tutors can review the transcript to see where the lesson could be improved and/or consider alternatives.
  • Teachers/tutors can see who’s participating more or less than they should be and find out why.
  • Teachers/tutors can assess learners based on their participation both quantitively and qualitatively even if it didn’t get addressed/focused on in class.
  • There’s a record of questions, requests, and comments that it may not have been appropriate to address/focus on during the lesson but could provide productive avenues of inquiry in subsequent classes.

Could it also get learners off of Facebook during class?

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Implementing star-ratings in Moodle

star-ratingsFollowing the upsurge of interest in gamification* of learning (not to be confused with “edugames”), this is a quick “How to” article for a question that seems to come up a lot these days: “How can I implement star-ratings in Moodle?”

How to implement star-ratings in Moodle

Moodle already has an elaborate, editable, and adaptable grading and rating system built in so the process is relatively simple:

  1. Log in to Moodle as an administrator (editing teachers can create scales for their own courses too)
  2. Go to Site administration > Grades > Scales
  3. Add a new scale
  4. Fill in the Add new scale form, e.g.
    • Name: Stars
    • Scale: ☆☆☆☆☆, ★☆☆☆☆, ★★☆☆☆, ★★★☆☆, ★★★★☆, ★★★★★
    • Description: (optional)
  5. Save

That’s it. Now, when you create/edit activities that support ratings, i.e. Forums, Glossaries, and Databases, the “Stars” rating will be available under the grading heading. By the way, you don’t have to limit your ratings to stars; you can also use more descriptive (text) ratings that inform learners in more meaningful ways, e.g.:

  • Scale: Please tell us more, Interesting, Insightful, Highly perceptive

or…

  • Scale: difficult to understand, fluent, complex, accurate, fluent and complex, fluent and accurate, complex and accurate, fluent complex and accurate

or…

  • Scale: I strongly disagree, I disagree, I agree, I strongly agree

or…

  • Scale: This is a bit like me, This is a lot like me, This is just like me

An important consideration to make when designing a set of ratings is how it may provide added incentives to learners to participate further in discussions, e.g. to elaborate on why they gave their particular rating to a forum post or glossary entry, or for the rating recipient to modify or elaborate on their post/entry, thereby encouraging deeper engagement and constructive discourse between learners. If learners find the ratings meaningful, helpful, and relevant to their learning needs, then they are more likely to use them to rate each others’ work (if you set the activity to allow peer rating).

Teachers can also use ratings for formative assessment, providing timely, easy to understand  feedback so that they can act upon it during the activities, thereby using ratings to initialise/invite instructional scaffolding. Here’s an example scenario:

  1. a learner posts a comment in a discussion,
  2. the teacher or a peer rates the comment,
  3. the learner has an opportunity to respond, i.e. make changes or ask for elaboration,
  4. the discussion might continue on its current trajectory or move in a new direction

* Gamification is the use of game thinking and game mechanics in non-game contexts to engage users in solving problems. Gamification is applied to improve user engagement, return on investment, data quality, timeliness, and learning. Source: Wikipedia.org

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Presentation on learner-centered (self-directed) learning

peopleIn the previous article, Am I a learner-centered or a teacher-led teacher?, I compared and contrasted learner-centered (self-directed) learning with teacher-led (teacher-directed) learning, outlining some of the differences between them regarding learning and teaching theory and practice. In order to further clarify what the implications of learner-centered (self-directed) learning and teaching theory and practice are, I’ve composed and uploaded a presentation (slideshow).

Click here to view the presentation (opens new tab/window)

I hope you find it interesting and useful!

Technical details about the presentation software

The presentation is hosted on my Moodle installation, using a resource module (plugin) that I’ve developed and am experimenting with. My Moodle Presentation module is an implementation of the  free and open source Javascript-based slideshow project Reveal.js by Hakim El Hattab.

Please contact me if you have any difficulties in viewing the presentation.

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Am I a learner-centered or a teacher-led teacher?

peopleThere’s a lot of talk about social learning and social constructivist approaches to learning these days. One of the key features of these approaches is that they are learner-centered/self-directed. But what does this mean? How does this affect curriculum development and learning and teaching practice in the classroom and online?

This article is an attempt to make a clear distinction between learner-centered (self-directed) learning and teacher-led (teacher-directed) learning and to identify their underlying characteristics. These two approaches represent fundamental differences in the ways we view how people learn, learners’ and teachers’ roles, and how we think and act in learning contexts. Hopefully, the following guide will help teachers and curriculum developers discover what their preferred kind of learning and teaching approach is.

The definitions are more or less copied (and slightly modified) from Malcolm Shepherd Knowles’ book, Self-directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers (1975) which, in my opinion, remains an excellent source of advice for curriculum development and covers topics and views that are rarely included in teacher and instructional designer education, training courses, or professional development today.

You’ll probably notice that the outline of learner-centered (self-directed) teaching is much longer than teacher-led (teacher-directed). Why? Because almost everyone has had a lot of experience of teacher-led/teacher-directed learning in schools, colleges, universities, and on professional development and training courses, and so it requires little explanation. Only a small minority of learners and teachers have had experience of learner-centered/self-directed learning and so I’ve provided more expansive descriptions.

“Anything a learner should do and can do for themselves, and we do for them, takes away an opportunity to learn responsibly.”

– Gene Bedely (paraphrased)

Am I a teacher-led/teacher-directed learning teacher?

If you view lesson planning and curriculum development like this:

  • What content needs to be covered?
  • How can this content be organised into manageable units?
  • How can these units be organised into a logical sequence?
  • What means of transmission will be most effective for transmitting each unit?
  • How can learners’ retention be measured/assessed?

…then your preferred learning and teaching approach is most likely teacher-led/teacher-directed.

Am I a learner-centered/self-directed learning teacher?

If you view lesson planning and curriculum development like this:

  • Climate setting
  • Planning
  • Diagnosing needs for learning
  • Setting goals
  • Designing a learning plan
  • Engaging in learning activities
  • Evaluating learning outcomes

Climate setting

  1. How can I most quickly get the learners to become acquainted with each other as people and as mutual resources for learning? (i.e. build the necessary relationships for co-operative learning; familiarity, trust, and mutual respect).
  2. How can I help them to gain an understanding of the concept of self-directed learning?
  3. How can I provide them with a simple preliminary experience in practising the skills of self-directed learning?
  4. How can I help them to understand my role as a facilitator and resource to self-directed learners and ensure that they will feel comfortable in relating to me in this way?
  5. How can I present myself to them as a human being so that they may trust me?
  6. How can I provide them with a short but meaningful experience in working together collaboratively?
  7. How can I create an atmosphere characterised by both mutual caring and support and intellectual rigor?

Planning

  1. At what points shall I decide what procedures to use, and at what points shall I present optional procedures for them to decide on?
  2. On what ethical basis shall I make this decision, and how will I explain it to them and invite their modification or veto?
  3. What mechanism will I propose for involving them in the decision-making process: consensus or voting by the total group, delegation of responsibility to subgroups, or delegation to an elected steering committee?
  4. How will I adjust my approach to planning according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Diagnosing needs for learning

  1. How shall we construct a model of the competencies (or content objectives, if you prefer) that this particular learning experience should be concerned with?
  2. If I start with a model I have constructed, how can I present it so that they will feel free to change it or build upon it?
  3. If I start with their suggestions for a model, how can I introduce my own ideas or the requirements from the outer environment without denigrating their contributions?
  4. How can I assure that they will have a sense of ownership of the model finally agreed upon?
  5. How can I make it possible for them to realistically and non-threateningly assess the gaps between their present levels of development of their competencies and the level required by the model?
  6. How will I adjust my approach to diagnosing needs for learning according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Setting goals

  1. How can I help them translate diagnosed needs into learning objectives that are clear, feasible, at appropriate levels of specificity or generality, personally meaningful, and so that measuring accomplishment is feasible?
  2. How can I suggest changes constructively?
  3. How will I adjust my approach to setting goals according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Designing a learning plan

  1. What guidelines for a learning plan will I propose?
  2. What optional models of plans will I present?
  3. What kinds of help will I give particular learners in designing their plans?
  4. How will I expose them to resources and strategies for using resources that they may not know about or may not have thought of?
  5. What mechanisms (e.g. consultation teams) can I suggest to facilitate their helping each other in designing their plans?
  6. How will I adjust my approach to designing learning plans according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Engaging in learning activities

  1. Which learning activities shall I take responsibility for to meet objectives that are common to all (or most) of their learning plans, which activities should be the responsibility of subgroups, and which should be individual inquiry projects?
  2. How, when, and why shall I intervene in learners’ activities? (i.e. When would it be productive or counter-productive to intervene?)
  3. How can I make myself available to subgroups and individuals as a consultant and resource as they plan and carry out their learning activities?
  4. What is my responsibility for assuring quality performance of the learning activities?
  5. How will I adjust my approach to engaging in learning activities according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

Evaluating learning outcomes

  1. What should be my role in providing feedback to the learners regarding my perceptions of the accomplishment of their learning objectives?
  2. How can I do it so as to not create a dissonance with the learners’ self-directedness?
  3. What is my responsibility for making judgements about the adequacy of the evidence of accomplishment of the learners’ objectives and the adequacy of their criteria and means for validating their evidence?
  4. How can I present these judgements in such a way that they will enhance rather than diminish the learners’ self-concepts as self-directed people?
  5. How will I adjust my approach to evaluating learning outcomes according to how knowledgeable and experienced learners are, or have become, at self-directed learning?

…then your preferred learning and teaching approach is most likely learner-centered/learner-directed.

Adapted from: Knowles, M. S., Self-directed Learning: A Guide for Learners and Teachers, 1975, Prentice-Hall.

Follow up post: Presentation on learner-centered (self-directed) learning

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New readability analysis filter for Moodle

Moodle Readability filter pluginThis is a quick announcement to let you know that I’ve just started a new plugin project for Moodle. It’s a filter module that analyses text on Moodle pages and rates their readability according to the six most popular readability formulas:

 When installed and activated, it will automatically analyse texts using one of the chosen readability formulas and print a small, discreet box at the top right of the analysed text, displaying the results. Moodle’s text filters apply to all text areas and so learning content and user generated texts will have their readability level/index displayed, for example in Pages, Books, Forums, Wikis, Glossaries, Assignments, Databases, Lessons, and Labels.

I’m interested in hearing any comments and suggestions you might have for possible uses, advantages, and/or limitations of this plugin. I’d also like to keep the discussion as widely accessible as possible to all members of the Moodle community. To that end, rather than post comments here (comments are now disabled on this blog) please participate the Moodle.org discussion thread for this plugin: https://moodle.org/mod/forum/discuss.php?d=243715. It’s free and easy to join, it’s well moderated, and you’ll be in contact with thousands of other Moodlers.

The beta version of the plugin (still under development) is here. At the moment, I don’t recommend it for production sites as it hasn’t been extensively tested.

Readability of this article

  • Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease     47.6 / 100
  • Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level     11
  • Gunning-Fog Score     12.2
  • Coleman-Liau Index     13.8
  • SMOG Index     9.7
  • Automated Readability Index     11.1
  • Average Grade Level     11.6
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Specifying elearning resources and strategies

Specifying elearning resources and strategiesA common challenge facing those about to embark on elearning projects is knowing just what their options are and what they have to offer. Novice project managers, teachers, and curriculum developers often find themselves at a loss as to where they should start and what they should be looking into. This article is not intended to be a definitive guide (That could fill several books!) but more of a general outline and starting point to investigate and gain a broader understanding of what options may currently be available and how they can be used.

How does this guide fit in with elearning projects?

Organised learning involves some kind of explicit or implicit learning contract, i.e. an agreement and alignment between learners, teachers, and support staff of shared objectives and goals. Here’s a quick overview of some of the main aspects* of developing an elearning contract:

  • Diagnosing learners’ needs
  • Specifying learning objectives
  • Specifying learning resources and strategies
  • Specifying evidence of accomplishment
  • Specifying how the evidence will be validated
  • Reviewing the learning contract
  • Carrying out the learning contract
  • Evaluating learning

Adapted from: Knowles, M. S. Self-Directed Learning. A guide for learners and teachers, 1975, Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall/Cambridge.

This guide is limited to a broad overview of one particular aspect of investigating, planning, and developing an learning project; Specifying learning resources and strategies; and, in order to limit the scope, does not take into account strategies such as blended learning, i.e. combined face-to-face and online learning. Blended learning in particular, makes many more options available so curriculum developers, teachers, and learners can have the best (or worst?) of both worlds. It also assumes that your project will be centred around a learning management system (LMS) that supports some or all of the features and tools listed.

*Please note that this list is by no means definitive or a set sequence of stages. Developing elearning is often a complex, messy, recursive, fluid activity that frequently revisits and re-evaluates the various aspects in the light of unforeseen discoveries and developments.

What are the options?

This guide is by no means exhaustive and lists only the more commonly researched and used resources, activities, and strategies. There are more options and many that are specifically for particular topics and subject areas. I’m frequently surprised by the number of qualified, experienced teachers, instructional designers, and curriculum developers working in elearning who appear to be unaware or at least uninitiated in using many of the options available to them. Hopefully, this guide can provoke more investigation into and discovery of more of these options.

Resources

  • Text documents: HTML web pages, pure text, Microsoft Office Doc, Open Office ODT, PDF, and eBook formats, e.g. EPUB (free and open ebook standard), AZW, and MOBI.
  • Images: tables, charts, diagrams, infographics, illustrations, photos, etc.
  • Audio recordings: radio programmes, podcasts, lecture recordings, interviews, self-speech recordings, i.e. listening back to yourself talking your way through an activity or problem, etc.
  • Video recordings: similar to audio recording but also including presentations, visual documentaries, etc.
  • Animations: animated illustrations, animated 2D and 3D models, interactive models, etc.
  • Slide show presentations: PowerPoint, Adobe Captivate, Raptivity, Slideshare, Prezzi, etc.
  • 3rd party websites, databases and repositories: external sources of information and media; Wikimedia Foundation, Creative Commons, OER, Google/Yahoo!/Bing Maps, etc.

Synchronous activities

Chat

Allows participants to have real time synchronous text discussions. Pure text discussions have some advantages over voice discussions, in that although they are generally slower and convey less information, so they tend to provide stronger focus on the content of what participants are saying and can encourage normally reticent learners to make more contributions. Additionally, since it is more difficult for and more obvious when some learners try to dominate the conversation, there tends to be more evenly distributed participation and greater inclusion. Chat sessions are also easier to analyse and assess than voice over internet protocol (VoIP) since they’re already transcribed.

Chat services also allow learners to contact each other more spontaneously and informally to ask questions and/or ask for clarifications, and generally increase their engagement, social presence, and sense of community.

Popular examples: Skype chat, MSN Messenger, Facebook chat, etc. Almost all modern LMS’ have chat activities available.

Web meetings

These are real time online virtual spaces that often include multi-way chat, voice over internet protocol (VoIP), audio, and video, shared whiteboards, file uploads/downloads, and slide show presentations. Some services allow participants to attend by traditional telephone for when internet access/bandwidth is an issue. Many web meeting services also offer the option to record sessions so that learners and teachers can review and refer to them at a later date.

Web meetings are an effective way for learners and teachers to increase social presence, get to know each other, build trust and cultivate a stronger sense of belonging and community between  participants.

If users require or would like to access web meetings on mobile devices, it’s essential to check that whichever service you choose provides a native app for it. For the foreseeable future, web browsers on mobile devices are unlikely to have sufficient capacity to reliably support the high demands of multiple participants in multi-way, multimedia communication over the web.

Web meeting software services run on media servers with high processing and bandwidth requirements, and are complex and require highly specialised skills to maintain. Most media servers are consumed as 3rd party web services from independent specialist providers, even by many of the larger media organisations, universities, colleges, and institutions.

Popular examples: Big Blue Button (free and open source), Meeting Burner, Tok Box, WizIQ, Google Hangouts, Skype, and Blackboard Collaborate (formerly Elluminate).

Collaborative documents

Shared online text documents, databases, and spreadsheets that can be edited in real time by multiple participants simultaneously. Real time online co-construction of documents can provide a strong focal point to discussions and collaborative projects especially in Social Constructionist learning and teaching approaches, where the emphasis is on the process of creating a document rather than the finished document itself (process vs. product).

Popular examples: Etherpad (free and open source), Google Docs, MS SharePoint, etc. Here’s an example of integrating a collaborative document platform with an LMS: Etherpad and Moodle Integration

Asynchronous activities

Assignments

Similar to traditional college and university essay “drop boxes”, assignment activities enable teachers and assessors to grade and give comments and feedback on uploaded files and assignments created on and off line. Submissions can be documents, images, diagrams, concept maps, infographics, posters, learners’ blog posts, inline web pages, audio, and/or video recordings. Some assignment activities support peer assessment. An advantage to online assignment activities is that learners and teachers can always be sure that they’re looking at the latest version of a document and its comments, avoiding the confusion of trying to manage multiple versions of files from multiple learners via repositories or email (Yes, some people do that!), and can also review earlier versions to see the progress of changes.

Also consider using forums, glossaries, databases, and wikis for collaborative assignments.

Databases

Enable participants to create, maintain and search a bank of record entries. Most people understand databases as MS Excel spreadsheets (although spreadsheets and databases are quite different). They can be a useful tool for learning how to categorise and organise information, construct overviews, and thereby gain a broader understanding of a process, system, or subject area. Databases needn’t be limited to storing text; they can support multimedia too. Having online databases means that learners can collaborate in editing them, leading to greater discussion, reflection, analytical and critical thinking, and therefore deeper learning.

Popular examples: Open Office Base (free and open source), DHTMLX.com (free and open source), Microsoft Access, etc.

Feedback (surveys)

For creating and conducting surveys to collect feedback from learners. High quality feedback can give teachers and curriculum developers invaluable information and opinions from learners related to resource, curriculum, and course design, as well as attitudes and relationships towards each other, teachers, and support staff. Feedback that is frequent, and easy to administer and easy to participate in, and is anonymous when and if required, is an effective way to offer real choice and control over to learners and make their learning experiences more democratic, inclusive, responsive, and engaging.

Forums

Forums allow participants to have asynchronous discussions. For many years, online discussion forums have been one of the main focal points of elearning, communities of practice, and communities of inquiry. They offer many of the benefits of face-to-face discussions and, in addition, give opportunities for different styles of discussion and interaction, as well as providing environments where normally reticent participants can contribute more and have a more influential voice. As forums are asynchronous, they allow time for participants to reflect on their ideas, do further reading and research, and give more informed and considered responses. Some forums support peer assessment via rating systems.

Popular examples: BuddyPress.org (free and open source software), phpBB.org (free and open source software), Elgg.org (free and open source software), Slashdot.org, LinkedIn.com, Actionscript.org, and Facebook.com.

Glossaries

Glossaries enable participants to create and maintain lists of definitions, like a dictionary.  Some glossaries support peer assessment via rating systems, peer, and teacher feedback, and hyperlinks can be automatically added to glossary entries whenever they are used in online text within the LMS. Learners can collaboratively build class glossaries, thereby demonstrating their understanding and mastery of learning objectives while they study and continually use them as a reference resource for key terms and ideas. They can also update and refine their glossary entries as they deepen their experience and understanding.

Lessons/Presentations

Lessons/Presentations are mostly used for bringing together different types of activities into one session and/or creating branching scenarios***. In most cases, lessons amount to presentations of information, maybe with some practice, and maybe with quizzes or tests, i.e. the so called “present-practice-produce” (PPP) approach to learning and teaching; appropriate for transmitting “useful to know” information. As an alternative or complement, it’s also worth considering reading texts, documentaries, and/or silent demonstrations with follow up chat and/or forum discussions so that learners and teachers can get a clearer idea of what learners have understood and learned from the information presented.

Beware: There are many elearning “experts” and quiz software vendors who claim that including quizzes throughout presentations promotes deeper learning. They frequently fail to differentiate between quizzes during presentations and spaced repetition (a technique for memorising verbatim information). To my knowledge, there is no conclusive evidence to support these claims. A meta-study of research papers** on present-practise-produce elearning with and without quizzes concluded that there were no measurable differences in learning outcomes and that including quizzes only managed to needlessly take up more of learners’ time for the same gains.

**Source: U.S. Department of Education, Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning – Review of Online Learning Studies (2009) (PDF)

***A note on branching scenarios: They were an early attempt at adaptive learning, i.e. changing the activities and resources presented to learners according to their responses to choices and questions. They are very difficult and labour intensive to design and set up and have so far shown to be of marginal benefit in comparison to learner centred activities and decision making, e.g. reflective inquiry and reflective practice. Current research is looking into artificial intelligence for solutions but we’re a long way off from anything broadly productive.

Polls

A teacher or learner asks a question and specifies a choice of multiple responses and encourage participants to vote on them. Polls are a quick and easy way to offer choices and gauge reactions to and understanding of learning resources and activities. Many forum software packages, web meeting services, and some learning management systems (LMS’) have polling activities built in and/or are available as extensions.

Quizzes

Allow the teacher to design and set tests and exams, which may also be automatically marked and feedback and/or to correct answers shown. Quizzes can support audio, video, and animations, and some interactive features such as drag and drop matching, order sequencing, and identifying points and areas on images. Native learning management system (LMS) online quizzes have mostly taken over from earlier SCORM based assessment and testing. They are usually easier to create, organise, and maintain, are more flexible, support more features, are easier to make accessible (for Section 508 compliance or similar accessibility legislation), and are more secure, e.g. with SCORM the answers to quizzes are sent to the learners’ web browser cache where “tech savvy” learners can access them.

SCORM packages

SCORM packages are usually authored/created by instructional designers with rapid elearning integrated development environments (IDEs), e.g. Adobe Captivate, Raptivity, and Articulate, among many others. They present an easy entry point into elearning design and development and allow novice elearning instructional designers with very little technical know-how, a shallower learning curve to producing learning resources and activities. They were previously used to present content and give quizzes but have since been superseded by open format, easier to create, edit, and maintain resources and tools that most modern LMS’ support, e.g. presentations, lessons, and quizzes. However, they are still widely used in military organisations (e.g. the US Pentagon is a huge “cash cow” for SCORM based elearning products and services) and corporations for things like basic health and safety conformance/compliance training, and training to use software, since they are much cheaper than providing tutored or supervised training.

However, rapid elearning IDEs like Adobe Captivate and Techsmith Camtasia do have legitimate and productive uses, for example rapid prototyping of ideas for learning interactions, quick “How to…” guides for teacher and learner technical support, and silent demonstrations.

Also see: Cheating in SCORM

Surveys

For gathering data from students to help teachers and curriculum developers learn about classes, resources, and strategies, and reflect on their own teaching. Appropriately designed surveys can also encourage reflective thinking and help to further develop learners’ analytical and critical thinking skills.

Popular examples: Lime Survey (free and open source), Survey Monkey.

Wikis

A collection of web pages that participants can add to or edit; a kind of collaborative encyclopedia. Common activities are co-creating documentation, collaboratively constructing narratives and stories, and categorising, ordering, sorting, and organising information. Most wiki software keeps a record of changes, who made them, and when, making them useful tools for assessing contributions and collaboration between learners.

Popular examples: Wikipedia.org (MediaWiki, which is free and open source).

Caveats and common issues

Different learners will more than likely have different knowledge, experiences, and abilities, and many will be unfamiliar with some of the current elearning activities on web platforms. Which of the options available that you choose to use will depend on learners’ and teachers’ needs, prior knowledge, experiences, and abilities.

Despite what many people believe, we tend to be very poor at multi-tasking; only about 2% of people can multi-task efficiently; and we need to focus on one activity (frame of attention) at a time. In particular, learners and teachers frequently report that they sometimes feel overwhelmed by the skills and knowledge they have to learn in order to successfully complete learning activities. It’s possible to overload the best and brightest of learners by asking them to learn too many things at once. There are three main areas:

  • Tools: Do learners (and teachers!) already know how the tools work and how to use them? Can they easily perform all the actions the learning activity requires of them? e.g. navigate, create, save, edit, submit, download, upload, link to, recover forgotten passwords, etc.
  • Rubrics: The fundamental design of the learning activities. What do learners have to do? How complex are the activities, what are “the rules”, and how long will it take to learn them?
  • Learning objectives: The skill(s) and/or knowledge they are supposed to acquire and/or develop, i.e. the syllabus.

To avoid “cognitive overload” and demotivating learners as soon as they start an activity, it’s important to consider just how much it’s asking learners to do at once in relation to their existing knowledge, experience, and abilities. Ideally, we’d like to spend as much time as possible on learning objectives and as little time as possible on learning to use tools and understanding rubrics. However, some activities can offer significant learning opportunities that make them worth the time and effort. In such cases, we need to reduce the cognitive load from the learning objectives while learners focus on learning how to use the tools and/or what they have to do (the rubrics); so called introductory or user interface training activities.

What’s next?

Now that we’ve established a broader overview of some of the options available for developing resources and learning strategies, we have a starting point for further investigation. There are many more specific and comprehensive books and guides available, as well as large and growing bodies of research into online learning and teaching approaches, methods, and strategies.

However, and I can’t stress this enough, there is no substitute for hands on experience and experimentation, and “learning by doing.” Trying out elearning tools and strategies with learners and watching activities unfold in different contexts, and getting honest, direct feedback from learners and teachers is invaluable. It also gives a better understanding of research papers, providing much needed background procedural knowledge to their usually abstract, declarative generalisations.

A word of caution

Beware of books, guides, and gurus who say things like “This is how it’s done.” or “If you do X, Y will happen.” People are complex and unpredictable. It’s difficult to say how they’ll react to or behave in a given activity. More reputable researchers report their findings along the lines of, “I did this with these particular learners, here’s the context and their backgrounds, and here’s the data I collected and my interpretation of what unfolded.” Above all, be prepared to be comfortable with dealing with uncertainty and ambiguity, and getting mixed results. As with all learning and teaching activities in any medium, it takes time, insight, discipline, patience, and understanding complex concepts and interactions to get to grips with elearning.

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Free and open source concept map app for Moodle

Concept MapI’m pleased to announce that the  Concept Map app is now available on my Github.com repository as a free and open source project. It works with the SWF Activity Module for Moodle 1.9 and 2.5+ and a compiled version of the app is included pre-installed with the latest version of the SWF Activity Module for Moodle 2.5+.

What does the Concept Map app do?

Learners are presented with a blank page and drawing and writing tools with a limited palate of colours and shapes. Limiting the colour and shape options is intended to reduce the time and effort that learners spend on those aspects and hopefully focus their attention more on their learning objectives. Learners can draw and write and move the drawn lines, shapes, and text. The app works with all the usual input tools such as mouse, keyboard, and touch screen.

When learners are ready, they can click on the camera icon button to send a copy of the image to the server which gets saved as a PNG image file. Subsequent camera icon button clicks will overwrite the existing image for that particular activity for that particular learner. However, if you’d like to keep a history of images, the service script that saves the images can be modified to do that. If it’s deployed in Moodle, a corresponding grade book entry is created for the learner and the image is embedded in the grade book feedback column. The saved concept map can then be viewed and graded by teachers. In addition, learners with the appropriate permissions can view their concept maps in the grade book or in the File System repository and embed them in other Moodle activities.

Free and open source

As a free and open source project, it’s free to download, use, edit, and redistribute under the terms of the GPLv3 licence. This means that you can develop the project further to perform more or different functions according to your learners’ particular needs and learning ideas. The project is configured to work with FlashDevelop, a free and open source Actionscript and Flash integrated development environment (IDE) but can also be edited and compiled with other Flash and Actionscript IDEs.

Useful links

Greenwood College SchoolAcknowledgement

The interactive whiteboard SWF idea was conceived at Greenwood College School as a means to further personalize the learning experience for its students. Greenwood is excited to be partnering with Matt Bury on this project because this module enhancement will help educators using Moodle to track student progress using a flexible, online input method.

Greenwood College School

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