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Getting started with ICT blended learning.


The emergence of web-based instructional delivery is rapidly expanding the continuum of learning environments, especially the "blended" courses that include both campus-based and online components. However, many campus-based instructors are rightly sceptical of wholesale shifts in course reconceptualization. This paper suggests gradual and simple changes to lighten the instructor's load and improve student learning.


Technology, and especially Information and Communications Technology [ICT], has often been hailed as a catalyst for change. In this paper we outline a framework within which you can incorporate some helpful ICT in easy, well planned ways, drawing on practices and strategies known to be effective. We focus on technologies now widely available and suggest combining these with straightforward teaching and learning approaches. Our goal that you see how simple ICT, not alarmingly sophisticated tools, can suit current practice. We advocate taking small exploratory steps in common sense ways. We will mention a range of ideas we use on our Online Education and Training (OET) course for teachers of all levels, and build on what we have learned from the several thousand people across the world who have joined us there. (Please note that the term "online" teaching and learning is often used to mean using ICT in education.)

First, it is useful to place yourself somewhere along the range from distance education, at one end, which might be either all online with no face-to-face elements, or with limited but integral face-to-face elements, to fully campus based courses at the other end. If you are at the campus end and have not yet made a significant use of ICT then this paper may spur you to to try out a varying level of online activities along side your normal face-to-face teaching..

Blended courses (part face-to-face and part distance or online) are increasingly significant for traditional campus based institutions as flexibility becomes essential, and student numbers rise dramatically. There is are many typical teaching and learning activities that might usefully be transferred online. These tend to be: Information/Knowledge Dissemination; Discussion/Debate; Practical/Fieldwork; Assessment; Out of class work. For example, some staff may just wish to distribute administrative information (e.g. the learning outcomes, timetable, details of coursework etc) whilst others will want to distribute learning materials as well. Others may also want to use ICT to maintain contact with students or facilitate group work or assessment (either formative or summative). Whatever activity you wish to exploit in ICT, there is now software to do so. It may have been purchased by your institution, be freely available from another academic institution or downloadable from a website. An indication of where and why ICT should be exploited in course delivery on campus is shown below. The classroom examples are followed in each case by a possible online equivalent.

Information/Knowledge Dissemination: Lectures/slide shows; handouts. How: Web page or Word processed file accessible via the web(text + images); Powerpoint presentation saved as a web page; streaming video files (videotape, CD-Rom or on the web); audio files/audio recordings (audiotape, CD-Rom or on the web). On the OET course we send out CDs with PointPoint slides alongside videos or audios of lectures, because streaming video is still not suitable for all but the fastest computers and interact connections. We prepare them very simply indeed with the free Microsoft Producer software and a cheapish digital camera. Why: Flexibility; different approaches in class; distance options.

Discussion/Debate: One to one talk/chat; small group discussion; whole class debate; problem solving. How: E-mail or synchronous discussion tool (chat); asynchronous discussion tools (discussion web). Discussion tool combined with whiteboard capability. On the OET course, our key method for learning is group discussions and debate, and they work very well indeed on campus since students are likely to have met, possibly already text each other by mobile phones, and enjoy the added comfort of communicating at times that suit them rather than having to meet at fixed times. Why: Group work; for shy students; variety of approaches; time to think; flexibility

Practical/Fieldwork: Laboratory/workshop exercise; field trip. How: Often needs well prepared films, but feasible for preparatory work and review functions supporting 'hands on' activity. You might not expect that the internet would be suitable for this kind of thing, but simulations can be challenging and informative. Instead of real vidoes, Flash software can be quickly learned for very simple active visuals. Why: Saving money/space; combat problems in fieldwork (weather), lack of materials, etc.

Assessment: Essays; short answer tests; case study problems; presentations etc. How: There is a multitude of ways computer power can speed up testing, for both formative and summative feedback to learners. You can consider: email, multiple choice methods,, asking students to post case studies on the WWW, or presentations in PowerPoint, by audio, video (especially for art, design, media studies). The problems of plagiarism are still a worry, but there are ways round these. Why: Timely feedback; efficiency; easing teachers' burden

Out of class work: Reading; research work. How: Web text, though students are likely to print out longer texts. Why: Broaden range of resources; easy access.

Getting started with ICT on campus

Very often, staff have not had time to think too deeply about how to use ICT, yet are under pressure to start using it. But maybe you have had bad experiences with them in the past when they have failed you or because the support you have received is in a technical jargon that might as well be Sanskrit. verall, our advice would always be that very few staff are in the fortunate position of having the time available to add to their workload and because of this simply adding or bolting on a 'bit of ICT' is unlikely to enhance anyone's experience. Remember, students are busy as well, and there is always the risk of 'swamping' them. Instead try to introduce technology with the intention of changing something, no matter how small. Sometimes getting started is the hardest part of online teaching and learning. Often, but not always, initial considerations tend to focus on the presentation of information or knowledge. Let us consider how to do this. It is still common today for the presentation of new information or materials to be the starting point of a face-to-face course since you as tutor are instigating the students' process of learning by conveying something to them. You may wish to convey facts, a problem, a history of other people's experiences, a challenge or an opportunity for them to design their own learning activities.

On face-to-face courses we almost inevitably present much new information

by talking to people in groups, often now very large groups (50-500). The simplest transition from the live lecture to use of the computer is placing supporting text for a lecture, or slides or accompanying handouts, on a public web page for all students to find. This is now routinely done for many campus courses, either to help students who have missed the lecture or lost their handouts, or as a preliminary or follow-up support to learning. The uploading of such materials is facilitated in numerous commercial Virtual Learning Environments [VLE] such as Blackboard, WebCT and many others. We have found that 100s of people on our Online Education and Training course confirm that they started by just doing something simple like this. However doing this has not necessarily improved the overall learning experience We suggest that if you are going to post static text based materials and, as a consequence, have less face-to-face contact, it becomes essential to provide students with effective online support to underpin their work with these materials, for instance put them in groups to discuss them, or offer to answer questions by email.

However, often this has merely placed the burden of printing on the students, without leading to any beneficial change in course pedagogy. But the use of audio or audio/video can lead to significant changes. Given that these are now very easy to develop, here are some uses in teaching and learning are: Keynote lectures/seminars; Historical speeches/presentations; Showing real life activity relevant to the subject area; Demonstrations of laboratory/workshop experiments and equipment; Recordings of disasters or experiments gone wrong; Illustration of processes impossible to re-create on campus; Client/human case studies; Fieldwork and field trips; To help in development of student presentation skills. These could lead to radical changes of pedagogy, because they free up the teacher's time leaving more time for interaction with the students, they provide information that is hard to bring into a classroom, and they can act as a stimulus for student-student interactions online as well as in class.

Going beyond content

After the content, the next most important aspect of a course is the students' learning activities. Here, communication online can underpin two mare elements of the educational process, student support and activities designed to reinforce or apply knowledge and to test understanding. Online communication can be one to one (typically email or sometimes video-conferencing) or one to many (email or bulletin/discussion boards or some form of chat room) or many to many, ie group discussions. Many to many communication is harder to manage with email than say a discussion or bulletin board, where related messages can be automatically stored together; therefore email would be the method of choice for private transactions. However discussion boards are indispensable for forms of group work online and the sharing of ideas and peer support. In addition, CHAT tools (real time communication by typing messages) have their use for smaller groups that can all be online at the same time, especially since so many people are accustomed to texting on mobile phones.

Nevertheless, there is an important role for email. As more materials become available online, email is a possible partner in enabling students to best make use of them. However, using email in this way can lead to 'email overload'. It is important to tell students what they can expect. Will they get an answer to every email? It can be a good idea to allocate a fixed amount of time each week for answering emails and stick to it. Moreover, our experience is that on-campus students work very collaboratively, and that sharing is a key part of their learning. Also, an alternative or supplement to direct tutor support is useful and relatively easy to provide some self-support for your students in the form of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) or short answer quizzes

It is fairly usual for a teaching event to be followed by some activity or exercise, perhaps deigned to allow students to apply what they have learned and in so doing stretch and examine their level of understanding of a topic. Such exercises can sometimes be done individually but will more commonly be done in pairs or small groups (4-6) on-site. Sometimes the tutor will be actively facilitating the exercise, but sometimes the students will be expected to work largely unsupported by the tutor. The activities will often extend outside of the classroom as students are given assessed tasks to perform and these may often be group tasks that may need to be completed over a period of several weeks. A lot of these activities can be conducted online with clear advantages for on-campus students. For example, if project work involves collaboration and exchange of necessary information, but students are not able to meet frequently, then online interactions are very useful indeed. An obvious instance would be if a group needs to find solutions to a problem but individual students have to research separate aspects of the problem and let the others know.

Overview of student activities online

We believe that there are three main types of learning activity that can be engaged in with a computer (either online or off-line, e.g. by running software off a CD rather than the web). As described in detail in Pincas and Saunders (2003), these are interactive exercises, modelling, and human interaction and collaboration.

In interactive exercises, users are interacting with a computer, but have some control over how they deal with what is presented to them. They can use hypertext or other resources to move about or perhaps select items presented to them, for instance answers to a multiple choice or multiple response question in a test. They might be presented with a question or statement and then some options to choose from. What subsequent response they get from the computer system will depend upon their input.

In modelling, learners try out their solutions to a task, possibly attempting to achieve a specific goal. Most often a student will use a computer based model written by someone else that provides easy point and click opportunities for them to alter the model by changing input parameters and observing the effect, as with Microsoft Excel. Using models in this way essentially facilitates a 'What if? approach to learning. Such simulations can mimic real life or the real world or alternatively the model can be presented as a game where the student or group are given a specific target to achieve. Thus a group of students in a management course may simulate a sales presentation, or a job interview or those on a biology course may simulate a public debate on genetic engineering, without calling this modelling, though it is.

Human interaction and collaboration can be stimulated by either traditional or video'd lectures or text based resources. On hybrid courses, online discussions that are linked to lectures are often a very useful supplement, or indeed alternative, to live workshops, especially since the students will have seen each other, but may be too busy to meet very often. Just as practical work frequently precedes or follows lectures, so can online projects or discussions. There are specific ways of managing online discussions, that are beyond the scope of this short paper, but suffice to say that a very important feature of successful online discussion is clear rules. As in a game, the better the rules, and the more closely they are adhered to, the more smoothly the game can be played. The rules will include good use of subject headers, defining everyone's roles, including the teacher's, and politeness online, ie "netiquette".

The role of the tutor

We would emphasise that the function of online discussions is definitely not to increase the tutor's work. Therefore, if the tutor needs to come online frequently to answer questions, sort out roles, settle disputes, provide information, keep the discussion on track, and so forth, little will have been gained, and much student independence will have been lost. A quick rule of procedure might be to arrange for one student [perhaps on a rota] always to have the responsibility of communicating with you as tutor if, and only when, the group is not able to solve its problems without you. You could say you will only become involved if they have tried unsuccessfully for, say, a week. We recommend structuring online discussions in such a way as to maximise the effectiveness for learning, without increasing the workload of the tutor.

Students always value social contact, especially without the presence of the tutor. It is now almost universal for some kind of online forum called 'Social Chat', 'Cafe', 'Bar' or 'Common Room' to be available to students, where lecturers cannot or do not normally enter, and students feel they genuinely have their own space. In our online trainer course, the evidence of 12 years clearly shows that such online communications develop into rich and personal interactions among strangers from many countries who have never met (and are not even likely to).

We recommend such a virtual space for campus based students in the current climate where we cannot always take it for granted that they know each other very well, since there may be a high percentage of part time students, or of full-time students with jobs, so that even full-time students can find themselves in modules with others they barely know. Even if they all have mobiles and text their friends regularly, a space to find the other classmates is immensely valuable and they are even more likely than our distance students to develop good virtual learning communities as well as personal friendships online. In the kind of mixed mode approach we have advocated, ICT is but a part, albeit a significant one, of the overall delivery of a course. With reasonable planning and realistic expectations, it should be possible for everyone to benefit in some way from the networked learning software that is increasingly available on campuses. We hope that this brief overview has given you the confidence to explore more widely the potential that ICT has to enhance the quality of teaching and learning and in fact lighten your load rather than increase it. Finally, we would emphasise the importance of teachers themselves taking part as learners in courses that use ICT--there is nothing as good as having tried it yourself.


Online Education and Training <> Pincas, A. & Saunders, G. (2003) Online learning on campus Learning Partners, UK Saunders, G. (2000) Getting Started with online Learning Learning Partners, UK

Anita Pincas, University of London, UK

Gunter Saunders, University of Westminster, UK

Pincas is Senior Lecturer, Lifelong Education and International Development. Saunders is Professor and Director of Online Learning Development.
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Author:Saunders, Gunter
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Date:Dec 22, 2003
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