The last time I enrolled an online university course (that wasn’t a MOOC) was in the late 90s. So it was with great anticipation that I recently enrolled in an online diploma of family history at an Australian university. The program appealed to me as it features modularised courses. The modules are about half of a usual university course, i.e. 5-7 weeks in length, advertised as having a 5 hour commitment per week. The target audience is people who want to study family history as a hobby, with the courses being graded as pass/fail. The program consists of eight modules, four of which are free, with the other four fee playing. This is an interesting model, and one which has the potential to incorporate a MOOC-style model to a traditional university qualification.
Module 1 – researching convict ancestors – 7 weeks – no fees
Assessment – weekly quizzes and one major assignment
In the lead up to the first module I was ridiculously excited. It’s been a life-long dream of mine to study Australian history, and researching my own family’s history would allow me to do this in a gentle, manageable way, fitting in with my busy lifestyle. And it wouldn’t do any harm to experience online learning for myself after many years of designing and teaching online courses. There were about 1,000 students enrolled in the module, which was one of the four modules offered for free.
The first day of the course was a national public holiday, and I had set aside the day to complete as much of the first week’s learning activities as possible. Eagerly I logged on, to find that the first week’s activities simply consisted of posting an introduction on the discussion forum and reading the course outline. There were a couple of introductory, short videos, but no activities that encouraged students to engage with the course content and ideas. I felt disappointed. Although I could see the intention of the teaching team to ease students into the module (especially for those who had little or no previous higher education and who had not studied online), it felt like a waste of a week and waste of the excitement I had felt in the lead-up to the module.
Also, alarmingly, there was a thread on the discussion forum that attacked the course lecturers for requiring the use of a commercial, web-based platform to present the major assignment. It appeared that the platform had been developed by academics at the University and was aimed at the broader family history market. Some students were disgruntled that there was a suggestion of commercial gain on the part of the academics and the University, and that they were being used a guinea pigs to trial the platform. After joining the class Facebook group, administered by a student in the course, I found the same sort of discussion occurring. As a newbie high school teacher I remember being given the excellent advice that the first two weeks of term were crucial in establishing a class ethos; in gaining trust and setting expectations. I’ve found the same advice to be true in a university context. In this instance, the start to the course was disastrous.
The course assessment consisted of weekly quizzes that could be attempted as many times as desired plus the major assignment, an historical narrative presenting the research into one ancestor drawing on records from genealogy and newspaper databases. This was the stuff of excitement – discovering records tracking my convict ancestor and his subsequent integration into Australian colonial life. But the weekly quizzes were mundane – simple fact finding from the lectures, with no conceptual depth and no apparent coherence. Only the first quiz was useful in that it was a transcription task, where we had to decipher a primary hand written document and answer a series of factual questions from the document. But many students found a number of technical glitches in the way the quiz had been set up, and again there was a fair amount of angst expressed on the course forums and Facebook group. Also, it wasn’t until a few weeks into the course that the teaching team worked out how to show students which questions they had gotten wrong in each quiz – previously it simply displayed a mark out of 10.
As the course progressed it became apparent that this was the first time this module had been delivered, and in many ways it felt that the teaching team was making it up as they went along. I’ve been in this position myself – both for new courses and for those that I’ve taken over from others and taught for the first time. For me it’s impossible for me to inhabit a course until I’ve taught it for the first time. I don’t grasp the internal coherence (or not) of the course until I’ve experienced it, and I can’t anticipate where students will be confused or have difficulty until we’ve all lived it together. Needless to say, my teaching evaluations for each new course I teach are pretty dismal.
What made it particularly difficult in this case was that as students we were being drip-fed information on aspects of family history research tools and on the major assignment. And the progression and flow of the content was mistimed. For instance, detailed information about referencing requirements and style were not released until the last couple of weeks of the module, after most students had completed their research. This meant that many students had to retrace their steps to gather the required referencing information. Furthermore, the module structure allowed for two ‘research’ weeks where there were no set weekly tasks, lectures or readings, in order that we could immerse ourselves in research. Unfortunately, crucial information on further sources were not released until after these two weeks, so many of us needed to do further rounds of research that we hadn’t anticipated.
The drip-feed nature of the module was exacerbated by the weekly content and activities being ‘released’ at the start of each week. This meant that we couldn’t work ahead if we found ourselves with a window of opportunity. I understand that this approach was probably taken because the teaching team didn’t want to have to answer questions on tasks and content that ranged across the module. However, for those of us who needed to fit study around a busy schedule, the chance to get ahead during some holiday time or over a weekend would have been welcome.
So, given all these negatives, what were the positives? The ‘brain’s trust’ interaction of participants was superb. Many of the people undertaking the module were experienced genealogists who were familiar with using genealogical databases and transcribing handwritten documents. Some students had already completed other modules in the diploma so they had experience with the learning management system and the University’s systems and requirements. They willingly shared their knowledge. Many people undertaking the module were not computer literate, and the brain’s trust was amazingly supportive, with some participants helping others via phone calls when written instructions were not adequate. Some people organised face-to-face meet-ups in their area. Interestingly, it was the Facebook group rather than the discussion forums inside learning management system that came into its own with the most support and encouragement. The teaching team had set up a useful range of discussion forums relating to course content, questions to ask the teaching team and social interaction, however it was on Facebook where much of the support was provided.
Another positive was the responsiveness of the teaching team to answering questions and addressing problems as they arose. Also, it was clear that the teaching team recognised the problems with computer literacy as detailed instructions were given for simple procedures such as downloading files. It was also very impressive that in the first week of the module every one of the 1,000 students received a personal phone call from the University to check that everything was going smoothly (as reported on the Facebook group).
Module 2 – writing family history – 7 weeks – fee-paying
Assessment – weekly writing tasks, weekly peer feedback, 2 assignments
The second module was fee-paying and was aimed at the art and craft of writing family history. It seemed to have about 300 people enrolled. By contrast, this module had strong internal coherence and scaffolding. It also drew on the brain’s trust in a formal way – each week we were required to post a short piece of writing in response to a choice of stimuli designed by the course coordinator. We were required to give constructive feedback to one other person on their writing. There was a student-run Facebook group as well, but in many ways it wasn’t necessary, as the course was so well structured and supported that it didn’t really need much informal support from participants.
As in the previous module, each student was phoned by the University in the first week to check that everything was OK. Also, at a couple of points in the module the coordinator individually emailed each student to check on their progress. This level of support is outstanding, and something that I’ve not managed to do in my own online courses.
As with the previous module, the weekly content and activities were released week-by-week, which meant that when I found myself with some extra time I wasn’t able to work ahead. At one point I considered giving up on the second module as I was overloaded at work and I couldn’t set aside enough time to do the activities and assignments. Thankfully, the weekly tasks had soft due dates, and so I was able to play catch-up. This experience made me realise why some of my own students give up despite knowing they would lose their fees.
What has this experience taught me about online learning and teaching?
Start the course with a bang, not a whimper. Students want to get stuck into substantive learning straight away. Don’t dull their excitement.
Don’t set busy work such as simplistic quizzes. Use the collective intelligence of students to provide peer feedback on more complex learning activities that target higher order learning.
Don’t drip feed. Where possible, make the entire module content and requirements available so that students can see the trajectory and coherence of the module and can work ahead if they wish.
Provide a range of IT support. Make sure that non-computer literate students are supported with a range of help including the central university helpdesk, the teaching team, and the collective intelligence of the class.
Take baby steps. I get the feeling that the first module became unstuck because the teaching team were trying to do too much at once. Requiring students to use an unfamiliar web-based platform to present their major assignment was a step too far for a group who were lacking in digital literacy. I have the same problem with some of my Master of Education students, as I require them to produce websites and blogs. It made me realise that I need to provide more tech support for these students.
Avoid making students feel like guinea-pigs. The lack of transparency around the use of the web-based platform and the feeling that students were being used to pilot-test the platform caused some bad feeling that didn’t dissipate over the seven weeks of the first module.
Intervene immediately to address a potentially destructive discussion thread. As the first module opened on a public holiday, the teaching team didn’t intervene until the next day. By then the damage had been done. The thread was eventually removed, causing more bad feeling from students who had felt they had been gagged.
Leverage the collective intelligence. The biggest message for me in comparing the two modules has been the ways in which the collective intelligence was leveraged. The collective can be a force for good and for evil. Courses should be designed to leverage the positive aspects of the collective. This means having students engaging with each other to discuss module content and ideas right from the outset, plus providing peer feedback, support and encouragement.
Modularisation is an excellent strategy to enable time-poor people to undertake university study. As a time-poor person I felt that enrolling in a short module was doable. The program has flexibility in that the modules are offered throughout the year, and are not bound to the standard university semester. This model is fantastic for someone like me who can chose to do a module when my normal workload is a bit lighter, for instance in the uni breaks. I look forward to continuing the diploma later in the year.