Blogging and University based learning

I’m developing an online/flexible delivery mode version of a topic I’m teaching this semester here in the Department of Archaeology at Flinders University. The subject is a graduate level version of Indigenous Heritage Management in Australia, which is an important topic for anyone who wants to go on and work in the Indigenous heritage management field (read the topic overview here).

Writing the topic content, selecting readings and developing assessment is one of the appealing things about working in Higher Ed and so too is delivery of this to a class of (mostly) eager students. I enjoy the face to face contact with students during and outside of normal teaching time: the curve ball questions during lectures, the chats after the lecture, the conversations around campus and during occasional social events.  Indeed, I think interaction between topic coordinators and students, as well as between students, is quite important. It can raise students’ awareness of broader issues relevant to the field, give them an opportunity to ask questions, or discuss things that interest them. The informal engagement both inside and outside of formal teaching time are very important to producing good graduates.

This brings me back to the issue of online learning and flexible delivery where traditionally it has been difficult to provide these informal opportunities for interaction. My understanding is that the traditional approach in Australia doesn’t seem to have changed all that much since I enrolled in distance ed courses almost 15 years ago: that is, large books of readings, a course/topic handbook with set questions, ongoing structured assessment pieces and long, solitary hours working through the modules. Not entirely happy memories. Here at Flinders (and I suspect at most other Universities these days) content for flexible topics is delivered to students in a large parcel and supplemented in various ways with our teaching and learning intranet system that hooks into a version of Blackboard. It’s a little old and limiting, but it does serve a useful purpose and the University has some very good topics delivered this way.

But I still feel that flexible delivery students are missing something, well two things actually. First, they have extremely limited interaction with me. I get occasional emails, provide feedback on their assessment and so on, but they entirely miss out on those opportunistic chats in the coffee shop and the ability to ask questions during or after a lecture. Second, as far as I know they are not even aware of each other’s existence, so they’re not getting the opportunity to chat about the things that students often like to chat about amongst themselves, or to problem-solve each other’s issues. So my question is, how can we increase opportunities for this kind of engagement in the context of flexible delivery topics?

There are no easy answers, however a few recent tweets by @parezcoydigo (Chad Black) as well as a few posts on ProfHacker (eg teaching with twitter, New tech tools in the classroom) and some examples of very good quality student blogging (Science communication at Melbourne Uni, and at using blogs in teaching from Neuroanthropology) have been helpful in developing some ideas that I’m collating here.  Underlying these is the idea that we need to begin shifting our perspective on flexible delivery. That is, we need to move away from seeing flexible topics as principally being about offline content, such as handbooks of readings and lectures written in topic work books. Spare the trees, engage the students: use a blog.

Courtesty of Gideon Burton

Courtesy of Gideon Burton (CC)

I’ve seen examples of face to face teaching that incorporates ‘bloggy’ media (examples here, here,  via Chad Black, and also again at Neuroanthropology) and indeed we already do this at Flinders by asking graduate students to post short articles about fieldschools, work experience, research projects and so on to the Flinders Archaeology blog, established by Dr Alice Gorman. But I’m yet to see blogs used in flexible delivery topics as the primary hub for interacting with topic content. This might just be because they’re beyond some type of wall (i.e. accessible to enrolled students) but even so it would be great if people wrote about what they’re doing.

I think that private blogs restricted to enrolled students raise many opportunities for flexible delivery teaching (and for supplementing traditional face to face teaching), including:

  • Scheduling the delivery of content via posts over the semester. This way, students receive content in stages rather than as a single large (and perhaps daunting) package. This allows them to engage with the topic in ways that are more similar to attending weekly lectures/tutorials, and hopefully not be too overwhelmed;
  • Lecturing through integration of text, podcasts, pictures, presentations and videos into single blog posts (polymedia?). We already use this type of content when delivering lectures, so why not embrace more engaging content in flexible modes?
  • Integrating comments systems to allow discussions around lecture/module content;
  • Use of some social media to create discussions around the topic. For example:
    • coordinator-facilitated introductions to other enrolled students on SM platform of choice;
    • promoting discussions around topic content (eg use of topic hashtags as suggested here on ProfHacker);
    • ‘coffee shop’ chats with topic coordinators via social media, eg. responding to curve ball questions
  • Using web apps to promote discussion around assessable content. For example, ask students to develop and submit presentations, posters or discussion topics/posts to the web, and require other students to participate in online discussions (again, through commenting);
  • Use of web apps such as Google Fusion tables or Zotero to create collaborative databases;
  • Establish content repositories of material generated by students. For example, ask students to contribute to subject bibliographies linked to assessment, wikis about themes/issues relevant to topic learning outcomes, and finally, shared repositories of helpful guides, books and sources of information;
  • Each semester, lecture/module content could be archived and new posts created based on reviews of the original content;
  • Some content such as good questions/discussions/examples of student work could be retained for reference in future delivery of the topic, as could the online content repositories;
  • Posts from students about their learning experiences over the course of the semester could be used to help others, and to promote the topic. Great student content could be made accessible to the public via more central blog or traditional print media.

These are of course only the beginnings of various ideas and I have no plans to attempt any of them without further discussion with colleagues. I suspect that it would be possibly dangerous to try and introduce these or other ideas into an established topic too quickly as we need to ensure that high standards are maintained and that core learning outcomes are not compromised or overshadowed by shiny glittery techno things. We all know that the web can be as much a distraction as a useful research/learning/networking tool.

However, I do maintain that Universities should move well beyond existing approaches to flexible delivery and begin to use the web to enhance the level of engagement between students and staff, and amongst students. This is a fundamental part of University learning, and for the first time it’s becoming possible in flexible delivery topics.

I would be most interested in anyone who has comments or suggestions on how they are using the web to facilitate learning in Higher Ed (regardless of discipline) or thoughts on limitations or opportunities of doing some of the things I have outlined here.