Tag Archives: planning

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.

8 tips for online learning community activities

Augustin Théodule Ribot: The ConversationIn a purely social community, collaboration and communication can be very open and unstructured. But when incorporating online community approaches into courses, we normally need to adopt a more structured approach to meet needs of the curriculum and the learners.

Here are some tips for this situation:

  1. The start of the activity is important – so welcome people and set a positive tone. Don’t overload people with information – start gently!
  2. Focus on participant needs – so exploring and sharing existing knowledge is often a great place to start.
  3. Give clear instructions and information about the activity – break the activity into digestible chunks so participants can focus on one thing at a time. Move supplementary information (ie info which is not key to the activity) to subsidiary pages.
  4. Use triggers to build engagement – eg provide a video or a link to an online survey, then follow with a directly-related question.
  5. Use open questions – eg ‘why do you think…?‘ These are more likely to generate higher-level thinking and in-depth discussion.
  6. Be a bit provocative – a trigger or question which is controversial is likely to generate engagement. But avoid topics which are too risky as these can lead to dangerous conflict – if you’re inexperienced as a facilitator this can be hard to deal with.
  7. Consider the flow of the activity – it is often preferable to deal with one question at a time, allowing participants to focus on one question at a time. You can start with prior experience or knowledge, then move in a developmental sequence to more in-depth questions. If you pose multiple questions from the beginning, especially with smaller groups, the community focus can be easily dissipated and lose momentum.
  8. The end of the activity is important – you should at least farewell participants and thank them for taking part. Consider also how the key points that arose can be summarised and published – true collaboration is not just discussing but generating new and powerful knowledge that should not be lost. You might ask for a volunteer to do this.

Image: Augustin Théodule Ribot: The Conversation

Planning online learning activities: problems with technology

In my work with educators who are new to planning and facilitating online learning community events, I often see activities which disappoint participants because of simple problems with the technology. Some community members are positive and accepting, others are not so forgiving and lose interest if the facilitator doesn’t seem well prepared.

Make sure the technology will work

In my experience, most of the technical problems that new facilitators encounter are avoidable. Many can be avoided if you:

  • Check and check again that the technology works before a synchronous event. First, before you publish the activity details so you know that what you have planned is feasible. And again just before the event – with enough time to repair or work around any fault that occurs.
  • Before the event, tell participants clearly what they need to have and do to be ready. eg will they need a headset with microphone? And advise them to check beforehand it’s all working. Establish a fallback position – eg if their webcam doesn’t work, can they just use audio?
  • Do a test drive to make sure that participants can access the event – but be aware that what you can see and do with a ‘teacher’ account is not always the same as what ‘student’ or guest account can. Log in using a dummy student or guest account and check that what you planned is possible.

Have a contingency plan

No matter how well you are prepared, technology can still cause problems, especially with synchronous activities. So you need to be prepared:

  • Have a plan B on what you will do if the technology goes wrong. How will you facilitate the event if the chosen technology fails?
  • Have a plan B for participants who can’t take part. If it’s an asynchronous forum they can access it later, but if it’s a synchronous activity you should create an archive for those who missed the synchronous event. eg in Wimba, click on the archive button as soon as the discussion gets underway. In a Skype chat, you can save the transcript as an HTML file and upload it to a web page.

Effective online facilitators:

  • Avoid many technology problems by making sure it works beforehand
  • Have a plan on how to continue when unavoidable problems do arise

Image source: Wikimedia Foundation

Holistic alignment model for planning innovation

In the education sector, adoption of new technology or pedagogical approaches is often undertaken without a comprehensive analysis of the relevant factors. For example, the potential benefits of the innovation are often considered in isolation from the risks or drawbacks. Implementing an innovation based on the glowing description of a vendor or a one-eyed enthusiast often leads to disappointment!

The Open Access Newsletter site relies on gathering only positive stories about open access, not the negative ones. While this approach might be well-justified and valid for the newsletter’s purposes of influencing policy, it’s not necessarily a good model for practitioners implementing change.

Why affects How

In working with educators to plan and implement innovation, I’ve found that the perceived or expected benefits of an education innovation are closely linked to how the innovation is implemented. A similar link exists between the risks or drawbacks of the innovation and the way it is implemented. Now this may sound obvious, but it’s surprising how often this aspect is not well considered. For example, I’ve seen an innovation such as the introduction of self-assessment to a programme implemented in such a way that its benefits were minimised and the risks and drawbacks maximised.

In other words, the benefits (why) and risks need to be aligned with how the innovation is implemented, at both a strategic level and a practical level.

In addition, it’s important to consider the context of the innovation, including factors such as the distinctive characteristics of the organisation, the programme and the learners. For example, actual benefits in one cultural setting may work in opposition to the specific strengths of the organisation in another cultural setting and undermine its effectiveness – the innovation can cause damage rather than bring benefits. In analysing organisational characteristics, aspects of an appreciative inquiry approach can be very useful to balance an analysis of the ‘gaps’.

Holistic Alignment Model

Through my work with various education organisations I’ve developed a model which I’ve found useful. Because it focuses on considering the whole picture and aligning the various factors, I’ve called it the holistic alignment model. Despite the grandiose title it’s very much a work in progress, and feedback is welcomed. As well as a description of the factors to consider, there’s a suggested process for helping establish the alignment.