Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

Month: July 2008

How to lead your life and fulfill your childhood dreams

I’m late to the last lecture meme. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, take some time (76 minutes) out of your life and watch Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture on achieving your childhood dreams.

One of the comments on YouTube suggest that there is nothing new in the lecture. Perhaps, but it’s the type of thing we all need to hear from time to time to put a bit of perspective on our own experience and perhaps to spark a rethink.

The Ps Framework – using it to think about PLE implementation at CQU

Yesterday I gave a presentation at CQU titled “The Ps Framework: Mapping the landscape for the PLEs@CQUni project”. The slides are on Slideshare and the video on Google video and are embedded below.

The presentation is meant to help in the writing of a paper for ASCILITE 2008 conference (one of the reasons for the title). The purpose of this post is to reflect on the presentation and anything I didn’t cover which I need to.

The fundamental idea or argument of the presentation is that the making of decisions around the implementation of educational technology within an university is really, really hard. The quality of the decisions that guide implementation will have a direct impact on the quality of the implementation. The Ps Framework is proposed as an aid that can help improve these decisions. The Ps Framework is introduced and illustrated through some thinking about the factors that need to be considered in making decisions about the PLEs@CQUni project.



How did it go?

Given the time constraints the presentation went much smoother than I thought. Some nice comments from folk that were there. The topic seems to strike a chord and be somewhat relevant. Putting the presentation together did help improve the quality of some thinking around the Ps Framework.

What follows is a collection of comments and reflections on the presentation which need to be factored into the writing of the final ASCILITE paper.

The comments include:

  • More work on some of the Ps components
    One of the fundamental foundations of the argument in this paper is that these decisions involve huge amounts of information. This was illustrated by simply not being able to cover all of the Ps components to the same level of detail. The Ps components of Past Experience and Pedagogy were not covered at all in the presentation and this was a 50 minute presentation. An ASCILITE presentation is likely to be not much more than 20 minutes. Some decision will need to be made about the depth and coverage of the Ps components.

    Perhaps focus on those which are not commonly considered. For example, Pedagogy may not get coverage in the paper because so many folk have already talked about it. Similarly, I need to not concentrate too much on process as I’ve covered it many times before including a 2007 ASCILITE paper.

  • Better representation of the Ps framework
    Currently the Ps Framework is represented by a collection of inter-connected circles as shown below.
    Current instantiation of the Ps Framework

    It’s a bit sad. Need a better look. The honeycomb approach Gene Smith has taken for social software (adapted from a user experience honeycomb by Peter Morville) offers some possibilities.

  • Better description of pre-implementation decisions
    One of the directions the paper took was to emphasise the problems associated with pre-implementation decisions. The idea being that this might be where the Ps framework can be useful. Need to give some thought to whether this emphasis is valuable and meaningful or not. If it is, then it needs to be explained and justified more clearly.
  • More pushing of the view that decisions made are not rational, more than just based on instinct.
    Slide 7 of the presentation makes the core point about why something like the Ps Framework is required. i.e. that most of these decisions are not rational, not informed. The current discussion isn’t strong enough, I feel.
  • Need for a definition of each Ps component?
    The presentation became more of a description of the thinking around the PLEs@CQUni project than an explanation of the Ps Framework. In particular, the description of each component of the Ps framework wasn’t always clear. There’s perhaps also a need to clearly summarise the perspectives of the Ps component considered.
  • Need a better quality video of “basketball passing”
    The basketball passing video used in the presentation didn’t have sufficient quality to be perfectly visible across CQU’s video-conferencing. Need to find a better quality video.
  • Should coverage of students and academic staff be separated?
    One of the key points under the Product component is that all participants are learners. i.e. that there is not a great deal of distinction between students and staff in the notion of a PLE. All participants have a PLE, it will be unique to each, but it should work fairly similar, they are all learners. Having made that point the People component then treats staff and students separately when there is great commonality.

    When talking about academic staff a lot is made of the fact that they are knowledge workers. One of the comments made at the end was that students are knowledge workers, just like staff. There are definite overlaps. Treating them separately may not be all that appropriate. Just how far we take this similarity.

  • More coverage/mention of professional staff and their impact.
    As part of the People component, little or no comment was made on the nature and influence of the growing cadre of professional staff which play an important role in educational technology.
  • Better integration of the ateleological ideas around purpose.
    Ateleological design is something I’ve written before and fits well with the purpose section. Need to cite myself a bit more and also work in the ideas, which is obviously more important.
  • Add the SLURL for the CQU Second Life island
    One of the slides uses the billboard from the CQU Second Life island. Need to point folk to it.
  • Probably need to more strongly critique the “best practice” movement.
  • Which may lead to an emphasis on the internal understanding of place rather than on the external aspect of the place component.
    The current Place component starts with some fairly traditional comments about the broader societal changes. To some extent this tends to continue the over emphasis on external factors at the expense of institutional factors. Which is a common downfall of many decision makers. Need to ensure that the Place component makes this point explicitly and implicitly in its design.

PLEs@CQUni: Why, What and How

We’re in the process of getting serious about our PLEs@CQUni project. The following is a copy of a submission to CQUni’s Vice-Chancellor’s Executive to tell them about the project. Sharing it here so others can know what we’re trying to do and why and also on the off chance that others might criticise and suggest alternate approaches that improve what we’re doing.

Something as complex, novel and emergent as the PLEs@CQUni project doesn’t lend itself well to a 2 page summary. Some of the following may change as the CQUni context changes, as society and the available technology changes, and as the people working on the project change.

A 2 page summary doesn’t necessarily make a good blog post. Better out than in. You might also note a slight boosterish tone in the “What has been done” section, sort of had to be done.

Our papers (Jones, 2008, Muldoon, 2008, and Beer and Jones, 2008) from the recent PLE Symposium might provide some additional insight into where we are coming from.


The following offers an explanation of the rationale and approach to be used in the PLEs @ CQU project. It aims to answer the following questions:

  • What will the project achieve and what has already happened?
  • Why should CQU embark on this project?
  • How will it work?


The PLE concept is still new and there remains a diversity of interpretations of what a PLE is and what it might do (Johnson, Hollins, Wilson, & Liber, 2006). The most commonly accepted definition is of a PLE being a collection of systems (not necessarily involving ICT) that help learners control and manage their own learning and achieve learning goals by enabling learners to: set their own learning goals; manage the content and process of their learning; and communicate with others in the process of learning. Unlike centralised, instructor-controlled Learning Management System (LMS), PLEs are distributed, social and learner-centric. PLEs fulfil the requirements, including connecting, social, personal, creative, flexible, open and reflexive, identified as characteristic of future learning spaces (Puni, 2007).

The PLE concept has often been positioned as a counterpoint to the institutional LMS. The musical definition of counterpoint “involves the writing of musical lines which sound very different from each other, but sound harmonious when played together” (Counterpoint, 2008). The outcomes of the PLEs @ CQU project will seek to work harmoniously with CQU’s learning management system (LMS). The PLEs @ CQU project seeks to concentrate on the important approaches to learning which the LMS cannot address and subsequently further increase the quality of CQU’s learning and teaching. The PLEs @ CQU project seeks to build on CQU’s existing systems and past experience in e-learning.

What has been done

So far, the PLEs @ CQU project has built on or commenced the following projects:

  • Blog Aggregation Management (BAM).
    Originally funded by the Faculty of Business and Informatics this project led to the development of an approach that supports the use of external blogs by students for activities such as reflective journals. The approach provides a set of management interfaces that allow staff to observe, manage and mark student blogs hosted externally to CQU. The BAM tools integrate with and build upon CQU’s existing systems including Webfuse, Blackboard and OASIS. Over 1000 students in 13 course offerings have made use of BAM since late 2006.

    BAM’s original use in 2006 was profiled (not by CQU staff) in the ELI Discovery Tool: Guide to Blogging (Coghlan et al., 2007) which concluded

    One of the most compelling aspects of the project was the simple way it married Web 2.0 applications with institutional systems. This approach has the potential to give institutional teaching and learning systems greater efficacy and agility by making use of the many free or inexpensive—but useful—tools like blogs proliferating on the Internet and to liberate institutional computing staff and resources for other efforts.

  • Web 2.0 course site.
    During T2, 2007 a Web 2.0 course site was developed in conjunction with staff from the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Education. The aim of the project was to discover how to develop the entire functionality for a course website using Web 2.0 tools, achieve effective learning outcomes and still provide a coherent course website within one of CQU’s existing learning management systems.
  • Extending the LMS into social software.
    In late 2007 the discussion forum used as part of CQU’s Webfuse Learning Management System was extended to generate an RSS feed, a basis for extending it into social software. This discussion forum is now used by courses in both Blackboard and Webfuse.
  • Learning networks.
    The website of the Curriculum Design and Development Unit ( has been implemented using the software used by Wikipedia and extended through the use of blogs, social bookmarking and RSS feeds to form the basis of a learning network for CDDU staff. This work is foundational to a project aiming to implement a discipline based learning network for use by CQU programs, initially for the Bachelor of Professional Communication (Beer & Jones, 2008).
  • PLE Symposium.
    As part of the PLE project’s aim of developing an understanding of the role PLEs can play within a university, DTLS staff organised a symposium on this question as part of the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference. The symposium included five papers in total with three authored by DTLS staff (Beer & Jones, 2008; Jones, 2008; Muldoon, 2008). One of these papers was selected as one of the three best papers for the conference.


The following sections provide a summary of some, but not all, of the fundamental reasons for the PLEs@CQUni project. Many of these reasons are discussed in significantly greater detail in the education, information technology and broader research literatures.

Societal changes

  • The rise of social software (, software as a service ( and other technical trends which are having a significant impact on conceptualisations of how and what technology is used to support learning and teaching within universities.
  • Growing recognition of the importance of lifelong learning, open access to resources, the information age, changing understanding of learning and teaching and other factors having a significant impact on conceptualisations of learning and teaching within universities.
  • The changing nature and expectations of our students.
    There is widespread research suggesting that the next generation of students are likely to be different from previous students and consequently have different expectations and be better suited to different approaches to learning and technology (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005).

CQU’s strategic aims

The following lists a number of requirements from CQU’s draft strategic plan 2008-2012 which the PLEs @ CQU project will support.

  • Develop a new CQUniversity learning platform and the development of educational models for the future that are aligned with our broad mission “to be what you want to be”.
  • Provide a multimodal educational platform supported by appropriate technology.
  • Increasing the University’s research performance.
  • Invest in the development of staff to ensure that they have the requisite skills and abilities to support the attainment of the University’s strategic objectives.
  • Increase revenue and decrease costs.


The project will extend, refine and better resource an existing participatory design process (Reigeluth, 1993) incorporating a number of individual design-based research interventions (Wang & Hanafin, 2005) to design, develop and evaluate application of PLE associated concepts within the CQU context. The process will have a specific focus on identifying and responding to institutional requirements with an emphasis on helping staff develop the complex, multifaceted and situated knowledge necessary to make effective use of e-learning (Mishra & Koehler, 2006). A particular emphasis will be on working with students to identify their needs, preferences and increase their capacity for managing their own learning.

This approach will be enabled through the efforts of two staff specifically employed to work on the PLEs @ CQU project with support from other DTLS staff. The PLEs @ CQU project has strong connections and potential overlaps with a range of other activities at CQU (e.g. the LMS project, the Student Learning Journey etc.). For this reason it is important that the PLEs @ CQU project seek to collaborate closely with these other CQU projects. Additional detail of the thinking behind how the PLEs @ CQU project will operate can be found in a paper (Jones, 2008) presented at the PLE symposium.


Beer, C., & Jones, D. (2008). Learning networks: harnessing the power of online communities for discipline and lifelong learning. Paper presented at the Lifelong Learning: reflecting on successes and framing futures. Keynote and refereed papers from the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference, Rockhampton.

Coghlan, E., Crawford, J., Little, J., Lomas, C., Lombardi, M., Oblinger, D., et al. (2007). ELI Discovery Tool: Guide to Blogging. Journal. Retrieved 3 July 2008, from

Johnson, M., Hollins, P., Wilson, S., & Liber, O. (2006). Towards a reference model for the personal learning environment. Paper presented at the The 23rd Annual Conference of the Australasian Society for Computers in Learning in Tertiary Education, Sydney, Australia.

Jones, D. (2008). PLES: framing one future for lifelong learning, e-learning and universities. Paper presented at the Lifelong Learning: reflecting on successes and framing futures. Keynote and refereed papers from the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference, Rockhampton.

Mishra, P., & Koehler, M. (2006). Technological pedagogical content knowledge: A framework for teacher knowledge. Teachers College Record, 108(6), 1017-1054.

Muldoon, N. (2008). Self-direction and lifelong learning in the information age: can PLEs help? Paper presented at the Lifelong Learning: reflecting on successes and framing futures. Keynote and refereed papers from the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference, Rockhampton.
Oblinger, D., & Oblinger, J. (2005). Educating the Net Generation: EDUCAUSE.

Puni, Y. (2007). Learning spaces: an ICT-enabled model of future learning in the knowledge-based society. European Journal of Education, 42(2), 185-199.

Reigeluth, C. M. (1993). Principles of Educational Systems Design. International Journal of Educational Research, 19(2), 117-131.

Wang, F., & Hanafin, M. (2005). Design-Based Research and Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments. Educational Technology Research and Development, 53(4), 5-23.

Encouraging use of learning networks – and dealing with me

This post is a combination “message to the troops” and thinking about how to encourage use of a discipline based learning network.

Message to the troops

The “message to the troops” is some advice to the poor folk who work with me about how to manipulate/understand me. It probably applies to others at CQU who for some reason read this dribble.

I’m a glass half empty sort of guy. Whenever I see an idea, that I’m actually interested in, I will concentrate on why I don’t think it will work. Not exactly a good way to win friends and influence people. Especially when this is usually misinterpreted as suggesting that it’s a bad idea and should never happen. It’s usually meant as these are the problems I can see, if we can work solutions or responses to these into the idea, then it will be a stronger idea.

I fully expect (and hope) that other people will do the same with my ideas. Pull them apart, find the flaws, identify alternate approaches or understandings so that the idea can be made stronger.

I, like just about anyone else, may not like it, but that’s life. Especially if you’re an academic and believe in peer review or you’re into this whole social networking thing.

Of course, it’s not all about the other folk. I need to frame my suggestions/identification of weaknesses in a more positive way.

Another point to keep in mind is that my thinking will normally be guided by some theoretical framework, model or way of looking at the world. If you can work within that model or find the weaknesses in that model and present them to me, you’ve got a better chance of getting your way. That’s nothing unique, everybody is like that.

Encouraging use of discipline based learning networks

One of the major projects of the PLEs@CQUni project is the development of discipline-based learning networks. This work is being led by Col Beer and he’s got some initial thoughts online in a blog post, a paper (Beer and Jones, 2008) and a presentation.

We had a discussion yesterday about the problem of how do you encourage students to make use of the discipline-based learning network Col is developing. We don’t want to build it and find that they do not come. This discussion is part of what generated the first section of the post. What follows is my attempt to make explicit the theoretical frameworks I’m thinking about in relation to this problem and how that might be harnessed.

Col’s initial idea was to have some sort of case study similar to a case study that was designed and implemented by another of our staff. My reservations about this idea were that included:

  • It was potentially a great deal of work to do well.
  • Focused on us building yet more stuff rather than encouraging the members of the learning network to get active.
  • Was potentially based on the idea of constructive alignment which doesn’t appear to be directly applicable to this problem
    Constructive alignment involves aligning all aspects of a course (outcomes, activities and assessment) so as the student can’t help but to learn. In a discipline-based learning network there is no assessment and no formal outcomes in the same way that there is in a course.

So, how do you solve this problem? Well the theoretical lenses I’m working with at the moment are diffusion theory/TAM and the 7 principles. A recent blog post provides some slightly expanded discussion about these perspectives and links to other resources.

In this particular case I’m drawn to a combination diffusion theory and the 7 principles.

The 7 principles become useful as a way of determining what students might find attractive. The question of what they want comes up in another recent post. The combination of these lead to some quick ideas for what students might find attractive

  • More appropriate contact with staff and other “experts” in the discipline.
    Not necessarily about course related information. That should be covered in the course environments. But more about discipline and broader questions that don’t necessarily fit within a course. This might be an important point, it must be clear to the students why the discipline-based learning network is different from the course sites.
  • A feeling of community – especially for distance students.

Supplement this with thoughts from diffusion theory – with a little help from this paper which identifies the following components of diffusion theory that might provide some guidance

  • Perceived innovation attributes
    If students see the discipline-based learning network as providing an advantage, being compatible with what they already do, being low in complexity, being something they can try and see if they like it and being something they can observe they are more likely to use it.

    The above thoughts about what students might want out of it is part of this. Could be important to ask them. Get a few of the students together, explain the idea to them and ask for their ideas about what they might want out of it.

  • Innovation-decision
    Students will have an optional innovation decision. They either use it or they don’t. For this type of decision diffusion theory has some advice how to deal with it.
  • Communication channels<br
    The nature of the channel(s) used to communicate information about the learning network to students should be thought about carefully.
  • Social system
    Knowing a great deal more about the students and the BProfCom (the first program to trial this learning network idea) is necessary and should be used in design.


Beer, C. & Jones, D. (2008). Learning networks: harnessing the power of online communities for discipline and lifelong learning. In D. Orr, P.A. Danaher, G. Danaher & R.E. Harreveld (Eds.), Lifelong Learning: reflecting on successes and framing futures. Keynote and refereed papers from the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference (pp. 66-71). Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press.

Scavenger hunt and other methods for getting into systems

Much of what we do involves enabling academics (and students) to become familiar with particular technologies. Sufficiently familiar to think about how they can use it in their learning and teaching. We’ve had to do it with Blackboard and we’ll have to do it with Second Life.

The aim of this post is to reflect upon some methods of doing this.

The recipe method

Some of this sort of work is reduced to the “recipe method”. Sessions become the presentation to the poor participant of long lists of recipes. e.g. if you want to do X then you do step 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5.

The benefit of this approach is it is simple to present and often is the quickest way for the participant to do something. The drawback is that they develop no real understanding of how the system works so are unable to problem solve or extend their understanding into new and more useful applications.

It can also be incredibly boring.

Understand the model

The approach I prefer and have started experimenting with involves trying to give the participants a work model of the system and give them opportunities to experiment.

It works on the assumption that any technology has an underlying model and a set of affordances. Things it can do easily.

An example I use to illustrated this is the
Introducing the book video. Which shows how early uses of the new fangled “book technology” had some problems. (In writing this post I notice that someone has posted a modified, english language version.

The point is that very few (if any) people within Universities today would have any problems doing anything with a book because they understand the underlying model. It’s second nature. They can problem solve, develop new uses and take their understanding to different types of printed material.

The aim of a session should be to attempt to allow the participants to develop this type of knowledge for a computer system.

How do you do this?

This should actually be titled “how have I tried to do this recently?” as it attempts to summarise the rationale behind my recent attempts. These have followed these major steps

  • Show the “introducing the book” video – explain the need to develop models of system (slide 6 and 7)
  • Become familiar with the language (slides 8-38 or so)
    This was probably too long. But during these slides the students had a list of terms which they were meant to fill in as a group (2 or 3 folk) – a sort of term bingo. With the winning team getting some small prize (usually chocolate).
  • Introduce the model (slide 26-40)
    It’s not done well in the slides, but the aim is to connect the model of the system with something that is familar. In this case, a Blackboard course site is organised in much the same way as a set of folders on a computer. This would be better illustrated with small activities involving the students.

    In a subsequent similar session, not yet online, I tried to connect the notion of “breadcrumbs” back to their understanding by having a slide of Hansel and Gretel and explaining the origin of the term “breadcrumbs” back to something many of them already knew.

  • Scavenger hunt (slide 40)
    Having been given the overview the question now is how to get the participants to test and apply that knowledge. The approach here is a scavenger hunt. In the same teams as the term bingo the students were given a set of items to find on Blackboard. These items were connected with their use of the system – e.g. the Social Work Blackboard course sites. The items were chosen to require them to apply different aspects of the model that were introduced.

This type of activity works best when

  • There is a time for the participants to play
  • The scavenger hunt has been designed to be specific to their needs or preferences
  • The hunt is done in a small group. Hopefully so that they can back up each others limitations and make each feel a bit more comfortable.

"Taxonomies" for understanding applications of educational technology

The group I work with is charged with helping CQUniversity staff make use of various innovations around educational technology. One of the difficulties if giving staff a taste of the breadth of possibilities for what a new technology might be able to do.

One tool for doing that is a taxonomy, conceptual framework or a theory for analysis and description (Gregor 2006). These essentially attempt to generate some sort of classification or mapping of a topic area into a number of distinct (and hopefully useful) components/categories.

Some examples related to our need around educational technology include (though not necessarily strictly speaking a taxonomy/framework)

What makes a good descriptive theory

Gregor 2006 offers the following suggestions about a good/useful descriptive theory

  • little is known about some phenomena,
  • descriptions should correspond as far as possible to “what is”,
  • the classification system is useful in aiding analysis in some way,
  • the category labels and groupings are meaningful and natural,
  • the hierarchies of classification are appropriate,
  • the logic for placement of phenomena into categories should be clear,
  • the logic for the characteristics that define each category should be clear,
  • the classification system should be complete and exhaustive.

A suggestion – the 7 principles

CQUniversity has adopted the 7 Principles of Good Practice in Education by Chickering and Gamson (1987) as important to its learning and teaching. One obvious suggestion would be to use those as part of a taxonomy. Especially if the 7 Principles is widely used elsewhere at CQUniversity. It should theoretically become more useful and more clear to our staff if we use this in many places.

The 7 principles, by themselves, may not be sufficient. Perhaps we need to think of supplementing it with other dimensions. Some options here might include Tony Bates’ ACTION model. Though I wonder if that might be starting to get too overwhelming.

Obviously time to be looking at some literature.

What do students find useful?

In a growing category of blog posts I’m expanding and attempting to apply my interest in diffusion theory and related theories to increase the use of course websites. A major requirement, as outlined in the previous post, in achieving this requires and understanding of what students find useful?

In this post, I’m trying to bring together some research that I’m aware of which seeks to answer this question by actually asking the students. If you know of any additional research, let me now.

Accessing the student voice

Accessing the student voice is the final report from a project which analysed 280,000 comments on Course Experience Questionnaire’s from 90,000 students in 14 Australian Universities. The final report has 142 pages (and is available from the web page). Obviously the following is a selective synopsis of an aspect of it.

The report summarises (pp. 7 and 8) the 12 sub-domains which attracted the highest percentage of mentions which it equates to those that are important to students. In rank order they are

  1. Course Design: learning methods (14.2% share of the 285,000 hits)
    There were 60 different methods identified as the best aspect of their studies which fell into 5 clusters

    • 16 face-to-face methods that focused on interactive rather than passive learning
    • 7 independent study and negotiated learning methods
    • 20 practice-oriented and problem-based learning methods
    • 6 methods associated with simulated environments and laboratory methods
    • 11 ICT enabled learning methods
  2. Staff: quality and attitude (10.8%)
  3. Staff: accessibility (8.2%)
  4. Course Design: flexibility & responsiveness (8.2%)
  5. Course Design: structure & expectations (6.7%)
  6. Course Design: practical theory links (5.9%)
  7. Course Design: relevance (5.6%)
  8. Staff: teaching skills (5.4%)
  9. Support: social affinity (3.8%)
  10. Outcomes: knowledge/skills (3.8%)
  11. Support: learning resources (3.5%)
  12. Support: infrastructure & learning environment (3.4%)

Going into totals

  • Course design – 40.6%
  • Staff – 24.4%
  • Support – 10.7%
  • Outcomes: knowledge/skills – 3.8%

Link to the 7 principles

A quote from the report

The analysis revealed that practice-oriented and interactive, face-to-face learning methods attracted by far the largest number of ‘best aspect’ comments.

Of the 7 Principles for Good Practice in Education mentioned in the last post, #3 is “encourages active learning”

What about CQU students

In late 2007 we asked CQU’s distance education students three questions

  1. What did you like or find useful?
  2. What caused you problems?
  3. What would you like to see?

Students were asked to post their answers to an anonymous discussion forum. This means they could see each others posts and respond.

An initial summary of the responses is available and CQU staff can actually view a copy of the discussion forum containing the original student comments.

A simple analysis revealed the following top 10 mentions

  1. 106 – Some form of eLecture – video, audio etc.
  2. 86 – Quick, effective and polite responses to study queries.
  3. 66 – Clear and consistent information about the expectations of the course and assignments e.g. making past assignments and exams available.
  4. 55 – Study guides.
  5. 53 – Good quality and fast feedback on assignments.
  6. 33 – For resources that are essentially print documents to be distributed as print documents.
  7. 30 – A responsive discussion board.
  8. 27 – Online submission and return of assignments.
  9. 25 – More information about exams, including more detailed information on how students went on exams.
  10. 21 – Having all material ready by the start of term.

CQU Students – 1996

Back in 1996 CQU staff undertook a range of focus groups of CQU distance education students aim at identifying issues related to improving distance education course quality. This work is described in more detail in a paper (Purnell, Cuskelly and Danaher, 1996) from the Journal of Distance Education.

Arising from this work were six interrelated areas of issues. These issues were used to group the suggested improvements from the DE students, these improvements are explained in detail in the paper and are summarised below.

  1. student contact with lecturers/tutors,
    • Easy access to people with relevant expert knowledge and skills (usually the lecturer).
    • Flexible hours for such access.
    • Some personal contacts through telephone and, where possible, some face-to-face contact.
    • Additional learning resources, such as audio- and videotapes to provide more of a personal touch.
  2. assessment tasks,
    • Detailed feedback (approximately one written page) on completed assessment tasks indicating how to improve achievement.
    • Timely feedback so that students can utilize feedback in future assessment tasks in the unit.
    • A one-page criteria and standards sheet showing specific criteria to be used in each assessment task and the standards associated with each criterion (statements of the achievement required for a high grade, etc.).
    • Clear advice on assessment tasks in the unit resource materials and in other contacts such as teleconferences.
    • Where possible, the provision of exemplar responses to similar assessment tasks be provided in the study materials.
    • Lecturers to be mindful of the differences in resources available to rural students compared to those in larger urban areas when setting and marking assessment tasks.
  3. flexibility,
    • Non-compulsory residential schools available at various locations of no more than three days’ duration and incorporating use of facilities such as libraries.
    • Greater consideration of the complexities of lives of distance education students by encouraging, for example, more self-paced learning.
    • Access to accredited study outside traditional semester times.
    • Lecturers/tutors to consider more fully the needs of isolated students in rural areas in support provided.
  4. study materials,
    • Ensure study materials arrive on time (preferably in the week prior to the commencement of a semester).
    • Efficient communications with students-particularly with the written materials provided in addition to the study materials.
    • Ensure each unit’s study guide matches other resources used in a unit, such as a textbook.
    • Lecturers should be mindful of extra costs for students to complete a unit in which, for example, specialized computer software might be needed; if a textbook must be purchased, it should be used sufficiently to justify its purchase.
    • Lecturers should cater to the range of students they have, especially from rural areas, with the study requirements for each unit (many participants reported that self-contained study materials in which there was little or no need to secure other resources to achieve high grades were valued).
  5. mentors, and
    • Having access to mentors is desirable but should be optional for students.
    • Issues about the role of a mentor need to be clarified.
  6. educational technology.
    • Continue to use and make more effective use of technologies familiar to students, such as the telephone and audio- and videocassettes.
    • Examine ways of minimizing access costs to the Internet for students, especially in rural areas.
    • Provide appropriate technical support for students to be able to access and use the Internet.
    • Provide professional development for staff to meet individual needs for using educational technologies involving, for example, interactive television, audio graphics, CD-ROM, e-mail, and the World Wide Web.

The commonalities between this list, from 1996, and the list generated in 2007 are not small.

Creating quality course websites – the pragmatic approach

In a previous post I laid out some rationale for an organisational approach to increase the usage of course websites. In this post I provide more detail on the rationale behind the pragmatic approach, which was described this way in that previous post.

  • Pragmatic – ad hoc changes to particular aspects of a course website.
    Most academic staff make these changes in an unguided way. I’ll suggest that you are likely to obtain greater success if those ad hoc changes are guided by theories and frameworks such as the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) and related work (Davis, 1989), Diffusion Theory (Rogers, 1995) and the 7 Principles for Good Practice in Education (Chickering and Gamson, 1987).

I’ll describe each of the three theories that form the foundation of this idea. In a later post, I’ll try and take up the idea of how this could be used in the design of a course website.

The fundamental idea is that these three theories become the basis for guiding the design of a standard course website which becomes the minimal online course presences for an institution. These theories are applied with close attention to the local context and consequently there will be differences between contexts, perhaps even between disciplines or types of courses.

Technology acceptance model

The Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) suggests that there are two main factors which will influence how and when people use an information system (the assumption is that a course website is an information system):

  1. Perceived usefulness.
    “The degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would enhance his or her job performance” (Davis 1989).
  2. Perceived ease of use.
    “The degree to which a person believes that using a particular system would be free from effort” (Davis 1989).

Some more discussion about the use of TAM within e-learning can be found in (Behrens, Jamieson et al, 2005).

The questions that arise from this idea for the design of a standard course web might include:

  1. What do the students currently find useful?
  2. What additions might they find useful?
  3. The same questions applied to all staff, both teaching and support.
  4. How can these requirements be fulfilled in a way that is easy to use?
  5. How just do you determine that?

Diffusion theory

Diffusion Theory (Rogers 1995) encompasses a number of related theories explaining why people adopt (or don’t) innovations. The best known of these related theories are the perceived attributes.

The idea is that the how a potential adopter perceives an attribute influences whether or not they will adopt. The perceived attributes that have the biggest influence on adoption are:

  • Relative advantage.
    The degree to which an innovation is perceived as better than the idea it supersedes.
  • Compatibility.
    The degree to which an innovation is perceived as being consistent with the existing values, past experiences, and needs of potential adopters.

  • Complexity.
    The degree to which an innovation is perceived as difficult to understand and use.

If you want students to make use of an online course presence then they must perceive the services offered by that course presence to be useful (relative advantage), easy to use (complexity) and something that meets their expectations of a university experience (compatibility).

The questions which arise from this include

  • What do students expect from their university learning experience?
  • What are their capabilities when it comes to technology and online learning?
  • What do they find useful?

This is one theoretical explanation for why you would expect online lectures, especially if implemented with a YouTube like interface, to be seen as a positive thing by students. In particular because most students still see lectures as a core component of a university education. They expect to have lectures.

This prediction is backed up by the findings of the Carrick Project examining the impact of Web-based lecture technologies. You can find particular mention of this in the projects publications.

Jones, Jamieson and Clark (2003) talk more about the use of diffusion theory for choosing potential web-based educational innovations.

This paper moves beyond the perceived attributes component of diffusion theory. These other components of diffusion theory offer a range of insights and potential advice for other aspects of this type of project. For example,

  • Innovation-decision – is the decision to adopt a particular innovation an optional, collective or authority decision.
    Authority decisions enable the fastest adoption, but may be circumvented.
  • Communication channels – the nature of how information is communicated to people impact on the level of adoption.

The 7 principles

The 7 principles for good practice in undergraduate education were drawn from research on good teaching and learning and were intended to help academics address problems including apathetic students.

The 7 principles are that good practice in education:

  1. encourages contact between students and faculty,
  2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  3. encourages active learning,
  4. gives prompt feedback,
  5. emphasizes time on task,
  6. communicates high expectations, and
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

It could be argued that the 7 principles are very specific, research informed advice about how to design activities and resources which students perceive to be useful and provide them with relative advantage. Which has obvious connections with the diffusion theory and TAM.

For example, principle 4 is “gives prompt feedback”. A design feature derived from that might be to return marked assignments to all students within 2 days. Based on my experience with students, they would perceive this as very useful and believe they gain an advantage from it.

This connection suggests that appropriate use of the 7 principles could significantly increase the use of an online course presence.

Implementation considerations – what about the staff?

The insights from diffusion theory and TAM also apply to the teaching staff and even the organisation. Teaching staff are critical to learning and teaching. If they aren’t positively involved it won’t work well. From an organisational perspective, anything that is planned needs to be doable within the resource constraints and also needs to be compatible with the organisation’s current structure.

Creating quality course websites

CQUni has an interest in increasing the quality of the course websites, as part of a broader push to improve the quality of learning and teaching. This post is an attempt to engage with some of the issues and develop some suggestions for moving forward.

There are many an argument why this particular focus on course websites might be somewhat misguided. For example, there is a growing argument (under various titles, including Personal Learning Environments) for the need to move away from this sort of institutional focus to a much greater focus on the learning environment of the individual students. While those discussions are important, as an institution we do need to have a pragmatic focus and improve what we do and our students experience.

So, this post and any subsequent project ignores those broader questions. However, that’s not to say that CQU isn’t engaging in those broader questions, we are. For example, the PLEs@CQUni project is aiming to examine some of the questions raised by notions of PLEs and social software and what impact they might/should have on institutional practice.

What is quality and success

Before embarking on any sort of attempt to “improve quality” you should probably seek to define what quality is. When do you know that you have succeeded?

There have been any number of attempts to determine quality standards for course websites. Many of these draw on guidelines from the educational research literature or from the Human Computer Interface, Information Architecture and other web/online related disciplines. I’m from an information systems background so, not surprisingly, I’ll draw on that background.

Within the information systems research literature how to determine success and consequently replicate it has received a great deal of attention. One of the problems this attention has established is that the notion of success is extremely subjective. An IT department will label something successful while a user of the same system may disagree strongly. The finance division may have yet another perspective. For this and other reasons the IS literature has moved onto using system use as a measure of success (Behrens, Jamieson et al. 2005).

i.e. a system or a tool is successful if there is large and sustained usage of it by people. Hopefully those people you intended. As you might imagine there has been subsequent research talking about the quality of that use. However, the level of use has been established as a fairly reliable measure of success.

I’m going to suggest that the level of student and staff use of a course website is a useful benchmark for the success, and even quality, of an online course. You certainly cannot impact on learning outcomes or students’ perceptions and experience through an online course presence, if they don’t make use of it.

If you accept this, then the question becomes what can we do to encourage use, to encourage success.

If you don’t accept it, and many people might, then the rest of this argument becomes almost pointless. If you don’t accept it, I would like to hear the arguments why it doesn’t make sense.

Encouraging use

Drawing on some of the ideas from previous post I’m going to suggest that there are two main approaches you can take to increase the use of a course website

  1. Pragmatic – ad hoc changes to particular aspects of a course website.
    Most academic staff make these changes in an unguided way. I’ll suggest that you are likely to obtain greater success if those ad hoc changes are guided by theories and frameworks such as the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM) and related work (Davis, 1989), Diffusion Theory (Rogers, 1995) and the 7 Principles for Good Practice in Education (Chickering and Gamson, 1987).
  2. Re-design – where the entire course (and consequently course website) are re-designed by a project that returns to first principles.
    Again, most academic staff I’m familiar with do this type of re-design in a fairly unguided way. I’ll suggest that re-design approaches informed by appropriate educational theories or frameworks are more likely of success. I’ll suggest the approach already being used at CQU, which uses Constructive Alignment (Biggs and Tang, 2007) and the 7 Principles (Chickering and Gamson, ???), work well.
  3. The argument is that a well implemented approach that draws on either of these options has the capability to improve the use of a course website. However, I will propose, that the cost and level of success of each approach is different as shown in the following table.

    The following table seeks to suggestion some potential characteristics of the two approaches as applied to an institutional setting. i.e. not an individual course, but a large collection of courses within a program, faculty or university. Obviously these are broad predictions of outcomes abstracted away from a particular context.

    Characteristics Pragmatic Re-design
    Level of use A significant increase in use is possible A really significant increase in use is possible
    Quality of use/outcomes Some increase in the quality of use/student outcomes but still largely reliant on the individual student’s capabilities etc rather than the actual course website Potentially huge increases in the quality of use and student outcomes.
    Difficulty/cost of implementation Somewhat difficult but not all that expensive, large scale change in a university is always difficult. Extremely difficult and expensive. Typically this will require the academic staff associated with the courses to radically rethink their conceptualisations of learning and teaching. This is not easy.

    The suggestion

    I’m hoping to expand on this further in subsequent posts as an attempt to outline a project by which an institution like CQU can significantly improve the use of its course websites and subsequent improve the learning experience of its students.

    In summary, the proposal involves the following

    1. A broad scale push for pragmatic improvement to course sites
      A project to ensure that all course sites are informed by diffusion theory, TAM and the 7 principles in a way that is “automatic” and simple. Essentially, (almost) all course websites should at least illustrate these characteristics.
    2. A process of complete re-design targeting courses with the largest numbers of students.
    3. An on-going process by which the lessons and outcomes of the re-design are fed into the broad scale process of pragmatic improvement.

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