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MirandaNet Fellowship Casestudy
E-learning in a UK-based M-level Education Leadership course accessed by Maltese students
Year of posting: 2011
The intention of this paper is to examine the nature of a distance-learning master's level course, based in the UK, aimed at senior educationists, to students in the UK and around the world; the paper particularly highlights a group based in Malta. The current cohort across the university numbers almost 400 students. This paper deals with the work of a single tutor and chronicles both the specific situation of a Malta-based sub-group and the opinions of a wider UK/international group assigned to him. These approaches relate both to the use of e-learning to achieve effective results at M-level, and to the underlying philosophies that drive the work. The paper puts the emphasis on student-centredness in Higher Education (HE) learning.
E-learning in a UK-based M-level Education Leadership course accessed by Maltese students
The intention of this paper is to examine the nature of a distance-learning master's level course, based in the UK, aimed at senior educationists, to students in the UK and around the world; the paper particularly highlights a group based in Malta. The current cohort across the university numbers almost 400 students. This paper deals with the work of a single tutor and chronicles both the specific situation of a Malta-based sub-group and the opinions of a wider UK/international group assigned to him. These approaches relate both to the use of e-learning to achieve effective results at M-level, and to the underlying philosophies that drive the work. The paper puts the emphasis on student-centredness in Higher Education (HE) learning.Context
The course comprises 3 ‘taught' modules each of which consists of a set of course materials on a theme resulting in an investigative assignment written with tutorial e-mail support. Students then choose a title which is pursued through a Research Methods module; and that in turn is expanded into a 20,000-word dissertation. Students have a choice of themes which consist of topics such as leadership, human resource management, managing finance, and policy in education - the exact range of available modules alters slightly over time but all have a leadership/management focus. Students may also select to write a literature-based assignment in place of one investigation. The titles of all assignments are open to student choice with tutorial advice, though the choice in each case has to reflect the concerns of the theme being studied. The tutor in question looks after about 45-50 students at any one time; of these 25 (at the time of writing) are Malta-based, and six Maltese students have finished the course in the recent past (hereafter this cluster is spoken of as ‘the Malta group'). There is a CD-based course Handbook, and each module comprises some course materials in print format; tuition is entirely by e-mail. The tutor is allocated to each student for the totality of the course though there is a system of second and third marking of assignment/dissertation outcomes, and a monitoring process to ensure tutors are working within course parameters and standards.E-learning at higher degree and/or professional levels
E-based learning for HE students might be seen to have both advantages and disadvantages. Timms (2005) drew attention to the saving in resource that could be achieved; but highlighted the loneliness of the long-distance student. The Higher Education Academy (2011) noted the advantages as: pace, place and mode. Stiles (2004) followed JISC (undated) in the belief that e-learning could enhance the quality of teaching and learning, improve access to learning for students off campus, widen participation/inclusiveness, raise student expectations and improve access for part-time students. Davies and Pigott (2002) pointed out the need for e-learning to be integrated with, and planned within, the providing institution's overall rationale. But these debates may be a touch passé with the proliferation of Blackboard and other Virtual Learning Environments.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that e-learning both needs, and alters, the fundamental philosophies upon which learning is based. Thus JISC (2009) notes: ‘Independent reviews and analyses of the UK appear to conclude that the emphasis is now moving beyond infrastructure and more towards "connecting pedagogy with technology". References to a "blended approach" are commonplace, with the learner being placed at the centre of e-learning strategies.' Sharpe and Benfield (2005) fleshed out this picture:
E-learning developments based on radical changes in traditional pedagogy, particularly those requiring collaboration and/or a significant change in the role of the tutor, evoke the most inconsistencies in student perceptions. But perhaps these are the most interesting findings. It is here that individual differences appear to emerge as important success factors, particularly in how well students understand the teaching and learning process and the role of their online tasks in it...In terms of practice, it is not enough to hope for a match between students' understanding of how they learn, their conceptions of teaching process, and the teachers' intentions. It is clear that we need to be more explicit in our explanations to students of the purposes of online work and our expectations for the activities they will undertake.
Laurillard (2004) is even more explicit. In an exciting review she traces the movement of theories of learning through enquiry-based learning, constructivism, social constructivism, discovery learning, conversation theory, problem-based learning, deep learning and cultural-social learning. She concludes that: ‘the shared essence is the recognition that learning concerns what the learner is doing, rather than what the teacher is doing, and the promotion of active learning in a social context should be the focus of our design of the teaching-learning process.' These insights acted together with the events described below to encourage some investigation into philosophical underpinning of the way in which learning took place within the tutorial group as a whole and within the Malta group specifically.
E-learning in practice with the Malta-group
Malta-based students were entered into the tutorial group in small numbers and over time, but it soon became clear that they were highly motivated professionals. In the early days, tutoring was confined to course issues communicated through e-mail questions and answers, and through advice given on assignment (and, later, dissertation) drafts. As the numbers of Malta-based students increased, it being a small island, there was an awareness of one another's presence in the system. They began to think about self-help. The catalyst for this to take off was a decision by my wife and me to visit Malta to explore some of the WW2 history associated with the island and my family. I mentioned this, expecting to be advised of the best sites to visit. In fact, two deputy heads in the same school decided to call a meeting of the student group to ‘work out a programme' for us! The generosity and hospitality of the students was unbridled: we could have visited two dozen institutions. In the end (in an 11-day holiday break) we had to limit what we did but still managed: a visit to an Education Officer, a tour of the FE institution, visits to one secondary and two primary schools, a talk to the Malta Society for Educational Administration and Management, an informal buffet with students and their families, and a formal meal with students. In addition, one primary school had forged a link with my wife's school in the UK (she is Chair of Governors), and they, too, arranged a dinner for us. In the process of this programme being established the students met three times and a self-help group began to emerge. This group has continued since our visit. This is how the two founders of the group describe its activities and intentions:
The group meets about once a month. We discuss current issues such as the catholic school reform system taking place now or the publication of the new National Curriculum. We can discuss our research and share our assignments together. Yesterday, V was talking to us about her dissertation on parental involvement: she also offered her help to aid us introduce it in our school. We helped C to introduce a discipline reporting system in his school by sharing our reporting system with him. It is a means of socialising with peers while sharing good practice. Our intention is that every so often we invite speakers so that the group will act as a means of professional development as well.
The philosophical underpinning of work with the Malta group
From these events, and reflecting on the use of e-mail as a learning tool, suggested that the work had a clear rationale at this point which had not been planned in at the beginning. This seemed to fit most closely with the principles of heutagogy.
The most comprehensive, theoretical approaches to developing heutagogy have been carried out by Kenyon and Hase (e.g. Hase and Kenyon 2000; Kenyon and Hase 2010). They link heutagogy to complexity theory - which suggests that events are inter-linked but probably unpredictable - and challenge the view that a learning which is essentially ‘emergent, adaptive and natural' is well served by curricula which are frequently ‘linear, predictable and inflexible' (Kenyon and Hase 2010: 168). Modern, rapidly-changing society needs more than knowledge, it needs capability: people who are able to manage change and complexity (op.cit. p 169). Students need to be engaged with their topic and emotionally excited by it (p 170). Further, learners construct their own meanings of the world based on their engagements with it: constructivism (p 170).
By taking the key components of heutagogy, as defined by Hase and Kenyon, the intention now became to test out whether the M-course followed by the Malta-students was perceived by them (and by other students elsewhere in the world who were similarly tutored) to be true to these principles. If so, then the course would have discovered its rationale and philosophy. Research questions were developed to this end:
- To what extent do students recognise the main principles of heutagogy to be present in their learning experience in the MSc Educational Leadership (distance learning) course?
- How are these principles exemplified in the five main areas of the course: course materials, distance tuition, assignment writing, the Research Methods unit, and the Dissertation?
- What more might be done to promote a heutagogical approach within this degree course?
A research phase
An instrument was developed in the form of an e-mailed questionnaire, which was designed to gather data about the extent to which heutagogical principles could be, and were, adhered to during the distance-learning MSc educational leadership course. This method was deemed appropriate because it mirrored the means of working that the students had been used to during the MSc course.
The instrument asked respondents about eight key factors of heutagogy: that learning reflected the student's own readiness; used complex processing skills; focused on the learner not the syllabus; and provided learning opportunities which were beyond the control of the tutor. In addition, the approach increased self-sufficiency in learning, expanded reflexivity, led to greater applicability of learning to personal circumstances, and led to positive feelings about the learning process.
These factors were weighed against each of the 5 core elements of the course (course materials, distance tutoring, assignment writing, writing the research methods assignment, and production of the final dissertation). Respondents thus had to choose a yes/no response and write a freehand comment in (8 x 5 =) 40 boxes. A small amount of additional data was collected, and there were opportunities for the respondents to comment about the heutagogical principles themselves.
Outcomes of testing the philosophical underpinning of the M-course
Outcomes are reported here in outline only - they will be published next year in more detail as a paper in a book edited by Hase and Kenyon. The first research question asked: To what extent do students recognise the main principles of heutagogy to be present in their learning experience in the MSc Educational Leadership (distance learning) course? All the data - indicative scores and the overwhelming quantity of positive comments - indicate that the students did indeed recognise heutagogical principles as being a central feature of this MSc distance learning course.
The second research question dealt with examples of whether and how students were pursuing heutagogical learning principles in their work: How are these principles exemplified in the five main areas of the course i.e. course materials, distance tuition, assignment writing, the Research Methods unit, and the Dissertation? All five areas of the MSc were considered by the students to be substantially in line with heutagogical principles. Their comments have supported Kenyon and Hase's (2010) notion of adult learning, that it should be ‘emergent, adaptive and natural' (op.cit.p 168). Student comments have shown that most were openly ‘engaged with their topic and emotionally excited by it' (p 170). Learners were constructing ‘their own meanings of the world based on their engagements with it' (ibid.). There were hints that the course gave students space to ‘juggle the balls of their complex lives, while helping to develop the dispositions, knowledge and skills required of learners and employees in the twenty-first century', as suggested by Ashton and Elliott (2007).
These observations lead us to research question three: What more might be done to promote a heutagogical approach within this degree course? The overwhelming majority of negative scores or comments (though few in overall number) came from individuals who had mis-understood the nature of distance learning. Perhaps the University needs to spell out even more clearly that embarking on a distance-learning experience will inevitably mean that you can't meet your tutor face-to-face or a moment's notice or by phoning at 2 a.m.; and that there will be no student group with whom to socialise. Expectations by students have to be realistic (though the Malta experience shows there are opportunities for virtual meetings, and students working in close geographical locations have used their own initiative to form self-help groups).
Some reflections on e-mail as a medium for tutoring adult, professional students
Reflection suggests that one of the constituents of success in this kind of work is creating the right tone in the e-mail traffic. To this end, six main features of this traffic have been culled out from students' spontaneous comments in response to advice received, as follows:
- Speed: students appreciate speed of response: if they are working today they don't want a response in a week's time
- Tone: language has to signal a rapport with the individual and avoid any suggestion of condescension by an ‘expert' to a ‘novice'
- Use of student expertise: students are professionals at a high level of responsibility, and therefore it is critical to recognise and use their extant knowledge and expertise
- Learning alongside: flows from the previous item; it is critical that a tutor signals an ability and openness to learning new skills and information
- Encouraging independence: much commentary may need to be couched more in questions than in answers: real learning is about challenge
- Pastoral concern: the distance tutor is just as much of a friend, counsellor and adviser as a face-to-face tutor would be.
While postgraduate students often see e-learning as a positive, it could be suggested that some older HE staff may view it as a dark art. However, a recent assessment by Pedró (2010) suggests a much more optimistic picture. As far as the current work is concerned, ‘blended' learning has been achieved in the Malta group (where face-to-face contact is possible); the next challenge may be to establish a virtual self-help group among students not based in Malta.
Davies, J and Pigott, N. (2002) ‘E-learning in UK Higher Education' available on http://auavisit.open.ac.uk/themes accessed November 2011
Hase, S. and Kenyon, C. (2000) ‘From andragogy to heutagogy' Ultibase. Available on http://ultibase.rmit.edu.au/Articlces/dec00/hase2.htm accessed November 2011
Higher Education Academy (2011) ‘Flexible learning' available on http://www.heacademy.ac.uk/flexible-learning accessed November 2011
JISC (2009) ‘Global activity in higher education and research' available on www.jisc.ac.uk/publications/documents/globalactivityinhe accessed November 2011
JISC (undated) http://www.jiscinfonet.ac.uk/infokits/social-software accessed November 2011
Kenyon, C. and Hase, S. (2010) ‘Andragogy and heutagogy in postgraduate work' in Kerry, T. (2010) Meeting the Challenges of Change in Postgraduate Education London: Continuum pp 165-177
Laurillard. D. (2004) ‘E-learning in Higher Education' available on http://www.utdc.vuw.ac.nz/events/Laurillard/E_learining_in-higher-education.doc accessed November 2011
Pedró, F. (2010) ‘ICT and postgraduate education' in Kerry, T. (2010) Meeting the Challenges of Change in Postgraduate Education London: Continuum pp 105-120
Sharpe, R. and Benfield, G. (2005) ‘The student experience of e-learning in HE' Brookes eJournal of Learning & Teaching 3 (1) available on http://bejlt.brookes.ac.uk/vol1/volumeisssue3/academic/sharpe_benfield.pdf accessed November 2011
Stiles, M. (2004) Embedding e-learning in HE institution available on http://www.staffs.a.cuk/COSE/cosenew/ati2stilesrev.pdf accessed November 2011
Timms, A. (2011) ‘The secret to e-learning' available on http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2011/feb/05/secret-to-e-learning accessed November 2011
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