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David Richardson

Designing Flexible Learning Courses

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Let me tell you about our in-service training course for teachers of English (as a Foreign Language) in Sweden.

Teaching English to Younger Children (5 Swedish Credits, or quarter-speed) is a course designed for people teaching English to primary- and junior-age children (say up to age 11), who, perhaps, lack formal qualifications to do this. It's a university-level course, and the credits gained can be added to other credits within the Swedish system to gain higher qualifications.

The modus operandi is to get practising teachers to work with each other to discuss the issues involved and to practise the techniques. The way the course is currently delivered is that we have three face-to-face meetings, four video conferences and six Study Group Meetings spread out over a term (say 24 weeks). The students build up a portfolio of reflections, observations and ideas which is assessed at the end of the course.

Each study group meeting involves discussing something seen in the classroom in the period since the last course event. Participants are encouraged to observe each other's teaching, and reporting back takes place both to the other members of the study group (who're often all at the same school), and to everyone on the course at the video conferences.

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Ah, the good intentions of the 'pre-end of term' period. It was as busy as usual, and then we went to Madeira for a winter break … Still, here we are in January, and I'd like to take these descriptions a little further.

Teaching English to Younger Children has just gained an extra twist - quite typical for flexible learning courses at this basic level of the development of the practice. My boss forgot to limit the geographical spread of applicants for the Spring Term course … so now I'm faced with delivering the course in a situation where not everyone is going to be in a 'home group'. It can be done … but the problem facing any flexible learning teacher in a situation where most education systems are set up for inflexibility is that not everything that can be done should be done.

We've been trying to get some of our terms and parameters defined here in Kalmar in the last few months. 'Home Group' flexible courses are one which depend on the existence of viable study groups at specific locations ('viable' meaning 'with five or six regular participants'). 'Open Access' courses are ones where the exact design of the course and the mix of technologies used to deliver it are not decided upon until the applications come in. An implication of not specifying things in detail when the course is offered is that you are likely to have isolated students whose only contact with the rest of the group is via virtual media, such as blogs or Marratech. Finally there are 'Studio' courses, where a lecturer sits in a studio in Kalmar and lectures to individuals or groups sitting at a very large number of video conference studios spread out all over the place.

Home Group courses are designed around student participation - a lot of the learning activities are set up so that you have to meet other people face-to-face and mull something over. Then there'll be face-to-face (f2f) meetings and video conferences where both reporting back and receiving new inputs take place.

Studio courses are more like conventional lectures - there's neither the time nor the opportunity for much interaction with the lecturer.

Open Access courses are a new phenomenon - I'm probably going to be the first teacher in Kalmar to run one this autumn - so we don't quite know how they're going to work yet! However, recent technical developments with desktop video conference (enabling us to link up desktop users with studio users) are very likely going to allow us to have the geographical flexibility of a Studio course together with the pedagogical flexibility of a Home Group course. Of course, it's easy to just say that - implementing it is another kettle of fish. My January intention is to keep you posted about how this first Open Access course develops.

We're not starting entirely from scratch - the reason we have to start offering them explicitly is because students have created the genre themselves de facto. What's happened over the last few years is that students have quite simply ignored what we've said about where and when the courses are going to take place, and just applied anyway. I'm one of the teachers who's accepted this situation and created de facto solutions to the problems of course delivery. Now we're going to go the whole hog and make these de facto solutions into a feature of course design!

Edited by David Richardson

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I spent yesterday afternoon helping one of my colleagues from another department who teaches Maths. She broke her leg on the ice at the beginning of December and is laid up with her ankle in a cast, but she's due to teach an intensive course next week in a place called Hultsfred, which is about 100 kms from Kalmar.

She's got a wireless broadband Internet connection at home (a beautiful 17" G4 Powerbook with an Airport connection) and I downloaded the Marratech software for her, set up a Wacom pad (for writing mathematical formula on the interactive whiteboard) … and she's up and running.

Next Monday she'll be working from her bed, connected up to 20 students in Hultsfred, who'll see her and her whiteboard projected onto a screen. She'll be able to talk to them and they'll be able to talk to her. She'll also be able to do one-on-one tutorial sessions with students from their homes to hers.

Now there are several ways you can look at this … The downside could be that she can (has to?) work even though she's laid up. On the other hand, she's bored and champing at the bit to get back doing something useful. She's also the only person we've got in Kalmar who can do this kind of specialist maths course successfully, so if she didn't do it like this, the course would have to be cancelled.

The flexibility of this course is mostly at her end too - the students will still be gathering at a Study Centre and working in a classroom, much as they would if she were fit enought to travel there. For her, though, she saves the 3-hour return trip (which she'd have to make just about every day next week if she hadn't broken her leg). It's true that she'd be paid for this, but she'd still have to lose those hours out of her life …

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Nancy's maths course has been working really well. I spent about two hours helping her to get going and she called me a couple of times during the next two days … and now she's into the second week of her intensive course, with rave reviews from a bunch of initially rather reluctant students.

On my own courses, I feel that I'm tiptoeing towards 'type 2' course design. One of the few things that I ever got out of the great UKeu (Britains' e-university which collapsed in an expensive heap a while ago) is some research which classified e-learning courses as type 1 ('book in a box' - turning your Word documents into something your bosses could call web pages), type 2 (courses which start to exploit the potentialities of the technology) and type 3 (courses which go the whole hog with the technology). Type 1 courses are usually worse than the equivalent paper-based versions. Perhaps I'm being a bit hard on myself, but largely text-based interaction with students looks and feels like type 1 to me.

This week we're doing our first multi-national podcast, as a supplement and complement to other types of on-line materials. Beth and I (at least - Bruce and Jon too, if we're lucky) are going to be meeting first on Marratech and then using Gizmo to record a joint podcast about what a Business Writing tutor does when the Send-In tasks start coming in.

OK, a bit of explanation. Beth, Bruce and Jon are the team of internet tutors on our Business Writing course, who live in Auckland, NZ, Brisbane and Valladolid, respectively. We've been working together on this course and others for nearly 10 years now … which must make us one of the most experienced teams in the world. Marratech is our desktop video conference system (about which I've written in other fora) and Gizmo is an alternative to Skype, which has much better audio than Skype (uses the same audio programming as Marratech), and has a 'record call' function, which produces .wav files.

You'll find Gizmo at http://www.gizmoproject.com

The Business Writing course has been entirely on-line now since 1995. The students have loved it (the application figures are around 150 for 30 places each term) … but we've always felt that they'd get even more out of the course if they had more interaction with teachers and tutors. So, we're building in a Marratech session and a podcast to accompany each significant event on the course. I'm hoping, for example, to get an 'examiner's report' after each Send-In task from the tutors, to give students feedback on how the course is going as a whole.

We've also dropped the discussion forum (it was subject to a hacker attack … but it was also a bit boring) in favour of a team blog. There's already been an interesting side-effect in that the blog has a much more well-developed space for a personal profile. It's interesting already to see the differences in the numbers of times a profile has been viewed between the more informative and open profiles and the ones which are less so. I think these beautiful friendships between students are sweet … but, cynically, they're also a powerful social 'glue' creating a feeling of community between disparate students and then maintaining it.

BTW, if you want to take a look at the (rather crude) website, the course will be up and running for this term on 1st February. Click on the Distance Courses link at the top of this page, and then on Active Course Sites -> Business Writing.

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It was actually the Kalmar-Missouri Composition Course partnership which was first off the blocks with joint podcasting. The site dedicated to it is at:

http://www.humsam.hik.se/distans/convcomp/convcompstart.htm

There's not much there yet, because my course doesn't start until next week, but you can hear our initial attempt.

It wasn't easy finding the time to do the podcast, so we just had to do a quick 'lunch-hour' recording, and we'll need to decide on a common recording input level, but these are minor problems.

What happens now with this technique here in Kalmar is that a colleague who teaches medical English is going to call some of her friends in the UK and record interviews, leading to a 'virtual hospital' site for her Kalmar students. The idea is that if you click on the orthopaedic clinic, you can hear a guided conversation with an orthopaedic nurse - with all the specialist vocabulary and jargon involved.

Of course, you could do this the conventional way, with recording studios, etc. The problem is that this costs a lot of money … and tends not to be immediate and personal in the way that these joint podcasts are.

Strictly speaking, by the way, the Conversations in Composition podcasts are genuine podcasts, since they are part of an on-going course, and will contain references to things that have happened this spring. The 'virtual hospital' idea is really something else - a collection of relevant sound recordings accessible via the net.

This is a technique which the historians on this forum might be interested in too - the technical barriers to contacting someone with personal memories of historical events and recording what they say, no matter where in the world they happen to be, are almost non-existent. The personal, political, cultural and social barriers are another question, of course …

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Doesn't time fly when you're enjoying yourself! Suddenly it's January a year on from when I started this thread …

This year is the year of Moodle for us here in Kalmar. We've just been reorganised and amalgamated with another department which also has a lot of in-house expertise in computing (so we can sidestep the IT section and get on with doing real things). Moodle's just another course management system, really, but it's got the advantage of hundreds, if not thousands of programmers around the world tweaking it all the time. The Open University have just adopted Moodle as their CMS of choice too, so there'll be even more development.

Moodle makes it very easy to include things like podcasts in course materials. Even the link-up to iTunes is neat and easy. I've also just got the nearly latest version of iLife on my Mac, so I've got all the GarageBand podcasting features. It's really easy! And it makes nice small files. One of the neatest aspects of GarageBand podcasting (to use one of Bill Gates' favourite adjectives!) is that you can drag and drop slides from KeyNote (Apple's superior version of PowerPoint) into your podcast, so that you can have visual aids accompanying your podcast. It makes podcasting take a bit longer, but the end product is a lot more organised.

GarageBand produces .m4a files (.mp4 instead of .mp3), which appear as QuickTime movies if you click the link on screen in Moodle. In iTunes the visuals appear in the iTunes window that usually shows album artwork, and the pix appear on screen if you listen on an iPod.

We're going to be playing around with wikis as ways of getting students to write discursive essays this term too.

If anyone would like to take a look, just mail me and I'll send you the enrolment key, so that you can log on to a course as a guest.

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