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This paper deals with the problem of what to do with legacy online courseware. The study reported demonstrates how old, content rich, linear online courseware may be restructured into a topic based learning resource suitable for supporting problem based learning. A process model is presented demonstrating how the conversion disaggregates the old course content from course management, facilitating reuse of the content in other learning contexts as required. Hence, the resultant online learning resource may be used to support a variety of pedagogic approaches. An added benefit is that the process requires minimal time commitment from the academic content specialist and the delivering academic.
In this context, and with ever decreasing budgets and academic availability, it became apparent that finding time and cost effective mechanisms for redevelopment and reuse of some of our early fully online course materials could prove useful in many future course resource developments and revisions. This paper describes a process, requiring minimal input from the academic content specialist, for taking aged content rich linear online courseware and transforming it into online courseware that supports problem based learning. First, a short description of the background to this work is provided. This is followed by a description of the resource redevelopment process and a discussion of issues leads to concluding remarks.
Gurrie (2003) reported similar generic skill and motivation concerns with online learning courseware and concluded that problem based learning can address these concerns and achieve the desired instructional and curriculum outcomes. This view finds support in successful trials of online problem based learning implementations (Beasley & Ford, 2004; Gibson, 2002). With its emphasis on more student directed learning experiences, the problem based learning model embodies the constructivist learning principles (Duffy and Cunningham 1996) and one of its essential characteristics is to '…situate the learning in the examination of authentic, real life problems and questions of relevance to the learner…' (Gibson 2002) to increase motivation for the learner. Herrington, Oliver and Reeves (2003) question the nature of authenticity in the educational setting, but provide ten broad design characteristics of 'authentic activities' that are useful as criteria when selecting appropriate problems and activities for study.
Although it is suggested that appropriate investigative learning occurs by replicating at least some aspects of the problem based learning process in our online problem based learning implementations, the nature of the online material that supports this particular pedagogy is unclear. Elliott, Efron, Wright and Martinelli (2003) suggest that 'not all resources used within the PBL environment need to be designed according to principles of PBL. Books and journal articles, for example, stand alone as valuable supporting material.'. If online resource material is to remain a reusable resource then perhaps it should be included in this list of valuable supporting material for any appropriate pedagogy.
Figure 1: Overview of the resource redevelopment process
The Phase 1 process consists of three distinct stages (indicated at the left of Figure 2) that are performed sequentially, provides four deliverables (seen at the right of Figure 2) and features continual evaluation throughout. In the first stage, the old content is restructured. Only when this is complete and the full project team, comprising all members from both the online learning development team and the academic team, has agreed on the accuracy and balance of the new web based structure is the second stage entered and the new structure populated with existing, redistributed and updated content. The last stage of the process extends and enhances the 'raw' restructured learning resource. This stage may be dealt with quite separately although some minor alterations, such as to existing graphics, may be essential during this initial redevelopment in preparation for the next delivery of the course. However, academics are encouraged to leave any major extensions and enhancement for iterative development, after students have used the material and usage patterns and problems have become apparent.
Figure 2: Detail of Phase 1 of the resource redevelopment process
Finding the list of topics
Most courses seem to cover about six topics. And, although the temporal based lecture rarely coincides with the concept based topic format, these topics basically reflect the main topic addressed by lectures, although usually more than one lecture deals with a particular topic. The list of topics determined represents the first deliverable.
Finding the subtopics for each topic
The first step in finding the subtopics is to identify all the learning objectives within the topic. These are generally stated explicitly in the existing online courseware. If not, they may be identified in a number of ways, perhaps by referring to the textbook where chapter sub-headings give clear indications or even explicit statements of the learning objectives dealt with, or by scanning through previous exam questions and descriptions of assignments set.
Next, the subtopics are established by extracting the key objectives as a short title from the full list of learning objectives. The process is called rubrication, achieved by reducing the list of objectives to a smaller number of grouped objectives that aligns with the student's process of understanding the information. The short title description of each group doubles as the subtopic title. From experience each topic generally consists of 7+- 2 subtopics, supporting Millers theory (1956), and each subtopic needs to deal with about four learning objectives, although there are certainly no hard and fast rules.
Completing and reviewing the topic outline
The topic outline is the second deliverable and is presented as a text document with numbered subtopics and learning objectives. The numbering system is eventually discarded but is useful in the development stage.
At this point the academic content specialist and another academic stakeholder review the topic outline to ensure that the topic is sufficiently covered. A meeting with these academics then provides an answer to the question 'Is the structure correct?'. A negative response causes reconsideration of the topics, and subtopics. A positive outcome leads to the next task, to map learning objectives and content against the outline.
So far the learning resource outline is populated with these brief topic and subtopic introductory paragraphs, each topic consisting of a list of about nine or so paragraphs inserted beneath the appropriate headings. This represents the third deliverable. At this point some evaluation of what has been produced is required. A review by the content specialist and other academics in related areas, followed by a meeting of the whole project team, is required to provide an answer to the question 'Is the mapping correct?'. A positive outcome leads to the task of creating an html prototype.
If the mapping is not correct a further decision on whether to 'Revisit topic structure?' may lead to a new learning resource outline being created and a renewed mapping. However, the original topic list should have set tight parameters as to the extent of the content dealt with and any temptation to extend it beyond this needs to be considered very carefully. Alternatively, the topic structure may not need any alteration and the problem may be more simply rectified through a rearrangement of the mapping of learning objectives and content.
A negative response requires a further decision on whether to 'Revisit topic structure?' or a small reshuffle of the content against the learning objectives within the structure may be all that is needed. If a subtopic is growing large in relation to the others then consideration needs to be given as to whether that subtopic is in fact its own topic. There needs to be a balance of information throughout. It is important that this weighting is done at this stage since the html prototype does not contain design elements and issues identified with the mapping can be easily resolved without time intensive redesign.
Since the topic should be able to sit within any course context it must be a truly independent learning object. On the server the topic will be a directory with a meaningful name relative to the title of the topic. Online each topic will open with a distinctly designed introductory screen that has the main purpose of identifying and describing the topic. This design is carried over into a banner for each subtopic (Figure 3) where it remains as a constant identifier. At this subtopic level the format is more formulaic allowing a template to be used, for easy editing and updating as required. Ideally each subtopic has an associated graphic to accompany its introduction and to provide visual stimulus.
The content specialist, or delegated content consultant, works within the parameters of the established outline, inserts and updates, to ensure that the content is current and that the writing style is appropriate for the computer screen and meets student demands (Nielsen, 1996). In essence, this style states an overview of the content first and then deals with the specifics lower down on the screen. Larger tracts of content are isolated and provided as separate files (html, pdf, rtf or .docs), references to texts are indicated with a box and icon, and reference to external electronic material, such as the www, connect to an anchor on an external resources page, where all external references are kept together so that they can be efficiently checked every so often to see if the links are still available. The advantage of this style is that content does not get lost a few scrolls off screen and also allows students to scan material in search of specific information.
As the text is completed the information can be inserted into the development website either by the website developer or directly into the html by the author; the version on the web is the latest version always, which helps to alleviate versioning problems. As each topic is dealt with it is reviewed by members of the project team, and updated and corrected until all agree to 'Is the topic complete?'.
When all topics have been developed, updated and completed in this manner the full set of topic websites is reviewed by the content specialist and the delivering academic to determine if the course is 'Ready for next delivery?'. If so, the completed topic based online learning resource is available as the final deliverable from Phase 1 of the resource redevelopment process, and development progresses to Phase 2. If the response is 'No' then further updating and enhancement of the website is undertaken.
Some alterations and additions may be essential during the initial redevelopment process in preparation for the next delivery. However, academics are encouraged to leave any major extensions and enhancement for iterative development, when more time and more information on student need and usage patterns have been established. Once the topic based online learning resource is 'Ready for the next delivery?' the development progresses to Phase 2 of the resource redevelopment process.
The problem based learning activities need to be designed to be engaging and authentic, using scenarios in which the student can be totally immersed (Herrington, Oliver and Reeves, 2003). The key concerns in this online IIT course are the need to develop first year students' independent learning, and to address the need of employers to employ graduates with a rounded education, including good technical skills as well as excellent oral and written communication skills. Traditionally, the first year students are secondary school leavers so their new world of university is their principal environment, not industry. Therefore, we believe that a smoother transition to the new pedagogy, and also to development of the generic skills, will be achieved if they are presented with an initial authentic problem with a strong emphasis on university life, while a subtle introduction to issues of Human Resources, IT, and Project Management is imbedded within the problem. The use of several deliverables at specific milestones simulates an industry project setting while also assisting with keeping the students on track and on time.
Further scenarios developed are graded in their use of real industry situations to which students can apply conceptual knowledge, skills in critical thinking and problem solving, and provides them the opportunity to conduct research while studying the topics, learn in an iterative manner and develop their creative experiences.
The resource redevelopment process we have described in this paper is equally applicable to new developments and may be applied in a number of different development modes. The chosen mode will depend on the intended course delivery mode and pedagogy. For example for development in:
Although some discussion of issues has already occurred in the previous section, by way of explanation of process steps taken, there were challenges addressed during the IIT course redevelopment process that have not been discussed. Some that are more pertinent to achieving success are mentioned here.
In summary, the main hurdles for academics in the proposed development process occur when defining the initial course outline, when writing topic and subtopic introductions, in weighting the content into equal chunks to establish balanced topic structures, and in conceptualising the structure and function of the topic as a website. Some acceptable solutions and workarounds are suggested, but efficient solutions still need to be identified. Also, further work is required to determine if the topic based learning resource does adequately support the problem based learning methodology, and to perform a cost benefit analysis of development and reusability to determine if long term cost recovery, due to reusability and economies of scale, exceed initial development costs, and are effective.
The generic process model presented demonstrates how the conversion process disaggregates the course content from the course management. The intended markets and course delivery, and the quality and specific nature of the legacy courseware, influence the manner in which this conversion process may be implemented and dictates the extent of the academic involvement required.
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|Authors: Linda Pannan, Chris van der Craats, Catherine Zuluaga, and Daniel Barnes, ASSETT Research Group, (Advancing Scholarship and Science Education through Technology), RMIT University, Australia. firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com
Please cite as: Pannan, L., van der Craats, C., Zuluaga, C. & Barnes, D. (2004). Extending the academic comfort zone: Smooth transition from content rich linear courseware to problem based learning online. In R. Atkinson, C. McBeath, D. Jonas-Dwyer & R. Phillips (Eds), Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 743-752). Perth, 5-8 December. http://www.ascilite.org.au/conferences/perth04/procs/pannan.html(
© 2004 Linda Pannan, Chris van der Craats, Catherine Zuluaga & Daniel Barnes
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