Elearning research skills

Screen shot of a learning object
Screen shot of a learning object

Over the past two years or so I have been working with Dr Eleanor Quince, Postgraduate Research Coordinator for the School of Humanities at the University of Southampton, on a project to deliver skills training online. A training programme for Humanities postgraduates already existed as class-based sessions but a need was identified for those students who were either studying away from campus on a regular basis and part time students whose time commitments prevented them from attending daytime classes. Training covered all major sections of the Research Councils’ joint skills statement on the acquisition of generic and transferable skills such as oral presentation, career development, time management, as well as more specific skills such as research ethics, archival research, ethnographic techniques, and the four milestones of completing an MPhil/PhD thesis (first year presentations, MPhil upgrade, submitting your thesis, the viva).

Phases 1 and 2 of the online course were completed by April 2010. Phase 1 was concerned with gathering course materials, evaluating the target audiences (working part timers, distance learners, students abroad) and selecting the most appropriate delivery mechanism. Phase 2 was solely focused on developing the learning objects and training themes for the course. These were divided into ‘core’ and ‘additional’ learning objects. An expert assessor has evaluated their content and feedback has been responded to in additional improvements. In addition, informal feedback has been gathered throughout the process. If funded, phase 3 will concentrate on qualitative evaluation of the course and its elements. The project so far has been funded by the School of Electronics and Computer Science and the Roberts Skills fund (named after the Roberts Report which identified the need for postgraduates to complete their doctoral studies while also gaining skills), both internal to the University.

The University of Southampton’s preferred Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) is Blackboard, popular with many UK universities. There have been many debates about its versatility compared with say, Moodle, or even bespoke systems but I deemed it a waste of time and resources to chase this issue too closely. Ultimately, the success of an online self-directed (i.e. untutored) skills course would be in the learning content and its internal structures. Blackboard, to be sure, is not an ideal platform to deliver really creative and inspiring learning. Its design features are almost nil and its hierarchical structures are limiting. However, if you just use it as a basket, and find something else to hold your learning elements together, it is not so bad. This is just what we decided to do. Back in 2008, Eleanor Quince had attended a workshop on the newly launched Learning Object Creator (LOC). This is a very simple pedagogically grounded authoring tool for creating discrete units of learning deliverable through any web browser (i.e. it outputs to HTML). The LOC tool was developed in the Subject Centre for Language, Linguistics and Area Studies, based at Southampton. I followed this up with meetings with one of the founding developers, Julie Watson, and knew after this I would have to look no further for the right tool for the job.

Learning objects
Using the principle of learning objects to create our content enabled each element of the skills course to stand alone or form part of a larger training theme. The themes were structured in Blackboard while each learning object was unpackaged within the VLE. This also gave us the option of one day moving the whole course to a new VLE, or to deliver learning objects independently on demand. The course materials themselves were developed through painstaking analysis of the kind of content that was already delivered by the university and the School of Humanities. This principally took two forms. First, I adapted content provided by the Elearning Module for Generic Research Methods which had been developed by the University’s Electronics and Computer Science school (who provided us with the first grant to get the Humanities training off the ground) in collaboration with ‘learning champions’. This provided a limited amount of content and learning activity but ultimately was so text rich and overly demanding of a student’s time and attention that it was not deemed to fulfill our purpose to deliver effective learning to our students. Many examples were also clearly geared towards science students, to which our humanities students would not have been able to relate. Nevertheless, it provided a useful base from which to work–and as ever in these projects, there is no point reinventing what exists and works. Second, attendance at class-based sessions and allied research gave me the bulk of materials to adapt for the rest of the course. I wanted to ensure that the online course closely echoed the class-based system so that we would not end up with parallel tracks of skills training.

The LOC tool gives authors of online content the ability to plan their materials and allied resources in a clear and concise manner. It is centred on activity-based learning and discourages large amounts of passive learning such as reading. I insisted on an active framework throughout and chose a multiple choice-based structure for most of the learning objects. Our principle aims were to ensure that students absorbed the right information and understood the first principles related to that particular skill. I was very aware of the limits of self-directed online learning and therefore wanted to keep the learning objectives simple. You cannot teach everything someone needs to know about writing styles and techniques, for example, but you can provide them with all the key ideas and then where to find out more. Each learning object was intended to take up between 20 and 40 minutes of a person’s time. Feedback is provided after each task and a review is provided at the end. Directly related resources were packaged with the learning object but general resources that are subject to change on an annual basis are delivered via the Blackboard course structure.

The outcomes so far have been positive, even if the everchanging structures and ideas of research councils and universities has made such a project very difficult to promote, and therefore gain support for. Students who have left feedback via email or in the allied discussion forum have firstly admired the clarity of the learning objects and really felt that they gained knowledge, or at least confidence in a particular skill, by the end. The expert assessor (with over 30 years in teaching and learning support) did an excellent job pointing out inconsistencies in terminology and structure but overall also advocated our approach and execution. Our work on the project has also elicited offers to share content with others although this has been more difficult than it might have been. Usually rhetoric about cross-school sharing and support begins and ends there. This kind of thing is always an issue in a large organisation with relatively independent sections.

Overall, my experience of this project has been positive. I have learnt much about pedagogy which I did not previously appreciate and I really want to adapt this kind of learning to subject-based teaching. I have also learned much about what elearning can deliver and what it cannot. We even started talking about the idea of blended learning, where online courses support class-based ones and vice versa but resources did not permit this idea from being tested. I have also been pleasantly surprised at the intellectual applications of such things as the LOC tool which somewhat tempered my general frustrations with virtual learning environments or content management systems which still have a long way to go in academia. In this regard I very much admire the work of those who are seeking to democratise the materials we create for training and teaching by creating social-media inspired resources, such as HUMBOX, a national shared website for teaching in the Humanities (to which we also contributed). These kinds of endeavours need to be more fully supported by universities and research councils, as well as by Government who should encourage and reward sharing as a way to cut those all important costs. Unless the sharing of resources by academics and teachers is rewarded, such as for the Research Excellence Framework, I fear they will go nowhere.