Friday, March 30, 2007

Modularisation & Flexibility

I had an interesting talk with Leigh Blackall yesterday about options for creating flexibility within our programme.

I've talked a bit before about how in the massage department at Otago Polytechnic we are planning to develop a part-time/distance programme. The model for this will be that our students will cover as much of the theoretical learning online as they can, then come to our centralised campus for block courses focussing on practical skill development & assessment.

Leigh suggested that the first part of the block could be based on assessment of theoretical learning that relates to the practical skill development. He stated that in his experience some students find it difficult to complete flexible/online assessments, and that it often works better to have an in-class assessment. I've considered this, and have decided to keep the theory to the online context for several reasons. Most of our assessments are done in the students own time anyway rather than in-class tests and this isn't going to change significantly once we move to online. Also our course is very practically focussed, and we really need all of the time that we'll have in these blocks to focus on practical skills (particularly for those students who need to travel from Central Otago).

An adaptation of the same idea that would work well for our programme is for the first part of the block to be based on practical assessment of the skills which the students learnt in the last block. We would also need to ensure that students had completed asessment for any theoretical materal which was relevant to the practical work.

Previously the idea has been that we can run this part-time distance programme, and also a full-time class-based programme separately. Recently however I've been thinking that it could potentially work quite well to make the block courses standard for all students. This would mean that we would need to run more block courses, which would provide more options for our students with respect to time. Leigh & I discussed this and went further to consider modularisation of online material. If we made the theoretical/online courses standard for all students this would allow us to potentially run the same course at several times through the year again providing more flexiblity for our students.

I haven't thought this through completely yet. There are potentially some problems. What about students that prefer to learn in the classroom? Also breaking the course up into modules that students may or may not enrol in will mean a greater administration load. On the upside these changes would mean considerably more flexibility with respect to time. Students would potentially be able to choose their workload. Distance students would be able to study full-time or any proportion of full-time that suited them.

Leigh was also talking about how some programmes offer taster courses to the public enabling the public to try out a subject before committing to a full-length course. These taster courses can either be offered via F2F short-courses or via our community learning centres. The community learning centres have historically offered computer training via the C4Free & Q4U projects. Some programmes at Otago Polytechnic are now looking at creating short courses introducing training in other areas to the community learning centres. The modularisation I've been talking about previously could potentially work well with this idea.

Interesting food for thought...

Facilitating the learning process of kinesthetic learners in the online environment

I've been neglecting my blog over the last month as I've been spending quite a bit of time researching the experience of kinesthetic learners online.

When we assess our students using the VARK learning preferences questionairre, the class is generally heavily tilted towards the kinesthetic learning preference. If you surf around the net investigating the experience of kinesthetic learners in the online environment most people seem to be of the opinion that this environment is suited to visual and reader-writer, but not audial or kinesthetic learners. Given that we are planning to create a part-time/distance course where a considerable amount of material is delivered online, I felt the need to investigate this further.

I've now created a resource which summarises much of the current literature on WikiEducator. Please feel free to give me any feedback on this resource that you might have, or further develop it. Additionally I've created a project on WikiEducator investigating learning styles on line. Currently only my resource is listed here. If you have knowledge or resources which relate to any other learning syles, please feel free to contribute to this project.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Acquisition or Participation?

This is the third and final posting of my thoughts after reading the first chapter of
Collis B, Moonen J (2001). Flexible Learning in a digital world: Experiences and Expectations. Routledge, UK.
(For an online copy go to and search using the title.)

Sfard's models of education are very interesting. She talks about the acquisition model where the process of learning is defined as the acquisition of pre-defined knowledge and skills and the participation model where the focus of learning "is on becoming a member of a community of practice, learning from the community but also contributing to it" (Collis, Moonen, 2001 - from the book mentioned above). She makes it clear that tertiary education is currently heavily tilted towards the acquisition model, but that both models are equally important and necessary in the education process.

What I find interesting about this is that on reflection, the first year of our (18 month) programme is predominantly taught from within the acquisition model. This is important as the 1st years are learning new skills which must fit the requirements of Massage New Zealand - the professional body for massage in New Zealand. However the 2nd year is much more participative in nature. Our focus in this year is in supporting our students in their practice, business, and profession.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Flexibility within pedagogical categories

Carrying on from the previous post, I'm now going to discuss the next section of the chapter that has had some relevance to me. Collis has described 6 different pedagogical categories that flexibility may be extended within, and WWW-based applications that may be used to do this.

1. Course Organisation

It's suggested that a course calender is available on the web so that it can be accessed at all times.
  • We're doing that already, but there needs to be some limitation placed on updates to the calender - "Items on the course calender will not be changed unless they are more than 1 week in the future" or something similar

2. Lectures, Contact Sessions

It's suggested that highlights of lectures are captured as digital video and made available as video-on-demand, synchronised with lecture notes for students who are not physically present. While this is a fantastic idea for distance students, there are some issues that present immediately to me.
  • New Zealand's data communication infrastructure is not really up to the task of supporting streaming video
  • The process suggested above entails considerable development time for the lecturer on top of the time which they are taking to support the physical class.

It's suggested that follow-up reflections or questions can be posted and responded to at times that suit the individual student (e.g. the use of discussion boards)

  • I think this is potentially a very useful method of communication, however I have the impression that there's a fair amount of skill involved in managing a disucssion board, and am somewhat nervous about placing anything of signficicance into this context. I'll do it though, as in my experience jumping in the deep end is often the best way of learning.

3. Self-study, assignments

It's suggested that study materials are expanded to incorporate web-based media, and that students may be involved with this process.

  • We already bring our students attention to many web-based resources that we know of, but we probably could use these quite a bit more actively
  • I'm intending to get our students building a library of resources using from the 2nd term this year. We've put some time aside in the first term for students who are not particularly computer savvy to upskill themselves, and I imagine most of them should be up to using from term 2
  • Collis suggests collaborative assignments where students contribute resources to a web-space. If student's work was tagged to identify it I could see this being a beneficial learning experience for some areas of our course. The main problem that I see is that the students would need to learn how to use another software package. I come back to it again - how much time should I expect my students to put into development of skills that they are not directly related to the primary reason they are studying? (i.e. massage therapy practice)
  • Collis doesn't mention the creation of teaching resources. I see real potential in this area. It seems to me that the interactivity that can be provided by electronic media can potentially facilitate a much richer and more effective learning experience for some subject areas. I've started developing some on-line exercises for material that was previously taught in the classroom but should be more effective when students engage with it in an interactive fashion. I'm also interested in developing some e-resources which are fairly visual in nature, but am aware that this type of development will take considerable time. Perhaps this is a project which can be tackled once the online programme is up and running.

4. Major Assignments

The suggestion is that groups could operate within a shared workspace.

  • I'm not quite sure of how this would work, or what resources are available to facilitate this.

5. Testing

It's suggested that formative tests are made available with feedback provided relative to the answers the student chooses.

  • This kind of testing is a useful function of Blackboard. Some of the teaching resources I mentioned earlier that I am in the process of developing are this type of resource.

6. Mentoring, Communication

It' s suggested that the web-centre for the course can potentially provide an easy way to send emails out to course participants.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Dimensions of learning flexibility

I've been working my way through the first chapter of

Collis B, Moonen J (2001). Flexible Learning in a digital world: Experiences and Expectations. Routledge, UK.
(For an online copy go to and search using the title.)

I must admit the book covers a wider take on flexible delivery than I had previously considered.

Flexibility is firstly considered from the perspective of the learner in terms of 19 dimensions which exist within 5 main categories. Flexibility in this context means giving the learner options. The main concern I have with creating this type of flexibility is that giving the learner options often leads to an increased load on the teacher.

Category: Time
1. Start & Finish times
2. Times of assignment submission & course-related interactions
3. Tempo/pace of studying
4. Moments of assessment

In essence we will be providing another option for our students in this part-time/distance programme. This will lead to some flexibility in terms of start & finish times and tempo/pace of studying. Within these courses I am reticent to provide too much flexibility with respect to timing of assessment, as I could see this leading to fragmentation of teacher workload.

Category: Content
5. Topics of the course
6. Sequencing of different parts of the course
7. Orientation of the course (e.g. theoretical/practical)
8. Key learning materials of the course
9. Assessment standards and completion requirements

It's not really possible for us to be particularly flexible in this area, as most of our course material is predefined by the entry requirements of Massage New Zealand, the professional association for massage in New Zealand.

Category: Entry Requirements
10. Conditions for participation

Category: Instructional approach & Resources
11. Social organisation of learning (face-to-face; group; individual)
12. Language used during the course
13. Learning resources
14. Instructional organisation of learning

Again, I'm not particularly interested in building this type of flexibility into our programme. As I see it, providing the learner with more learning options is likely to require more time input from the lecturers (e.g. developing different learning resources for different learning styles - visual, audial, kinesthetic, reader-writer).

Category: Delivery & Logistics
15. Time & place where contact with instructor & other students occur
16. Methods, technology for obtaining support and making contact
17. Types of help: communication available, technology required
18. Location, technology for participating in various aspects of the course
19. Delivery channels for course information, content, communication

We are looking at providing some flexibility in this area, as students will be able to choose between the full-time class-room type course, or the part-time/distance online & block course. We are however not likely to provide much more flexibility than this for learners at least initially. I imagine we will have our hands full just converting the course to something that works in the on-line environment.

In reflecting over the many ways in which it is possible to provide learner-centred flexibility, it seems clear to me that there is a definate limit to how flexible an educational provider can be. Our planned course of action certainly has a very limited degree of learner-centred flexibility. I believe this is the way it needs to be for the reasons outlined - some regulatory, some based on the level of resourcing that is available.

Some Background

I guess at this point some background is in order.

My name is David McQuillan
I'm the course coordinator of a Diploma of Therapeutic Massage at Otago Polytechnic in New Zealand.

On-line delivery is not something which is commonly done within the massage industry. Our courses are fairly practical and hands-on. However we've had many enquiries from students who are interested in studying part-time or from locations at some distance from our campus. I'm currently working towards the development of a part-time/distance programme with practical work covered in intensive blocks, and most of the theoretical material delivered on-line. I believe that we should be able to deliver a programme that is at least as effective as our classroom courses with this mix.