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Editorial: Active Learning on the Web

Graham Lewis, Centre for Academic Practice, University of Warwick

SpiderWhat do we mean by 'Active Learning on the Web'? Well, scanning in your lecture notes and making them available as Web, laudable as this is in terms of information management, is not making good use of the technology to enhance the learning process itself. The key to the meaning of 'Active' lies in the much overused term 'Interactive' - the use of computer technology to encourage two way communication, student to student, tutor to student or computer program to student. Two of the most powerful ICT tools for active learning are simulations - where the student can interact with models of real systems and conferencing - where students can interact with other human beings. There are many other ways of handling and exploring information that are unique to ICT environments - for instance, hypertext is still very much under-explored as a learning tool.

So why is there still so little of this in HE? There are plenty of examples of individual academics embracing the technology and some examples that could be pointed to as active learning but use of ICT is not embedded in University practice - it is still the domain of the enthusiast and it is still a 'bolt on'.

The Association for Learning Technology annual conference (ALT-C), now the largest UK conference series on the use of technology to support learning and teaching in tertiary education, recently held its 7th annual conference in Manchester. The uptake of ICT to support HE is the principle concern at ALT-C and this year's theme, 'practice, policy and partnership', was particularly relevant to institutional change. Moving HE institutions towards a position where ICT can be easily and effectively used by all academics to support learning involves commitment at many levels and ALT-C looked at all these levels:

Individual academics are the ones who are actually going to put together active learning materials and use them to support their teaching. The barriers at this level are restrictions on time (just as true in non-research led Universities), recognition for time not spent on research, training, support and, of course, money. 

Supporting a course with 'active' Web materials and applications usually requires a combination of internet technologies; perhaps Web pages for the content, a conferencing application for discussion and collaborative working, perhaps some interactive graphics and a computer aided assessment application. If you were sufficiently 'technical' could do all of this with stand-alone Web pages and a range of applications such as Webboard for conferencing and Question Mark Perception for CAA and the end result would be powerful, flexible and 'open' but the development overhead is far too much for most academics to cope with.

Virtual Learning Environments

There are now tools for placing courses online - Virtual Learning Environments: (VLE). VLE nest course material inside a 'wrapper' that takes care of access security and provide a range of ICT applications such as discussion lists and computer aided assessment. 

There are a range of commercial and public domain VLEs available. Which should we choose? Should we standardize on one VLE and support it centrally or is there a case that different VLEs match the different subject areas? Should we develop our own VLE? ITS is looking at WebCT which is already being used by Italian Studies in a joint venture with Birmingham University and other VLEs are being looked at by several departments.

Ideally such course environments would be pedagogically neutral, providing a wide range of easy ti implement ICT tools while allowing the academic full control of the pedagogy. In reality, the structure that makes it easy to assemble a course online also imposes some pattern of dealing with the material. We need to be aware of this and not allow the technology to guide our teaching. We also need VLEs that will integrate easily into institutional level ICT systems. While VLEs supply the tools to create an active learning environment, they do not produce higher order learning automatically. The online course developer and tutor/s are often required to be much more analytical about their goals.

There were many examples of VLEs at ALT-C but an interesting and entertaining interactive presentation was given by the FOCUS team (TLTP funded project) entitled 'Virtually an Online Experience ' which attempted to illustrate without the aid of computers what it is like to be a novice in an unfamiliar online learning environment. Picture a large number of people in total silence, frantically exchanging post-its and trying to work out what on earth is going on - I thought we were going to get lynched at one point but the feedback (after everybody had calmed down!) was very positive - sometimes it is a good idea to step back and consider the process without the technology.

Learning Management Environments

What happened when you have 6 online courses built in a VLE or otherwise and are having to maintain class lists by typing them in manually every term? How do you keep track of the student's performance on all modules? This information and a lot of other relevant data is stored in departmental or central University databases. Wouldn't it be sensible to pull that information from those databases directly? Systems that pull together administrative functions and teaching processes through ICT in this way are called Learning Management Environments (LME).

Outside of the Open University, there are few examples of institution wide LMEs in use in the UK although many institutions are thinking about them and they are happening on a department level. Here at Warwick, the Warwick Business School has invested considerable resources in building such an environment and the Departments of Mathematics, Physics, Computer Science and Biological Sciences and the Warwick Manufacturing Group are all seriously considering such a system. Currently the flow of information from the central student records database to departmental databases is on a daily basis and is essentially one-way. As more departments move down this path, we need to be making strategic decisions on how we manage data at an institutional level.

Betty CollisSeveral examples of functioning institution-wide Learning Management Environments were exhibited at ALT-C. Betty Collis gave the first keynote speech 'Top-down and bottom-up: From initiation to institutionalization in three years', showing us a full scale LME running at the University of Twente in the Netherlands. The Twente LME also resulted in a radical shift in the way courses are taught - an example of where technology has indeed changed behaviour. From the UK, the University of Wolverhampton discussed their LME system 'Wolf' Both systems were developed in house and were highly dependent on radical strategic decisions at the institutional level. 

Jane Core of the University of Abertay Dundee gave a short presentation on the dangers of failing to consider learning and teaching needs when setting up an LME, pointing out that institution level systems like this are normally the domain of administrative and IT services in the UK and that as academics we should have some input into the decisions as it will certainly have major impacts on our teaching in years to come.

At the national level, the LTSN Subject Centres were laying out their stalls at ALT-C. Hopefully, the LTSN will make themselves better known to all academics than their predecessors, the CTI centres. It makes sense for many subject based tasks to be performed centrally

Threats and Opportunities

Jack WilsonAt the international level, a common theme at ALT-C was the perceived threat of 'Universities for Profit' and commercial interests in HE. A full conference debate was held with the motion 'Without the e-University, HE in the UK is dead' . The final videoconferenced keynote by Prof.Jack Wilson "The Internet Tsunami and Distributed Learning" also highlighted the threats from international commercial interests 'cherry picking' the most profitable areas of HE. 

On a related topic, the Intstructural Management System (IMS) - in its simplest terms, a large scale and ambitious international project to wrap up learning materials in metadata packages for easy delivery is making some progress with the release of a general metadata standard last year and the release of the Question & Test Interoperability Specification (see innovations section) recently. While I have always cheered at the side lines at such efforts, I am beginning to wonder whether we might end up being the hard working elves in Santa's workshop, building all those wonderful toys while Santa- who is after all just a glorified postman, gets all the credit. The Open University, which is well placed to enter this market, has already bed approached with an offer, by a commercial concern, to package up its courses in IMS wrappers. You can find out more about IMS at the IMS Global Learning Consortium Web site

Also at ALT-C, Ashley Ward from Computer Science here at Warwick gave a well received presentation on OASYS

In this issue:

In IT, Theatre, and Research Based Learning, David Thomas discusses how an 'off the shelf' VLE was used to deliver higher order, research based, learning involving students based at Warwick and Kent

The study shows that ICT can be a way to enhance the quality of learning and clearly indicates that it is opening up new ways to learn but that the face to face element is still an essential part of the mix.

Teaching Business Education on the Internet by Ross Jardine tells us of a project where students used a combination of synchronous (including telephone) and asynchronous communication to work with a set of online resources. Ross points to the importance of establishing a learning community and that the linear manner in which the resource material was arranged, while providing a simpler interface for novice users, did limit the possibilities of other, non-linear, learning styles. I wonder whether we are allowing ourselves to be constrained by the linear nature of older modes of information storage - do we think linearly?

Adrian Stokes's Article Introducing text-based computer conferencing within an accredited academic development programme again points to the importance of creating a community of learners and explores some of the ways conferencing has been embedded in the course.


Grham Lewis
Centre for Academic Practice
University of Warwick
Tel: +44 (0) 24 7657 2737

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