For successful e-learning, redesign the whole course

An excellent phone conversation yesterday with Steve Margetts. He’s been assessing a “Managed Learning Environment” that in his opinion isn’t. I won’t name it here, but its key feature seems to be that teachers can put their notes on the web using it. Unsurprisingly, he wasn’t wildly impressed.

Then today, an excellent research review by Graham Blacker in Auricle caught my attention. He said

A significant finding was the necessity to teach the redesign methodology. In our experience this is significant but not very surprising. Many of the early adopters of e-learning did consider that this would be the equivalent of putting course notes online. Consequently courses following this approach offered very little extra to traditional face-to-face courses, apart from a convenient repository for downloading course notes.

This exactly mirrored our experience when introducing Paperless School. The big challenge was (and to some extent remains) educating authors that online and offline media must be structured entirely differently.

Digging deeper to the research itself, I discovered a gem. Improving Learning and Reducing Costs: Lessons Learned from Round I of the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign reviews results from 10 projects in which traditionally-delivered undergraduate courses were redesigned to use elearning. Most of their findings seem to me to be equally applicable at school level.

I strongly recommend you read the whole thing; it’s a peach. And to tempt you, here are some highlights.

  • Five of the ten projects reported improved learning outcomes.
  • Seven of the ten projects measured changes in course completion/retention rates; all showed improvement.
  • All ten projects made significant shifts in the teaching-learning enterprise, making it more active and learner-centered.
  • All ten projects reduced their costs by 33 percent on average, with a range of 16 to 77 percent.

Key to success was the fact that the courses were restructured; it wasn’t simply a case of swapping textbooks out and computers in.

Lectures were replaced with a variety of learning resources, all of which involved more active forms of student learning or more individualized assistance. When the structure of the course moves from an entirely lecture-based to a student-engagement approach, learning was less dependent on the conveying of words by instructors and more on reading, exploring, and problem solving by students.

The role of the teacher changed, becoming less didactic and more facilitative.

Undergraduate Learning Assistants (ULAs). [Two of the universities] employed ULAs in lieu of GTAs [Graduate Teaching Assistants. Both universities found that ULAs turned out to be better at assisting their peers than GTAs because of their understanding of the course content, their superior communication skills and their awareness of the common misconceptions about computers held by the students.

Those knowledgeable about the impact of pedagogy on improved student learning will find nothing surprising in this list. Among the well-accepted “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” developed by Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson in 1987 are “encourage active learning,” “give prompt feedback,” “encourage cooperation among students,” and “emphasize time on task.” Good pedagogy itself has nothing to do with technology. What is significant about these redesigns, however, is that they were able to incorporate good pedagogical practice in courses with very large numbers of students, which would have been impossible without using technology.

All of this is enormously cheering for me personally. When we first designed Paperless School three years ago, nobody knew what was really going to work and what wasn’t. Judging by this research, we seem to have come a lot closer to the ideal than we really had any right to on a first attempt.


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