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Pedagogies for E-Learning

This e-guide is in the form of an article outlining a number of issues, presuppositions, trends and questions about appropriate pedagogies for developing e-learning at Warwick. A number of staff across the University were asked to respond to a draft and these commentaries have been interwoven into the article and published in the Summer term 2004 issue of the web journal, Interactions.

  Defining terms

E-pedagogy might broadly be defined as ‘learning design that incorporates educational quality, values and effectiveness of teaching, learning and assessment activities supported by technology’. On the one hand, one might argue against a separation of ‘e’ pedagogy from any other pedagogy. On the other hand, research and evaluation literature suggests that new modes of teaching and learning are emerging through the use of online networks, access to remote experts and, more recently, mobile technologies.

Are e-learning approaches representing new ‘e’ pedagogies, distinctive from existing pedagogies, or are we are simply reinstating familiar favourites.

  Research, learning and curriculum

In Forum 26, Robin Green (Library) reminded us of our aspirations for students’ learning at Warwick suggesting the use of research practice as a model for developing high-level skills. The Curriculum Review Group noted the importance placed by employers and students on integration of such skills leading to a “value added” degree. In the same vein, the E-Learning Strategy focuses on fostering students’ independent learning, self-reliance, self-motivation, critical abilities and creativity. Similar views were expressed at the recent E-Learning Away Day. Initiatives within Centre for Academic Practice (e.g. research-based learning, TELRI), Centre for Lifelong Learning (e.g. Skills Certificate) and the Library (e.g. resource discovery system) have been working with staff and departments to identify these capabilities, which researchers have in abundance, and to promote their development within the curriculum.

In a research-led university, this suggests a belief that effective learning arises from students engaging in thoughtful experimentation with knowledge. Understanding is developed via meaning making activities with peers and subject experts. We question the value of “transmission” modes of teaching, particularly those based on behaviourist approaches to teaching. We favour instead student-focused, constructivist approaches to the curriculum, which we would term research-based learning.

questionIn so doing, we are taking a theoretical and pedagogical stand. But how do we translate this into a good practice guide for integrating and evaluating e-learning? Can we model these beliefs and values so that our uses of e-learning are built on educationally sound foundations?

  Benefits and constraints of pedagogical models

We do not yet have an explicit pedagogical framework for e-learning developments at Warwick. This is understandable as the University is not homogeneous. A single, generic model is unlikely to fit the variety of teaching and learning approaches and disciplinary differences across the 30 or more departments. However, a commitment to a set of ideas and principles, which seem credible or appropriate to departments, offers the possibility of more pedagogically sound e-learning practices. The use of pedagogical models assist this in identifying the requirements of e-learning tools that support how staff want to teach and students want to learn.

One might represent a broad pedagogical model (see diagram) as a spectrum of learning and teaching approaches used at various stages in the curriculum. This would clarify learning activities, including the use of appropriate e-learning methods and materials, in terms of how students engage and interact with lecturers, resources, with the group, with real world problems or issues, and with others. Some courses may focus on particular elements, such as critical debate or problem solving, others on more content or skills based activities.

Pedagogical model showing spectrum of learning and teaching approaches used in a curriculum

questionHow can our professional instincts and disciplinary cultures be supported and what models of learning and teaching (and indeed research) does the technology afford?

  Technologies, content and learning

With the Web fast becoming the dominant ‘content’ tool, easier to use than ever before, we run the risk of slipping back into teaching-centred modes. A high proportion of commercial VLE and CMS type packages are heavily biased towards a model in which content presentation by the lecturer is central and communication and collaboration tools are bolted onto a structured pathway through the content. The format of the content may be new and possibly more visually stimulating, but such pedagogy is far from innovative and not always inclusive or desirable. Certainly, much of current e-learning content boils down to what might be described as “facts and figures” or “drill and practice”. At the click of a few buttons, lecturers can now build up course websites. In a content focused approach, there is a danger of treating e-learning development as merely another administrative task. Furthermore, when new, technology-based tools are introduced into teaching and learning, the more familiar ones tend to slip from view. Yet commonplace “technologies” such as textbooks, classrooms or OHPs have as much of a role to play as e-learning and up-and-coming mobile technologies. In struggling with each new set of tools, the technology remains fore-grounded and can overshadow pedagogical reflection on its use.

questionHow might we avoid the role of the subject expert being relegated to that of content ‘packager’ rather than learning ‘composer’?

E-learning is not simply a matter of turning a traditional course into an online version. It is also about using technology within a campus-based course in ways that add value to the learning experience as well as support new modes of learning and teaching.  Indeed, some have questioned whether the ‘course’ paradigm is still an appropriate vehicle for learning. Learning that is just-in-time, flexible and available in “bit-size chunks” is certainly much more difficult to organise than a course, but it has been argued that learning delivered in this way can be more tailored to the increasing diversity and needs of students. How can we deliver learning that is just-in-time, flexible and modular and adds value to the learning experience?

One thing is clear: e-learning is pedagogically less than helpful if it is treated as an optional extra. Rather than providing well-organised content, perhaps we should take a more reflective, negotiated approach to designing e-learning – stretching the model of our current range of teaching techniques, rather than expecting radical changes in culture or pedagogy.

questionIn what ways can lecturers best integrate e-learning into their repertoire of teaching approaches and capabilities?

  Creativity, communication and communities

In most VLE type packages, lecturers generally have greater access to tools for publishing content and setting up discussion topics than the students do. This is questionable in terms of a constructivist learning model and was challenged through the work of TELRI (Technology Enhanced Learning in Research-led Institutions:) - a national project led by Warwick. TELRI developed a pedagogical model for developing students’ research capabilities based around departmental conceptions of the links between research and learning processes. Student publishing and critical analysis are key elements.

TELRI sought ways to use technology to support creative and collaborative learning, which it termed “adaptive” learning, involving students in thinking in new situations to construct knowledge. (It distinguished this from "adoptive” learning, a more reproductive activity, involving students in interacting with existing knowledge and techniques.)

The use of web publishing and discussion of content identified or created by the students’ illustrated in a wide range of disciplines how technology could enhance learning though research-based activities. Learning activities are based on student-focused, interaction with content and with each other, building up individual creativity, collaboration and teamwork and communities of learning.

The TELRI model is one possible starting point for a pedagogical framework for e-learning at Warwick. The extent to which a course or activity aims to develop ‘adaptive’ capabilities is likely to determine a student's capacity to respond effectively to undefined and unfamiliar situations within and beyond the discipline context. The extent to which the activity encourages and supports group based work is likely to determine a student’s ability to work collaboratively to share learning and pool resources to the benefit of the group.

A number of articles in the previous issue of Forum helped us look to the future and possible new patterns of study and interaction in the Learning Grid at University House. If we are to be more creative and ambitious in our uses of e-learning, perhaps we need to ‘blur’ rather than ‘blend’ learning activities between classroom and virtual spaces, interweaving the concept of creative and group learning across both environments. This may initiate debate around the principles for building learning communities and knowledge networks – perhaps the ‘e’-pedagogies of co-operative and collaborative learning?

questionAre the educational possibilities offered by the technology – the e-pedagogies - perhaps not so much about new ways of learning as new ways of studying (and thus teaching)?

E-learning tools that support the kinds of models discussed above are not far from reach. The current central web tools allow staff easily to publish learning resources to the web; integrate an online discussion board, an interactive quiz, a video lecture; or set up virtual interactions with remote sites and people.

questionSo how will you go about developing e-learning with pedagogy in mind?

The new techniques are likely to work only if used as enhancements, assuming the design and evaluation of the learning is sound in the first place. The challenge for lecturers has always been to disentangle their intuitive disciplinary practices (what you’d like to do) from the technical complexities of e-learning (what the technology allows you to do). The challenge for software designers (E-lab) has been to develop (a set of) tools that allow for flexible and evolving pedagogical approaches whilst providing an easy entry point for cautious newcomers.

If a reasonable balance is achieved, academic staff can remain leaders of learning, rather than slaves of technology, free to engage in e-learning at pedagogical and disciplinary levels, to enhance their repertoire of teaching practices.


Case studies, papers and tools for e-learning pedagogies can be found in the resources section of Interactions issue 23