Digital learning: who’s doing the learning?

This week Angela Nicolettou, Manager, Digital Learning, Design and Social Context College shares with us her thoughts on setting up a new digital learning team and some of the challenges it presents.

angela tomtom image

Picture Credit – Angela Nicolettou

A new team has been established this year at the College of Design and Social Context, the Digital Learning team, and I have the pleasure of managing this group. Being in a management role is new to me and so I find myself ‘learning’ on the job. Learning about recruitment, workplans, policies and procedures and other administrative tasks that I have not had to pay much attention to in my career so far. It is not all administration and processes though, it is also about team building, learning about new educational technologies, working with new groups in the college, learning from those in the team and having opportunities to bounce ideas off each other and progress concepts, processes, develop resources, to name a few. In short, my new role is a hive of activity and there is the ever-present ‘newness’ of the work.

Why am I writing about this? As I was thinking about this post and reflecting on what Digital Learning is, it led me to think about who is doing the learning? The students yes, but before that can happen, the teachers need to learn a thing or two about digital learning spaces, just like my new role is taking me on a steep learning curve.

So, to the teachers. What is their role in this age of digital learning? What skills does one need to teach? When I trained to be a teacher in the 90’s it was all about curriculum, content, class planning and class management. All of these elements I would argue are still the case, but added to this we have online learning. It involves not only knowing how to use various educational technologies, but also knowing how to create digital learning spaces, communities, manage these, provide feedback, ensure that students are engaged and supported, fix things when they aren’t working (or at least know where to find help), and do all of this for groups of 5 to 500+ students. Technology brings with it opportunities never before imagined in teaching spaces, such as global collaboration, online assessment, industry engagement at the touch of a button, access to numerous resources, and on-demand access to learning resources; place and time are no longer a limit to engagement.

Is it then reasonable to expect that one teacher can have all these skills? I’d say no. Like many jobs in the digital age, it is a job that requires constant learning and development. Just like the students, teachers in the digital space are in a constant flux of learning and development. A dynamic space that is at once terrifying and exhilarating with the promise of ongoing innovation.

I can understand terror and resistance when it comes to trying new things and ‘going online’ because this can mean a new and unfamiliar work space, a combination that may lead to difficulties, loss of classroom management and most importantly hours of extra work. But what if it works? What if there are efficiencies to be gained, such as ease of grading, management of student groups, and communication with students? What if student engagement can be enhanced through having more collaborative activities, peer feedback opportunities and real-time student feedback that teachers can respond to during teaching time? The short answer is there are, with efficiency and engagement being two of the most positive outcomes I regularly see occurring when online learning is well structured, thought through and designed.

Believe it or not, Learning Management Systems (such as Blackboard) when used well are all about efficiencies. Student collaboration tools (even those in Blackboard) when linked to clear outcomes and assessment are brilliant at enhancing engagement. The key to success here is to have a clear plan. The first step is to develop an understanding of who the students are and what their learning needs are (developing learner personas is a good way to do this). The next step is to determine exactly what it is you want the students to do, know and experience so that a series of activities can be developed. These activities will also need to be linked to the assessment tasks. The basis for the map is now drawn up, choosing and implementing the technology tools is the final step. All this can be achieved with ‘safe’ technologies, ones that are part of the university’s systems and ones where there are lots of existing examples, resources and success stories to draw from.

Going beyond the ‘safe’, we enter the world of innovation. This is where ideas are trialled, new technologies tested, and old technologies stretched. This is where students are often challenged to learn differently, and more times than not, it takes way more time to develop the learning environment than originally anticipated. It is where learning technologists and production staff need to be engaged, projects scoped and resources allocated. Is it worth it? Most of the time it is. It’s the frustrating and exhilarating part of this work. This is where we need ‘special projects’ such as Global Learning by Design or the e-learning innovation incubator; projects that are designed to support these innovative activities, providing the time and resources to ‘have a go’.

So what of the Digital Learning team? What is our role in all this? Simply, we are here to support the design and delivery of everyday efficient and engaging online teaching activities by curating resources, providing exemplars and principles of good learning design, encouraging the development networks of like-minded teachers and engaging with as many teachers as we can. We are also here to support innovation projects, test emerging technologies, challenge ideas and spark conversations both virtually and literally about online learning and what that means for our work.

Who’s doing the learning? I’d say we all are!

To find out more about the DSC Digital Learning team go to the Digital Learning Teams’s Blog


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Online Seminars

This is our second guest post by Dr Karen Cullen. Karen is part of the L+T team in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT, Melbourne. A new arrival in Melbourne, she was previously a research active historian teaching in Scottish universities primarily utilising online and blended learning techniques.

Image by: gruntzooki

I’ve had a bit of a hate-love attitude towards online teaching. It is hard, really hard, to do well, especially when you are inexperienced. You often don’t get to see the students or hear their voices, there are no body language cues, often just cold, hard words on a screen. So why do it? Students who learn online are frequently exceedingly well motivated, committed to learning online because of distance, finance, health or other reasons, and they often interact with their tutor much more than standard face-to-face students. Over time I have come to realise the positives of online teaching and now really enjoy it, but my first experience was awful!

One year out of postgrad studies I found myself teaching an online course to a group of 30 first year students. The course material was new to me and so was online teaching. I was told that I had to include a weekly online chat session for the students (if you are unfamiliar with this think MS Messenger or the chat function on Facebook on a large scale), but that since many were in full-time employment the attendance would probably not be very high. Thankfully this proved correct, only eight students attended. A colleague had advised me to keep the focus of the first session open (big mistake!), allow students time to discuss any problems they were experiencing with the course etc. That worked well for about the first ten minutes or so. I introduced myself, so did the students. We then engaged in some Q+A about how they were getting on. Now, I rate myself as a pretty decent touch-typer, but even with outstanding typing skills there was no way I – or the students – could have kept up with the flurry of random questions, answers and comments that were flying up my screen. As I answered one student’s question another two appeared on the screen and the answers then came out of sequence. It was a mess. By the time I ended the session I had managed to answer the students’ questions, but I was exhausted – my fingers ached and my eyes felt like they were bleeding. Not a welcome introduction to online teaching.

Determined to do better the second time, I did a bit of research and came across some simple, but very effective means of structuring a group chat session (some useful general ideas). I posted several ‘room layouts’ on Blackboard (the Learning Management System) before the session and explained to students that they needed to have a copy of these on hand for the next session. Each student was allocated a seat in each of the rooms – one was classroom style in which the tutor was at the front doing the talking while students listened. The next was small group style, a third was in a circle for open discussion. I explained to the students that when we entered the chat session I would identify which ‘room’ we were in and this would set the tone for how we would conduct our discussion. The next class was so much more relaxed, I switched room styles several times to enable time for discussion and to permit me to address bigger issues. Other rules of ‘chatiquette’  helped me to control the session and its tempo, avoid chaos and provide a much more structured and useful session.

In the years since, I have taught a range of online courses but I have done very few online chat sessions. Instead, I have found many more productive means of teaching online (Skype, which also has its difficulties – video-conference –  my preferred choice, not without its own technical and teaching-related challenges), but what that first experience taught me is that online teaching takes much, much more preparation than many face-to-face teaching scenarios. Considering the technical and practical aspects of online teaching can often be as time-consuming as academic issues. I can honestly say that I really enjoying teaching online now, but perhaps some better understanding of online teaching and learning might have helped me to reach this point a lot sooner!