Advantages of Versatile E-learning Tools
Advantages of Versatile E-learning Tools
Matěj Čuhel, Tomáš Obšívač, Michal Brandejs
IADIS International Conference (20. – 22. November 2009)
Cognition and Exploratory Learning in Digital Age (CELDA 2009)
Abstract: One of possible ways of cost-effective everyday online learning is through integrated learning management system in administration IS. Such integration has been done at Masaryk university during last couple of years. We present benefits of selected multi-purpose e-learning tools together with data from last 5 years. We also show how good support for teachers is provided which we believe is a crucial requirement of system success.
Keywords: e-learning, higher education, Learning Management System, teacher support
It has been many times proved that technology can improve teaching and learning processes when supported by proper e-learning tools or applications. There is more than one right answer to the question of how intensive use of e-learning technology should be used. There is no ideal scope because there is no average course. By our experience appropriate coverage depends on teacher's educational intention and the overall strategic plan. The right portion of course layout for e-learning appears when he or she makes the plot of the course with computer-mediated instruction.
We present in this paper arguments that such individuality is best supported by versatile tools of Learning Management System (further LMS). We later describe e-learning applications implemented as a part of the Masaryk university Information system (further MU IS), which main purpose was to administrate courses, students and grades before 2004. It currently hosts numerous applications utilized for managing study-related records, e-learning tools and those facilitating communication inside the University. The System was awarded the EUNIS Elite Award in 2005.
In house developed system performs well on Masaryk university, which is the second-largest public university in the Czech Republic, with nine faculties with more than 200 departments, institutes and clinics. There are 41,000 students enrolled in regular degree programmes and 19,000 students of lifelong learning programmes, more than 3,000 teachers and 9,000 to 16,000 courses in semester. But 'the presence of elearning tools does not guarantee their widespread use, the need to come up with some personal and methodological support arose' (Brandejsová 2008).
2. E-LEARNING TOOLS AND SUPPORT
Versatile tools for e-learning (intended to became blended learning) integrated in MU IS and support teams are briefly presented in the next chapters, along with their impact on learning activities.
2.1 E-learning as a solution to increasing number of students
Learning platform should offer some way to test the knowledge of students by the means of electronic test sheets. Main design goal of questionnaires implemented at MU IS was to provide as many different ways for teachers to use them as possible. Even the name of the application reflects that: ROPOT (Revision, Opinion, Poll, Testing).
If we look at the statistics of submitted test, we can clearly see the increasing number of processed tests. In Autumn 2004 each third student submitted at least one test, when in the Autumn 2008 on the average every student submitted twelve tests.
Table 1. Represents the number of students compared to the number of submitted and printed tests. Numbers in spring semesters are in the long term lower then in autumn ones, since lot of students drop studies in the first semester
Since Autumn 2005 we provide teachers with the possibility to print generated tests from ROPOT application and after they are filled in by students, teacher is enabled to scan them into the MU IS to check the results. This type of examination of students became quickly very popular among teachers. In the last two semesters nearly each third student on the average sat an examination using printed tests from ROPOT. Some faculties even started to use the printed tests for final state examination.
We consider this feature very significant, because it helps to motivate more teachers to use e-learning applications. Some teachers have natural distance from adapting the e-learning techniques for their courses, scanned tests can be taken as kind of a connection between classic type of education and e-learning one. Even at first distant teachers are after good experience with scanned tests willing to adapt online testing.
2.2 How to motivate students to study through the whole semester?
We see as a problem of today's higher education finding a way to capture students attention to study regularly during semester. With increasing number of students is nearly impossible to check whether they fulfill their tasks in the course. By adopting e-learning situation can be improved. We offer more opportunities for teachers to achieve this goal, leaving the decision to them.
2.2.1 Weekly ROPOTs
One way to force students to study regularly is to provide them with tests during the whole semester. It depends on the teacher's teaching attitude, whether he or she will set the completion of some of these tests as a condition for the completion of the course or whether he or she will leave the choice to student's own will. Either way it is obvious from last semester statistics, that students fill quite a lot of tests even through the semester.
Table 2. Represents number of tests online submitted and offline filled in and later scanned for automatic evaluation per week during the whole Spring 2009 semester
|Part of semester
|Before first week (incl exceptional input tests)
Last two weeks (incl fulfilling requirements)
After last week (incl final exams)
2.2.2 Discussion groups
Course discussion groups are created dynamically in every course, where at least one student or teacher is active, meaning he or she actually uses some course's applications. Again, since Autumn 2004, where discussion groups were introduced, we have seen multiple ways of using such tool. Usually students use them as a main communication channel, since it is probably the easiest way to get important information. Explanation or solution of some topics of the course are also discussed here.
Teacher can be either active, meaning he or she intervenes directly in the discussion, or uses the discussion for evaluation purposes. For this reason we implemented easy way to evaluate students directly from the discussion, so the teacher is able to perform such task seamlessly and comfortably even if the number of students in the course is rather big. Some teachers use this kind of settings to perform full e-learning courses, where gained points from discussion through the whole semester make up essential part of their final evaluation.
There are approximately 20 to 30 discussion posts depending on semester and faculty at every discussion with at least one topic thread. This value is stagnant in last 5 years.
2.2.3 Interactive syllabus
The interactive syllabus represents a well-arranged page containing course-related information as well as links to various tasks, exercises, and materials designed for students, which are organized either chronologically or thematically. A teacher usually prepares the exercises in advance and subsequently makes them accessible to students.
Syllabus is the most powerful tool to maintain online part of learning activities, but it also requires the biggest effort on the side of the teacher. Teacher has to have overview of other applications (such as ROPOT, discussion) to be able to use syllabus to its full potential. This is probably the reason why syllabus is not used as often as other applications. On the other hand some faculties realize advantages of such approach and either force teachers of a certain area to create them or for example motivate doctoral students by some scholarship programme.
Interactive syllabus is also used for its variability to perform different task. One faculty uses syllabus as an application for electronic lecture notes and coursebooks, for which suitable tool has not yet been implemented. Since it hasn't been designed for these kind of purposes, teachers are not provided with all of desired functionality.
2.3 Providing support for both teachers and students
Every complex LMS needs a good support for it's users. This issue becomes even more crucial in case we are developing versatile applications, because these kind of applications tend to be difficult to get started with. 'The most effective support systems for teaching faculty are those that provide course development team' (Garrison 2004, p. 102). Therefore three support teams has been established to help users with the MU IS: E-technicians for support of e-learning applications, IS-technicians for support of administrative agendas and S-technicians for creation of educational multimedia. We see the acquisition of technicians very significant, because they help teachers to better understand the functionality of the system and to see all kind of possibilities that the system is offering.
E-technicians visit teachers—it is vital that each of them can easily interact with the faculty staff (Brandejsová 2006)—that might be interested in e-learning applications personally and try to understand their needs and requests and discuss a best solution fitting the certain situation. This requires excellent knowledge of LMS on the side of e-technicians, which is guaranteed by direct contact with the development team. S-technicians help teachers with improving their electronic materials. They create interactive content for ROPOTs, presentations, 2D and 3D animations. Thanks to these support teams teachers can have really complex assistance in creating blended or even full e-learning course.
2.4 Social aspects of presented e-learning tools
Every bigger LMS creates a social network as a side effect. Since users are used to visit the system on a regular basis, they easily adopt and use additional features.
Excellent example is relatively new application Drill based on spaced repetition algorithm. It helps to memorize small portions of information and it is usually used to learn vocabulary of foreign language. Drill has not been implemented as a part of e-learning agenda for teachers, but it is accessible to everyone in the system. More than 2,700 users started to use this application quite heavily just with small encouraging right from the beginning. They answered over 700,000 cards and have created over 100 coursebooks since than. Tool for transforming some types of ROPOTs questions has been created upon students requests.
Our aim is to build knowledge base for courses and study fields because learners should have userfriendly access to all kinds of learning resources. Study materials as a whole can be transferred to actual semester, students can (anonymously) upload materials to help each other, videorecordings are stored, etc. Also integrated social bookmarking tool conform to sharing course or domains oriented hyperlinks with comments and tags (over 3,000 links to date). Easy access to previous years course discussions is helpful too.
Concerning new tools we have prepared weblogs. 'Existing social software tools such as weblogs, wikis and social bookmarking can be used to support e-learning activities. However, these tools are not developed for educational purposes, which means that a directed effort is necessary to develop educational social software tools to support learning activities.' (Dalsgaard 2006)
In this paper we presented attitude to e-learning using versatile tools, which seems to have good impact on increasing number of using such applications. We see the greatest advantage of these tools being versatile in many possible settings, making them accessible to majority of students and teachers. This way there is a high probability that the one of possible application settings will satisfy individual needs. Another good feature of versatile tools is that they can be easily modified according to incitation of users, which can be done in very short time. At Masaryk university it is often matter of days, sometimes even hours.
On the other hand there are some limitations as well. Using few versatile tools together to accomplish meaningful educational experiences may be sometimes quite difficult and it is hard to fully understand impact of all possible settings. Not all users are so called early adopters and without good support, careful reading of documentation is often required. Sometimes, when users don't find an application, which satisfies their current needs, they start to use a different one, which was not designed for the certain purpose in the first place.
We are often surprised by the ingenuity of our users, for example when they used syllabus as an electronic book, which was mentioned before. Nevertheless these actions inspire us in designing and implementing new applications.
- Dalsgaard, Ch., 2006. Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning, Vol. 2006, Issue 2.
- Garrison, D. R. and Kanuka, H., 2004. Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The internet and higher education, Vol. 7, Issue 2, pp. 95–105. Conference paper or contributed volume.
- Brandejsová, J. and Brandejs, M., 2006, Development of e-learning and its integration into Masaryk university Information system. Information and Communication Technology in Education. Rožnov pod Radhoštěm, Czech Republic, pp. 162–164.
- Brandejsová, J. et al., 2008. E-learning at Masaryk University – Outcomes of Fruitfull Effort. ICETA 2008 Conference Proceedings. Stará Lesná, Slovakia, pp. 231–236. ISBN 978-80-8086-089-9