Distance learning students only have their online course; it's their space to learn, timetable, reading list, hangout, tutorial space, play space and the creator of opportunities to network for new friends and professional links. The online course is their hub for learning. It's their campus.
Built by you
No pressure; but you're building their campus - or at least providing the foundations and supporting structures in which their learning and interactions take place. There are other networks; such as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter - but these will be largely secondary in most cases. Students will want spaces they can take ownership of; and we'll come to that. For now, consider the online course as their campus. It needs to provide everything a campus does; and that starts with the learning opportunities.
Learning online is difficult, this is why the course needs to be well structured, clearly signposting what's expected of the student. It can't be a dumping ground of material.
Core elements of a well-structured online course include:
- Heading and introduction - so students are in the right place
- Week / block overview - clear headings so students know topics being covered, and when;
- Learning outcomes - articulating what is expected of the learner;
- Resources and progress - to underpin the outcomes defined above. Progress indicators keep track of what's been done / needing competing;
- Activities - building on the resources provided, to reinforce and make visible the learning taking place. Can also use progress indicators.
Example - Management of Oral Disease
Example of a single week/block from their MSc Paediatric Dentistry blended learning (compressed clinical teaching) Moodle course from UCL Eastman Dental Institute
Used with kind permission from Dr Paul Ashley and Dr Susan Parekh
Breakdown of the course structure
Heading and Introduction
- Students need to know they're in the right place - the main heading is a clear indicator of where they are. Simple but effective way to keep navigation and location clear for an online environment.
- An image always helps, it adds personality to the course; but remember to keep them relevant, not too big and used with an appropriate license.
- This was added to Moodle in a simple 1x2 table - where the first column contains the image and the second contains the title.
- A brief overview of the module / course - only needs to be a few lines
- Anything of real depth/substances can be included in the module handbook / outline which you can link to from here.
- This section is always displayed and each week/block is below - so keep it light and short.
- The included resources can include more information or links to module websites etc.
- Module / course-wide discussions can reside here - it could be formal or lighter for more informal discussions, or both.
Week / block overview
Week / block heading
- Simple, clear - just the topic covered
- You might want to chunk topics and cover them in multi-week/block parts. If so it's worth adding which part is covered in that week/block.
Week / block topics overview
- A quick overview helps students know what's coming up in the resources
- The resources will go into much greater detail than this overview, but they should always remain complementary.
- These are also used around recap and revision time for students looking for a particular topic.
- Clearly articulate the learning outcomes for this week / block. Students need to know what will be expected of them and for this to be clear, visible and within context.
- Writing good learning outcomes is challenging.
- If they end up differing from your original module proposal forms (UPC/GPC or PIQ) you can always revise them.
- Avoid words like 'Understand' or 'learn' - these words can always be improved by explaining exactly what the learned will do - it's the journey not the destination.
Resources and progress
- The content which underpins the topics covered and the learning outcomes. They build on what's been stated above.
- UCL-made content or Externally-hosted content. For example:
- videos (i.e. Lecturecast Personal Captures, recordings, demonstrations, online media, voice-over presentations )
- readings (i.e. Library readings, online documents, Moodle-based material, web content )
- multimedia content (i.e. animations, demonstrations, online experiments, simulations)
- digital learning objects (i.e. virtual objects from collections, simulations, virtual reality, online collections)
- And more (i.e. games, wikis, offline content - yes, we know!)
- Structured in a logical flow or grouped around the topics covered
- Content should, if possible, indicate how long you might expect a typical student to spend on them. For example; videos can include the duration (not shown above).
- Once set up in Moodle; students can manually (or the system can automatically) indicate a resource has been watched, interacted with or completed.
- This provides an overview for students of what's been done, and outstanding.
- Distance learning students can benefit from indicating progress as they may study in chunks of time and can mark off their progress for each learning session.
- The overview can also be reviewed, course-wide, for staff.
Defined learning activities
- Clearly showing students the activities they will take part in and engage with
- Should be used to articulate how they link in to the resources and objectives for that week / block.
- Sets a context for an activity - for example a interactive webinar (online video-linked seminar) will come after another pre-webinar questions have been collected.
- Learning activities provide opportunities for learners to make links in their knowledge between the new topics covered and their existing understanding.
- Interaction with the system will 'make visible' the learning
- Encourages students to 'do something' which encourages active learning, and crucially avoids the all-to-easy passive nature of online learning.
- Can be worked through in order (top to bottom) if one activity is a prerequisite for another, this can be mentioned above.
You may want to link to the next topic, related topics, other non-compulsory materials/activities or perhaps a complementary discussion on the topic This is up to you. What's included above should, generally, be a bare minimum for inclusion in each week / block of a distance learning course.