Making, choosing and using digital content.

Technology offers fantastic opportunities for staff and students to learn and teach by “actively making” rather than passively consuming. In this post Alistair McNaught  explores the implications of making, choosing and using content.

Typical questions

  • “We have a virtual learning environment but it isn’t used well. Can you help us use it better?” 
  • “We are a small organisation with little technical support. How can we make better use of technology in teaching and learning?” 
  • “We need to develop our staff skills in blended learning. Where should we begin?” 

These are the kind of questions directed to the Student Experience team. They look small questions but require significant engagement across the organisation to answer effectively.

Organisations often start digital journeys with grassroots enthusiasm. But grassroots need to be watered and nurtured by senior management interest/oversight or things can go badly wrong. This can range from nuisance value (loss of expertise when the lone enthusiast moves to another job) to financial or legal liabilities if people unwisely invested in tools that can’t be used by disabled learners.

At its best, e-learning can be transformative to organisations, teaching practice and student experience. However, e-learning can be implemented badly. Staff may be shown some new tool and told to explore what it can do. This is like giving a teenager the car keys and asking them to explore how they could use it before introducing them to the more mundane elements of driving… like the Highway Code… or petrol, oil and water being in the right places. This blog post gives some mundane, but rather important, background to help e-learning move forward safely and positively rather than going round in circles or crashing.

Background awareness

The Internet is big with wonderful places but dark and ugly places too. Key questions include:

  • Are staff trained in e-safety/responsibility?
  • Have the tools used with learners been checked for
    • appropriateness – Pixabay is likely to return safe images, whatever learners search for. The same is not true for Wikimedia Commons or Flickr.
    • cleanliness – that is, freedom from malware / viruses?
  • Do staff and learners know Acceptable Use Policies? For example, making comments or adding links on collaborative tools or social media?
  • Are staff aware of copyright when creating resources? Do they know copyright free images or audio sites?

Choosing and using content and tools

Fundamentals

Before creating any learning activity (whether e-learning or otherwise) ask these questions.
What is the learning purpose? A clear understanding of pedagogical purpose is vital for quality learning experiences. Sites like EdTechTeacher.org can take you some of the way by matching tools to activities but you still need to think about why you want to do the activity and what value is added compared to the traditional approach? Is it easier for the tutor to manage? Or the learner to access? Is it more engaging for learners? Easier to revisit? Does it allow you to assess your learner’s progress? If the answer to any of these is yes then it’s worth doing. If not, then question why you’re doing it.
Is it more inclusive and accessible? This could come under ‘value-added’ but is important enough to consider separately. “Provision of information in accessible format” is a legal requirement for learning providers. Digital approaches generally offer better accessibility for disabled students than traditional alternatives but this is not a foregone conclusion. And there are costs for getting it wrong. Questions to ask include how would this experience work for a person with:

  • poor literacy skills – terrible spelling? Poor reading?
  • limited vision – needs to change colour contrasts or access text aurally?
  • limited hearing?
  • poor motor coordination – can’t use a mouse or tap a finger on a small target.

It is the nature of life that compromises may be required. Something that adds huge value to some learners may be inaccessible to others. See the blog post exploring intelligent compromises.

Ease of creation

You can create engaging interactive learning experiences with a range of tools from Microsoft Office to professional high-end tools that need significant training investment. Quality assurance is important because online resources are more visible than handouts collected in at the end of the lesson. But be careful not to make it hard to get resources online. Staff may decide it’s not worth the bother. In general, it is better to focus on approaches that are available to all staff so that everybody can participate even if at different levels. This principle favours free and open source solutions but make sure you make good use of the tools you already have. Quiz modules in Moodle, pop-up screen tips in Word, embedded videos and screen casts in PowerPoint or Sway offer great starting points that are already available.

Ease of distribution

Consider how learners access content. Do they need an app on their phone? Do they need a login? Will they remember it? Can they download the resource for use off-line? Do you use QR codes or short URLs to make it easier to use the resource on a phone/tablet?

Ease of tracking

This won’t be relevant to all content but some creation tools allow you to track individual student activity such as results from quizzes. Whether this matters may depend on whether you are using the resource in a formative or summative way. However, the more data a tool gives you, the more intelligence you have on what works and what doesn’t. It can also provide a justification for investing in further training.

Sustainability versus vulnerability

There are amazing “cloud-based” services and apps on the web but the opportunities need to be weighed against sustainability. Content on your own server is yours forever. Anything hosted in-house (like Moodle or Xerte content) is safe. Anything on somebody else’s server is not. If you have two thirds of your course content on some brilliant online service you are vulnerable. It may close down or (like Pearson’s learning platforms) develop a revised business model. You may lose most of your resources and all the invested staff time and expertise.

Policy considerations

From a senior manager perspective, e-learning can appear high-risk (and very expensive). It may also take senior managers with limited technical background outside their comfort zone. However, the rewards can be significant, provided the policies and practices join together effectively.

Between tyranny and anarchy

Senior managers are vital at giving a steer between tyranny and anarchy. The tyranny approach is where all the eggs are in a single basket – for example Moodle. This can stifle the innovative and creative staff who could pioneer opportunities to engage and inspire. But the anarchy approach where all staff are encouraged to “do their own thing” can result in a confusing experience for learners and shallow, immature practices where tools are used for the sake of it. It also makes the organisation vulnerable to staff changes: a teacher’s resources may be tied to their personal email and password.  When they leave their resources leave with them.

User friendly infrastructure

Flaky Wi-Fi and intermittent Internet connections will undermine any staff or student enthusiasm for e-learning. So will excessive login and security layers.

E-learning as a reasonable adjustment

E-learning can maximise benefits and minimise barriers for a wide range of learners, particularly learners with disabilities. There is an argument that resources in digital format should be a matter of learner entitlement rather than tutor preference. This can be a helpful way of persuading reluctant tutors to move into the 21st-century.

Staff development

E-learning can make good teacher a better teacher but it won’t make a bad teacher good. Staff development needs to focus on how technologies can help teachers teach better and learners learn better. As explored above, this also has implications for e-safety and responsibility. Jisc can provide support and guidance in the form of online guides training and consultancy. Contact your Jisc account manager for more information.
Remember; some of the best learning takes place when teaching taps into learner creativity. Staff development could include giving teachers technical skills to help learners create their own content – like the Making Digital History projects at the University of Lincoln.

Conclusion

High quality teaching and learning is a journey, not a destination. Like any journey, e-learning works best when it’s planned well and time has been spent on the boring but important bits.

Do it safely. Make sure the technology works. Make sure staff are supported in moving out of their comfort zone. Make sure tools or activities don’t discriminate against disabled learners.

Get it right and there are excellent opportunities for learners to be more supported, engaged and employable. They may achieve more too. What is there not to like in that?
 

 

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