I want my weekend back!

By Haider Ali

Face to face residential schools are core to a number of Open University modules, but this does involve sacrifices: One of them being a complete loss of a weekend, while they go away to a residential school, in a hotel or conference centre. In this post we look at how such learners can participate in an intense online experience over a weekend and still have time for family meals and other activities. The experiences and advice provided here should help instructors to deliver learning experiences that involve high levels of staff/student contact in a short period of time and which are also satisfying and enjoyable for students.

Asynchronous schools (where student interaction can take place on different days and times to each other), can be spread over weeks. These are reasonably common but synchronous ones (where students and tutors are all expected to be online at the same time) seem a far more daunting prospect. Can you keep students on a PC for a weekend? How do you maintain interest and engagement? Over a period of a few years we have developed, tried and tested an approach which seems to yield levels of student satisfaction that are better than other formats.

The online school

The online school involves 18 hours of student contact starting from Friday afternoon to Sunday midday. A school typically has 50 students, 3-4 tutors and a Course Director. Students are expected to have read a case study prior to attending the school and then to work in small teams of about 5 students in order to analyse the case, present their findings and critique the analysis of another group. This broad approach is consistent regardless of whether the school was delivered face-to-face, or on an asynchronous basis over 18 days. The first iteration of the synchronous school broadly followed the above pattern. Based on student feedback changes were made. The changes also took into account suggestions made by Grandzol and Grandzol (2006), such as: ensuring a consistent structure in terms of delivery and the provision of navigation aids. Kirschner (2004) provided insights about the social aspects of online learning and these helped to inform the design of the collaborative task.

The sections below cover the key elements which we evolved as we presented the synchronous version and took into account student feedback.

1.Software familiarity

Students may express dissatisfaction with an online experience, for no other reason than a lack of familiarity with the software. We now run familiarisation sessions a few days prior to the school start.

2.Locations

While students’ movement between classrooms is taken for granted in a face-to-face setting, this can become a serious cause of disruption online when delivery is synchronous. We have therefore minimised the variation of virtual locations, even if it has meant reducing the variation of the student learning experience. For example, rather than having a plenary session (where all students for the whole school would gather in one large group) followed by a tutor group session on the same evening (where individual tutors work with groups of 15 students in their own virtual room), we have found it more effective to just have a plenary session on the first evening.

3.Tutor support

Asynchronous online teaching offers tutors the chance to ask questions of colleagues before answering their students’ questions. In contrast, synchronous teaching is unforgiving in this regard and tutors have very little time to research answers to questions. This has required the recruitment of tutors who are familiar with the relevant platforms and pedagogic content.

4.Workload

What had been a relatively well-paced course when delivered face-to-face was considered to be too intense when delivered wholly online and students complained of being ‘chained’ to their desks for long periods. This was addressed by having a more simplified teaching structure, with fewer distinct sessions and greater optionality for when students would undertake different activities. For example, in the face-to-face version students would attend seminars at a specific time. These were replaced by YouTube videos and whereas initially students were asked to watch these at a specific time, this requirement was dropped, and students were simply told that they were a resource they could use at a time of their choosing. Moreover, we recognised that 6 hours of the learning experience could actually be done on a solitary basis. These 6 hours were removed from the weekend and students were expected to do the work in advance of the school. This helped address the free-riding issue discussed below and also made the remaining 12 hours of study online over a weekend far more manageable.

5.Free riding

This refers to students arriving at the school unprepared. This had been a problem with face-to-face schools and online it caused additional problems, because the required outputs were more substantial. In a face-to-face setting a participant can sit amongst a group of team members, provide some observations and believe that a contribution has been made to the production of a flip chart. In contrast the online version required a report to be written which needed a more substantive input, which required better preparation. The solution was to require students to undertake some preliminary work and return it to the University prior to the start of the school, this would serve as their entry ticket. There has been 100% compliance with this and no complaints. We are now guaranteed to have students who are prepared and if they inadvertently have to leave the school or their internet connection fails, their prework will remain with their team and cause less inconvenience.

6.Clarity of instructions

We provide students and tutors with one set of instructions which are posted on the school calendar, physically close to the links for various activities. The ‘voice’ used in such instructions makes them equally relevant to both student and tutor needs. There are no other locations for students to obtain information.

7.Platforms

Whereas in a face-to-face school, students would produce presentations on flipcharts, on the synchronous online version they collaboratively produce reports. These are created on platforms such as Office 365, which allow students to work synchronously. As they write, students also talk to each other using Adobe Connect. Tutors provide feedback using a mixture of the comments function and audio. This has proven to be an extremely effective means of enabling social learning. Groups of students quickly establish working norms and the co-creation aspect of the final document cannot be underestimated, not least because students perceive a real sense of achievement in having co-written a three thousand word report over a weekend and they recognise from their study and work experiences how efficient and effective this process has been. In contrast, in face-to-face schools, one student would typically take charge of writing on the flipchart, while others suggested how the bullet points could be populated.

8.School management

Traditionally the Open University’s Course Director role had principally been an academic one. We have found that an academic who is very familiar with the different software applications being used is an extremely useful skillset.

Conclusion

By the time of the last presentation of these schools, satisfaction scores were very high, and students were expressing some surprise as to how enjoyable and effective the whole experience had been and most importantly how much less disruption it had caused their personal lives. In summary our experience suggests:

  • Have participants complete all work that can be attempted on a solitary basis before the online weekend starts
  • Any pre-work should be available to all members of student groups who will be working together. This ensures that if a participant is unable to attend, their inputs are still available for use by others
  • Each online session should have a clearly signposted set of resources, activities and required outputs
  • All instructions should be located in one place, ideally an online calendar
  • Start the online session with compelling content, which will better ensure full attendance from the very beginning
  • Offer students the opportunity to use the relevant software beforehand. Student lack of capability with software will always translate into complaints about the organisation of the event
  • Ensure one or more members of staff are very familiar with the software applications being used

References

Grandzol, J. R., & Grandzol, C. J. (2006). Best practices for online business education. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 7(1).

Kirschner, P. (2004). Design, development, and implementation of electronic learning environments for collaborative learning. Educational Technology Research and Development, 52(3), 39e46.

Haider Ali is a Lecturer in Strategic Marketing at the Open University.

This blog represents the views of the individual, not SCiLAB or the Open University.

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