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Publishing Content to the Web: Pedagogy and E-tivities

 

 Introduction

This guide offers some suggestions regarding the use of course content on the web from a pedagogical perspective. Issues dealt with include the nature of the content itself and who provides it, and in particular the relationship between learning resources and learning activities. It builds on the guide ' Creating and using Online Learning Resources', which deals with producing and selecting content and on the guide ' Developing and Re-Purposing Collections of Digital Material' , which deals with how students might best interact with digital content.

 Web content as learning resources

If content published to the web is to be appropriate and purposeful to students' learning, it should form part of a coherent set of learning resources. However, the meaning of "content" in this context is actually quite ambiguous. To some, it means document files, databases, datasets, images, video or audio clips, simulations, animations, etc. To others, it may quite literally mean materials usually provided in paper form to support a course, such as lecture notes/handouts, reading lists, course schedules and so forth. More recently, web content has been regarded as an organised set of 'learning objects', an electronic library and/or 'content management system'.

What is common to all is that the content is made available electronically and usually organised into some kind of structure on the Web. Some recent interviews with students at Warwick has highlighted the value of web publishing as administrative support for learning. There are a lot of confused students out there, and just having a course website with a list of tasks and course notes listed week-by-week is of enormous help to them.

Organising web content may simply involve deciding on how to structure or 'file manage' the various materials. For learning resources, the current focus is on standardisation schemes. Library classification and cataloguing is supplanted by the creation of technical, subject and pedagogical descriptions and vocabularies of content to enable meaningful exchange of learning resources between users and sites.

Standardisation for such open architectures may not be relevant to course information or a lecturer's own teaching materials. However, often 'course content' frequently comprises learning resources elsewhere and increasingly these are electronic and web-based resources. Finding these easily and consistently is dependent on standardisation and information describing the content.

 Learning resources and learning design

Recently, developments in learning design (including the new IMS standard for Learning Design specification) offer powerful new ways of representing pedagogic models for thinking about learning resources. These enable better articulation about how content is used to support learning and teaching in the classroom and/or online. The production or selection of specific content is seen as supporting rather than primary. Learning design - the educational context, pedagogic model and teaching and learning activities - have become the significant factors in designing e-learning.

One might argue that learning activities are an integral part of any set of learning resources - some even use the term 'content' to mean both, but this concept is not widely adopted. Publishing content to the web should therefore not just be a process of uploading files onto the web server! What is important to identify is the relationship of these 'static' resources to the learning objectives. In particular, the resources need to relate to specific learning activities conducted online or otherwise. As such, attention has turned from specification of learning content to specification of learning activities. The learning design in this sense provides a framework for structuring students' interactions with the e-learning tools and electronic resources.

 Learning activities and interactivity

The research evidence indicates that the effectiveness of learning activities depends on the way they generate interaction between and amongst students. Barker (1994) argues that interactivity is a "necessary and fundamental mechanism for knowledge acquisition" and Mesher (1999) that interactivity is the "key to successful online learning."

For students to be actively participating in the learning activities and use of learning resources, the web 'content' needs to be as interactive and engaging as possible. This does not necessarily equate to attractive multimedia or web gizmos. Nor does it equate to 'if you click this text, you can influence what happens next'. The definition of 'interactive content' used by JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), responsible for creating UK standards for describing learning materials, is "the degree to which the learner can influence the aspect or behaviour [sic] of the learning object". One might argue that it is more important to identify the degree to which the learning content can influence the aspect or behaviour of the learner, rather than the other way round.

What designing interactive web content seems most dependent on (a) the relevance and value to the learning which must be clear, and (b) the association with a learning activity - assessed or otherwise - that requires students to interact with the content and/or with each other in relation to that content. However, it is not always obvious exactly who should interact with what or with whom. Interaction can take place at different levels and in different ways. Symptomatic of the need for help in designing effective online learning activities has been the success of Gilly Salmon's book, "E-tivities" (2002).

'E-tivities' build on two models of engagement for learning. Laurillard's conversational framework suggests learning activities that are discursive, adaptive, interactive and reflective. The approach builds in communication feedback loops in order to support dialogue - a conversation - between the lecturer and students necessary for sustained focus on and progress of a learning concept. However, the issue of dealing with increasing student numbers is problematic here as traditional feedback loops that usually support lecture models of teaching have diminished. Dealing with both the size issue and the inherent variety of large groups of students is addressed in Beer's Viable Systems Model (Beers, 1985). The approach encourages activities where students must adopt self-organising techniques. This allows lecturers to coordinate and monitor large numbers of students as a single cohort whilst still managing to pay attention to the needs of individuals.

 Student-centred 'content' construction

Arising from these ideas about students interacting with content and with each other, it is not a huge leap to consider designing activities where students are the creators of content as opposed to consumers of content provided by the lecturer or course team. This immediately transforms the pedagogy from a teacher-centred approach where learning objects are created for the students, to a student-centred one where learning objects are created by students. Activities may involve students in identifying, evaluating, selecting, collating and/or annotating content, individually and/or in groups. These require high level skills to be developed and practiced, including essential information and IT skills as well as cognitive, high level learning capabilities. Such activities arguably form an essential part of knowledge construction and offer a valuable model for research-led curricula.

 Designing interactive learning activities

From the LDC workshop on Building interactive activities into web content.

A key question is how do you really deliver worthwhile learning online? According to Salmon and others, the answer rests with designing e-learning activities that deploy useful, well-rehearsed principles and pedagogies for learning, but focus on their implementation through the best of networked technologies.

Pedagogic goals of interaction

Designing e-learning activities involves building for high quality interaction, full participation and reflection. This is likely to require human time and energy to get them to work and the need to take account of social issues, skills required and motivational 'fun' elements.

Based around Gilly Salmon's 'e-tivities', we suggest interactive learning activities should be:

  • motivating, engaging and purposeful
  • based on interaction between learners, tutors, groups, resources
  • designed and led by an e-tutor
  • synchronous or asynchronous,
  • computer-mediated
  • simple, low cost and easy to run
  • reusable.

Key features involve:

  1. a 'spark' - stimulus, challenge, task, problem
  2. an online activity - students have to DO something
  3. a participative element - students have to respond
  4. a summary, feedback or critique - from the group or tutor
  5. guidelines - instructions for the activity, for taking part.

E-learning technologies to support such activities include:

  • email
  • chat
  • discussion forums
  • blogs
  • videoconferencing
  • assessment/quiz tools
  • voting systems

For examples at Warwick, see Appendix 2.

 References

Barker, P. (1994) Designing interactive learning. In T. de Jong & L. Sarti (Eds.) Design and Production of Multimedia and Simulation-based Learning Material. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic.

Beer, S. (1985). Diagnosing the System for Organizations. Chichester etc.: Wiley.

Mesher, D. (1999) Designing Interactivities for Internet Learning, Syllabus, 12, (No. 7).

Salmon, G. (2002) E-tivities: the key to active online learning. London, Kogan Page. Also accompanying website: http://www.e-tivities.com

 Further guidance and resources