A MOOC Experience

9 04 2013

The Association for Learning Technology (ALT) is currently running a MOOC on Technology Enhanced Learning (http://octel.alt.ac.uk/).  So I thought I’d register and check it out.  There appear to be around 1000 participants so far.  Our first task is: reflecting on your own work experience and ambitions for developing your teaching,  what is the most important question about TEL for you?  (I’m going to cheat a little and list more than one big question!)

I suppose for me the most important question is how teachers can use technologies to actually enhance learning.  Over the past few years of learning about and reflecting on TEL I have concluded that there are several contributing factors, or important elements of successful TEL:

  • careful course design
  • focussing on active learning (ensuring the students are provided with learning activities that help them to engage with the course materials and learn)
  • designing good assessment tasks that are appropriate for online contexts
  • ensuring students have a way of connecting and interacting with others that is helpful and supportive for their learning
  • using reliable and useable technologies for learning.

These factors are easy to list but harder to actually put into practice.  It seems to me that professional development for teachers in online environments is key to ensuring that these important elements are present.  Teachers need help and guidance in learning to teach online and in designing engaging online learning materials. One of the benefits of the unfamiliarity of the online environment for many teachers is that it serves as a catalyst to revisit their approach to teaching and many teachers report that the experience of teaching online feeds back to also improve their on campus teaching.  So another big question I’m interested in is how to provide relevant guidance and assistance for teachers using technologies for learning.

Another interesting question to reflect on is: to what extent does there need to be interaction between students for effective learning?  Until recently I tended to think that interaction between students is important in online learning but recent experience with a different model of online learning has helped me to see the benefits of independent learning and to question the necessity of including interaction in online courses.  I think what is important is that interaction isn’t included just for the sake of saying we have interaction – it needs to have a purpose.  So this is a challenge – how to design courses that include interactivity that is helpful for student learning.

Finally, my own particular research interest has been in the area of how we might use TEL to adequately prepare students with the “softer skills” that they need for relational types of professions?  I work in theological education, a discipline that prepares people to be involved in lifelong work which focuses on ministry to other people.  In our sector questions are often raised about whether distance and online education with little or no face-to-face connection is adequate to prepare students for a life of ministry.  Theological colleges are very aware that there is more to theological education than the cognitive aspects of learning: theological educators are also interested in the development of the whole person, the development of character and growth in faith.  This is usually referred to as “spiritual formation”, and the question that I have been looking at is how spiritual formation can be encouraged using distance and online education. I’d be interested in sharing with others in the theological education community, and in other disciplines which face similar challenges in preparing students for relational professions.