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Flexible learning in uncertain times 1: Approaches to interactive and distributed online learning

COVID-19 has in a few short weeks upended almost every aspect of higher education, and much beyond.

    Written by Dr Clare Sansom, CDE Fellow |

    We are still a long way from a new normal, if that concept has any meaning beyond ‘continuing change’. No-one can predict, at the end of this summer term, with any legitimate certainty what the next academic year holds. But whether our courses are to be blended or fully online, we can be certain of two things in these uncertain times. 

    • We will need to be flexible to adapt to, perhaps, frequent moves in and out of lockdown.
    • Much more of our teaching than we could have envisaged a year ago will include a major online element.

    The Centre for Distance Education is running a series of interactive webinars to help the University of London’s regional teaching centres (RTCs) to prepare for the new academic year covering, pedagogy, the student experience and strategic planning. 

    The first, entitled ‘Approaches to Interactive and Distributed Online Learning’ was held on Thursday 16 July using the Microsoft Teams app, and proved extremely popular. It featured a team of presenters: Dr Linda Amrane-Cooper, head of the Centre for Distance Education; two CDE fellows, Professor Stephen Brown and Dr Matt Phillpott, and learning technologist Vicky Brown, from the School of Advanced Study (SAS) .

    Participants were invited to engage in a pre-workshop course, to introduce them to some approaches and strategies for delivering interactive and distributed online learning, as well as to a specific pedagogical approach to learning design from London: the ‘ABC’ (Arena Blended Connected) method, developed by Diana Laurillard at UCL in 2015. In this, all learning activities are divided into six ‘types’ or modes of learning, and courses built up from a balanced mixture of most or all of them. These are:

    • Acquisition – simply acquiring knowledge, e.g. from reading text or watching a video
    • Investigation – finding things out, in a mini research activity
    • Practice – practicing skills
    • Discussion – between students, or between students and tutors
    • Collaboration – taking part in an activity with others
    • Production – creating a piece of work, such as a dissertation or video.

    Linda began the online session by welcoming colleagues from the RTCs and explaining that the workshop would be interactive. Stephen then chaired the event, introducing Matt, who described a set of principles underlying good online or blended pedagogy. These take as a central starting point the idea that passive learning, whether text, audio or even video based, will almost invariably set students’ minds wandering.

    Video ‘shorts’ of 5 or 10 minutes are far better than recordings of hour-long lectures, and large blocks of text must be broken up, preferably by activities. With course content, perhaps counter-intuitively, ‘less is more’. We were reminded that, in today’s special case of online learning in a pandemic, we must be kind to our students and indeed ourselves, as we may all be using a wide variety of perhaps less than excellent equipment and systems, perhaps with restricted or intermittent bandwidth. 

    We were invited to try the system out in an online exercise set up using Articulate software, which involved a (pretend) short course on How to ride a bicycle. A short brainstorm produced a draft set of learning outcomes: safe riding over a short distance, basic bike control and traffic observation. Participants were asked to decide which ABC type two sample activities fitted into, and place our votes using Mentimeter. Almost everyone correctly picked Acquisition for ‘Reading the Highway code’, but ‘Riding a bike with a colleague supporting the saddle’ split the audience between Practice and  Collaboration.

    This provided an opportunity to consider the importance of collaboration in online learning contexts, where students can feel isolated. ABC cards representing these and other suggested activities, colour-coded by type, were placed on a Padlet board and sorted into three consecutive sessions of the proposed course. One advantage of Padlet – a tool that can be used by students as well as by teachers – is that it makes discrepancies easy to spot: in this case, that the first draft of one session was too Practice-heavy.

    Throughout the workshop, we had been invited to pose questions using a text-based Q&A board with a voting system promoting the most ‘liked’ questions to the top of the list. The most popular questions revolved around the thorny issue of how to engage students who were reluctant to participate.

    Pre-event activities and icebreakers were touched on, but, especially in these uncertain times, we felt that all online educators need to realise that students’ complex lives won’t always mesh with the technology in ideal ways. Some students all of the time, and all students some of the time, will need to work asynchronously. If well planned, asynchronous activities, which have advantages for students with imperfect IT equipment, can be as engaging as real-time ones.

    Asynchronous activities can also benefit the more cautious students, who, relieved of the pressure to respond instantly, can sometimes take a deeper approach, and make valued comments that they cannot make in an ‘instant response’ environment; these exercises can thus be more inclusive.

    In closing the session, Linda briefly explored the way in which the structure of the workshop today; with its pre-course material, ‘live’ teaching session using Padlets and voting platforms, and follow on material and activities; could be a model for effective interactive and distributed online learning. She stressed that help and advice is  available through the CDE, and asked participants to submit further questions by email: cde@london.ac.uk.

    View the webinar recording

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