Developing e-learning courses for work-based learning
Learning Technology Research Institute, University of North London,
166-220 Holloway Road, London N7 8DB UK
+44 (0) 207 7753 5194
Higher Education Research and Development Unit, University College London,
1-19 Torrington Place, London, WC1E 6BT UK
+44 (0)20 7679 1905
This paper describes the development of an e-learning course for work-based learning. It discusses the design aims, within the context of the emergent trends in education and training, and the application of information and communication technologies (ICT), including the Internet, in making e-learning courses a reality. The development process is outlined, and many of the challenges and problems that were faced and how they were (or could be) overcome are discussed, with a view to disseminating our experiences to others who may be embarking on similar ventures.
E-learning, World Wide Web, work-based learning, learning materials, multimedia
Training delivered and supported via the World Wide Web and the Internet is now a real proposition. Digital networks and IT equipment are now more widely available, powerful and stable. It is claimed that the global economy places greater demand on businesses and individuals to remain competitive in the marketplace, putting training high on the agenda (DfEE, 1998). Training providers are realising the potential of delivering their expertise in the form of more flexible learning opportunities to an expanding global market. Universities are under increasing pressure to develop a virtual presence in the face of widespread global competition, from both within the commercial and the University sectors (HEFCE, 2000).
This paper outlines a case study from a European research project that developed an e-learning course designed for delivery through a virtual university, to learners in the workplace. It raises some of the challenges and issues that are part and parcel of the opportunities and pressures that prevail. The main focus of the paper is on the design and development of a pedagogic framework and course materials that meet the needs of the target learners and take advantage of the opportunities afforded by e-learning. The paper will highlight some of the issues that were raised as this development work progressed and how they were or could be overcome.
The research project
This case study is based on experiences gained from the Training for Innovation in Supply Chain Management project. The project was set up with funding from the European Union to develop and deliver online masters-level courses in supply chain management to learners employed in small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs). The rationale behind it was that e-learning could be a viable solution to the training needs of SMEs, who play a vital part of the European economy. In 1996, for example, 99.1% of all business transactions in the UK involved the participation of an SME (Bagwell, 1997). However, SMEs face a number of problems in maintaining the skills of their employees. They are characterised by having small training budgets and limited release time, making it difficult for staff to study full-time or on block-release courses away from the workplace. A recent survey into the extent of e-learning in Europe by CEDEFOP (2001) shows that not only is the demand for e-learning growing in Europe, but also that smaller companies (with fewer than 50 employees) tend to make greater use of e-learning methods.
A large partnership was created to design and create the course and the framework for the virtual university that would ultimately deliver and support it. Led by a co-ordinating organisation, a number of universities were involved who already had expertise in delivering courses in supply chain management or online learning. A company experienced in the development of online systems completed the partnership.
A number of important trends in education and training have emerged over the last 20 years or so which have paved the way for an initiative like this. Information and communication technologies (ICT) have not only had a profound effect on many aspects of economic and social life during the 1990s and early years of the 21st century, but also on teaching and learning (e.g. La Velle and Nichol, 2000). E-learning is currently the pinnacle of these developments.
The 1980s saw a move towards increased distance and flexible learning, drawing on the successes of institutions such as the Open University in the UK. Learning could take place at the time and location chosen by the learner. The move towards modularisation of graduate and post-graduate training programmes promoted further learner flexibility, in giving choice over what is studied, and in some cases in what sequence it could be studied in. The application of computer-based technologies and multimedia to training, enabled new forms of media rich and interactive training applications to be developed and incorporated into the distance learning media mix, e.g. video discs, computer-based training packages (CBT), CD-ROMs.
In the mid 1990s, the concept of lifelong learning became a focus for governmental policy internationally (Merricks, 2001), promoting learning as an ongoing process throughout life. Training or re-training can be taken when it is required on a just-in-time basis (J-I-T) and it usually encompasses flexible learning options, enabling learning to take place in parallel with working and home life. It is an extremely 'learner-centred' approach, and has become one way of fulfilling some of the training needs imposed upon society by the changing economic requirements.
More recently the term 'e-learning' has emerged, encompassing learning delivered or facilitated by electronic devices and networks. Well-designed e-learning programmes can offer similar benefits of flexibility and learning choice as with distance learning, but can also offer additional benefits as well. Some examples are engaging and interactive multimedia learning materials, electronic transfer of files between the provider and the learner, computer-based assessments providing immediate feedback and computer mediated communication (CMC). When CMC is also included, as it is in many e-learning programmes, it can provide an enhanced learning experience. Learners can communicate asynchronously and synchronously with tutors, subject specialists and their peers, which helps to overcome problems associated with the isolation that can face distance learners, such as reduced motivation and at the extreme, failure to complete courses. The potential of e-learning is exemplified by the number of organisations created and becoming involved, for example the University for Industry (LearnDirect) and international consortiums such as Universitas 21.
The higher education sector has begun to embrace some of these educational developments. A strategic review of the university sector in 1997 revealed that 70% of universities in the UK were actively engaged in the development of a wide range of Internet platforms, educational software and multimedia resources designed to facilitate computer aided learning and assessment (HEFCE, 1998). Furthermore, the perceived need for global competition in Higher Education has led to the proliferation of projects and initiatives focused on the development of online education (see, e.g., Smith & Oliver, 2000).
It could be argued that HEIs needed to re-think their teaching and learning strategies, in part influenced by the successful experiences emanating from the Open University, to adopt more constructivist and learner-centred approaches (e.g. Laurillard 1993). In the meantime, Universities have become 'wired' (externally via the Internet and internally through more sophisticated networks and integrated computer-based systems), are now drawing upon established models for flexible delivery, and are benefiting from new collaborations (Collis and Moonen, 2001). At the same time, the large-scale proliferation of multimedia personal computers and Internet access in businesses and in homes makes e-learning a viable option for many learners. This is especially true for adult learners who may want to study, but not attend a local college, or learners seeking work-related training that they can undertake in the workplace.
In conclusion, the technical pre-requisites for e-learning exist, learners are getting used to and expecting more flexible education and training solutions, and many HEIs, commercial organisations and consortiums are taking advantage of the commercial and educational opportunities available. It is within this context that the project took shape and embarked on its task. There was a clear case that e-learning could suit the needs of the organisations (SMEs) and individuals requiring training, in a flexible manner which could fit in with their working patterns.
The development model
Facilitating large-scale distributed course development
As mentioned earlier, the project was a collaboration between a large number of partners, predominantly from the UK, but with some European partners as well. To facilitate the course development process a number of expert teams were formed, each with its own specialism. They worked in parallel but in collaboration within a structured developmental process (see Fig. 1 below for an illustration of this structure). A central team was responsible for the overall management and scheduling of the project. Authors from a number of universities produced the material, with guidance and support from development teams. The learner support team designed the pedagogic and learner support frameworks, and provided advice and quality control on the effectiveness of the learning materials produced. The academic review team approved material for its curriculum suitability, and monitored subject coverage from one module to another. The technical team developed the bespoke delivery system, and worked with authors on the technical development of their materials, transforming them for online delivery, after approval by the pedagogic and academic reviewers. These development teams were supplemented by teams responsible for evaluation and delivery, whilst the team developing the broader virtual university provided marketing and administrative services and a Board of Studies to oversee the development of academic and accreditation standards.
Figure 1: The development and delivery model
This structure is based on an 'industrialised model' of development, in which a chain of experts each plays their part in the process. This is in contrast to the 'craft' model more familiar to lecturers, who are accustomed to designing and delivering traditional courses themselves (Peters, 1998). Each of the teams worked in parallel on their respective areas of activity within a framework of regular meetings, at which they would come together and present their progress and experiences. What this meant in practice was that the learner support team was developing the pedagogical framework and guidelines for development, as the authors were specifying their module content and preparing to draft their materials, and the delivery system was being specified and developed. This was the only way that the project could meet its goals within the time-scale allowed. As will be seen, this dialectic relationship, which would be ideally suited to research, raised problems for a developmental project that adopted an industrialised form of production.
The learning materials drafting process
The participating universities were contracted to develop one or more modules, for which they would retain ownership. A total of 12 modules were contracted for development initially. Authors were selected on the basis of their subject expertise. They were not required to have any previous experience of writing distance or online learning, although some had. In some universities, a team of authors worked on modules, or in some cases on individual units, and where this was the case, a lead author or co-ordinator was identified to participate in development meetings and be the main point of contact.
The authoring process incorporated a number of stages, designed to ensure that quality materials were produced. The first stage was to produce a specification for each unit, using a template included in the author's guidelines. The template specified the learning outcomes, objectives, range of content coverage, and how this would be delivered in terms of teaching input, activities, and assessment methods. These unit templates were submitted to the pedagogic and academic review teams for approval. Once approved, drafting of the unit commenced. Completed units were also submitted to the pedagogic and academic review teams for approval that the required standards had been met. A period of 10 working days was allowed for this review process, to ensure that authors would receive timely feedback. The academic reviewer checked that the subject matter was adequately covered, and didn't overlap significantly with other modules. The pedagogic review examined the draft in terms of its effectiveness as learning material, and feedback was provided to reinforce successful attributes and suggest improvements to address weaknesses. A technical review was also carried out, to check that authors were making appropriate and realistic use of the online medium. If any revisions were required, the author was responsible for undertaking them, and re-submitting the unit for approval. Once each unit had been 'signed off' by each reviewer, it was passed to the technical development team to transform it into online material. Peer reviews amongst authors was also encouraged, enabling them to share experiences and learn from each other's practice.
Designing the course
Whilst the goals of the project were clear, there was no obvious design blueprint for the course. Online, work-based learning may have been on the increase, but at the time when the project started its development work in 1998, there were no proven models or guidelines that could be taken off-the-shelf and implemented by the project. Expertise and good practice guidelines could be drawn upon, for example from the Open University in the UK, but the project was required to develop many of its own frameworks and guidelines to suit its precise needs and goals. Many aspects of the project went through an evolutionary process as a result, as the project progressed and experience was accumulated.
Materials for work-based learning
The project started from the assumption that work-based learning should integrate the learning process as far as possible into the work role and its tasks, allowing experience to be drawn upon, and knowledge and practice gained to be applied in future work. This required careful design. Pragmatically, work-based learning imposes structural and organisational constraints upon education - the need to fit learning around existing commitments (both in terms of work and family) means that the curriculum must be designed so that it can be undertaken flexibly, both in terms of time and, ideally, place. This, in turn, places limitations on traditional forms of education, which are organised and scheduled to meet the organisational needs of the host institution rather than the individual learners.
The term work-based learning is used to describe independent learning through work. It is a self-managed process supported by learning contracts, Higher Education and work-place mentors and various types of learning and guidance materials.
(University for Industry, 1999; cited in Johnson, 2000)
This definition summarises much of want we wanted to achieve within our course. Learners would predominantly study independently, within a framework of support and activities designed to encourage face-to-face interaction with work colleagues and other online learners. It was intended at the outset to base the course on a modular structure, which enables greater flexibility, in terms of learner selection of subject matter and order of study. Modularity also makes it easier to break down the learning material into smaller, more manageable components. Work-based learners find it easier to study if they have short chunks of material (say 45-60 minutes) to study in short spaces of time, for example during a lunch break, in a period devoted to learning or during a slack period during the day. Such timescales are also pertinent to online learners, who may find it tiring to spend a long time sitting at the computer and maintaining their concentration.
The development of a pedagogic framework
One of the key aims of the project was to develop a shared pedagogic model across the diverse specialisms and teams involved. This work was led by the learner support team, and started at an early stage in the development process to provide a foundation and to give direction to the subsequent development work. Any model would have to be flexible in order to meet the various requirements of the project and its participants, and would need to:
- meet the needs of learners in SMEs, studying in the workplace via online delivery
- be applicable to materials delivered through an online system developed as part of the project
- fit the requirements and academic standards of a global virtual university and allow a variety of routes to assessment.
This was the starting point, and the work was driven by the goal of meeting these needs, and drawing on existing research evidence. The reality which emerged was a series of models, adapted to meet the changing needs of the project as development progressed (Bradley and Oliver, 2002).
- Model 1: Flexible learning (combining elements of flexible, computer-based and work-based learning)
- Model 2: Socio-constructivist learning (based on Laurillard's conversational framework)
- Model 3: Experiential learning (based on Kolb's learning cycle)
- Model 4: A pragmatic synthesis (combining some elements of each of the previous 3 models).
The first model proposed highly flexible learning, which combined open learning (the learning should take place when and where the learner chooses), computer-based learning (delivered via a computer system), and work-based learning (applicable to and developed within a working environment). There was also a move to retain as much flexibility as possible within the materials and for routes to accreditation. Core materials would be supplemented by separate assessment materials, which learners would complete for any qualifications they desired.
The second model arose when changes of staff within the project led to the review of the initial pedagogic model. The main change was the introduction of discussion and collaboration into the materials, drawing on socio-constructivist approaches to learning, particularly the work of Laurillard (1983), as adapted for course design by Conole and Oliver (1998).
This second model proved to be too far outside the experience of most of the authors. When the first drafts of their materials were received, it became apparent that they were largely ignoring the guidelines that had been prepared, and were working in the style that was most familiar to them. A compromise was reached by the decision to adopt a model which everyone was familiar with, and which was highly suited to work-based learning. Experiential learning, based on Kolb's learning cycle (1984) was at the heart of it. Whilst learners' experience from the workplace was an important starting point, teaching materials were also needed for those learners who required them or who desired a more theoretical grounding. Consequently, content was provided within the materials which learners could work with to enhance the concrete experience and knowledge they already had. They could combine these experiences with the new knowledge they were acquiring or formulating, with external experiences from case studies and related reading materials, and were encouraged to conduct reflective observation through questions, activities, self-assessments and work-based activities. Additional content or theory enabled learners to conceptualise the topic being covered, culminating in work-based activities that promoted experimentation and work-based application.
Further evolution coincided with the release of the prototype of the delivery system. Although a dialogue had been ongoing between the learner support systems team, the technical developers and the authors, the prototype system reflected the designers' intuitive pedagogic model. The system underwent a rapid evolutionary process that mirrored the development of the pedagogic models, moving from instructional to experiential learning. It moved from a text-oriented model towards a more flexible design that was text-led but which placed equal importance on activity, collaboration and the development of a personal portfolio. And importantly, it imposed a structural framework upon the learning materials which had been lacking before.
This final pedagogic model arose out of a pragmatic need to devise a commonly understood and workable approach that suited all the stakeholders and met the requirements of the project. The resulting model was based on the following characteristics:
- Modules will be masters-level, of 100 learning hours each. Each module will be divided into 10 units, of approximately 10 hours of study material. They will have a common structure, but some variation will be permitted to suit specific subject matter and author style.
- The delivery system will provide a structure for learning, but will also permit learner choice of study pathways, both within modules and units.
- Opportunities for learner online discussions and exchanges of views will be built into the materials.
- The learner support structure will combine online tutor feedback, an in-company mentor and regional facilitator.
- Assessment will consist of a combination of self-assessment activities which will have computer-generated feedback or model answers and tutor-marked assessments, with credits awarded on a module basis.
- Assessment and accreditation will be optional. Learners can accumulate credits as they completed modules, and subsequently gain recognition for them from an appropriate institution (eventually from the virtual university). Alternatively, they can take combinations of materials to meet emerging training needs, rather than aiming for a specific qualification.
The modules contain the teaching input, and will be combined with activities, case studies outlining real life examples and experiences, and further resources for learners to explore a topic in more depth. Activities will comprise of both self-assessment activities, in which learners can obtain immediate feedback to check their understanding of what they had covered, and summative activities in which learners can conduct research or answer a particular question posed. Summative activities will be work-based where possible, to ensure that the process of learning can be integrated with working practices, and to allow opportunities for workplace application.
The development of a learner portfolio was also supported. Portfolios are a common feature of vocational qualification, and offer a way of gathering evidence to show someone's skills, knowledge and achievements. The portfolio gathers evidence and is accessible online from the delivery system. It provides a valuable record of the learner's progress, and contributes to the assessment process.
Another component that was important to build into the overall design framework was a Training Needs Analysis. This was conceived as an online diagnostic tool that would help organisations and individual learners to ascertain their learning requirements, against the syllabus offered within the course. On the basis of this analysis, it was intended that learners would build personalised pathways through the materials using negotiated learning contracts.
Specifying the pedagogic framework
Guidelines setting out this framework were provided as a series of printed booklets, with the purpose of promoting shared understanding amongst the project teams. Guidelines were produced to cover the key areas, for:
- Tutors, in-company mentors and regional facilitators - the learner support network
- Regional Delivery Centres.
The guidelines were circulated for comments amongst the appropriate project teams, before being distributed and discussed at project team meetings. They were revised in parallel with the development of the pedagogic framework.
The author guidelines set out the underpinning pedagogic framework for the learning materials. They incorporated:
- The context of authoring for the project
- The pedagogic framework
- The learner support framework
- Guidance on preparing units, using multimedia, incorporating peer group discussion, designing activities and assessment methods
- A template for specifying the aims, objectives, learning outcomes, learning methods and assessment methods of each unit
- A description of the process for submitting drafts and acceptable electronic formats.
The intention was to provide authors with examples of good practice they could utilise in their materials, and help them produce effective and consistent materials.
Whilst the unit template and the issuing of author guidelines, combined with
briefing sessions and discussions at regular meetings were all designed to promote
shared understanding amongst authors and the review teams, it transpired that
this was not enough to ensure that quality learning materials were produced.
As the first drafts were submitted for review, two issues became apparent. Firstly,
there was a lot of stylistic inconsistency from one module to another. Secondly,
the review process was taking much longer than expected, and reviewers found
that they were making many of the same points to different authors, and in some
cases to the same authors on more than one unit. One of the solutions was to
revise the guidelines into a more detailed specification, and to devise a set
of criteria that the reviewers would use to assess the quality of the submitted
materials. Authors were presented with a checklist of the minimum standards
expected, and reviewers were able to evaluate and provide feedback on the drafts
they received more quickly. This simplified the review process, minimising the
need for lengthy and repetitive feedback.
Table 1: The criteria for checking submitted materials
Utilisation of Internet technologies
The project specified a bespoke system that would fulfil the needs of this course, plus the broader needs of the virtual university and the other courses that would eventually be offered through it. The system would have a Web interface, with a public information area, and secure areas for registered learners. As well as delivering learning materials to the learners, the system also handled all the required administrative functions and communication facilities for all the parties involved (administrators, tutors, learners, etc.). The back-end database system would handle all the learning materials and administrative data. The full specification of the system is not included here, as it was developed by the technical team, and is not the intended scope of this paper.
The learning materials incorporated multimedia elements where they were appropriate and where they would enhance the learning experience - for example, short video talking heads to provide examples or quotes from experts, and Flash-based animated and interactive graphics to illustrate processes. We were conscious of the need to provide rich and interactive learning materials that would enhance the learning process, rather than hinder it through a gratuitous use of technology. Using technology for technology's sake could detract from the real learning content, or frustrate users by creating slow download times or requiring them to have high-spec PCs and a range of helper applications to be able to access the materials.
One area where technology could usefully be employed was in creating interactive activities and assessments that could give immediate computer generated feedback. Authors were encouraged to design activity questions and write a range of responses that would take advantage of these technical possibilities, as a way of allowing learners to check their own progress through self-assessments, and as a valuable feedback mechanism.
CMC was also incorporated within the system to enable communication amongst users. We discuss how CMC was used within the learning materials later in the paper.
The resulting course
Each unit was designed to contain a notional 10 hours of material. This included working through the learning content, carrying out activities and assessment, building up a portfolio, engaging in online discussion groups, and reading case studies and related materials. The bespoke delivery system imposed an overall consistent structure and functionality on the course materials. Each module unit was divided into a number of sections, ideally between 4 and 6, which provided manageable amounts of material for individual learning sessions, around a particular topic. Within each section the material is separated into content, related material, case studies and activities, each accessible through a series of 'tabs' along the top of the screen. Other tabs provide access to additional services for learners: 'community' includes communication facilities between the tutor and other learners, and 'student services' contains the learner's portfolio compiled from their activity responses, a study guide and access to support services.
This structure enables learners to construct their own navigational and learning pathways through the materials. The author guides the learners through the material according to their suggested route, but learners can also make their own choice from the material in terms of what they look at and when they look at it. Because content, activities and related materials are presented separately, learners can for example choose to attempt all the activities first if they have a lot of experience in that area, or they can skim through the content and go straight to the case studies to find out about real-life examples. The result is a hyperstructure, a highly user-centred model which allows the users to have considerable freedom of access through a network of nodes of content and to pursue non-linear pathways through it (Boyle, 1997).
Orientation is provided for users in a number of ways, helping them to identify their location within the materials. The system only allows access through the tabs to materials within that section, so the user can't accidentally navigate off to another part of the unit. Information at the bottom of the screen tells the user which module, unit and section they are currently accessing.
Initially, 12 modules were developed, with a view of expanding this number over time, as other subject areas were identified. There were modules specifically related to supply chain management such as Logistics, with more general topics tailored for the course, for example E-Commerce and Managing Change.
Use of ICT/multimedia
Technically, the materials utilise widely available web technologies to enhance and support the learning process. Graphics were animated and interactive where appropriate, for example to illustrate process flows. To enable learner self-assessment and to provide immediate feedback a number of activities making use of programmed responses were designed. For self-assessment activities, the technical development team developed a number of templates for different types of activities, for example for 'drag and drop' matching exercises, jigsaw puzzles to construct sequences, and 'hangman' style puzzles for identifying terms. These templates served two purposes. For the authors, they provided examples of the type of activity that could be incorporated into their materials, as some were struggling with the concept of computer-assessed self-assessment activities. For the technical developers, it was a way of saving development time through the re-use of a component and its code. Activities also include text input boxes, or allow attached files to be uploaded to the system database. Learner's responses to activities are automatically stored in their portfolio, which is available for them, their tutor, or their mentor to view through the 'student services' tab. The development of a portfolio allows learners to build up a record of their work on the course and their achievements.
The use of audio and video components was not developed within the materials, for a number of reasons. The project team was concerned about the additional download times, computer capabilities, and additional helper applications which learners may incur. It transpired that many of the authors were unaccustomed to developing audio-visual material, and suggestions for it were few and far between. Another practical reason was that drafting the modules took longer than expected, and that these audio-visual elements represented one area that could be cut out of the process without substantially jeopardising the overall quality and effectiveness of the materials. However, we were aware that materials could easily be enhanced in the future with the addition of more multimedia content.
Promoting online discussion and collaboration
One of the key design aims had been to facilitate computer mediated communication (CMC) within the system, and to make use of this within the learning materials. Synchronous communication could be conducted via the chat facility, and asynchronous communication was facilitated through the discussion groups and via email between individuals. However, a main area of difficulty in achieving discussion and collaboration amongst learners, was that we did not expect to have cohorts of learners beginning modules or units at the same time, one of the organisational drawbacks of allowing learners flexibility in when they choose to start a study programme. This presented two problems. We could not try and encourage learners to build online relationships with their peers that could develop as their course progressed. Secondly, we could not incorporate collaborative activities or activities which required discussion or debate with other learners, as it would be impossible to predict if more than one learner would be studying the same activity at the same time. It is now widely recognised that many e-learners benefit from these kinds of peer relationships and online communications (e.g. Salmon, 2000), so it was an important area for us to find solutions for.
Discussion group facilities were supported by the delivery system, and groups could be set up for a module, a unit, or on a particular topic. On this basis, users interested in the topic of a group could engage in discussions that were taking place. Chat rooms could also be created, enabling a learner to invite another learner logged into the system to engage in synchronous discussion. Communication in this context would be determined by learners' willingness and interest to participate. Alternatively, learners who had already met online, could arrange to meet at specified times in the chat room.
Our solution to encourage learners to use the discussion group facilities was to design some structured learning experiences that made use of them (Aviv, 2000). We suggested to authors that they create some activities which involved learners posting a viewpoint or a response to a discussion board, for which authors had prepared an example to get the discussion underway. In this way, learners would not have their expectations quashed if they entered the discussion board to find that no else had already participated. It would not guarantee communication or debate with learners, but as an asynchronous form of communication, it would enable a body of alternative views and responses to be accumulated over a period of time.
However, we recommended that authors should not incorporate activities of this nature too frequently, restricting it to once or twice at the most in one unit. We felt it was important not to raise learners' expectations, and it would be better to start cautiously and monitor learners' involvement, and adjust the level of online debate and discussion within the materials as time progressed and experience was gained. This would be easier to achieve over time, as a critical mass of learners developed. It was also decided that online discussion should not be a requirement within assessments, as successful completion could be jeopardised if discussion was not forthcoming.
Supporting work-based learning
As outlined earlier, the learner support framework combined online tutors, in-company mentors and regional facilitators. The regional facilitators were based in the delivery centres, and their role was to provide advice at the registration stage, including helping the learner to complete the Training Needs Analysis and select modules to study, and providing on-going administrative tasks and support during the course. The tutor was the subject specialist, and initially the module author or lead author commonly undertook this role. Tutors were contacted via email, and they were also responsible for assessment. An in-company mentor, selected by the learner, would provide support on workplace practice and application, and act as a friendly guide and provide feedback and support for the learner as they required it. In addition, technical support could be sought via email through the system. If learners had difficulty logging into the system in the first instance, they could gain help from their regional facilitator.
Assessments, which would be marked and graded by the tutor, were incorporated within the unit materials. Authors had freedom to decide where to place these throughout the module. The only stipulation they were given, was that they should not place them all at the end of the module, so that the learner would get some feedback and sense of achievement as they progressed. They also had to provide a marking scheme for the module, broken down to show the allocated marks for each assessment. Any accreditation would be sought from the learner's university of registration. The wider issues of credit transfer and central awarding of qualifications was outside of the limits of the project, but a position statement based on current practice was produced for the wider virtual university development team to consider.
Because the expert teams were working in parallel on their respective areas of activity, the project evolved as each team completed a stage in the development process. This was not an ideal way to work, but it was a necessity to meet the aims of the project within the permitted timescale. It meant that, in reality, authors were producing initial drafts of materials as the technical team was developing prototypes of the delivery system and the pedagogic framework was taking shape. Inevitably, there were occasions were individuals were required to revise work already completed, because developments elsewhere imposed new standards. One of the knock-on effects of this was that the whole drafting and review process took longer than was anticipated, and threatened to extend beyond the time-scale permitted by the project.
This whole development process was unfamiliar to many authors, who were in fact lecturers, accustomed to having responsibility for the entire process of course development and delivery. Moreover the experiences of authors in writing and developing learning materials was shown to range widely. As we mentioned earlier, authors were selected for their expertise in the subject domain. Very few of them had any experience of writing online or distance learning materials. Some, we could assume from the style of their drafts, were used to writing textbooks, but not learning materials. The biggest problem was their lack of vision in utilising the online medium. Most were producing too much text-based material, which was lacking in learner interaction and engagement. There were not enough activities, particularly self-assessment activities, nor activities making use of computer generated feedback. They had a tendency to rely on learners producing written material that needed to be sent to the tutor for marking and comment. Another author, more experienced in active learning techniques, produced highly interactive and activity-based units, but was required to revise them substantially because they wouldn't fit within the structure imposed by the delivery system, once that became available. This became another side effect of the parallel development process.
A number of issues arose as the development of the project progressed. Large-scale distributed course development is complex, and an industrialised model of development may be alien to project participants coming from an academic background. Authoring online learning materials takes time, and is longer without prior experience. Whilst inexperienced authors can be supported by pedagogical and technical experts, this can be a steep learning curve for the author, and result in a slow drafting process. Much time-consuming re-drafting may also be required, which then has an impact on the balance of workflow between the different teams, and ultimately on the overall development schedule.
Several conclusions can be drawn from this experience. Firstly, the process constructed by the project was well-suited to enquiring into and understanding the problems facing the design and development of online courses for work-based learning. Secondly, as this process proved to be educative for all groups involved, it was not possible to take a truly 'industrial' approach until all involved had reached a common level of understanding. The implication therefore, is that developmental projects of this nature should include an initial pilot phase that focuses on these research and education issues rather than on production. The 'industrial' development phase can then follow successfully.
Ultimately, the development of learning materials for any new course will incur some kind of learning curve and require iterative and evolutionary processes. If this is not planned for, it will eat into the scheduled development time and make the project harder to achieve.
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