Thursday, October 29, 2009

Inclusiveness in Educational Design

Being inclusive is ultimately is the way in which we deliver our courses so that each student can learn in a way that is effective and rewarding for them. While flexibility is important for inclusive design, there are several key areas that are important to consider when considering how to develop an inclusive course. These are just a selection of those factors:
  • Endorsing Sustainability
  • Addressing Diversity
  • Promoting Participation
  • Facilitating Support
  • Developing Capacity
Let’s look at each area individually. The first topic I will address is:

Endorsing Sustainability
At its very heart sustainability involves wide reaching implications for learners, their future or current profession, the community, stakeholders and last but not least, the environment. Learners must be encouraged to be leaders in their profession as well as in their communities. They must be educated in how to go out and teach others to create a sustainable society and they must be mentored in how to act as responsible guardians of the environment while also learning how to become mentors themselves.

So how to we develop an inclusive course while also endorsing sustainability? This does not have to be a difficult task! It can begin with a simple plan to incorporate these philosophies into your teaching. As a result, this message will be actively communicated in every subject and by every action. It is also important to communicate your desire to share this goal with your students so that they can understand your motivations and buy in to your ideals. This can be done in a multitude of ways but keeping in mind that mentorship is a developmental relationship so this message may be better shared in a personal message from you by way of an audio file, a video or a blog. Your ultimate goal should be to push the onus of responsibility onto your students so that they begin to take a leadership and mentorship role, carrying the message forward – the essence of sustainability! Try creating workgroups that the students can participate in online through Google Docs or in a live discussion via Elluminate or in face-to-face session. Ask the students to discuss what it means to be sustainable and how they can communicate that message to their peers, colleagues and the community. After this session, the word ‘sustainability’ will mean so much more as you implement it throughout the rest of the course.

Next time: Addressing Diversity


Monday, September 21, 2009

Is there a conflict between providing access and providing learning resources?

When considering the flexible learning options in my courses I find it a continual challenge to ensure access for my students. I feel that by the very nature of the course that there are multiple ways the course can be accessed and with the varied materials I offer, this should not be a problem for most students to find something they can relate to. However, the courses are offered online and this can put some people off. I find that many people who are put off by digital resources usually find comfort in being able to print off pdf documents that they can hold in front of them so making the information available in that format is important - but printing is not sustainable so there is always a trade off. On the other hand, it can be overwhelming for a student to be offered too many options as they look at the smorgasbord that is their course materials. I think it is the presentation of these learning options that can be the difference between disappointment and success for the students.

Presenting multiple resources can be a challenge but I think it comes down to offering a clean well-laid out flow starting with simple and concise messages. There can then be links to additional resources but it is important to be aware that many students will not utilise those resources and instead choose to do their own research on the net or in the library so cluttering up their digital learning environment with unnecessary ‘stuff’ may not be helpful to their learning process.

Many courses find great success with utilising a topical course outline with chapters and my organisational mind finds this approach reassuring. With very complicated subjects it can be challenging to ensure that information is not buried deep within the outline and thus be inaccessible for those students who are not topically organised. Webpages often employ this strategy by having a topical outline at the top of the page but then listing all of the course information below it. I think this is a useful strategy however even the information below can get excessively cluttered with numerous resources that can be hard to get through as well as hard to determine what is essential to know. One way to combat this is to produce an organisational chart that is accessible but that hides additional resources so that the core subject area is clearly defined. This strategy has all of the benefits of organisation as well as the benefits of accessible resources.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

How principles of flexible learning can combat the challenges of study

I am increasingly aware of how difficult it can be to fit in study time into an already busy schedule. Every year a number of my students have health problems, a death in the family, divorce, birth or marriage not to mention full time jobs with or without workplace conflicts. At the end of the year I am awed by how they have managed to persevere and complete their studies despite the challenges they faced. I would like to think that part of their success is because I can offer them flexible options when it comes to learning and being assessed in their coursework. Of course I am limited in what I can offer and much of that is due to stakeholder restrictions that are usually directed by financial concerns. However, with what I have to work with I can do a lot to improve flexibility in my course.

The start of each year begins with directing the students to the course calendar that gives guidelines of when certain assessments are due. I advise about time management and suggest that they try to stay on track with the course calendar if they want to manage their time and complete the course in the allotted year. Unfortunately we do not have a facility for allowing students to carry on studies into the next year and that is a limitation to flexible delivery, however the students can enrol in a unit at a time and only complete as many as they are able in a given year. Still more often than not the students will enrol in all of the units at the start of the year and while this may allow them to complete faster, it is very difficult to achieve while also working full time.

I tend to be very lenient (flexible!) when students need more time with an assessment however I am also very present in terms of keeping motivation high in an attempt to ensure that the students are up to date with the assignments and are not falling behind. Some students just will not have the time to research or learn topics in depth and it is these students who really appreciate a very clear guidelines listing exactly what task to complete in a given timeframe. I provide a weekly study plan that provides students with a guideline as to what elements are being addressed in the course at that time and where they should be in terms of achieving the course objectives. Those students who are time poor really appreciate knowing they are on track. In contrast, students who spend a lot of time studying often know where they should be and instead they are often seeking additional resources in order to gain more knowledge of a particular area. It is a fine line to provide plenty o f resources without overwhelming those students who only can complete the bare minimum!

Learning resources need to be varied inasmuch as student learning styles vary. Video, audio, and written lecture materials are increasingly available as are interactive exercises. Tutelage is offered via Elluminate and the face to face sessions focus mainly on hands-on practical exercises, group bonding, mentoring and collaborative learning and teaching. I try to avoid lecturing during valuable face to face sessions since I can easily offer this kind of learning activity via audio/video or Elluminate session.

In terms of assessments, this is an area where we are driven by access and equity. Many of my distance students do not have resources to complete the assessments so I need to provide assistance in that area but unfortunately that could give one students an unfair advantage over another in completing the assessment. These challenges limit my ability to be flexible in assessing students but I still try to offer flexibility in other ways such as offering video assessments, oral assessments, written assessments, peer assessments and flexible due dates.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Off or just off my rocker?

Some days I just feel a bit off. Kind of like I couldn’t talk my out of a paper bag. I often have so much to say that I can’t say anything at all. I wonder if my students often feel the same way. Much of the time they are a silent force and I wonder if anyone is out there. Hello? I hear no response... yet on occasion I may mention something random and they will speak out as if they had been positively bursting with ideas. So how can I get them to engage like this more often? With flexible delivery this becomes an even bigger challenge as the learning resources become more varied and students may be exploring their own individual paths through the material. I would like to be able to facilitate a link their pathways, like a spider web, connecting the learning resources into a learning community where they can interact. I can see where I could enjoy using Twitter in a live lecture but being a facilitator for a distance course means that I don't often have face-to-face leactures. Another problem that I can see is that too many options can be very confusing for students, I have seen that happen first hand. Students often struggle if there are too many options available in the initial stages of the course. I think they find security in knowing that they are current and caught up with the rest of the class. It is a fine line, providing structure and reassurance while encouraging self-exploration and divergence from the crowd. Of course a strongly structured course goes against the idea of self-paced learning however with flexible delivery it is important to also offer opportunities for self-customisation of the course material so that students can learn in a way that works for them. How do they know what will work for them? With regard to students discovering their learning style, how much of that process should course facilitators be responsible for?