Oscail, the Irish National Distance Education Centre has developed its strategy of using technology to improve learning opportunities at a pace which matches the expectations, access, and skills of its students. Since its inception in 1982, Oscail has monitored new technological developments on a continuing basis, while taking account of access to technology among its students.
Oscail undergraduates are required to take an Introductory Module prior to starting credit modules. These modules act as a filtering programme that allows the students to assess their readiness to learn in the distance learning environment. The modules are designed to help students to update or to acquire skills for studying at university level; they provide a ‘taster’ of distance education and give students the opportunity to try out the format without committing themselves to a long course; they also give a general introduction to the discipline. In the traditional mode of delivery, these modules use conventional text based material, supported by face-to-face tutorials.
In 2004, Student Passport to E-Learning (SPEL) Project, was launched with financial support from the Health Education Authority (HEA) Targeted Initiative Fund. Essentially, the SPEL Project combines the principles of the Introductory Module with E-Learning. An integrated approach is taken, whereby, technology is not seen as a separate add-on but, rather, as a cohesive element allowing learners to acquire e-learning competence while sharpening their study skills and acquiring some initial knowledge of the subjects they intend to undertake at undergraduate level.
The SPEL Module was offered on a voluntary basis to students wishing to enrol for the Bachelor of Arts (BA) in Humanities and for the Bachelor of Science (BSc) in Information Technology (IT). For the pilot version of SPEL, 40 students volunteered for SPEL Humanities (BA) and 32 volunteered for SPEL IT (BSc). The students ranged in age from 24 to 55 years; the majority of the Humanities students were female (60%), while the majority of IT students were male (70%).
The students completed assignments designed to allow them practise their study skills within a disciplinary context. The SPEL modules are presented entirely online, over a period of eight weeks, with no face-to-face tutorials. Instead, students are led through a carefully designed journey using a detailed roadmap, carrying out specified tasks, and interacting with their tutor and fellow students online1.
The students read course materials on screen or printed offline, participate in online activities, post messages to a discussion area and carry out assessment tasks based on both their readings and online activities. Students are assessed on a final portfolio, which consists of all the assessment tasks and printouts of their online activities. The teacher assesses the portfolio and moderates the online interaction.
A tutor is allocated to groups of approximately 20 students and s/he keeps the discussions structured and focused. The tutors interact with students in the general discussion area or by personal e-mail, where appropriate. While tutors vary in their approach, the nature of the discipline is also of significance in determining the form of the interaction.
The following SPEL learning outcomes have been assessed:
No prior knowledge was assumed. The students were provided with a manual with a detailed description of weekly tasks, which framed activities in a general plan. The SPEL modules adopt the Task Oriented Online Learning (TOOL) approach pioneered in earlier Oscail experiments. The students develop skills in using the online medium through carrying out tasks using e-mail, internet search engines, computer asynchronous conferencing communication, web-based library databases and basic software packages, such as, Microsoft Word and Excel.
A scaffolding approach to task-design was chosen as the one more likely to succeed in gradually introducing students to the use of electronic media. The students started off with simple tasks, for example, posting a message to introduce themselves and progressed to more complex ones, such as, searching and reviewing websites, and entering data on the learning experience in an Excel spreadsheet and, finally, analysing the learning experience in both quantitative and qualitative terms.
The 16 tasks required for the Humanities SPEL module are listed below:
Scaffolding was applied to enable students to progress gradually. This helped to ease some of the initial anxiety associated with the use of technology, particularly for the Humanities students who initially appeared to have less experience in using information and communication technologies (ICTs). In other programmes, computer skills have been an add-on, often in the form of a European Computer Driving License (ECDL)-type separate course. However, it was felt that, in order to optimise the acquisition of computer skills, it was necessary to integrate technical knowledge acquisition with study skills. Furthermore, technical knowledge and study skills were applied to course specific content and this gave students the opportunity to acquire an initial understanding of the subjects they wished to undertake at undergraduate level.
A meta-cognitive dimension to the learning experience is added by asking students to keep statistical records of the time spent on various activities in their studies, as well as, writing a reflection diary. This helps the students to develop greater self-awareness in terms of time management and learning style.
The overall assessment structure is a portfolio assessment with the following components:
The holistic approach taken in this module has ensured that the students do not perceive the assessment as separate from learning. Furthermore, the scaffolded structure of the assessment tasks enables the students to acquire confidence in their ability and skills while progressing with their learning. This is a particularly important element for learners returning to education after a long period of time. Furthermore the integration of online discussions in the final portfolio has ensured greater participation in the online exchange of ideas and has created a sense of community among learners. Lastly, the learning diary and the learning log have helped learners to develop a better self-awareness in terms of learning style and time management.
The SPEL module requires a structured support system and this requires resources, both in terms of times and tutorial support. While the online peer interactions were a great source of support, tutor intervention was often crucial in steering discussions and refocusing debates.
Furthermore, the short timescale (8 weeks) for this module meant that assessment tasks had to be completed according to a very pressurised schedule. Unfortunately, this did not suit all of the students who had originally enrolled for this module and who had underestimated the level of commitment required for completing this module.
The SPEL project has now reached its fourth year of presentation. Along the way it has been further developed and tutors have been involved as ‘action researchers’ in the development of some additional tasks in response to their learners’ needs. It should be noted that the contributors have been involved in the design and management of the project and in monitoring teaching and learning activities, and that contracted tutors carried out the assessment activities. The contributors have worked closely with the students and the tutors to evaluate the programme and this has resulted in several revised versions of the assessment structure. From the course design perspective, the evaluation has led the contributors to identify the following two factors as the key to the success of this project:
The scaffolded approach has ensured that progression of activities was gradual and that students were progressing within their zone of proximal development. This has been a motivational factor as students were pushed only slightly beyond their comfort zone and felt that completion of tasks was within their reach.
At first, the reflection diaries were perceived as superfluous by some of the students who felt that recording their thoughts was not contributing to their learning and was taking time from more valuable activities. However, this element of the assessment produced some of the most remarkable results in terms of turning students towards a more reflective approach to learning. Even some of the most resistant students, who had initially protested against the value of this activity admitted, at the end of the course, that having been able to go over their past thoughts had made them realise what they had achieved and made them more aware of their learning style and interests. Some of the students reported that if they had not been forced to keep a learning diary, they would have not done it, and the fact that the learning diary was one of the compulsory components of the portfolio was initially only an extrinsically motivating factor. By the end of the course, the learning diary had become an intrinsically motivating factor and, for this reason, many of the students manifested their intention to keep a learning diary for their future studies.
This assessment approach has proven to be valid in so far as it managed to maintain a close link with the stated learning objectives. Furthermore, an end of module questionnaire has revealed a great level of satisfaction among those learners who have completed the module. The reflections offered by the following student summarise opinions expressed by the vast majority:
I am glad I did this course, because I have gained loads of knowledge with reference to my computer and of course the course content. This will help me with my future study skills … The daily log was useful as it showed me what I had done that day, and what other areas I should spend more time on. The study schedule was helpful but I had to be very flexible with reference to adapting my study time around my children, husband and other factors which influence my life.
The only negative aspect flagged by the students was the tight scheduling of the assessment tasks, which has often interfered with other personal commitments. Considering that our students are mainly mature students, with many calls in their lives, we are now considering diluting the assessment schedule and extending the module over a longer period of time.
1Initially this was done within the Web Course Tools (WebCT) environment. Due to escalating costs of commercially available Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs), Oscail adopted the open source Moodle environment in 2004.