Utilising Online Learning in a Humanities Context

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1 Utilising Online Learning in a Humanities Context Context Name of Course: Introduction to Cultural Studies Level: 1 st Year Undergraduate BA degree courses Number of Students: per semester intake Learning situation This was an undergraduate module mass delivered through combination of online learning environment and traditional face-to-face pedagogical methods in a higher education institution in Edinburgh, Scotland. Staff (two lecturing staff and a post-graduate student assistant) were involved in developing, delivering and supporting online learning activity, using: a combination of asynchronous and synchronous online and face-to-face tutorial activity; work based learning, task based activities combining web-based and localised learning activity. The module also operated with a customised online learning environment utilising FirstClass intranet conferencing software, with transparent group and peer available discussion and tutorial spaces. A customised web-site offering full module information, theme and lecture specific resources and web access to online tutorial spaces. Work undertaken mainly through FirstClass online facility. Initial running of module lacked internet access; subsequent runnings incorporated web access. Background Introduction to Cultural Studies was an undergraduate module created in the Department of Print Media, Publishing and Communication at Napier University, Edinburgh to combine asynchronous online learning environments, allied with web-based resources, with traditional face-to-face learning activity. Developed as a required module for all first year students in the department, it began running in October 1997 with over 170 students. The rationale behind the module was to utilise new teaching methods and techniques to explore changing cultural and cybercultural identities. It was developed, delivered and supported in English, and offered as a full-time module to registered students. The students received printed module guides and handbooks (duplicated online for easy access), utilised specific published course readings and a customised module website, and undertook work via asynchronous online tutorial discussions. In the second running of the module these asynchronous tutorials were supplemented by bi-monthly face-to-face tutorials. Relevant website of the version of the module currently running at Napier University: Why use on-line learning? The module was designed to be taught as a common first year module to all Print Media, Publishing and Communication Department students at Napier, undertaking degrees in Journalism, Publishing, Graphic Communication Management, and Communications. Because these are degrees relating to industries making significant contributions to the "culture industries" (journalism, media, publishing, public relations, and communication), it was felt that what was needed was a method of engaging students in ways that would seem directly relevant to their degree concerns, of combining practical skills with theoretical reflection. Many of them were familiar with the developments of new technology and electronic communication in areas such as publishing and media. The chance to use on-line resources to experiment with such new cultural forces as the World Wide Web proved irresistible to us. In essence, it provided an opportunity to create a module developing reflective practice in tandem with practical application.

2 The Execution Each student was issued a password that allowed them access to the system on the university's network. They were also issued a bound copy of the module handbook, which outlined the course rationale, listed the lecture and reading schedule, and provided information on how to navigate the electronic tutorial system. The information was also made available on the customised website utilised to support module content delivery. Students were provided hands on training sessions organised during the first two weeks of term. Students could work from any terminal within the university labs on Napier s five main campuses, and were able to gain access remotely from home, if they had a modem. Students were assigned into groups of between five and eight members, and requested to attend a weekly lecture which they were then expected to discuss in their on-line tutorial groups. Tutors accessed the discussions from their computers and contributed to the development of the debate by posting their messages into individual group conferences. Online discussion was then utilised as the basis for group and individual assignments that were sent online to communal assignment spaces. Feedback and marks were relayed back in similar transparent manner. A final exam taken in traditional university spaces and forms completed the assessment pattern. Every two or three weeks a general assignment was expected from each group: this was posted up in the FirstClass general tutorial space and on the Cultural Studies web site. We expected assignment work to develop from online mutual discussions, from which tutorial groups were expected to draw upon when writing up group assignments. When groups were satisfied with what had been written the nominated group leader for that assignment was required to post it up into a common assignment space accessible to all students. All tutorial work was assessed by individual tutorial leaders and the marks subsequently moderated by the Cultural Studies team. Feedback and marks were then returned electronically by tutors to online group spaces in a manner meant to offer transparency, clarity and assessment best practice. Students thus could view, compare and learn from other group submissions. Of interest here was the way in which different groups co-operated in writing their assignments. For example, some broke the assignment down into individual tasks to be collated by the group leader, while others left the entire task to the individual responsible for that particular task. What support was needed? An important point about this type of teaching is the amount of time we spent monitoring and developing the system, and the manner in which this time was allocated. Course development took place over a six month period, with much front-loaded activity, such as handbook preparations, online environment creation, lecture and tutorial themed development and creation of a linked web resource site (which included researching, evaluating and matching best website materials to the established module themes). Student training in use of the FirstClass system was undertaken in two hour workshops run over a period of two weeks. Subsequent online tutorial work was monitored and run by the two module leaders supported by a postgraduate teaching assistant. The two module leaders took responsibility for 10 tutorial groups each, while the teaching assistant took charge of four tutorials. We found that the time spent monitoring these tutorials averaged about 5 hours a week per cluster of ten groups. A point recognised by all in utilising this new technology was the level of support it demanded from a wide variety of groups within the university. This type of system requires levels of advanced and continuing support from technical and service departments in a way that traditional classroom teaching does not. Items such as compiling class lists in advance to register students for passwords and systems use, allowing time and utilising personnel to train students and monitoring the system to ensure that the virtual classroom did not crash, require high levels of co-

3 ordination, support and cooperation among a variety of university departments and support sectors, a matter not always easy to achieve even under the best of circumstances. The Barriers What we encountered initially was a surprising and interesting resistance by students to the new technology, as well as a slow process of adaptation over the course of the module. In part this was due to unfamiliarity with the new software, which meant many students did not come on-stream and do substantial work in their tutorial spaces until the third week of the term. The resistance was also in part due to the changing work patterns that online study demands of students. Students were not used to dealing with a lack of a fixed time and place for tutorial presence and participation. Whereas traditional tutorials and seminars demand attendance at certain, identifiable periods during the week, virtual tutorials do not. Students also discovered that electronic tutorial participation required short but frequent visits to the virtual classroom. Some students found this quite liberating. Others attempted to maintain their traditional modes of study and work patterns, logging on infrequently or at the last minute before the lecture. Many learned the hard way with their first assignment that this was not always the best policy. Those who attempted to complete the assignment at the last minute found they had not built up sufficient reflective discussion to present an effective comparison. Those who had did better. Students seemed to have learned from this, and on subsequent assignments generally organised and managed their time and work more efficiently as a result. In later runnings of this module we found students becoming increasingly more comfortable with this technology for learning purposes. Following on from this was student adaptation of old frames of reference to deal with new ones. One of the most popular aspects of FirstClass was its facility for allowing realtime on-line chats, whereby students could send messages to a screen shared between a group of them -- a variation of the cyber chat room. Students liked this facility of instant communication, which is basically a virtual version of what often occurs in real tutorial spaces. Quite frequently their tutorial discussions ended up taking place in chat rooms. Since no record of such chat rooms survives after the computer and the links are closed down, students soon realised, however, that we, the tutors, were left with no evidence of their having engaged with the assignments and reading. Many of them hit on the idea of copying the contents of such chats into a message that could then be sent to their tutorial space, which led to some long evenings spent reading several screens of data. The Enablers Student discussions were focused around a weekly face-to-face lecture as we felt there was a real need for students to have some opportunity to meet their lecturers and to come together as a group. Likewise we found that students, once they had become used to posting their views online, would do so while at the same time organising times and places to meet face-to-face to work on their assignments and discuss issues. It made for an exciting cross fertilisation of learning patterns: frequently students would post notes making references to comments fellow tutees had made in these informal working sessions, or post messages setting agendas for future meetings. The FirstClass tutorial space acted both as a sounding board for discussions and reflection, and as a convenient posting space for announcements and confirmation of meeting times and dates. It is also worth noting that students would often seek out lecturers in their offices if they had some pressing problem or needed to speak privately. Feedback from the first running of the module suggested that first year students who came from secondary school environments where face-toface contact was the norm, expressed unease at the lack of such contact. Implementing a mixed-

4 mode of asynchronous virtual and synchronous face-to-face delivery in the second running of the module helped eliminate this tension. These adaptations suggest an important point about utilising electronic teaching techniques. Students value situations that fix and allow learning to take place in group situations and through some form of face-to-face or simultaneous contact. Students also felt more comfortable working in groups where they knew other individuals, partly reflecting the problems that the anonymity of on-line tutorials can often present. Initial face-to-face contact between tutorial members, perhaps during training week, is an issue bound to prove crucial to the success of such modules. On the other hand, the flexible tutorial work allowed students to fix their own schedules and work at their own pace. We found that when the system was eventually made available for off-campus use by students, many were logging on and working from home. Older students with families and individuals who lived outside Edinburgh found this a particularly attractive aspect of the module. At the same, time, we found that the weekly lecture provided a crucial anchor to the module. It was a fixed point in the module schedule, bringing students together to fix themes for the week, present an overview of the readings and amplify on matters raised during tutorials over the week previous. We found that our weekly lectures were quite well attended as a result: monitoring student attendance sheets during the first running of the module showed that the weekly average was 100 out of a final class total of 155. (Around 15 students had dropped out of the course or university attendance by the end of the semester.) Our conclusion is that modules that allow a combination of flexible learning and traditional contact methods are more likely to succeed than those that do not. In the context of cultural studies, one very positive point about utilising electronic tutorials and the Web was the opportunity it gave students to be exposed to, reflect upon and comment on the growing influence of and changes wrought by computers and cyberspace culture on society today. Comparing cultural identities and institutions as fixed in their present physical and mental surroundings, with such identities as reconstituted in cyberspace, such as we did with our first assignment comparing real and virtual museums, provoked strong and considered responses from students. It was a valuable way of introducing and discussing cultural theories utilising examples drawn from immediate contexts and virtual spaces. Evidence of success Student pass rates remained stable and high, although the first running of the module revealed dissatisfaction with modes of delivery, which were due mainly to difficulties with support systems and frequent hardware computer crashes and delivery problems. On occasions when students met with us we took the opportunity to question students on their experience of FirstClass and to elicit suggestions for improvements to the module and the system. Some students in the first running of the module expressed discomfort with the module s dependence on virtual tutorials, and suggested the possibility of building in the occasional real tutorial to help them feel more at ease with disparities in asynchronous and synchronous learning methods. The second running of the module addressed these issues, and surveys undertaken after module delivery suggested general satisfaction with the combination offered, a point revealed in a subsequent JISC funded evaluation of our online learning environment work. How can other staff reproduce this? Set up robust, well planned and well thought out monitoring and support mechanisms from the start to maximise potential of online learning environment. A support staff team enabling

5 mechanics and general administrative duties to be done on a continual basis is important for allowing tutors to engage more efficiently with students. Create a team that meets frequently to check on quality and to moderate and co-ordinate such activities as marking, tutorial work and online discussion methodologies. Establish firm groundrules for student behaviour and postings online. Details about quality assurance The module team was issued with handbook and guidelines prior to module commencement. Frequent meetings were held to monitor progress. A percentage of each tutor s assignment load was double marked, and general meetings were held after assignment markings were completed to moderate marks and provide consistency in returns to students. Other recommendations What our experiences have shown is that teaching and learning in the areas of arts and humanities (such as Cultural Studies) can function well when allied to new technology and the potential of cyberspace. The opportunities for exploring new cultural frontiers and utilising them to reflect on contemporary cultural concerns and theories are unlimited and exciting, both for students and teachers. Initial results show, though, that care must be taken to permit room, time and real space for undergraduate students in particular to mix, discuss results and make the most of their virtual experiences. Likewise, there must be a strong and adequate network of system support from a variety of university sources to ensure efficient and timely delivery of teaching and learning objectives. Keywords: Cultural Studies, New Technology, FirstClass, Electronic Tutorials, World Wide Web. One hard copy should be provided, and an electronic version should also be submitted by attachment. Applications should be addressed to: Tina Williams, ADC-LTSN, University of Brighton, 68 Grand Parade, Brighton, BN2 2JY

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