Tag Archives: elearning

Six tips for setting up a small-scale e-learning site

Rodin's ThinkerI often hear from educators and others wanting to set up a simple, small-scale e-learning platform to support their activities. While such a site has the potential to be more flexible and adaptable than a large institutional setup, it’s important to start it off on a sound footing to avoid wasting time and money.

My suggestions:

  1. Start with and maintain a strong focus on using the web to support learning, not to merely publish information. This should underlie all the decisions you make on technical matters.
  2. Don’t spend any money on arranging hosting until you have made decisions about the software platform (eg LMS or CMS) that will best meet your needs. Some platforms require much more robust hosting than others do.
  3. Don’t spend any money on a software platform until you have made some decisions about exactly how you are going to use the site to support learning. In fact, once you have done this it’s very likely that you can identify free and open source software (FOSS) that will be very suitable.
  4. Get help to identify your needs and make decisions. Not just because you may not have all the knowledge required, but also because an outside perspective is invaluable.
  5. Seek out independent help and advice. Talk to lots of people, but be aware that many of the people who will offer advice may not  have an objective understanding of what you want to achieve.
  6. Spend money on what matters – apart from ongoing payments for hosting, you probably have a small budget for initial set up. Since it’s very likely you won’t need to spend anything on software (see point 3 above), set aside at least some of your budget for buying the time of someone independent to help you identify needs and make decisions.

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Flexible learning planning guide

For a large institution, selecting a flexible learning software platform is a major undertaking, requiring careful consideration of many factors. Such a process can seem like overkill, however, when a smaller-scale development is planned. For example, one or more teachers in an institution might decide to pilot an online learning component as an action-research project. Or a small provider might decide to ‘put their toe in the water’ with flexible learning. From my experience, the people involved in such projects need some guidance but are not prepared to undertake a full needs analysis and evaluation process.

I started putting together the Flexible Learning Planning Guide for just these sorts of situations. It’s informed by my own work and also by research such as Chickering and Gamson’s 7 Principles, which I’ve found very useful as a framework for developing teaching and learning.

I believe there’s a need for something like this to complement the sorts of rigorous development processes called for in models such as the eLearning Maturity Model: not because they are not valid but because small-scale projects sometimes just need a bit of guidance to get started.

The guide is based around pedagogical processes rather than software features. And I deliberately left out many aspects of good practice because I wanted to keep the list short – it currently comprises just ten practices and I’ve had to resist the temptation to add to this. For example, I’ve deliberately left out any practices relating to assessment as that is often excluded from such ‘first steps’ projects because it’s such a high stakes component.

The guide reflects my interest in constructivist approaches to learning and the use of tools such as blogs and wikis. It also avoids providing a simple checklist of features – because good practice doesn’t arise automatically from software features, but from how effectively they are used.

Download the guide

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FLLinNZ Postcard 8

I attended the Moodle Moot at Waiariki Polytechnic from 3 to 4 February. This provided really valuable insights into the status of various TEC-funded projects which have incorporated this open source platform. For me, it’s been gratifying to see how Moodle has moved on from being something of a fringe player two years ago: it’s now used by a number of large institutions and it’s no longer looked down on to quite the same extent! I suspect it’s more significant than just providing a ‘free’ alternative LMS: Moodle is a good example of a new business model which is developing alongside the more traditional ones.

On 15 February I attended a research presentation at University of Auckland by Margaret Turnbull and Mavis Haigh on Replacing the nods and smiles: raising questions about philosophy and pedagogy in a predominantly web-based Master’s paper. Although based on a small sample, this provided some useful qualitative data on student perceptions of the online learning experience and some of the issues that teachers face in providing formative feedback online.

Early in 2005 I took on a formal role with Nga Kiwai Kete: the eLearning Toolbox, John Delaney’s TEC-funded eLearning project. This is a big time commitment for me on top of all my other work but the project fits well with my FLLinNZ goals and I feel I can make a worthwhile contribution here. It means I have had to rethink some of my planned FLLinNZ activities, but Nola warned us we’d have to be flexible!

I have been able to extend the work I undertook towards the end of 2004 with a small private training provider in Rotorua by working with senior staff to talk through their goals and educational values. I’ve followed this up by developing a formal eLearning Development Plan for the consideration of the governing body. This plan establishes achievable targets for the short and medium term and the provider’s feedback has been very positive.

My experience with this provider clarified for me my own approaches to mentoring in the eLearning area, and how this role is different from that of a professional developer. I’ve started to develop better models of the overall development process and how mentoring, coaching and professional development fit within this. This has provided me with a clearer perspective on leadership and my own role as a Flexible Learning Leader.

At the same time, I have started a mentoring process with a key focus on leadership. My mentor is a skilled and experienced practitioner, and a colleague that I have worked closely with in the past providing mentoring for new tertiary teachers. We have also established a secondary focus of exploring mentoring processes, and plan to publish something in this area in the future. The process has already provided valuable insights into issues arising from my professional work.

One technical area I’ve been exploring has been synchronous communication. I was hoping to offer a remote presentation using Breeze at a US conference on Women’s History – not really my field but a teacher development workshop I’ve run in the past would have fitted nicely with this. Unfortunately, it turned out the presentation would have had to be on our final sharing workshop day – a good illustration of the limitations of synchronous delivery. Anyway, although I wasn’t able to pursue this, it did get me investigating simple desktop video – something I’d played with and given up on years ago but is now much more than a toy.

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FLLinNZ Postcard 6

In the last two weeks I’ve participated in:

A face to face presentation by Alan Levine at Unitec on Connecting Learning Objects with RSS but which in fact was re-titled on the day to PhotoBlogging: Publish and Build Communities Around Digital Images. So it wasn’t quite what I had expected but useful: I was motivated to have another go at fixing a faulty link between my photos on flickr and my blog. A boring technical detail perhaps, but as Godfrey Parkin recently posted:

…trainers who really want to encourage experience-sharing and dynamic learner-created content are scrambling to understand blogging…

I also visited a private training provider here in Auckland who is looking to explore eLearning strategies for delivering training. I met with three of the organisation’s managers and discussed some of the options. I’m expecting to follow this up with a face to face eLearning workshop for teaching staff on eLearning and (hopefully) some online mentoring. One aspect of my contact with private training providers that I’ve become aware of is the need for confidentiality, since they work in a competitive environment!

I also met with the other FLLinNZer’s in Auckland and Northland at AUT to discuss a possible eLearning event in 2005. Lyn Smith has done a great job in co-ordinating this! We’re still in the early stages of planning but there is plenty of enthusiasm and lots of ideas, so watch this space…

Between 8 and 19 November I took part in the NET*Working 2004 online conference but I was unable to take a full part due to unforeseen circumstances. I also found the choice of platform a bit frustrating – as Stephen Downes pointed out, if you didn’t run IE on a Windows PC some synchronous features were unavailable or unreliable. But overall the conference showcased Australia’s dynamic eLearning community – it’ll be interesting to see how the new developments there pan out over the next 12 months or so.

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FLLinNZ Postcard 4

I’ve been attending the e-fest conference here in Wellington. My overall impression is that the eLearning field in NZ has now matured to the stage where there is an increasingly shared body of knowledge. I’m sure the governmen’s initiatives in this area have really helped in this regard. I enjoyed the exposure to some conceptual models which were new to me – eg Sandy Britains’ model of amplification of capability and attenuation of variability.

My strong interest in open source meant the chance to listen to the keynote by Martin Dougiamas (of Moodle fame) and meet him in person was really enjoyable for me. His expertise as a technical developer is matched by his insights into online learning and communities.

With regards to developing practice and learning design, Marc Prensky’s post-conference workshop was very stimulating, and it rekindled my interest in games and simulations and how they can be used to engage learners in the post-Blackboard era! The workshop moved on from his keynote and participants began to explore ways of connecting and integrating such activities to ensure transferable and relevant learning.

Just prior to e-fest, I attended a staff development session at AUT presented by Dr Ann Kerwin who teaches in the Faculty of Business. I found her model of the requirements of learning (time, space, energy, attention, reward) interesting and I’m currently reflecting on how this can inform my existing beliefs about effective teaching, both online and face to face.

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