Tag Archives: Design for Online Learning

Reflections on a little bit of open education (TL;DR: it works).

We are setting up a new honours degree programme which will involve use of online resources for work based blended learning. I was asked to demonstrate some the resources and approaches that might be useful. This is one of the quick examples that I was able to knock up(*) and some reflections on how Open Education helped me. By the way, I especially like the last bit about “open educational practice”. So if the rest bores you, just skip to the end. Continue reading

Quick notes: Ian Pirie on assessment

Ian Pirie Asst Principal for Learning Developments at University of Edinburgh came out to Heriot-Watt yesterday to talk about some assessment and feedback initiatives at UoE.  The background ideas motivating what they have been doing are not new, and Ian didn’t say that they were, they’re centred around the pedagogy of assessment & feedback as learning, and the generally low student satisfaction relating to feedback shown though the USS. Ian did make a very compelling argument about the focus of assessment: he asked whether we thought the point of assessment was

  1. to ensure standards are maintained [e.g. only the best will pass]
  2. to show what students have learnt,
  3. to help students learn.

The responses from the room were split 2:1 between answers 2 and 3, showing progress away from the exam-as-a-hurdle model of assessment. Ian’s excellent point was that if you design your assessment to help students learn, that will mean doing things like making sure  your assessments address the right objectives, that the students understand these learning objectives and criteria, and that they get feedback which is useful to them, then you will also address points 2 and 1.

Ideas I found interesting from the initiatives at UoE, included

  • Having students describe learning objectives in their own words, to check they understand them (or at least have read them).
  • Giving students verbal feedback and having them write it up themselves (for the same reason). Don’t give students their mark until they have done this, that means they won’t avoid doing it but also once students know they have / have not done “well enough” their interest in the assessment wanes.
  • Peer marking with adaptive comparative judgement. Getting students to rank other students’ work leads to reliable marking (the course leader can assess which pieces of work sit on grade boundaries if that’s what you need)

In the context of that last one, Ian mention No More Marking which has links with the Mathematics Learning Support Centre at Loughborough University. I would like to know more about how many comparisons need to be made before a reliable rank ordering is arrived at, which will influence how practical the approach is given the number of students on a course and the length of the work being marked (you wouldn’t want all students to have to mark all submissions if each submission was many pages long). But given the advantages of peer marking on getting students to reflect on what were the objectives for a specific assessment I am seriously considering using the approach to mark a small piece of coursework from my design for online learning course. There’s the additional rationale there that it illustrates the use of technology to manage assessment and facilitate a pedagogic approach, showing that computer aided assessment goes beyond multiple choice objective tests, which is part of the syllabus for that course.

What do students know?

I read this by Graham Gibbs in the Times Higher Education over the weekend:

Studies have identified changes over time in what teachers pay attention to, and there is broad agreement about the stages involved.

Postgraduate teaching assistants may be concerned about whether students like them or are impressed by them, and whether they can get away with passing themselves off as an academic in their discipline. It is all about identity and self-confidence rather than about effectiveness.

Teachers then focus their attention on the subject matter itself: “Do I know my stuff?” While some never move beyond this focus on content, most subsequently shift their focus to methods: “How should I go about this?” There is evidence that training programmes improve student ratings of teaching practices.

Eventually, and with luck, teachers evolve towards a focus of attention on effectiveness: “What have students learned?” and “What is it that I have done that has had most impact on what students have learned?”

That questions of “what have students learned?” is one that has interested me. One of the resources that got me interested in it is the video “A Private Universe“. I like the contrast (or lack of it) in understanding of what causes the seasons between the the MIT graduate who studied planetary motion and the 9th grade student. Clearly, apart from being too late to be of any use, exams don’t always answer that question. What I find does help is to stop talking at the students, to stop presenting information and to start listening. I ask my students to keep a learning log describing what they do an don’t understand, I also use socrative to ask questions in class. I don’t need socrative because my classes are so large that I can’t ask student individually but because the students seem more willing to answer.

hmm, Gibbs’s last question is a difficult one to answer

Really pleased to see two students have started their learning log, but wondering how much of a concerted campaign it will take to the rest going.

The students get marks for them. I did my best to explain why I think they are worth doing (but perhaps it was a bit rushed at the end of the lesson). I made a mistake in not giving time at the end of class for the first entry, I asked them to make a start, but then put up info about next week, which distracted them.

Reinforcement needed in week two.

First session

Today was the first session of the first course that I am teaching.

The course is design for online learning, there are 22 students (more than anticipated, but not hugely more). The first session was a one hour long introduction, and introduction both to the contents of the course and to each other. I gave an overview of what the course covers, what are the learning objectives and why they might be interesting, what the balance is between theory and hands-on, lecture and discussion, time-tabled and open study, coursework and exam. A lot of the course derives from discussion based on the students own experiences (at least that what Roger, who has run this course for 10yrs or so, tells me works) so as a break from me talking I asked each person in the class what they had by way of experience that is relevant to online learning.

The mechanics of the session worked, the timing was spot on. All the students had some experience of online learning, a VLE at school or Uni, computer based training at work, forums when learning programming, revision resources (BBC Bytesize); some had experience in tutoring, or training in other contexts. That’s good.

Less good is that me standing up talking about course objectives is pretty boring. I think in trying explain how something they don’t yet know might be useful I lost some of them. But maybe there’s no interesting way of making sure the students have that information, and I do think that you have to realise that you are confused before you can put your ideas in order.

Less necessary perhaps was any boredom while I went around the class one at time asking for their experience. This may have worked better with a smaller class, but even then the interest is mostly of interest to me: it gave me an idea of who has interesting background knowledge, who is a confident speaker, meant I could make a start at putting names to people. Perhaps it would have been better done in parallel not series by asking them to write down their experience. Some examples would help make sure that they knew what sort of information I was interested in. On the plus side it was good to see them writing notes while other people were saying their bit, I guess the notes were about what might be relevant, which I think means that they spent a few minutes reflecting on what they already know.

One final observation struck me: hardly anyone had a laptop or tablet with them, and I didn’t see any of them using a phone. That’s odd in a class about online learning. I pretty sure that you can learn online even during a lecture.

Expertise, objectives and pedagogies

I while back I read Harry Collins’ and Robert Evans’ book Rethinking Expertise. The website blurb says:

What does it mean to be an expert? In Rethinking Expertise, Harry Collins and Robert Evans offer a radical new perspective on the role of expertise in the practice of science and the public evaluation of technology.

Collins and Evans present a Periodic Table of Expertises based on the idea of tacit knowledge—knowledge that we have but cannot explain.

The core of that “Periodic Table” is a range of ways of knowing about things that runs from “beer mat knowledge” to “contributory expertise”:

Text, left to right: Beer mat knowledge, popular understanding, primary source knowledge, interactional expertise, contributory expertise.
Collins’ and Evans’ spectrum of expertise

Beer mat knowledge is the sort of information that may be learnt from a “did you know” snippet on the back of a beer mat, useful for pub quizzes, but disconnected from any other knowledge; popular understanding is what might be gained through reading popular science books or watching documentaries; primary source knowledge requires understanding original papers in a field; interactional expertise is the ability to talk to other experts, requiring a knowledge how the published literature fits with the excepted paradigms and current developments in a field; and contributory expertise is enough expertise to advance the field one self.

Pyramid with text, top to bottom: remembering, understanding, applying, analysing, evaluating, creating
Blooms Taxonomy, revised
It always struck me that there was a congruence between this spectrum and Blooms taxonomy. At least at the extremes, mastery at “Beer mat” level requires no more than remembering, contributory expertise is about creating. In between the match isn’t one-to-one, but there is some overlap.

Reading about pedagogies this week while preparing for teaching, it struck me that there is another mapping that could be made. The first three of Collins’ and Evans’ classes could all be learnt in isolation, that is by reading books or watching films; the other two require, by definition, interaction with other people. So this seems to map to the three perspectives of pedagogy presented by Terry Mayes and Sara De Freitas[1]:
the associationist perspective: learning as an accumulation of skills
the cognitive perspective: learning as a process of building mental models making sense of concepts
the situative perspective: learning in the context of social interactions.

Odd, that it is the situative perspective that I struggle most with understanding, yet the social aspects of interactional can contributory expertises were ones that made immediate sense to me as someone who has worked as a physicist on a subject (polymer science) that showed the differences between physicists and chemists, and who went on to learn the different between physicists and engineers by working with engineers.

1. Terry Mayes and Sarah de Freitas Review of e-learning theories, frameworks and models (pdf). Stage 2 of the JISC e-Learning Models Desk Study. Also see Helen Beetham and Rhona Sharppe (eds.) Rethinking Pedagogy in a Digital Age (1st ed), chapter 2 Learning and e-learning: the role of theory.

Design for Online Learning?

The first course I will be teaching is called Design for Online Learning, the aim is Ÿ

To provide knowledge & understanding of the principles of online course design and development.

It’s a course that has been offered for several years now and I don’t think the title or aim have been updated recently.

Let’s take the title one term at a time


Clearly this is pedagogic design rather than visual design (though there is a section on story boarding, and I might work in something on wireframes). One of the resources referenced, the Jisc publication Effective Practice with e-Learning says:

Bringing about effective learning, however, is a complex and creative process which involves identifying objectives, recognising the needs of the learners, selecting the most suitable approach, and then striking an appropriate balance between e-learning and other modes of delivery when working within a technology-rich context (one in which practitioners can choose between e-learning and traditional options). In this guide, this process has been termed ‘designing for learning’.

page 11, my emphasis


I’m not sure that this is entirely helpful in the context of a course offered in Information Systems. To be clear, it’s not that we offer courses that cover other modes of delivery such as mobile learning or blended learning. I think the term “online learning” dates from time when “online” was considered to be something new and distinctive. “Online learning” was just one name in the long chain of what we call what we do, staring with something like computer based learning and computer aided instruction/learning through learning technology, e-learning, blended learning, to technology enhanced learning. I’m not even sure what counts as online anymore: does everything become online when all devices have network capabilities? Is an app for formative testing that is downloaded to a phone or an interactive ebook out of scope if it doesn’t use that networking capability. I don’t think so. The reason I don’t think they are out of scope is because it is clearly the learning that is important, and that  does not need to happen online.


Groups of terms relevant to education roughly in order of relevance: learning, assessment, and teaching, which are underpinned by psychology, pedagogy and philosophy; then policy, admisitration and accreditation, which are informed by politics, management theory, HR practice such as staff development and recruitment.
Various topics relevant to education, those which are more relevant to the course are larger and bolder

Yes, it will be important to cover something about how learning happens and what can encourage it, which means covering something about education more widely. The focus will be on teaching learning and assessment, (rather than other activities in education such as policy, administration and accreditation) but these are underpinned by research into pedagogy. psychology and philosophy.

So what is it about?

Well, I hope that the course will allow students to make a start on being a learning technologist, as defined by ALT

Learning technology is the broad range of communication, information and related technologies that can be used to support learning, teaching, and assessment.

Learning technologists are people who are actively involved in managing, researching, supporting or enabling learning with the use of learning technology.