Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) Design is part of the Learning and Teaching Innovation Portfolio at The Open University (OU) in the United Kingdom. Gerald Evans, Head of TEL Design, describes its role as: “translation of academic ideas into practical applications of technology enhanced learning, working with teams early in the design process, focusing on students, and effectively using technology and evidence-based practices.”
Production of a new online module (course) is a team effort involving academics, a project manager, an editor, graphics and software developers, TEL designers, and other specialists as needed. TEL Design, with a staff of 12, works on the design of all new modules developed at the OU, although the extent of their involvement varies, with emphasis given to modules for larger classes or with higher risk to student outcomes. In June 2017, they were involved in preparation of 60 modules, with 30 scheduled to go live in October 2017, and the remainder for later release. TEL Design use a contract approach (TEL Design Plan) with the academic team to outline TEL’s roles and responsibilities in producing each module, also outlining risks, opportunities and the focus of their activity. A module can take up to two years to complete: TEL Design is usually involved for about six months.
Two recent projects illustrate TEL Design strategies and contributions.
TEL Design worked with academics in the Faculty of Engineering to use the online environment to support students in content areas where they are struggling. Several ‘threshold concepts’ (subject areas which are essential to understand for progress in learning) were identified in a first year engineering course; the concept of ‘rearranging equations’ was chosen as the one that caused students much difficulty. To address this, three online quizzes were developed, supplemented with a selection of resources to explain and demonstrate concepts and solutions behind each equation. Students had three attempts to answer each question and had to complete each section before advancing. After a student’s third unsuccessful attempt, the system informs the tutor about the exact points that were challenging the student, so direct intervention can be targeted. The design was pre-tested before being offered to more than 1,000 students. Among 1,000 students in the first class, over 500 attempted the quizzes. Only a small percentage of students needed additional support. These exercises are for formative assessment: they are not included in grades.
Gerald Evans and Anne-Marie Gallen, a Staff Tutor in Engineering, made numerous recommendations concerning adaptive learning including the essential need to ensure alignment among academics, writers, and tutors and to clearly design and explain the need to complete one section before advancing. In addition, testing the application in a face-to-face environment with students provides crucial insights into how the resource is actually used. This project successfully showed how adaptive learning can be effective and how resources and tools can be scaled up to serve a large class size.
A second-level interdisciplinary course integrated role playing, built around the climate change debate, as an online collaborative project. Earlier iterations of this collaborative work were researched as guides to module re-design as students had problems with workload and were unfamiliar with collaborative work online. The re-designed exercise featured:
- Streamlined demands for interaction, with sufficient time allotted in course timetable;
- A change in timing of the collaborative activity in terms of placement in course schedule;
- Advanced notification of timing and demands of the exercise;
- Better explanation of requirements and accepted behaviour in online interactions;
- A choice for students on how they collaborate;
- Explanations on how skills developed in this exercise are linked to workplaces;
- More support available from tutors; and
- A warm-up activity added to provide experience in collaborative learning.
The survey after students completed the redesigned activity showed a reduction in student reports of challenges.
TEL Design operates on the principle of continuous improvement, which this module demonstrates. Between its initial launch and its redesign, much was learned about online collaborative learning in other modules at the OU. User analytics, feedback from students and tutors, and internal and external research were gathered and applied to the development of collaborative exercises. To share accumulated learning, as well as support module teams, in 2016, the TEL Design team produced a detailed guide on good practices in collaborative learning as a tool for academic design, delivery, feedback and support.
Learning analytics are also core to TEL Design work. Three meetings are held with the lead academic and course manager during the first offering of a module to review analytics gathered to date. Key questions about module developers’ assumptions and student behaviour guide these sessions:
- Are we maintaining student enrolment as we expected?
- Are they studying as we thought they would?
- Are the students enrolled the ones we expected?
- Are they engaging with the course design as we expected?
If answers to these questions are positive, then the design can be shared as a model for other modules. If problems are identified, interventions are developed, even during the first offering of the module, particularly for struggling students.
Benefits and Outcomes
TEL Design helps academics think about the student experience, module design, and learning structure. The development process for each new module includes a workshop focused on design.
The continuous improvement model, linking module design and evaluation, captures meaningful evidence on successful strategies and which need improvement or immediate remediation.
TEL Design is able to share best practices among design teams, so academics are encouraged to take risks and be innovative – and embed successful strategies in their teaching resources.
Gerald Evans outlines one key aspect of the TEL continuous improvement model: “The more we use technology, the more we learn about what works and the more our students become experienced users, and so the more sophisticated we can get. We can push the bar higher for learning.”
Challenges and Enhancements
The size of the OU means scale is always a challenge – whether this is the number of modules under development at any one time or scaling a module design for thousands of students.
Academic teams need to be fully prepared for the design and delivery of each module. Working repeatedly with teams, especially in the same faculty, helps to develop ongoing expertise. The contract outlining the role of the TEL Design staff stresses it is a partnership.
New academics often require extensive support and orientation to the strategies and tools of online learning.
Acceptance and credibility for the team and its skills and contributions can be difficult to achieve in some situations.
The Digital by Design initiative to make the OU a “fully digitally capable university” provides TEL Design with more scope to demonstrate how it can help with the transition.
Analytics, evidence and qualitative student feedback can be used more widely and students can become more involved in providing sophisticated feedback.
For Further Information
Head of TEL Design
The Open University