A self-directed Virtual Learning Environment: Mi propio jefe (My own boss)

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1 A self-directed Virtual Learning Environment: Mi propio jefe (My own boss) Diego Ernesto Leal Fonseca, Gerardo Tibaná Herrera LIDIE Research and Development Laboratory about Informatics in Education Universidad de los Andes Bogota, Colombia Abstract: To make students acquire, take possession of and/or build knowledge in an effective way without anyone assisting them is a very important idea in formal and corporative training processes. This document presents the development of a proposal about a Self-directed Virtual Learning Environment, which was implemented as a contribution from the School of Management at Universidad de los Andes to the World Bank s GDLN (Global Learning Development Network). Keywords: Self-directed learning, Collaborative learning, Virtual Course. 1 Introduction The GDLN (Global Development Learning Network) is an initiative of the World Bank, which started in 1997 with the purpose of using communication and information technologies between different countries in order to share knowledge about development topics. The GDLN is composed by international developmental agencies; public and private organizations; non-governmental organizations and training institutions all around the world. The institutions that take part in this network provide technical and financial resources for its support; offer their experience and knowledge about development problems to be shared out through the network; and have the necessary technology to receive and share this knowledge. Among those topics shared by the institutions members of GDLN, is possible to find experiences about educational reform; AIDS prevention; communitary development and other key topics. Knowledge is shared through short courses and seminars; face-to-face and distance meetings, supported usually by videoconference technology. Universidad de los Andes is the GDLN node in Colombia, and among its programs offered for the network, included a course that compiles the learning obtained by the School of Management in developing enterprising skills in its undergraduate students. Professor Andrés Dussán, who was in charge of this course in its face-to-face modality, was also in charge of creating the initial proposal presented to GDLN in order to obtain financing, which was approved in In developing the project, professor Dussan was supported by members of the Research and Development Laboratory about Informatics in Education (LIDIE), who let him have access to its experience in designing, building and dynamizing Virtual Learning Environments (VLE) and incorporating information and communication technologies (ICT) in educational processes 1. The result of the project was a technological platform for self-directed courses, which presents a course about developing enterprising skills named Mi Propio Jefe (my own boss) (available at The course is aimed to people who take it to learn elements which make easier the processes of identifying and evaluating business ideas, identifying their potential, benefits, target, etc. In the final stage of the project the teacher Dussan s duty was assumed by professor Fernando Escobar, who is currently managing the course. 1 In innovative educational projects like Ludomatica (http://lidie.uniandes.edu.co/ludomatica) and strategic planning in educational informatics.

2 2 Theoretical basis of the proposal 2.1 Virtual Learning Environments According to (Galvis, 1998), a virtual learning environment (VLE) is one which is implemented on virtual networks, also called conversational networks, which are no other thing but concrete relationships, through the network, between people who have computer access. Through conversational networks is possible to exchange ideas and share material which are very often stored and presented as multimedia networks of information. This computer networks, on which conversational networks are based, make possible interaction between people who are geographically far, in real time (synchronous) or differed (asynchronous); and also make possible the use of different material to build knowledge; this goes from simple readings to simulators for all kinds of phenomena. However, these networks are not very popular among students and the potential of this media is finally associated to the possibilities offered by a specific technological tool. The experience in LIDIE about including TIC in educational processes shows that beyond the different technological platforms on which is possible to implement a learning environment and beyond the additional resources it can include, the real potential of this kind of environment lies in the pedagogical and didactic possibilities that can be built with its support, and in the different kinds of learning processes it can provoke. This potential should be met and seized in the generation of proposals which go beyond resource centers or interactive books. Here, it is important to make evident some kind of classification which allows identifying the different possibilities of technological media. Project Ariadne 2 proposes three media offered by technology to support constant learning, which where used as a guide in making the proposal for Mi Propio Jefe. These are: Expositive media, where tutors set knowledge in an organized way and students decide in what order they want to acquire and take possession of this knowledge. Active media, those which demand an active participation from student in taking possession of underlying knowledge. For example, interactive micro worlds, where their own mental models are generated and tested by questioning, guessing and experiencing with the object of study. Interactive media, those which allow a direct communication between the different actors of the virtual environment, even if it is made in a synchronous or asynchronous way, and which makes possible the exchange of ideas between groups of students as a way to acquire or generate knowledge. 2.2 Self-directed learning Self-directed learning is the one where students make the process of constructing knowledge by themselves; this process can be seen as personalized, independent, at their own rhythm, or self-paced. In this way, the learning responsibility lies in the student, who requires a high degree of motivation and a defined purpose when approaching these kinds of processes. Traditionally, the most common examples of self-directed learning environments correspond to tutorials, which guide students to acquire knowledge, and this knowledge has usually a routine element. (Galvis, 1994). The appearance of Internet with all its interaction possibilities at a low price caused the appearance of self-directed learning environments which, in general, do not go beyond presenting interactive books or resources centers where students only receive information, which can be widen by using the possibilities offered by the media (multimedia and hypermedia). In this way, it is evident that these kinds of environments sponsor the self-directed learning according to the definition proposed above. However, the idea of interactive book leaves aside the biggest potential of the virtual media, which, as it has been mentioned, has to do with networks of people involved. The possibility to exchange ideas, generate hypothesis, take such hypothesis back, and in general, build knowledge through group work (cooperative learning) opens new options, which have not been explored in the right way in the wide offer of virtual courses existing. 2 ARIADNE project is supported by the European Commission; it pretends to sponsor the sharing and re-using digital pedagogical material. It provides a technological infrastructure which accepts indexing, management and storage of educational objects based in the LOM standard, in the KPS (Knowledge Pool System), access based in questions (query)

3 3 Methodological strategy 3.1 Participants roles In designing the virtual environment for this course, professor Dussan took part in an active way, as well as a team from LIDIE. Every participant had a critical role in different moments of the process: Content Expert: In this course, Professor Andres Dussan, with wide experience in managing the face-to-fce version of the course. As a direct client, he was in charge of defining the guidelines that the technological platform as well as the course environment must fulfill. Expert in VLE: In charge of guaranteeing a proper use to the technological media in order to pay attention to the course needs, particularly its characteristics as a self-directed learning process. Working as a group with the pedagogue he was in charge of proposing and testing different strategies to motivate and tracking students, as well as the definition of interaction spaces in the course. Pedagogue: In charge of the instructional treatment of the contents of the course, based in the big topics defined by the content expert and the spaces and activities designed working along with the expert in VLE. Evaluator: In charge of proposing and verifying self-evaluation mechanisms coherent with the methodological proposal, and that contribute to keep the intrinsic motivation in the student. Graphic designer: In charge of creating a graphical proposal according to the characteristics of the designed model, the imaginary associated to the enterprising topic and the characteristics of the target population of the course. Technology Expert: In charge of developing the technological platform the course was set on. 3.2 Educational proposal The educational design is based on the premise that an environment, visually and functionally friendly, whose contents are part of the students interests (significant AND close to their reality) and enriched with communicative tools which allow cooperative learning, enables the knowledge generation without being necessary a teacher or tutor to guide the process. In the next paragraphs will be presented in detail the premises and strategies defined from the description of the operative characteristics of the course Pedagogical design The proposed model uses self-directed learning (started by the student in an independent way), but at the same time pretends to keep the group work strategy used in a face-to-face course, where students interact and in this way build knowledge, whether they are or not accompanied by a tutor. The purpose of keeping the group notion is to compensate the isolation feeling which appears in any self-directed course and which easily leads to dropping out. The activities proposed in the course aim to develop critical sense, instead of presenting contents. The kind of learning process intended is based in recognizing the preconceived theories in the student and in the cooperative construction of the new knowledge, by using discussions between participants Activities design The activities of the course are initially ones of reflection (individual or in group). These kinds of activities allow students to discuss contents, share ideas and solve problems, and are developed by using discussion forums, based on generative questions related to the content or to results of other learning activities. It can be in plenary or small groups. The kind of activities developed in the course will depend on the content and learning objectives defined (which are not detailed here since they are part of internal documents of the School of Management at Universidad de los Andes). The reflection is made by: Small groups work: by working in small groups, students discuss contents, share ideas and solve problems. They present their own ideas and at the same time consider others ideas, being in this way exposed to a big variety of points of view about a given topic. Among the options caused by working in small groups we can find discussions about a generative question and debates where the different members of the group assume

4 and defend contradictory positions. Discussions promote analysis and synthesis skills in the participants. In debates, additionally to what has just been said, there is an important component of conflict management, negotiation and tolerance to other participants points of view. Plenary discussions: This kind of activity is developed in discussion forums, based on generative questions related to the content or the result from other learning activities. In general, they have the same characteristics of the small groups work, only with more participants. Case study: The methodology used in traditional case study can also be applied to a virtual learning environment. Analyzing a particular case is an individual task (complemented with self-evaluations which indicate the achievement of the objectives proposed in the case) or a group task (supporting analysis in discussions) Contents management The content of the course is not completely available since the first day. On the contrary, at the beginning of each week a different section of the content is published. The students can see the content corresponding to the current week and the previous ones, but they can not see what is coming. This decision seeks to maintain the sense of group, so a participant can catch up with the required activities, but is also forced to keep the same pace of the group. Inside the content there are several voices in its treatment. By voice, we meant a person who is conveying something to the student: Professor: Is the main voice in the course. Is in charge of presenting the content, state the activities and suggest discussion generative questions. Besides, it is the teacher s voice the one which appears in the feedback processes mentioned below. Virtual students: These students are people who offer divergent points of view to the generative questions. The purpose of the virtual students is to give students access to different points of view before going to an individual or group reflection. Virtual students also generate questions which pretend to break the balance and offer information contrasting with that given by the professor Materials and resources Given the characteristics of the course, and the interest in accomplishing a high level of accessibility from the users, it was decided to use a restricted collection of resources: Printed readings, as well as some recommended bibliography as local financial newspapers, as a way to link daily activities with the job done in the course. Digital readings, articles available on Internet. Links to web sites, resources centers and search engines related to the topic of the course. Communication tools: discussion forum, chat and messenger tools to keep the group work sense Motivation strategies In every learning process, the student s motivation when approaching knowledge construction is a fundamental piece to conquer the proposed goals. This aspect is specially complicated in a virtual course, even more when it refers to self-directed environments. Now, identifying and using those things that compose a student s real motivation is a hard task. Having this in mind, several motivation strategies were proposed. All of them are currently being tested: In the financial environment: The course is free for anyone who wants to take it. In the concept environment: Is a very interesting and current topic for society, given the economical and working conditions of a big part of the population not only in Colombia, but also in Latin America. In the graphic environment: By using a metaphor which captures the student and makes easier his interaction with the software components.

5 3.2.2 Evaluation design Strategies for self-evaluation Within the course s scheme, evaluation has a big significance not only as a tool used by the students to verify their comprehension level about the suggested topics, but also as a way which enables them to continue the course, given that presenting the proposed evaluation at the end of the week is a requirement to continue the following week. The existing evaluation methods are: Evaluation about learning: The chosen option was the model based in multiple choice questions with only one possible answer. The statements and choices seek to go beyond a memory process and intend to involve situation analysis processes. An evaluation is a group of questions which seek to verify the achievement of learning objectives in a particular week. This kind of test generates a grade (percentage corresponding to right answers for each student), which goes to the feedback about performance section. However, if the student did not get a satisfactory result, it does not affect continuity in the course. The evaluation about learning can be answered only once, but the student can see at anytime her answers. This evaluation takes place at the end of the activities of the week. Opinion Surveys: This mechanism allows identifying trends about certain topics related in a direct or indirect way with the course. These surveys do not generate grades. The result of the opinion surveys is not a part of the feedback about performance; it is just information which is published in the beginning of the next week (the one after it is done). During one week it is possible or not to have both evaluations; it means there are four possible kinds of week: one without any kind of evaluation; other with one evaluation; other with a survey; and a last one with both evaluation and survey Strategies for feedback Peer feedback: The use of discussion forums is encouraged in order to achieve that the students themselves clarify and solve doubts. Feedback about performance: Statistic data from the evaluation about learning are taken to show students weekly performance compared with their section s and the section s performance compared with the course s. The historical situation of the student, according to these indicators is also shown (number of completed weeks of the course). This information is a tool to motivate students to improve their performance, according to the level where they are located. Evaluation feedback: The feedback given to the student s evaluation about learning is not only to say whether there were mistakes or not. On the contrary, students receive clues concerning what their conceptual weaknesses are and what aspects need reinforcement. Customize system-student communication: One of the most interesting possibilities about Internet applications is the chance to make every user s experience unique. In this sense, the course communicates in the most personal way possible with the student in aspects such as invitations to take part in the week s activities or invitations to catch up with a week s activities; all of this is done via Follow-up strategies (from the sponsor group) Although the strategies for evaluation proposed can also be effectively used as follow-up tools, it was decided to implement a space where students can send their comments to the group offering the course. The suggestion box is a tool which allows students to express any doubt, suggestion or critic about the different aspects of the course. Considering that students do not have a tutor beside or behind them, it could be thought that this space does not fit in this pedagogical experience. In the first stages, this space is only for one-way communication, since students are informed that they should not necessarily expect a reply. However, the experience suggests the need of an assistant, who would be in charge of solving and giving response to the technical and logistic problems that can come up Implementation, tests and adjustment The developed system can be seen at Before its official publishing, the LIDIE team and the course professor performed a pilot test of the course with 20 students who belonged to the School of

6 Management of Universidad de los Andes, who interacted with two weeks of the course, in order to verify how valid the proposed hypothesis were. This initial test allowed ratifying the acceptance of the graphical metaphor and of the academic value of the contents from the group; it was also possible to improve the tone and language used in the contents, and to make the appearance of the course a little more personal. These results were taken in account to perform the necessary adjustment and leave everything ready in order to receive the first students of the Self-directed Virtual Course Mi Propio Jefe. The first offer of the course was made between March and July From this offer some preliminary results of the use and seizing of the learning environment were obtained. Currently, a second version of the course is being prepared, in which is expected to make a formal evaluation of different instructional and communicative aspects; among them are the impact of the absence of the tutor in the achievement of learning objectives. 4 Conclusions A revision of the results obtained at the end of the first version of the course led to identify the following preliminary conclusions: The discussions among students led to unexpected results in the weekly evaluations, since the opinions included points of view which were not had in account as possible right answers. However, this difference with the results does not affect the proposed pedagogical premise, that students generate their own knowledge through virtual discussions. The designed and implemented platform is a big supply for creating new virtual courses, and the pedagogical model will not affect its design in a dramatic way. It is necessary to evaluate in a formal way the impact of not having a tutor, in how students seize the discussion spaces. The biggest lesson learned along this process was how important the coordinated and organized interaction of the different people taking part in the process is. The active participation from the expert in contents in defining the guidelines of the course was an invaluable experience for performing future projects in the LIDIE about the design and construction of Virtual Learning Environments line. 5 References 1. GALVIS, A.H. (1988). Ambientes virtuales para participar en la sociedad del conocimiento. Revista de Informática Educativa. Volumen 11 Número 2. Santa Fe de Bogotá D.C. Colombia. 2. GALVIS, A.H. (1994). Ingeniería de Software Educativo. Ediciones Uniandes, Bogotá.

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