This article briefly examines the existing practical methodologies
and philosophies associated with developing networked online learning material
in a team environment.
OVERVIEW - A NEW PARADIGM
Little Johnny arrives home from school. After watching an hour or so of television and half of a taped movie, he goes online and joins his international tank team (Tanarus) on the Web and blows up a few tank platoons. After bragging about his team’s victories in the game’s real time chat window, he decides to be creative and produces a short animated skit with Microsoft 3D MovieMaker. Next he finds a CD-ROM disc that Dad brought home and journeys into the world of science and invention. After dinner it’s a little surfing on the Net. Mom gets a little angry as he is spending too much time on ICQ, so he downloads a few MP3 files from his friend’s shared drive online, then goes to bed and listens to them. The next morning he tucks his notebook and textbook under his arm and heads off for school. He seems a little despondent as the teacher flips on the overhead projector and reaches for the whiteboard marker...
This is a real life scenario, and there should be no reason for anyone to think for a moment that computer mediated communication (CMC) is not here to stay in our classrooms. Not only are students demanding computer-based learning experiences, we as educators owe it to them.
Technology is an integral part of society, and much online material already exists in our knowledge-based world today. The ultimate macrocosm of CMC would be the technological synergy offered by the Internet itself, representing a vast storehouse of data with millions of participants interacting and contributing to it. If an alien required extensive information on this planet and its inhabitants, he would most certainly get the massive amounts of data he needed by downloading the entire World Wide Web.
Being heavily involved with BBS’s since 1988 and the Internet since 1995, working in instructional media and technology for almost 20 years, and as a teacher using evolving technologies, accepting the validity of computer mediated communication and networked open learning (NOL) in general was never an issue for me. There was never a need for speculation or opinion, or to refer to much literature - as it was just ‘happening’. Some still view computer aided learning as a novelty, and not everyone shares the belief that NOL is viable, well established, and here to stay. We are presently at an exciting, developing point of educational evolution, and the variety of attitudes and perspectives towards this change is interesting. Change for some involves risk, and reassurance and support through educational communities can minimize perceived threats. Like any other technologically dependent modality, NOL will move through many innovations and improvements ahead, and will become more widely accepted. I am tempted to say globally accepted here, as NOL appears to be much more ubiquitous in North America.
The different rates of progress and change between industry and education
can be discouraging. By the time educators become aware of a new technology
and try to implement it, it will have gone through two or three more generations.
Fortunately, sound educational design will always determine the success
of the product regardless of the technology used.
In applying definitions, I determined which types of online learning most institutions are propagating these days. Although there are some secondary economic and political benefits implied, the primary purpose for online development in most of the colleges and universities I investigated is for the enhancement of learning. Most online material contains the components of distance learning with the tutor(s) and learner(s) physically separated, but certainly not enough to be classified as distance learning courses. Many open learning concepts are also incorporated, but with a varied and sometimes limited amount of learner directed activity. Most are developing hybrid support mediums for classroom enrichment, but which still incorporate many of the benefits of both open and distance learning. The potential exists however, for each course or program offered to become a total distance learning or open learning entity. It should not be suggested that the quality of existing online material is less than adequate for its intended purposes simply because there are no full-blown distance or open learning courses at present.
There are many variations to the classic distance and open learning models. For example, many are looking at streaming live interactive video (tutors and participants can respond in real time) to the student’s desktop or home, and providing follow up online modules encouraging asynchronous discussion. This will prove useful when instructor numbers or expertise is limited and/or when reaching outlying areas.
The importance and effectiveness of cooperative learning in NOL should be stressed. The socio-political collaborative paradigm of the 90’s has many obvious advantages over the competitive models of the past, especially when applied to this type or learning. Some of the educational benefits include fostering a more androgogical approach, which actively engages learners in the importance and reasons for their learning. Therefore, more than simply providing facts and data, successful NOL should significantly incorporate asynchronous communication with all its benefits, which utilize and nurture a collaborative and interactive learning environment. Incorporating a judicious mix of internal and external motivations would also contribute to a course’s success.
I disagree with those who may suggest that instructors' roles become
diminished or ‘less than’ as learners become more independent with NOL.
I prefer to think of the instructor as being active and supportive in a
different, less vernacular way. Monitoring and providing worthwhile feedback
to students is no easy task, not to mention the development, creation and
maintenance of the online material. In many instances, the instructor
or facilitator may even become a collaborative peer.
THE PROCESS OF CREATING SUCCESSFUL NOL PROGRAMS
1) CHOOSING TOOLS AND SYSTEMS
A thorough needs assessment should be done before selecting any system or software, and there are a host of cost, technical and pedagogical issues to be addressed, all too numerous to mention. It is imperative that an awareness of what can be accomplished with CMC is understood by all parties involved prior to creating any comprehensive checklist for evaluating the appropriateness of specific tools and systems. Once again, the importance and effectiveness of asynchronous support is paramount, and should rank high on most lists of delivery system requirements. Also, the needs of a large multi-user system will differ from those of a smaller user group, and these differences should be taken into careful consideration.
Part of any software or system research should obviously include the study of what other similar institutions are using successfully. I found that there were quite a variety of workable approaches out there. For example, many courses do not rely solely on commercial software, but extensively use HTML documents, some of which link to host conferencing systems or other software. Some good examples of non-standardized and homegrown delivery practices can be found at the following sites:
The Principles of Learning and Behavior, Tom Creed
Astronomy 161, University of Tennessee
Georgian College, Canada
In looking for success stories and an industry leader to ensure continued product development and support for years to come, many institutions have selected WebCT as their development tool. Universal Learning Technology has recently acquired WebCT, and the combination of the two companies creates a clear leader in the marketplace with the largest installed web learning base of more than two million seats at over 700 colleges and universities in 36 countries. The system is flexible and has many features which can accommodate a diversity of needs, and provides support and consistency.
The number of innovations that will occur over the next few years in Web classroom builders will be staggering. For example, new proprietary streaming technologies such as those developed by 7th Avenue (www.tutorials.com) when combined with highly interactive learner interfaces and conferencing could represent the epitome of online learning experiences. In America it is apparent that a chasm is already being created between commercially produced NOL materials and the homegrown variety, and individual institutions will have to invest in staying current, especially if competitiveness for students is an issue.
For many instructors, using a NOL development tool like WebCT today
could be analogous to using a word processor in the early eighties. Such
tools will soon become established as something that all teachers use to
teach, and we will wonder how we ever survived without them!
2) METHODS AND FEASIBILITY
There are many recommendations available on the WWW that provide good generic information for developing project specific checklists. I would probably go one step further in prioritizing and heavily weighing those that are important to the particular project. Each project will still require separate analysis, and more costly projects will require increased attention in determining their feasibility.
As simple as it sounds, it is surprising how many projects are started
and never finished because feasibility was not considered first.
3) ANALYSIS, DESIGN AND IMPLEMENTATION
As with every other step of developing NOL, there are numerous variables in the design process. The experience and skill set of the design team will determine the approach taken. When possible, the various experiences of learners and tutors should be utilized. Good design should begin with the gathering of information from all parties involved to create a list of specifications. This is a good time to let the creative juices flow, and brainstorming allows for a good collaborative approach. Matching pedagogy to NOL is of paramount importance. Learning objectives, learner traits and organizational issues must all be addressed. Validation should also be carried out while creating specifications.
Presentational issues will arise during the conceptual design stage,
and could be developed in parallel depending on the content and delivery
(i.e. - courses in the arts - mass media, graphics, photography, etc.).
All design issues should ensure that the interface is consistent, easy
to navigate and conducive to learning. Care must be taken here, as something
as basic as using the wrong typeface size, style or color can totally destroy
good online content. Carefully selected metaphors and good presentational
design engage the learner, and contribute to the success of the project.
Table comparing common teaching
paradigms and indicating which are likely to be most successful in NOL
N.B. the bold italicized information above indicates my own personal comments.
Whether creating a new course or converting an existing one to NOL,
I found that information similar to that presented in the above chart is
useful in helping with the conceptual design process. This is particularly
helpful with content experts, tutors or other team members that are new
to NOL. Some of the suggested production elements may actually have to
be created very early in the design process to establish their viability
4) IMPLEMENTATION AND PROJECT MANAGEMENT
Successful implementation relies on good project management, and I have included it here as they are so closely intertwined. Each member of the implementation team must be aware of his or her specific roles and responsibilities. I have learned from experience that individual team member’s efforts that bleed over into other areas of responsibility can create disagreements and confusion, which can lead to serious delays and setbacks. Although it is important to ensure that all parties involved are aware of where the project is at, I feel it may be necessary to keep some aspects of implementation transparent to some. For example, if the content experts get too involved in an area such as presentational design, it could cause serious delays.
In keeping everyone on track and up-to-date with the project’s progress, the use of Gantt or network charts can provide an overall picture of the project, and help keep it focussed.
The project manager should be totally familiar with all aspects of implementation, and overlay it upon technical, managerial and interpersonal issues. This awareness and meticulous attention to detail is crucial. Even something as basic as not ensuring the set up of a hierarchy of directories on a server to hold production elements for team members can adversely affect the organization and timely success of a project.
There are various management styles and techniques people can have,
and what may be common sense for one person may seem off the wall for another.
Personally, I rely on my experience, intuition and creativity to guide
me on smaller projects, and may incorporate a tool such as Microsoft Project
for larger ones.
Evaluation is defined as the collection, analysis and interpretation of information (Thorpe, 1988). Although it is a process, it should not be interpreted to suggest that there are absolute, rigid rules for the evaluation process, as you may be dealing with a variety of projects and human factors. Predetermined rules may not always actively deal with differences in requirements and/or people, but process guidelines can certainly prove useful.
It is important to determine exactly what is being evaluated and why. Hard numbers may be required for administrators, whereas educational goal accomplishment and achievement will be important for designers and academics. Most teams will instinctively devise their own specific criteria for strategies and methods of evaluation, and again, associated literature could prove helpful in establishing these.
Once again, I stress the use prototyping models to help establish specifically
defined parameters and requirements. As well as providing formative feedback,
the prototyping model (especially if it is a complete lesson or module)
can be tested to provide quasi-summative feedback on things like learning
outcomes even in early stages of development.
In looking for structure and deeper meanings in NOL, absolutes can seem elusive, but the dedication of the individuals who continue to search for and formulate them shows much promise for continued understanding and development in these areas. The NOL universe is going through the ‘big bang’ stage and will be ever expanding, perhaps becoming finite in some way, but with no boundaries.
Successful and timely NOL implementation relies very heavily on developing a process strategy, and applying the proper expertise and skill set to it (which may or may not always be possible). When in fact NOL is a new concept to all involved, the development process could be a long, tedious one where perhaps too much attention is paid to detail and accomplishments are few.
Here is a profile of expertise required for what I consider to be the ultimate NOL development and implementation team:
Project manager - preferably one with teaching experience, technical multimedia and new media production skills, and HR and project management experience.
Content expert(s) - preferably an experienced tutor or the combination of a tutor and a subject specialist. Experience in curriculum development and alternative delivery methods a bonus. Students may also be called upon for input.
Instructional designer - with experience in curriculum development, matching pedagogy to CMC, and the design of innovative learning environments.
Programmer(s) / IT Specialist - to provide the technical expertise necessary for GUI development, scripting and data management, and provide instructor and/or learner support and training.
Media Production Specialist - to produce video, audio, graphics and/or other various media.
Graphic Artist/Designer - to produce most aspects of presentational design.
Assessment teams - to collect, analyze and measure qualitative and quantitative data.
Marketing team - to promote and/or market the product.
This proposed paragon may not always be affordable or even practical, but it is essential to note that the areas of expertise represented here will usually be required for professional NOL design and implementation. Despite the numerous variations of requirements, delivery modes, learners, etc., this recognition will lead to the establishment of the team(s) and structure required for the successful development and implementation of a specific project, whether the team consists of 20 people or 2.
It was somewhat of a challenge to keep this issue of T&L limited and focussed, as NOL is a very broad topic with many interesting facets. This basic information should prove useful, as being involved with a NOL team or program at some point in the near future will be inevitable for all of us working in education. We must remember that just as the whole concept of collaborative learning is very important, the collaboration between development team members, faculty and students is imperative for the production of successful online learning material.