30 April 2013

Guest blog: Writing and tutoring an online course (Dr Andrew Lacey, University of Oxford)

Some of the tools and resources available to those studying online.

Universities and colleges have provided online distance learning courses for a numbers of years, though the past 12 months has seen a huge growth in the number of institutions offering them and the range of programmes available. Many of the world's top universities have formed partnerships to offer their teaching via digital channels, and most higher education institutions in the UK are, in one way or another, responding to these developments by offering a greater choice of study pathways.

As demand from students for more flexible study routes has grown, so has the need for academic staff to develop the skills in order to deliver them. In this guest post, Dr Andrew Lacey reflects on his first experience of writing and tutoring an online course about the English Civil War for the University of Oxford ...

"In early 2012 I was approached by Oxford University Department for Continuing Education to write an online course on the English Civil War for the department. I have been researching and teaching the English Civil War for about 20 years and had taught two courses on the Civil War previously for the Department’s Summer School and was flattered that they thought I was up to the job. I had not had any involvement with online courses before, but thought it would be an interesting challenge.

The course, Civil War and Revolution: Britain Divided 1640 – 1660, was to consist of 10 units to be studied over 10 weeks. Each unit was given an overall theme such as ‘The rise of the Royalists 1640 – 1642’ or ‘1648: the return of the sword’, and each unit was then broken down into between eight and 10 parts which explored the topic in further detail.

I was to write a short summary of the topic under consideration in each part, followed by a range of activities for the students to work on. They were recommended two texts books to accompany the course and I gave them specific reading for each part. Each unit closed with a reading list to help with further study. Beyond that, the activities were divided into Group, Individual and Optional activities. Group activities were designed to encourage the students to discuss a topic or an issue amongst themselves. My Group activities were either based around a contemporary painting or illustration, or reading an extract from a contemporary text.

The student discussions took place in the various forums attached to each unit, and the forums are the heart of any good online course as all the students had access to them and could post relevant comments and opinions, respond to what their fellow students had said to either agree or disagree to take the discussion onto a new level. In other words, the group discussions which take place in a classroom, and which are often the most productive and stimulating aspect of a taught course, took place online.

Individual activities, again, usually centred around a contemporary illustration or text and were essentially the same as the Group activities, but the students were under no obligation to discuss it in a forum - it was something they could work on by themselves.

Optional activities, as the name suggests, were things which the students could pursue if they chose and was often an external website which I thought was relevant and in which the students might be interested.

Twitter: social media tools are increasingly being used to facilitate teaching and learning.

One of the advantages of the web is the wealth of material available, thus I was concerned to show the students something of the enormous range of material available ‘out there’ on the Civil Wars, from re-enactment societies to podcasts, TV programmes to battlefield sites to Struan’s excellent englishcivilwar.org! I think getting some help and guidance in accessing these resources is something many of the students found particularly useful about the course.

One downside of an online course is finding suitable images which one can use without infringing copyright. This is usually not a problem in the classroom as most copyright owners are generous enough to accept that images can be used for educational purposes. In a commercial online course that does not apply, and it was sometimes difficult, when there was a particularly good and appropriate image which made a particular point extremely well, to find a version which satisfied the copyright criteria.

I soon found that writing an online course was very different from preparing a ‘normal’ course, where I would be in a classroom with the students. It was, initially, disconcerting to realise that I would never meet the students face-to-face and I wondered how I could possibly get the concepts and ideas I wanted to share with them across when I could not see their reactions or engage in discussion and debate.

Having written the course, I was then asked if I wished to also tutor it; it does not always follow that the author will also be the tutor. I was sure that I wanted to be the tutor as it would be very good experience. I must admit, the day before the course went ‘live’ I felt quite nervous, not really knowing what to expect. It was also rather disconcerting not to be teaching the course in person. Normally a tutor enters a classroom on day one and begins the process of teaching: lecturing, leading seminars and tutorials etc. When it’s online, the entire course is already ‘out there’ and it is up to the students to work through the units and offer posts to the forums. Both I and the students had introduced ourselves online, but unless a student posted something to the forum I had no way of knowing what they were doing or how they were coping.

However, I should not have worried. Within a week of the course starting the posts were coming through thick and fast, and the students were obviously engaging with the topics and each other very well. Sometimes, as tutor, I would be asked a direct question, but normally my role was to introduce each new unit and outline the Groups activities at the start of each week, sum-up the unit at the end of the week and intervene as I saw fit in any of the discussions which were taking place. I found this very rewarding and it was encouraging to see the ways in which the students grappled with the often difficult and complex issues involved in the Civil Wars. It was a very rewarding experience.

I have read in the press articles which speculate on whether online learning is the way of the future. As personal computers and the web become part of our everyday lives, why should be have to physically attend a college or university to take a course when we can do it online from anywhere in the world?

It is an interesting and enticing possibility, with potentially radical implications for residential colleges and universities. Certainly in the world of adult education I am sure we will see many more online courses becoming available as people with busy lives involving workplace and families can study in the place of their choice and at the time of their choosing. It is obviously that online courses have a great deal to offer and are here to stay.

The trial of Charles I as depicted in the 1970 film Cromwell.

Having said that, there is a great deal to be gained from a group of people sitting around a table discussing, say, the trial of Charles I; bouncing ideas and opinions off each other and engaging in a shared activity. The classroom environment has about it qualities which can never be matched by an online course. I suspect what we will see evolving is a range of different types of courses to suit different needs rather than one form dominating all others. I certainly hope so.

The other thing I must say is that from the point of view of technical design and support, online courses are not easy to construct or manage when ‘live’. My task in writing and tutoring the course was the easy bit. The IT support people in Oxford had the hard job, building the course, making sure all the links worked, sorting out copyright issues and dealing with temperamental authors! They did all this with unfailing patience, professionalism and courtesy. Also, during the course, they responded promptly and efficiently to any problem or question thrown at them by a student."


Many thanks to Andrew for providing this guest post - and for his kind words about this website!

The first 'outing' of the Oxford course finished on the 25th March 2013. The university intends to run it again in Trinity Term between 13 May – 27 July 2013. Further information, including application details, can be found by following the links below.


Civil War and Revolution: Britain Divided 1640 – 1660 - course details
Oxford University Department for Continuing Education

No comments:

Post a Comment