Posts Tagged ‘distance learning’
Lancaster University, one of the leading universities in the UK, has long experience of dealing with distance students and for a long time I have been curious about how their e-learning works. Yesterday I had the opportunity to talk to Karin Tusting, a Senior Lecturer in Linguistics and English Language, and pose four questions.
(1) How are the Courses Organised?
- How do you organise your PhD distance courses?
- Are all the different modules in a PhD distance programme fairly similar (with respect to how they are organised e.g. how many online meetings, how many assessments etc) or are they very varied?
Karin answered my first question with respect to the PhD in Applied Linguistics by Thesis and Coursework, where after six modules of coursework the students will start their research work for their thesis.
The distance students can attend the PhD programme full-time (completing all the coursework in one year) or part-time over two years. The programme is organised according to a blended learning approach. Each year it is compulsory for the students to participate in four face-to-face residential weeks – one induction week in January and three further weeks in July.
There are 5-15 distance students every year. In the induction week at Lancaster University they get to know one another, visit the library, and attend classes where all the courses/modules are presented. After this week they should know which courses they want to take. Part-time students have to select three modules in the first year and three modules in the second year (dealing with the subjects of both linguistics and research methodology). After the induction week the online phase starts.
During the online phase in one of Karin’s modules for example, the students have two units in the first semester which last three weeks each, where they have to read papers, work on tasks, hand in their results, reflect and give feedback. Each module is offered once every two years; therefore there are two cohorts of students in each coursework module.
In the residential weeks at Lancaster University the students attend four to six hours a day where they have to apply themselves to their learning, present results, and communicate with teachers and colleagues. In their ‘free’ time they still have a lot of other work to do. After these three weeks the students are ready to work on their final papers for the modules. They have to hand in the first paper in September, and the second and the third paper in November. In this period they also start to focus on their thesis, by collecting data for example.
During their work on the thesis (and I forgot to ask how long this would last) the students are supported by their supervisor who will be available for them once every two weeks (for full-time students) or once a month (for part-time students). There are no group activities for students and there is no common learning community. Some cohorts of students do, however, self-organise in online groups.
(2) Which Software is Used?
- Which technical tools do you use on the courses? (learning platform, video conferencing tool, messaging software e.g slack, social media)
Karin told me that they work with Moodle extensively and that no other technical tools are used in the coursework modules. This means that the students are mainly working asynchronously and alone. Furthermore the assessments are all text-based. – This is true of the modules Karin worked on, but there are other modules on the same programme which could have different kinds of activities and forms of assessment
This is in contrast to the undergraduate and Masters courses where the students work individually and in groups, and where the teachers are experimenting with more diverse assessment methods at the moment based, on the Digital Lancaster strategy.
During the thesis period students and supervisors communicate one to one mostly via skype.
(3) How do the Teachers do their Job?
- How do you train the teachers of the PhD distance courses to plan the courses, to implement their concept/build the virtual learning environment, to deliver/carry out the courses?
- Do the teachers have help with the courses e.g. pedagogical help to plan their courses, technical help to build the environment, assistance when carrying out the course?
Karin told me that there is no particular training programme for online teachers. There is some technical support from the IT Services. With regard to pedagogical issues inexperienced teachers tend to learn from more experienced colleagues mostly in ad hoc team teaching situations. Once a year the department organises a Teacher Day where the teachers focus on a pedagogical topic with no special emphasis on online learning.
At PhD level there are no tutors supporting the teachers.
(4) How do the Students learn?
- Do you succeed in building a learning community of students and how well does this community work?
- What percentage of the students’ workload is group work or pair work or individual work?
The distance students mostly learn individually and alone. Group activities and interaction organised by the programme is limited to the face-to-face weeks at Lancaster University and occasional online discussions. Karin told me, that the students have usually bonded quite strongly as a group while doing face to face work, which affects how they engage with the distance bits. Online group activities happen on the initiative of the students.
A final question
Before I left, I asked Karin if she likes being an online teacher. She said that teaching online is demanding and that it needs more preparation and more time than f2f teaching. She admitted that time was an issue – as indeed it always is for online teachers. And she started to beam when she mentioned how much she enjoys it and how satisfying it is to watch students think and develope.
I would like to thank Karin for the interview and I’m sorry if have misunderstood anything – this blogpost is just my account of our meeting.