Diary of an online course: part 1

A few months ago I wrote about an online course we were planning for EAP teachers in learning technologies. As the course is just about to finish, I thought it might be useful to write a short summary of the process of setting up and running the course over a couple of blog posts.

Choosing the participants

The response was very positive to our call for participants for the pilot programme, we had about 70 applicants for the 30 places available. They found out about the course through this blog, a presentation I gave at a conference in Sheffield in November or the BALEAP mailing list. In deciding who got on the course, we came back to our original reason for running it, namely to give confidence to teachers who were interested in using technology but who didn’t feel they had the confidence or technical knowledge to implement it. So, in reading through the applications, we pinpointed teachers who seemed to fall under that description. Soon, we had 30 ready to take the course, most of them were tutors at other UK universities but we also had a few teaching abroad, one in Holland, one Hong Kong and two in Cambodia.

Hosting the course

It was tricky deciding which platform to use for the course. Our university uses Blackboard as its VLE, but because most of the participants were from outside Sheffield, there was no way to give them access to it. We also don’t like Blackboard very much and felt it was too old-fashioned for what we were trying to do. We did look at Blackboard’s free web-hosted option called CourseSites, but again weren’t happy with the overall look and design.

Through our university we can apply for web space in which we are free to install whatever website or VLE we want. We did that, and then thought about what the best options were. We looked into installing Moodle as we knew many of the teachers on the course would be familiar with that, but there were some technical issues which meant that we could only install a much older version of Moodle with reduced functionality.

Our original preference for the course was to run it through an installation of WordPress. Now, most people are familiar with WordPress as a blogging platform, but you can also use it to host your own website. The difference is normally where the website is hosted. If you’re blogging, it’s likely to be hosted by WordPress itself so there’s little or no set up needed from you. But if you want to have more control over the website then you will host it on your own server or pay to host it on someone else’s. This takes a bit more setting up but gives you a lot more control and the big difference is that you can install plug-ins on the site. These give your site added functionality such as e-commerce, contact forms, forums or thousands of other things you might wan t to make part of your site.

We’d been using WordPress for a couple of internal sites we’d set up so we were reasonably familiar with it; however, we’d never used it as an actual VLE for any courses. We looked around for some paid plug-ins that could be used to add this functionality to the site. There’s quite a few out there: WP Courseware, Sensei, Lifter and Learndash  but in the end we decided to go with Learndash. Most of them seem to have similar functionality but it was a quote from a review on a site that caught my eye about the Learndash developers:

“they’re eLearning first, plugin second, and WordPress third. And that will have an impact on how you see, experience and value what they’ve done.”

I think the fact that they were focussed on pedagogy first before technology sold them to me.

Course Content

In deciding on course content, we drew on our own experiences teaching EAP with technology, conversations with the staff at our centre as well as a pre-course questionnaire to the participants on the course. We came up with seven broad topics for the 7 weeks of the course:

  1. introductions
  2. web tools
  3. video
  4. cloud documents
  5. corpus linguistics
  6. VLEs
  7. mobile learning

We realised quite early on that we probably needed more than one week for some of the topics but the need to complete the course before the end of the university semester meant we had to squeeze some of them a little bit.

Module structure

We wanted the course to have a practical focus with chance for classroom experimentation so we built each module round an experiential learning cycle (kind of), similar to Kolb’s model. Each module would start with the participants experiencing a technology from a student’s point of view. They would then reflect on that from a teacher’s perspective identifying how that could be used in their context, and this was normally done through a forum discussion. They would then be given further input via interactive content to help them understand how to use that technology better. This normally took the form of videos and quizzes created using a programme called Storyline Articulate 2. They would then be given a practical task to try out this technology with their students and then asked to report back and reflect on that in a forum.

I think the idea was to have most of these modules ready to go by the time the course started but that never really happened as our own teaching timetables and other projects meant that we were working on each module right up to the Friday morning deadline each week (and sometimes even after as we made last minute additions and corrections). While a little scary, this turned out to be very useful as it allowed us to adapt the course as it went along and we got feedback from the participants about how they were finding it, particularly the workload and how much they could realistically get through in the time available.

In the next part of the diary, I’ll talk about how the course actually went and report back on the feedback from the participants.

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About David Read

I work at the English Language Teaching Centre at the University of Sheffield as the Director of TEL (technology-enhanced learning). I've been an EFL/EAP teacher and teacher trainer for over 20 years and have worked in 14 different countries. Settling down is clearly an issue for me.

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