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Hull learning resources and activities

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Hull - resources and activities case study

Hull MEd CS Cover Sheet.doc


MEd in Elearning

Shirley Bennett


Author: Shirley Bennett


1. Why did you use this e-learning approach?



The MEd in eLearning programme was designed to provide professionals from across the world with the opportunity to interact with others in a range of education and training contexts and roles through a wholly-online Masters programme.  The intention was to ensure provision for individuals unable to travel to Hull and to develop provision which would deliberately not simply attempt to replicate classroom-based teaching but exploit the opportunities and added value which the VLE offered.  Participants are encouraged to work independently and collaboratively as they explore core issues involved in the design, development and implementation of eLearning with specific focus and emphasis placed on their professional working context.


2. What was the context in which you used this e-learning approach?



The MEd in ICT for TESOL, precursor to the current programme, was the first wholly online Masters programme within the University of Hull when established in January 2000.   This evolved into the MEd in eLearning, accredited from January 2004, to provide a more generic programme.  Participants include professionals in a range of roles and discipline backgrounds, across sectors as varied as HE, FE, schools, Trade Union Education, and the voluntary and private training sectors, in a variety of areas around the UK and internationally, from Europe and places as far apart as Brazil, Egypt and Hong Kong.


There are two possible start dates a year (September and March) and the programme comprises 6 x 20 credit modules and a 60 credit dissertation.  Each module can be taken as a stand alone course independent of the full Masters programme and there are optional exit points at Certificate and Diploma level. 


3. What technologies and/or e-tools were available to you?



The range of geographical and professional contexts represented by the student body on the programme means that the approach taken is largely based around asynchronous communication, involving discussion, online activities and project work.  The principal tools used are those of the VLE (until now the University of Hull’s own VLE – Merlin) and include a pathway tool, resource centre, email, text-conferencing and e-portfolio tools which include a form of blogging tool.  However, increasingly the learning and teaching makes use of synchronous tools external to the VLE itself such as the Skype, MSN, wikis and Googledocs.


The Merlin VLE was for many years the ideal tool for the programme as it was designed and built specifically to facilitate and enhance online collaborative learning along a social-constructivist model involving the creation of an online community.  The VLE has, however, had little investment and no development in recent years and the programme will transfer to the new institutional VLE once this is selected.


4. What was the design?


The e-learning approach on the programme is based on an underlying assumption that engagement in study will take place alongside participants’ professional work, with academic study enhanced by reference to current practice, and direct relevance of study to challenges and issues within the work context.  With this in mind, almost all modules encourage assignments and project work to be contextualised within real educational contexts, and students are encouraged to combine a depth of exploration into issues pertaining to elearning within their own contexts with mutual and peer learning through comparison and contrast with the contexts of their online colleagues.


All programme tutors have been involved in the design of active learning activities which include online seminars, mini-action research projects, the development, implementation and evaluation of a period of eTeaching Practice, the design and development of e-resources, and the development of a collaboratively-owned e-dossier comprising individual papers investigating a negotiated theme and topic related to elearning management and implementation.


5. How did you implement and embed this e-learning approach?



Delays with registration processes continue to be a particular problem, but this is the case for much part-time provision and the fact that access to the Merlin VLE is not tied to registration partly alleviates the difficulties resulting from delays. The programme is subject to the same quality assurance processes as any programme within the university, including student module TQAs, tutor module reports, programme annual monitoring reports, External Examiner reports etc.  There is also the opportunity for significant informal interaction between staff and students, and for online staff-student meetings and these are invaluable for evaluating the effectiveness of the programme and the e-learning approach and to guide review and revisions.

Engagement in this programme has provided a valued form of professional development for some other academic colleagues and support staff across the university and has been instrumental in informing the development of online provision of modules and programmes within their own departments and faculties.



6. What tangible benefits did this e-learning approach produce?



The Master of Education in eLearning is designed as a part-time, delivered entirely online from its first inception and offers significant flexibility of time, pace and place of study.  Hence there is no previous traditional-delivery programme to draw comparisons with.  The programme largely serves a student group who would not be able to follow a programme with this university except via the wholly online learning approach, and enables access to study for students around the world, the large majority of whom are studying alongside their professional lives, ensuring a symbiotic relationship between their study and work contexts.  This enhances the learning experience for students and the teaching experience for staff, as is highlighted by typical student comments:


• "The international dynamics of the group enabled a real development in my breadth of vision in relation to teaching and learning in general and, teaching and learning online."


• "During the course we were always encouraged to relate the learning to our work environment and I found the content helped me become more effective in my professional capacity."


• "Having access to professionals from other areas of education, with all the experience, know-how and information that they bring to the course not only makes the course interesting but gives me insights into my own ways of working."


The direct relevance of the programme, the assessed projects, and the other learning activities, to work contexts, and the benefits individuals gain from the opportunity to draw on the experience of online peers within a range of sectors and to learn from the variety of experiences and expertise they represent, is evidenced by the fact that many students gain promotion at work, and/or secure new posts more directly related to the implementation of elearning during the programme, as well as a result of gaining the Masters qualification. 


The External Examiner for the programme has highlighted the particular benefits students derive from the inclusion of collaborative assessment tasks, and noted the positive impact on their achievement.  The use of the Merlin Portfolio, increasingly in combination with external, largely Web 2.0, tools, facilitates and enhances the collaboration which is possible on the programme and ensures both secure submission of joint work, and provision for access to the complete moderation process, for programme staff and External Examiners, all within the same online environment.  The personalised nature of the VLE in use on the programme has been important in enhancing group identity and creating a sympathetic learning environment and partnership in the learning and teaching process - this is especially important given the dispersed nature of the cohorts on the programme.  The exploitation of the enhanced opportunities which online technologies provide for student engagement not only in collective working, but in iterative processes of critical peer review of coursework and exploration of different facets of academic and professional writing resulted in the fact that a number of students on the MEd in eLearning have had papers accepted for conference presentation and for publication during the course of their studies.


The programme has had a positive impact on the wider institution.  It has provided CPD for a number of academic and support staff in other areas of the university, both giving first hand experience of online learning and developing critical insight into elearning and the relationships between learning theory and elearning design which has influenced and enhanced their own development of online activities, modules and complete programmes.  A new online Masters programme in the Faculty of Health will start in September 07, developed by a member of staff whose own understanding of elearning was enhanced by participation in the MEd in eLearning.  As the first wholly online programme within the institution, the programme has been instrumental too in broadening the university's sense of the student identity beyond that of the traditional campus-based learner.  Online students now benefit from a much broader range of online and e-resources (primary journal expenditure is in ejournals and books will be purchased in e-book format where available) and from the provision of a range of student services (e.g. study advice, counselling, careers skills) by email/website.  Such developments do not solely benefit online students but enhance provision for the full range of student-types, whether full- or part-time and on traditional off-campus programmes.


A further tangible benefit from the programme, this time to the wider educational community, is the publication of the following book:

Bennett, S., Marsh, D. and Killen, C. (2006) Handbook of Online Education, Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd. ISBN: 0826472966.  Two of the authors were involved in the development of the MEd in eLearning and teach on the programme.  A number of the activities within the book are derived from the MEd in eLearning programme and from positive responses to students.  A review of this book can be found on the Escalate website at: http://escalate.ac.uk/3427



7. Did implementation of this e-learning approach have any disadvantages or drawbacks?



While the use of asynchronous communication enables significant flexibility of access, and enables students and staff alike to fit the programme around other aspects of their lives, there are accompanying problems such as on the one hand intrusion into work-life balance, and on the other, the challenge of self-discipline which flexibility itself brings.  However, collaboration itself brings challenges which in many ways similar to those faced in more traditional learning contexts, and at times, leads to frustration if all are not seen to contribute equally.  These are often exacerbated by the time-factor inherent in asynchronous communication patterns, and students are not always as sympathetic to the needs and situations of their online colleagues as one would hope.


A major problem encountered with the approach is that the “market” differs from that of other programmes in the department, which largely serve the local or regional needs of teachers within the school sector.  The established marketting and publicity processes are therefore inadequate for this programme and recruitment remains the over-riding challenge faced by the Med in eLearning.  Similarly, since the other programmes within the department use traditional modes of delivery, the distance-learning students on the MEd in eLearning do not have the opportunity to incorporate modules from other departmental specialities within their programme of study.


8. How did this e-learning approach accord with or differ from any relevant departmental and/or institutional strategies?



The e-learning approach on this programme accords with key aims of the faculty in which the programme is based, the Institute for Learning, contributing to provision for off-campus and work-based students and to the aspiration of “Accelerating the University’s involvement in open and distance learning methodology, from the regional to the global scale”.  It complements the significant levels of blended learning within other programmes across the faculty, but differs in being wholly-online, without a face-to-face component.



9. Summary and Reflection



The e-learning approach on the programme has been successful in pedagogical terms and has provided an enriching learning experience for the participants based around the UK and beyond.  It has contributed to the development of online provision in other faculties across the institution.  However, improved strategies for marketting are needed to improve recruitment and enable larger class-sizes and opportunities for optional modules within the programme.

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