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Unit 3-2

Page history last edited by Gary Motteram 6 years, 4 months ago



Unit 3 - Online environments


There is a variety of terms to describe what are essentially web based learning environments. Other terms you come across are: virtual learning environments and managed learning environmentsweb based course management systems; even 'course in a box' (Collis and Moonen, 2001: 78).


Blackboard is just one proprietary virtual learning environment, which has a long history and you can find a number of reviews of it over time, if you are interested. This and other similar tools such as the Open Source software Moodle, Cloud options like Canvas, other newer commercial players like Desire2Learn, offer what they describe as an integrated system. To this we can add the new MOOC platforms from Coursera and FutureLearn, for example (the link here is to a comprehensive overview of MOOC platforms and their features, although not FutureLearn -- a Google search on 'FutureLearn platform' a number of interesting articles).


Collis and Moonen (2001: 79) list the following features of such systems:


Learner tools 

Support tools 


Web browsing:
  • accessibility
  • bookmarks
  • multimedia

Asynchronous sharing:

  • email; forums
  • newsgroups

Synchronous sharing:

  • chat; voice chat
  • whiteboard
  • applications sharing
  • virtual space; group browsing
  • tele conferencing; video conferencing

Student tools

  • self assessing
  • progress tracking
  • searching
  • motivation building
  • study skill building 
 Course tools:
  • course planning; course managing
  • course customising

Lesson tools:

  • instructional designing
  • presenting information;
  • testing; marking online; data
  • managing records; analysing and tracking

Resource tools

  • curriculum managing
  • building knowledge
  • team building; building motivation

Administration tools:

  • installation; server security
  • authorisation
  • registering; online fees handling
  • resource monitoring
  • remote access; crash recovery

Help desk tools

  • student support
  • instructor support



Each learning environment will clearly provide different realisations of these features. What interests us is how these are used to bring about learning. What is also interesting is whether, given the fact that most VLEs provide similar individual components, one environment seems to facilitate the type of learning you wish to achieve better than another. You've had experience of Blackboard in other course units and some of you will have used Moodle. You've all had different experiences of MOOCs. We've been meeting in Adobe Connect and in this unit we'll meet in Big Blue Button, so we should have a variety experience to share.


Before we share the experience, we'd like to think about frameworks for decision making.


Frameworks for decision making

A recommended read for this course unit is Collis and Moonen (2001) Flexible Learning in a Digital World. Their book centres much of its discussion around institutional developments and impact of increased flexible learning initiatives but it does raise some interesting questions for us all, no matter what context we're in.


They make a case for increased flexibility of learning scenarios facilitated by technology. They suggest increased flexibility might be offered with respect to:


  • social organisation of learning
  • content
  • learning materials
  • interactivity
  • technology
  • language
  • location ( Collis and Moonen, 2001: 11-12)


Note, if you don't have this text, you can also read their thinking in Collis, B., Vingerhoets, J. and Moonen, J. (1997). Flexibility as a key construct in European training: experiences from the Telescopia ProjectBritish Journal of Educational Technology, 28(3),199-217.


They argue that shifts towards more flexible learning opportunities see moves from control residing in the hands of the teacher/course designer towards more choice for the learner in each of these dimensions. We are able to offer choices with respect to where, when and how learning takes place, but choice is a challenging construct as we know from the different experiences that people are already discussing.


For the moment, we accept that Collis and Moonen establish the learner as a very central aspect of decision making, but of course this will both be within the choices offered by the designer/ tutor, and framed by specific pedagogical thinking.


So what defines appropriate pedagogical approach in our subject areas?


Pedagogy is clearly seen in the types of learning activity we engage our learners in. Work has been done to create taxonomies of learning activity. Think back to the chapter you read by Anderson (2004); he refers to the work of Prensky (2000, p. 56) suggesting that in general terms we learn:


  • behaviors through imitation, feedback, and practice;
  • creativity through playing;
  • facts through association, drill, memory, and questions;
  • judgment through reviewing cases, asking questions, making choices, and receiving feedback and coaching;
  • language through imitation, practice, and immersion;
  • observation through viewing examples and receiving feedback;
  • procedures through imitation and practice;
  • processes through system analysis, deconstruction, and practice;
  • systems through discovering principles and undertaking graduated tasks;
  • reasoning through puzzles, problems, and examples;
  • skills (physical or mental) through imitation, feedback, continuous practice, and increasing challenge;
  • speeches or performance roles through memorization, practice, and coaching;
  • theories through logic, explanation, and questioning.


Anderson claimed that all these activities are possible in e-learning environments. Also, think back to the Conole et al (2004) that you read in the last unit, this has relevance here, too.


How we select and design learning activities which provide such learning opportunities will be informed by our position on an appropriate pedagogical approach with respect to our particular subject areas. Our beliefs about teaching and learning (general and specific to our subject teaching) act as a strong filter to the way we conceive methodologies and task approaches, and indeed how we will harness technology to achieve these.


If you are interested in the area of teacher beliefs, this is a huge area but good to start with Ertmer (2005) Teacher Pedagogical Beliefs: The Final Frontier in Our Quest for Technology Integration? ETR&D. 53(4): 25–39.


In terms of general thinking about pedagogical approach in online learning, four learning perspectives are identified in the JISC paper (p 13):


  • associative perspective
  • constructivist perspective (individual)
  • constructivist perspective (social)
  • situative perspective



Making connections


Refer to p 13 of the JISC report Effective Practice with E-Learning


  1. Which perspective(s) do you think might reflect the approach of this course unit?
  2. Which perspective(s) might reflect the approach of a second language learning course, a course in mathematics, a course in ICT, a teacher development course or any other course in your own contexts?


So we have pedagogical thinking realised in the various task realisations. These pedagogical perspectives will serve to influence not only our approach but our exploitation of the available technologies. And what of those technologies? We have to work within their affordances whether these be within our realms of tutor choice or constrained by institutional directives, as we explored in unit 2. So this level of reflection is a required stage in thinking about how we are going to develop more flexible learning initiatives in our own contexts. In the JISC report you downloaded, you will also find a general heuristic to think through the different dimensions on p 49. Some prompts here:


  • What learning perspectives inform our understanding of second language learning, teaching ICT or science or other subjects or creating teacher development courses, for example?
  • How do these perspectives influence the decisions we take as course designers with respect to the dimensions listed by Collis and Moonen?
  • How are those decisions also influenced by what we know about our learners: their needs, learning desires, the learner ecology?
  • How do we then exploit the technology and the elements of a managed learning environment as detailed by Collis and Moonen (2001: 79 reproduced above) to bring about effective learning?
  • Can the environment provide all we want? Might we need to blend different solutions?


These are not simple questions to answer. Our decisions as course designers/teachers are not always experienced by our learners in the way we intend. Offering increased flexibility and choice can make management of such learning experiences difficult and we'll come to the tutor role next.


Unit 3: Initial tasks


An exploratory paper

I have linked here a preliminary paper that Diane Slaouti wrote with Richard Fay for a conference presentation. In this they begin to explore ideas about how different tutors design their online courses in our own programme. This course unit is the subject of Diane's reflections and Richard reflects on his Intercultural course. In this research they are trying to identify the types of decision tutors take that result in courses looking and feeling quite different.


Hopefully the paper illustrates how different perspectives on the learning experience might lead to the use of the facilities of a particular learning environment in different ways. You might use the framework adopted for thinking this through to reflect on your own learners, especially if you have experience of online teaching at all.





Exploring the affordances of managed systems

I am going to ask you to spend a little time thinking about learning within managed environments. You have all had some experience of one or more of our own different tech-based course units (Blackboard, Moodle, wikis like this, or Wordpress) and

you are also currently having experiences in other tools, particularly MOOCs, and we are exploring newer tools like Canvas in the delivery of this course unit. Some of you are already making significant use of these tools in your own contexts.


We have already had some discussions in this area, but I hope that we can attach our discussions now to some of the literature.


The prompts for discussion here all revolve around affordances of different environments, remembering that affordances not only refer to the 'substance' or characteristics of the tool, but are also perceived and "dependent not only on the physical capabilities of the actors, but also on their goals, plans, values, beliefs and past experiences" (Chuang, 2008).


  • First of all, note your immediate reaction to Moodle, Blackboard, or MOOCs as spaces in which you like to be 'present' as a learner. Do you feel more at home in a specific space? Are you able to say why? Can you relate this to the Collis and Moonen table above?
  • Do you sense a preference for one over the others as a teaching space? If so why?
  • If you have experience of Moodle, or other online spaces like Second Life, or other another system, tell us about how it is being used, your own thinking about pedagogical perspective, and identify any particular strengths and weaknesses in the environment that allow you to realise or restrict your particular aims.
  • If you don't have experience of developing online courses yourself, what differences/similarities in learning experience have you noted in the Blackboard courses you have experienced with us so far? Try to identify if tools have been used differently; if course material is presented differently; if there is a sense that topics and learning outcomes of a particular course seem to lead to different use of the environment by tutors; if differences seem to reflect different learning perspectives on the part of the tutor(s). Don't be afraid to critique. We will also come back to these thoughts when we look at the learner experience in more detail.


Post your ideas in Unit 3: Exploring the affordances of managed systems. As you're posting your thoughts, relate them to ideas explored in this unit and literature you have been reading. Use these to support your personal views.


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