Assembling the heterogeneous elements for digital learning

End of week 1: reflections and what's next

It’s the start of week 2 of my studies in a post-graduate teacher education program. Time for a bit of reflection and planning.

The experience so far

I’m studying at an institution at which I worked for 20 years, both as an academic designing and running my own courses and in an e-learning support role. From this I know the difficulties that an academic has to overcome to create and maintain a good learning environment. This is by way of a disclaimer. In the following I will identify the factors that haven’t quite worked for me in this first week, not to criticise, but to help identify where things might get better. (Not to mention to fulfill the on-going pleas from senior university staff to give feedback.)

To satisfy the namby-pamby, fluffy bunnies amongst you who desire some good news first. The staff associated with this program have been great. Going out of their way to help, being contactable, responding quickly and for the most part demonstrating aspects of good teaching practice.

Time on task

The institution uses Chickering and Gamson’s 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education as part of its teaching framework. Time on task is one of those principles and an aspect of time on task is that students aren’t wasting their time trying to figure out what they are supposed to do.

This has been my biggest problem this week. What am I supposed to do next? Some of the contributing factors to this problem include

  • Broken links on Moodle course sites.
    Come on, automated link checkers were one of the first tools to be available to support web authoring. Surely the institution could help academics by having some form of link checker on course sites to identify when links are broken.
  • Out of date information.
    eStudyGuides have mentioned Blackboard or course mailing lists. etc. Things that no longer apply.
  • Inconsistent and/or duplicate information.
    As a student, what am I supposed to do each week in the course. Some courses have eStudyGuides, some have Moodle resources to described this, some have both and in some cases the duplicate information is inconsistent. Some aspects of this seem to arise from the understandable practice of the courses in this post-grad program having much in common with courses in other programs.
  • Moodle slowness/unavailability.
    There were a couple of times in the first week that Moodle was really slow, both while I was on-campus and off. In some case, so slow as to be unusable. I believe there was a network outage at one stage that brought most institutional services off-line. This is a problem because all of the resources and activities for these courses are on Moodle, or accessed through Moodle. When it’s down, we’re wasting time.
  • Broken Moodle features.
    One of the courses tried to use Moodle Wikis within groups. It didn’t work. Apparently the institutional Moodle technical support couldn’t identify why it didn’t work. This wasted time.
  • Differences within the use of Moodle.
    There is some evidence of the great “consistency program” in terms of course site design, but there still remains some significant variety in how different course sites are structured. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if those structures were effective, but some of the points I’ve made above suggest that there are problems with those designs and hence the variety causes problems.

I feel this is perhaps the biggest problem faced by other students and it’s especially problematic in a program that is acknowledged to require a lot of work. I have observed some students taking the pragmatic route and deciding what to do next by starting at the assessment and working backwards identifying exactly what they need to complete the assessment.

Encourages Active Learning

Another one of the 7 principles. All of the courses have attempted to do this. I must admit, however, that at times some of these exercises have felt a little contrived or ineffective. e.g. getting us to give examples of literacy and numeracy without defining what it was, or without bringing the activity to a close with clearer definition and reflection on the discrepancies.

I think there’s also a potential tension between some of the more practice, teaching oriented tasks from later in the term (e.g. preparing lessons plans etc) that are generally also assessment tasks and some of the more reflective learning activities (e.g. reading various articles).

Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

There have been efforts at this. Especially in one course, however, that has been hampered by technical difficulties. Much of what has arisen has probably been through the extra efforts of some students, and consequently is necessarily spread across all students.

Encourages Contact Between Students and Faculty

I think this is perhaps the other major downfall of the institution. I make the clear distinction here between the individual teaching staff and the institution. It’s been my experience that the teaching staff have tried as much as possible to be available for contact. The trouble is that only two of the four courses is being taught by a permanent members of staff. The other two have permanent/full-time members of staff as the “coordinator”, but are actually being taught by casual staff. This is the institution’s common band-aid solution and it typically doesn’t work well.

Reading between the lines, it appears that full-time members of staff are being drawn away by projects and research. An apparent ramification of the increasing emphasis on research.

This is not to say that casual staff can’t be good teachers, many are. But a casual staff member brought on to teach someone else’s course – especially if they are unfamiliar with the institution – is being placed in an incredibly difficult situation. And that’s assuming they are going into course that is in a good state.

My practice

The problems aren’t all the institutions responsibility. If it is to be, it is up to me.

Time on task has been my biggest flaw. A tendency to go too deep or off on tangents not directly related to the requirements of the program have slowed me down. In part, I need to be more pragmatic in focusing on the assessment requirements, hopefully, without sacrificing some of the important learning experiences along the way.

During my study I will not have to work. I do have family duties, but most days of the week I have free to study. Last week there were various events (dentists appointment, child’s vaccination and farewell lunch) that consumed parts of the day.

Some of the readings have also caused my eyes to glaze over and made it difficult to engage in them. I need to develop strategies to work around this.

On the plus side, it’s been an amazing week in terms of learning from the folk from twitter and the blogosphere. Arguably this has contributed to my going off on tangents, but it’s not something I’d give up. It has added a much needed richness and also significantly increased the feelings of reciprocity/cooperation between my learning and others and active learning aspect. Thanks to you all.

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