Monday, 6 February 2012

e-Learning Environments

An eLearning environment is any sort of environment that supports teaching and/or learning with Computer-mediated communication. It can be an interactive DVD incorporating multimedia material, a simple educational website authored in HTML or a simple authoring tool like eXe which contain notes, images, videos and interactive learning activities. It can also be a learning management system like MOODLE which contains a number of courses within its boundaries. Another definition of eLearning environments adopted by Daniel Schneider is one that supports learning activities. Furthermore it inherits general features like social spaces, social presence, awareness tools etc. and that can and should be exploited by pedagogic strategies and according instructional design models. Such environments are also called virtual learning environments (VLEs).

Weller (2006) Virtual Learning Environments (VLEs) may not be the most innovative educational technology to be found in use today, but they are one of the most pervasive, with 86% of respondents from United Kingdom Higher Education (HE) institutions reporting the presence of a VLE in their institution (2003).[1]

There are a number of charges often levelled at the more popular VLEs, and particularly commercial ones, which can be summarized as: 

• They are content focused; 
• They have no strong pedagogy; 
• They are based around a teacher-classroom model; 
• They combine a number of average tools, but not the best ones; 
• They do not feature a particular tool; 
• They operate on a lowest common denominator approach; 
• They do not meet the needs of different subject areas; 
• It is difficult to exchange content between them, despite claims to interoperability 

VLEs can be classified in the following categories: 

Stand-alone environments

Virtual learning environments existed even before the proliferation of the world-wide web. As mentioned earlier, e-learning can take different forms. It can be observed that from electronic devices like the television to the use of CD/DVDs and later on interactive DVDs, virtual learning environments very well existed before the information superhighway became a reality for the common man. This approach of having stand-alone learning environments is also referred to in literature as ‘classic e-learning’. In this mode, the learner only interacts with the content through the computer or other IT-enabled device but cannot communicate with peers, community and the tutors.

Networked Learning Environments

A Networked Learning Environment in the Internet age applies new technology to a very old concept— that learning is much more than classes and grades. It is about the learning that takes place in a vibrant community of people and resources. The Internet has removed the limits of time and proximity that once restricted this community. In a true Networked Learning Environment, any student, instructor or researcher can access any learning resource at anytime from anyplace.[2]

Networked learning environments should therefore be student-centred and promote active student learning through flexible pedagogies. Students will have access to communication and collaboration tools as well as operating in terms of learning communities and communities of practices. A networked learning environment can also be seen as an integrated learning environment where all the tools, users and instruments are found under one ‘roof’. This is commonly known as an integrated learning environment which we will look at in the coming section. A true Networked Learning Environment has five key characteristics that separate it from the course-based world of traditional e-Learning:
  • Ubiquitous access to learning resources (people and content)
  • A common user experience that seamlessly integrates different learning applications
  • Assessment and tracking across the learning career
  • A customisable, role-enhanced environment that supports student-centred learning and instructor optimised administration
  • Access and participation in highly active sharing networks
Integrated Virtual learning Environments'

An integrated virtual learning environment will basically contain elements from both the stand-alone learning environments and the networked learning environments. With one simple login, the learner can access the different tools and facilities under one cyberspace. An example of an integrated virtual learning environment is MOODLE which is an open-source e-learning platform. MOODLE contains mostly all the pedagogical and technological tools required to promote classical and contemporary online teaching and learning. While authors such as Martin Weller and Schneider have stressed on the limitations of virtual learning environments, it is also believed that the VLEs alone cannot reshape teaching and learning without the inputs of the learning designer. The learning design is at the heart of the educational process rather than the tools and technologies that are incorporated in the environment.

Selection and Evaluation of Virtual Learning Environments

In this section we will look at the techniques and principles used to evaluate and select an appropriate virtual learning environment (or learning management system) for your organisation. It is important to take a well-thought and rational decision when going for such projects as once courses start populating on one LMS and users start getting used to it, it becomes very difficult to step back and change system. The main decision making drivers for such system are:
  • Open-source or Proprietary.
  • Cost of acquisition and maintenance.
  • Ease of use (usability) and usefulness (Does it suit our needs?).
  • Technical requirements (infrastructure, bandwidth and resource consumption).
  • Hosting options – whether the learning management system is housed within the internal university network or at an outside hosting provider.
  • Copyright and other intellectual property issues and licensing.
  • Type of technical and development support available (in-house and broader development community).
  • Interoperability and interfacing possibilities with other tools and systems.
Of course this is a non-exhaustive list and depending on institutional needs, financial means and other constraints some factors may be more important than others.  

[2] Networked Learning Environments -


Traditional Instructional Design Models

“Instructional Design is the systematic process of translating general principles of learning and instruction into plans of instructional materials and learning" - Sara McNell, University of Houston

While the organization of an instructor's course is important, the most vital component of the course is its content. Equally important to content in an online course is how an instructor designs or lays out their course to present this information. This is critical since the layout or design of the information can influence how students learn the material. The Instructional Development Process for an online course consists of four major stages: 

· Analysis
· Design
· Development
· Evaluation

These four stages are normally applied in an iterative way. The life cycle of an online instructional design process may also follow a spiral process. This means that a course can be developed in more than on cycle of development and each subsequent cycle is meant to bring improvements in the contents and design of the course based on an evaluation made in the Evaluation phase of the preceding cycle. 


The ADDIE model is the generic process traditionally used by instructional designers and training developers. The five phases—Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation—represent a dynamic, flexible guideline for building effective training and performance support tools. In the analyze phase, the instructional problem is clarified, the goals and objectives are established, and the learning environment and learner characteristics are identified. The design phase is where the instructional strategies are designed and media choices are made. In the develop phase, materials are produced according to decisions made during the design phase. The implement phase includes the testing of prototypes (with targeted audience), putting the product in full production, and training learners and instructors on how to use the product. The evaluation phase consists of two parts: formative and summative. Formative evaluation is present in each stage. Summative evaluation consists of tests for criterion-related referenced items and providing opportunities for feedback from the users.

Dick and Carrey Model
The Dick and Carey model uses a systems approach for designing instruction. One of the best known models, its approach to designing instruction is similar to that of software engineering. The design model describes all the phases of an iterative process that starts by identifying instructional goals and ends with summative evaluation. This model is applicable across a range of context areas (e.g. education to business to government) and users (novice to expert).

Hannafin and Peck Model

The Hannafin Peck Design Model is a three phase process. In the first phase, a needs assessment is performed. This phase is followed by a design phase. In the third phase, instruction is developed and implemented. In this model, all of the phases involve a process of evaluation and revision.

The Knirk and Gustafson Design model 

The Knirk and Gustafson model is a three stage process which includes problem determination, design and development. The problem determination stage involves identifying the problem and setting instructional goals. The design stage includes developing objectives and specifying strategies. Finally, in the development stage, materials are developed.

The Gerlach Design model

The Gerlach-Ely Design Model is a prescriptive model that is well suited to lower and higher education. It is meant for novice instructional designers who have knowledge and expertise in a specific context. The model includes strategies for selecting and including media within instruction. It also handles the allocation of resources.

The Prototype model 

Tripp and Bichelmeyer's Rapid Prototyping Design Model is a four level process that is intended to create instruction for lessons as opposed to entire curricula. The process stages include performing a needs analysis, constructing a prototype, utilizing the prototype to perform research and installing the final system. This model relies on expert instructional designers to utilize heuristics as well as their past experience and intuition to guide the design.

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Quality Assurance in Courseware Design and Development using OERs

Open Educational Resources (OERs) are gaining momentum in education and throughout diverse academic communities. However, the quality element is still a concern for many. This article discusses the quality element with respect to the courseware design, development and delivery when OERs are used. The issue of quality needs to be addressed in the broader quality assurance framework for courseware development.

The issue of quality assurance (QA) has increasingly become a priority for Higher Education institutions. As universities compete to attract more students, but also to attract financing through various projects, quality represents one of the main criteria for ensuring a significant share of the educational market (Abdous 2009, p. 281). Guaranteeing quality, however, is not always an easy process, first and foremost because the very concept of "quality" is disputed and many different, contextual definitions are used (Mihai 2009).

The main barrier to such an innovative way of using OERs to reconceptualise the educational process in traditional universities are the quality assurance procedures that need to be 'strictly' followed. In a traditional lecture, quality is believed to be maintained if the lecturer spends 3 hours in the classroom irrespective of what he does or not. This is proved by the log book in which he signs. In another context, quality is maintained if students' results follow the normal distribution and if academic/administrative records related to the course are duly kept. Furthermore, quality is considered maintained if feedback forms are given, at the end of the semester, to students who fill in most of the time in a subjective way. This perspective of viewing quality poses a problem for bringing innovation and creativity in the learning process. Quality is a non-referential concept and quality assurance techniques that are applicable in behaviorist learning environments are not compatible in socio-constructivist ones. The quality framework that can be applied depends on the learning design approach to be adopted. Quality assurance needs to be an ongoing and iterative activity and student feedback on their own learning (problems encountered, things that were easily understood, communication problems and other related issues) contribute towards making them better learners and develop the required competencies.

This paper looks at the issue of quality assurance when OERs are used for courseware development purposes. It is clear that the main issue surrounding OERs use relates to the phase when the content is being developed while the other phases will normally fall into the existing quality assurance mechanisms of institutions. However, this perspective of viewing quality depends on the granularity of the OER being used.

Open Educational Resources provide instructors with an innovative way to conceptualise courses. The philosophy behind it is that courseware development becomes a distributed and a split 3-phased approach. This means that the development of content can be done by anyone, anywhere and at any point in time, thus becoming the first phase of the process. The instructor involved in the use of OERs has practically no control over this phase but has access to a range of tools than can give him access to content having been developed in that phase. A simple example would be to use a search engine to look for related content or to access OER repositories. The other phase would be to build-up the course from the content available manually or through the help of courseware building tools. The third phase would be the delivery and dissemination of the course content in a face-to-face classroom or via an e-learning platform. The instructor might have control on both phase 2 and 3 or on only one of them. This approach being an innovative way in itself, is set however to be a “disruptive process” in well established traditional educational systems especially with respect to the quality issue.

Issues of quality in educational processes normally arise in terms of
  • The content – its selection, aggregation and presentation
  • The pedagogical approach used
  • The delivery of the course
  • Students’ satisfaction, performance and acquired competencies

The most obvious issue of quality in OER-based courseware development process relates only to the content development phase on which the author has no particular control. This is where most of the concerns related to quality assurance lies. Traditionally speaking, reliable sources of academic information were only books, and published research (journal articles and conference papers) as well as from the academic’s philosophical perception of things (academic freedom). With the democratisation of access to content and the removal of publishing constraints via the web, reliability of information presented in content has been of great concerns to educational authorities. In this context we wish to highlight a very simple fact that out of ten consecutive searches that were tried on different topics on Wikipedia returned a number of resources which warned on the top about the reliability of the content (information) being presented to the user. Furthermore, most searches done on Google for particular information would most likely return Wikipedia as one of the top 5 sources.

The fact that OERs came into the limelight more or less with the emergence of Web 2.0 era (contrary to the Learning Objects Concept) contributed to the significance of the concerns regarding QA issues. Therefore academics and instructors using OERs need to have a well-established set of guidelines that would provide a framework for the search and use of freely available content from the Web. De-facto trusted sites like the OpenLearn platform, Connexions and Curriki, just to name a few would greatly help but it is in fact very difficult for an institution to control such activities of their staff. One possibility would be for OERs to form an integral part of the institution’s courseware development policies rather than being used on piece-meal basis by individual academics.

It is important to note that peer-reviewing has over the years proved useful in research-related quality assurance systems. With the concept of collaborative editing through wiki technologies, the concept of peer-reviewing has been very much the motor for those promoting an approach based of OER development through communities of practice. However, the issue that remains contradictive is the impersonation issue. While there are ways to counter this, sites like Wikipedia and others will definitely encounter difficulties to enforce identity checks for its users. One recent article on the web also mentioned the declining number of people who were involved in ‘watching’ of pages and their content on Wikipedia.

One possibility to counter the above problem is therefore to completely rethink (re-engineer) the pedagogical approaches used when designing courses using OERs. When courses are fully content-oriented, it is obvious that quality assurance processes will focus mainly on the content being used and presented to the users. However, if the content is not the central focus, but an element in a broader pedagogical scenario, then the whole quality assurance issue takes a different perspective. The concept of project/activity-based learning that focus on the development of a set of skills and competencies by the student through socio-constructivist models can be useful. Quality assurance will in this case be a process that ensures the learning path of the learner will lead to the desired outcomes. In doing so, using a variety of available contents on the web which are labelled as OER is not a problem as the learners will develop higher order cognitive skills where they can synthesize, argue and discuss on the contents rather than adopting them to be factual information. However, again as was mentioned earlier, this different perspective can be disruptive to the traditional organisational processes of QA.

Achieving personalised instruction in the MOODLE e-learning platform

The article describes a personalization framework that has been designed and demonstrates a functionality that can be plugged in Moodle e-learning platform to provide for a pedagogical framework to achieve personalization of learning. The functionality provides the teacher/mentor with the possibility to customize the way he or she wants the system to offer personalization to the learner. Once the settings are done, the system adapts the instruction given with respect to the learner profile that is stored. It uses an adaptive algorithm to select the most appropriate learning object for a given lesson. Personalization of the system allows adaptation based on performance, preferred learning and cognitive styles as well as cognitive controls. The student on the other has the possibility to rate and comment on the lesson presented and their learning paths are stored in the system. This provides the teacher/instructor with a method to evaluate the outcome of providing personalization to the learners.

The Overall Framework in UML
The overall framework can be represented the unified modelling language (UML) and the MOT Taxonomy (Paquette, 2003) to model the pedagogical scripting of personalized learning activities (individual or collective) and for the representation of the overall framework. In the present situation, the MOT taxonomy (Paquette, 2003) has been used to represent high-level knowledge model of the pedagogical scenario while UML will be used as a conceptual model for the information technology infrastructure.  

The subject is the learner who is engaged in a learning activity (object) which is mainly a set of inter-related tasks that are to be carried out to achieve a specific learning outcome or to develop specific competencies. The concept of the instructional design specification is specific to an activity-based conceptualisation of the learning process. This means that the specification is not independent of the pedagogical approach which is geared towards a competency-based learning design.  Each learning activity consists of a set of activity tasks which can be either individual or collective. Each activity task is governed by a set of pedagogical scripts in the form of rules set by the tutor who authors the learning activity. The scripts will be personalized at a macro-level to fit the group in case of a collective task, and at micro-level for individual tasks based on the subject profile or learner information profile or simply learner profile.

Each activity task takes the form of a set of personalised learning objects aggregated and sequenced for each subject involved in the activity task. To carry out the learning task, the subject will have access to a range of mediating instrument as specified in the pedagogical script of the task. An instrument can be a software tool, and/or tutorial on any relevant concepts for the learning task or simple instructions on how to use the learning environment and other artefacts depending on the pedagogical scenario being tackled. A tutorial is an aggregation of a set of concepts which in turn are basically a set of aggregated learning objects. 

Implementation in MOODLE LMS

A prototype implementation has been implemented as a series of MOODLE “Blocks” and “Modules” in order to test its effectiveness in a mainstream e-learning environment.
The following blocks were implemented:

· Learner Profiling & Individual Learning Path 

The learner profiling block allows the participants to take the VAK and the LSQ surveys respectively. It can also include other types of surveys depending on the type of profile that is needed for adaptation purposes. The individual learning path block provides the lecturer with a mini-report of the set of learning objects that are selected for each learner based on his or her profile and the adaptation method selected.

The following modules were implemented:

· Adaptive Mode Selection

The teacher can select in the course settings section whether to enable adaptive mode
or not. Further to this, the teacher selects the adaptation algorithm (Santally & Senteni
2006) (there are two variants).

· Learning Object Profiling and Sequencing

This module allows the teacher to sequence the learning objects and to add respective metadata for the adaptation/personalization process. The learning object profiling mechanism is initially based on some degree of intuition and subjectivity. This process is usually carried out by the instructional designer and/or the teacher/lecturer and is therefore largely based on their previous experience and perception.

Discussion and Conclusion

This research is ongoing and a number of milestones have been reached. The adaptation framework for the design of personalized learning environments has been set up. The learning design framework consists of a lifecycle for the pedagogical scripting of learning activities and techniques to be used to provide for a personalized learning experience.  So far only a prescriptive approach has been adopted to the elaboration of the pedagogical scripting life cycle. Further refinements are needed to improve the overall learning design framework. The learning design framework can be seen as consisting of:

·    Principal actors (Lecturer, Learner, Learning/Instructional Designer, Learner-Support  Agent) of the activity system.
·   A flexible instructional design method using an activity-theoretical approach to model the people-process-technology triad as an activity system. The method consists of:
o   A pedagogical scripting lifecycle for learning activities
o   Instructional conception of multiple representations of learning objects
o   Adding appropriate metadata to the learning objects by instructional designers
o   Sequencing of learning objects
o   Initialization of a learner profile

·   A customizable adaptation algorithm based on a fuzzy approach for learning object selection appropriate to a particular learner profile.
·   Implementation in the MOODLE e-learning platform as a personalization block which can be applied to online courses.

The whole framework will be set under experimentation to observe the effects on the learning experience of online learners.