Consistency and scaffolding in online education

Covid19 has resulted in a wider spread focus on online and distance learning, the buzz word being the ‘online pivot’. There are also lots of ‘quick fix’ solutions being banded about on social media. However, as Martin Weller, EdTech guru, says it’s not necessarily easy to create good online courses and you need to support your staff in doing so (2020).

UCEM celebrated its centenary in 2019 so it is fair to say that UCEM has many years’ experience of planning learning experiences for students who are studying remotely. Even before the Coronavirus pandemic, UCEM students studied – and continue to study – online.

We’ve already said that designing online learning is not easy. In fact, I would argue that designing any learning is not easy. Of course, it is not always clear cut but if we were to look for differences between designing face-to-face learning and online learning, from my experience, any differences are to do with:

  • planning and developing a whole module upfront, many weeks or months (or even years!) before students actually start studying it.
  • making sure that students will understand what we want them to do and that they will have the means with which to achieve it – we need to use the online environment to carry the tutor voice.
  • it being a (more?) collaborative process – involving learning designers, editors, media teams, core services, the library, student support teams etc. etc. as well as, of course, the tutors.

This means we need to be clear what everyone’s role is within that process and what the standards are that each individual is working to… all working towards the single goal of ensuring student success (and hopefully satisfaction, but to be blunt, success is more important).

When designing online learning then, we need:

  • a clear process;
  • quality standards. (We will post more about this over time.)

At UCEM we follow a process along the lines as outlined in Figure 1. Each phase results in one or more outputs.

A diagram showing the production process at UCEM. There are nine stages, from left to right, each involving different roles and responsibilities and resulting in different outputs.
Figure 1: UCEM module development process

The Weekly overview template

To enable us to meet the required standards of the various outputs throughout the development process, we have developed a range of resources for members of UCEM staff to use. One such resource is the Weekly overview template which can also be seen in Figure 2.

A screenshot of the UCEM Weekly overview template showing a section entitled About this week and a section entitled Activities for this week.
Figure 2: Screenshot of the Weekly overview template

In line with our educational framework (see ‘Designing modules: our educational framework’, Lindsay, 2019), we design our modules to encompass three areas. This means we need to:

  • focus on student outcomes and enable students to succeed in their assessment;
  • ensure an active and participatory student experience;
  • make the tutor and facilitator presence obvious and meaningful to students.

Each module has its own website accessed through our Virtual Learning Environment (VLE). Each module website offers the students the opportunity to engage with learning activities; discuss and share synchronously or asynchronously with their tutor or with the other students or wider professional community; and submit assignments and receive feedback.

Our modules are usually divided into weeks of study so that students can manage their time and work towards their learning outcomes and assessment points. It is therefore essential that this unit of study time – a week – is clearly and consistently scaffolded. This is where the Weekly overview template comes in.

About this week’ allows the tutor to explain to students why the week is important for the students. It not only provides an overview of the subject matter but also breaks it down into smaller chunks which relate to the Learning Outcomes and their assessment (which students are provided with elsewhere in the module on the VLE).

The language we use aims to be welcoming and friendly, and importantly, address the students directly with ‘you’. This is the tutor voice reaching through the digital environment. Any use of ‘we’ specifically means the module team including the tutor and academic support staff. ‘I’ means the tutor.

Activities for this week’ provides a space for the tutor to give a flavour of the kind of activities students will engage in during the week, such as using multimedia resources and discussing the key points in a forum or live two-way webinar. It also provides a space for the tutor to remind students how they will receive feedback from the tutor – potentially a mixture of feedback in the forum or webinar, as well as feedback from the interactive resources that the tutors developed with the online education team in the weeks and months prior to the module going live to students.

The activities are then listed for that week. These include forum discussions, webinars and quizzes, as well as the core learning activities. Notice the approximate study time provided in brackets to enable students to manage their study time. We encourage tutors to plan a consistent overall number of hours each week. Research by the Open University, for example, (van Ameijde, Weller and Cross, 2018, p.47) shows that providing students with a balanced study workload is more likely to promote success in their learning.

References

Lindsay, K. (2019) Designing modules: our educational framework. Available at: https://blog.ucem.ac.uk/onlineeducation/posts/937 (accessed 21 April 2020).

Van Ameijde, J., Weller, M., Cross, S (2018) Learning Design for Student Retention. Available at: https:/doi.org/10.14297/jpaap.v6i2.318 (accessed 21 April 2020).

Weller, M. (2020) Online pivot & the absence of a magic button. Available at: http://blog.edtechie.net/higher-ed/online-pivot-the-absence-of-a-magic-button/ (accessed 21 April 2020).

Acknowledgement

Photo by sloth x bear on Unsplash. Available at: https://unsplash.com/photos/l7HysfP9BPU (accessed 21 April 2020).

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