My first two days as Digital Education’s new Distance Learning Facilitator (hi!) were spent at the UK and Ireland edition of MoodleMoot 2017 taking place in London. Presentations ranged from the more technical aspects of Moodle implementation to reports into its more pedagogically-driven uses and impacts. My note-taking over the course of a packed conference schedule was frenzied and now, upon writing this post, occasionally unintelligible, so rather than provide a full overview I’ll reflect upon two presentations in greater detail.
A Head Start for Online Study: Reflections on a MOOC for New Learners. Presented by Prof. Mark Brown (Dublin City University)
This project was described by Mark as a means of supporting flexible or distance learners’ transitions into higher education. Despite an established distance learning provision, DCU’s programmes had, like many institutions, experienced higher levels of attrition than those seen with more traditional face-to-face courses. Mark reported that this is largely attributable to the diverse motivations of flexible learners and lack of support at key stages of the study life cycle. DCU thus applied for and gained funding to produce resources that would attempt to bridge these gaps and improve outcomes for flexible learners.
DCU’s subsequent Student Success Toolbox, containing eight ‘digital readiness’ tools, and the Head Start Online course, piloted on the new Moodle MOOC platform Academy, aim to help potential flexible learners ascertain whether online higher education is right for them, how much time they have and need for study, their sources of support, and the skills they will need to be a successful online learner.
Mark focused on the outcomes of the Head Start Online pilot course. Of the 151 users registered as part of the pilot, 37 were active after the first week and a total of 24 completed the entire course. However, Mark was keen to stress that learners were not expected to progress through the course in any strict or linear fashion, and completion/non-completion can thus be an unhelpful binary. Feedback from learners proved very positive, with the vast majority believing that they were more ready to become flexible learners, better equipped to manage their time, and more aware of the skills needed for online study after taking the course.
Towards a Community of Inquiry through Moodle Discussion Forums. Presented by Sanna Parikka (University of Helsinki)
Sanna’s presentation described her use of Moodle discussion forums to facilitate meaningful and constructive online conversations that adhere to the principles of the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework theory. Use of the CoI framework defines three vital elements of any educational experience as:
- Social presence: the ability of learners to communicate and engage in social interactions within the learning environment
- Cognitive presence: the means by which learners can build meaning through reflection and discourse
- Teaching presence: how we design, facilitate, and guide learners through experiences to achieve the desired learning outcomes.
Sanna reported upon a range of approaches designed around the CoI framework, suggesting that it is possible to build social presence and give learners the chance to project their personalities online through simple ice breaker activities. Cognitive presence, meanwhile, can be developed through jigsaw learning activities. Cohorts are split into smaller groups of students who discuss and specialise in one specific topic before being redistributed evenly to new forums with specialists from each area and tasked with teaching their new group about their specialism. Teaching presence is built and threaded through each task by providing direct instruction, scaffolding understanding, facilitating discourse, and sharing personal interpretations of meaning.
Discussion forums are often unfairly criticised, most frequently for lack of student engagement. However, Sanna’s position was that basic interaction is not enough to develop engagement and create new meaning. Her framing and examples of practice underscored the forum as a versatile, flexible means of delivering not just discussion-based tasks but collaborative exercises too.