Thursday, 24 May 2012

Structuring materials for online learning: A conceptual model

Structure of course within our
virtual learning environment, MOLE
Last September ScHARR (School of Health and Related Research) here at the university offered a brand new programme for distance learning, online postgraduate study: the MSc in International Health Technology Assessment, Pricing and Reimbursement. Catchy title! The course can be taken as a full MSc, Diploma, Certificate or even single module options. It is delivered entirely online as a part-time course for working students. The pedagogical model was derived from the author’s own work for the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA) evaluating student experience within this population (Carroll 2011, 2009).  One of the findings of this work was that working students, under pressure from work and domestic responsibilities, responded better, i.e. felt greater control of their learning, when the time available for completing exercises and interacting was not always restricted to a single week. Working students could find time within a 2-week period to work through materials and interact, but struggled when faced with tighter week-by-week deadlines. For this reason, all materials are delivered as 2-week “blocks”. This was the basic structure adopted for delivering materials.

The programme leaders created a model for all module leads to follow when producing their materials (some converting existing materials, some creating materials from scratch), taking them from their E1 forms (for new modules) to the final version for the Virtual Learning Environment (known at the University of Sheffield as 'MOLE'). The last stages use the My Online Page Editor (MOPE) tool. The model is described in Figure 1 below...



ScHARR 6-stage model for developing materials
Figure 1: ScHARR 6-stage model for developing materials


As more module leaders and tutors became involved in delivering on the programme, it became necessary to provide more detail, to open the “black box” of Stage 3, to describe the steps to be taken in combining lectures, guided reading and exercises or tasks in a systematic and structured fashion in any 2-week “block”.

Figure 2 - structure of a learning block

A 2-week block can have up to 4 or 5 iterations of this model if the exercises are relatively small or a single iteration if the formative exercise is a single substantial piece of work. For example,

Weeks 1-2 might consist of:

1 or 2 screencast lectures (not more than 20 minutes each) + a Multiple Choice Questionnaire (MCQ); some guided reading + an online discussion; then guided reading + an individual wiki exercise with exemplar or personalised feedback;

Weeks 3-4 might then consist of :

4 or 5 lectures (not more than 20 minutes each) + some guided reading + 1 large piece of formatively assessed work

The key is the application of variety in the delivery of materials, and the methods used to test and explore students’ understanding of what they are being taught and what they have learned. A student’s understanding of an idea, principle or concept can be assessed in multiple ways, by MCQs, by completing either a short or substantial exercise, by engaging in discussion or group work.

Variety of tasks offers a means of providing students with problem-solving interaction that is intended to be more challenging, stimulating and thought-provoking than  a “1 week, 1 task” or “read this, write that” approach to online learning.

We have found that such diversity in methods of interaction and collaboration enhances the learning experience of students engaging online.

Although designed with the 2-week “block” and online learning in mind, this conceptual model offers a generic “toolkit” for structuring online content for education purposes.

Chris Carroll and Luke Miller

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