Editor’s Note: Improvement of teaching and learning involves adoption of new instructional methods, re-shaping teacher and student roles, adopting relevant assessment methods, and coaching faculty and students to develop skill-sets related to leaching and learning via the internet and interactive multimedia.
The institutional challenge is to change a learning culture that has prevailed for decades in order to reap the benefits of new learning paradigms. This paper describes how the University of Mauritius is re-conceptualizing its curriculum into a distance learning activity framework focused on learner self-reliance, empowerment, interdependence, asynchrony, reflexivity, and commitment.
Reconceptualisation of the
Teaching and Learning Process through
Mohammad Issack Santally and Alain Senteni
The University of Mauritius launched its virtual campus in 2001 with an e-Learning platform, Virtual-U developed at the Simon Frasier University with about five online and web-enhanced modules that were delivered to approximately five hundred students. We started with a learning management system and adopted an evolutionary approach to the development of a stable model for e-Learning for the University that we look forward to extend for the Indian Ocean region. We describe in this paper, the important recent technological developments that have taken place in terms of e-Learning infrastructure. We also make an exposé of some pedagogical innovations we brought to the University system in terms of teaching and learning with particular reference to the Master of Science programme in Computer-Mediated Communications and Pedagogies.
Technology-enhanced education as a
new teaching and learning paradigm
Traditional distance education helped remove many barriers to education due to its relatively low price and high flexibility in the study modes. Nowadays, in this technology driven world, a new concept of distance education has emerged. Different interchangeable terms have been used to denote this concept: e-learning, technology-enhanced learning, web-based learning etc. The concept of web-based learning and the use of the Internet in teaching and learning have received increasing attention over the recent years. One of the main advantages of delivering web-based educational materials is that the same content is delivered to a number of students and can be accessed with no restrictions of time and place. However, there is a wide belief that using the web as only a new kind of delivery medium for educational materials does not add significant value to the teaching and learning process. The integration of technology in learning, needs to address the very important issue of enhancing the teaching and learning process, rather than just being seen as a new flexible delivery medium (Nichols, 2003). The web therefore can be seen as (1) a new delivery medium for distance education materials; (2) a flexible and rich medium (in terms of multimedia) for students to access their learning materials and (3) a medium offering a new paradigm for learning.
A new delivery medium for distance education materials
The most basic form that e-learning could take would be a replacement of the traditional print medium that would be sent over through postal communications to students who are dispersed over the planet. This is a costly and time-consuming operation with a significant administrative overhead. Furthermore, students’ learning could be enhanced and supported by computer-mediated communication tools like forums, email, chat rooms and advanced tools like internet-based video-conferencing. Garison and Shale (1990) however, postulate that the notion of independence and autonomy in the educational transaction in distance education seems to overshadow two-way communication between the teacher and the student. With distance education via the Internet, the different computer-mediated communication tools eliminate this constraint. Students can in fact communicate with peers also and work in collaboration on some tasks thus reducing the feeling of isolation that they used to face in traditional distance learning settings.
A flexible and rich medium for students to access learning materials
E-learning can also be used to offer pedagogical support to on-campus students. This is often defined as technology-enhanced learning. The Internet provides an infrastructure that supports the diffusion of hypermedia courseware elements. This combination of multimedia objects in a hypertext supported environments make the acquisition and comprehension of some concepts easier for students. For instance, a simulation showing the effect of speed of a car and reaction time on the breaking distance is a very efficient approach to improve the understanding of abstract concepts. There has been much research illustrating the benefits of integrating multimedia in instructional materials to enhance the learning experience of the learner. It is also widely postulated that multimedia is a very useful tool to address students with different learning and cognitive styles (Ayersman & Minden, 1995).
A medium offering a new paradigm for learning
Contemporary researchers in education focus mainly on the use of the Internet infrastructure to implement new learning paradigms grounded in more socio-constructivist settings. They insist that the Internet should not be used as only a medium for delivery of electronic materials but should viewed as a medium that supports new learning paradigm, pedagogies and instructional approaches and that facilitates the construction and application of knowledge through authentic and collective activities (Schneider, 2003).
The e-Learning Framework at the University of Mauritius (UoM)
The University of Mauritius launched its virtual campus in 2001 with an e-Learning platform, Virtual-U developed at the Simon Frasier University with about five online and web-enhanced modules that were delivered to approximately five hundred students. The University of Mauritius set itself four main objectives with the setup of its virtual campus namely:
Institutional Framework and Resources
Training and Knowledge Building
Pedagogy and student support
The emphasis was put on the need to develop new student-centered models of learning, learning environments, and pedagogies to better meet the needs of the workplace, society and the Mauritian learner.
The Virtual-U Learning Management System
Figure 1: The Virtual-U Courseware Management System
The Learning Object Repository (LOR) (http://vcampus.uom.ac.mu/lor)
The motivation behind the development of a learning objects repository at the University is inherent from the objectives that were set and the project is viewed from a perspective of providing the blueprint to lay the foundations of the institutional framework for sharing and exchange of resources in Mauritius and with the external world.
Metadata Standards and the need for adaptation to the local context
Standards are necessary for internetworking, portability and reusability. With standards, there is no confusion about what is being communicated by a particular expression. There are many standards in the literature such as ARIADNE (Alliance of Remote Instructional Authoring and Distribution Networks for Europe), DUBLIN CORE, IMS and LOM (Learning Object Metadata). For the UoM LOR project, the LOM was chosen to document the learning objects.
However, we found the learning object metadata keywords list is inadequate from a local educational point of view. Consultations have been made with the tertiary education commission (TEC) of Mauritius to extend the original keywords list of the LOM. We therefore use the LOM standard to conserve the reusability and interoperability features of the UoM LOR with other repositories and the TEC keywords list is used for metadata exchange within the local context.
The Courseware Authoring Framework
The Courseware tool has been developed as a second phase development and integrated in the UoM LOR interface as an extended functionality. The system consists of three main core parts:
A user-friendly interface for the user (lecturer) to create a course, search for relevant learning objects and to add them to his course.
Populate an XML document dynamically for each course that is the actual package of the course. A purely object-oriented system has been built and an XML database.
Transformation of XML document through XSLT applications into HTML format to be hosted on the virtual campus so that other users can view it.
Figure 2: Integrated Architecture for Courseware Authoring
and the Virtual Campus
The student support model
The model comprises of two main components: the technical support and academic/pedagogical support. It is very important to separate and make a clear distinction between them since they are of completely different nature with different actors involved. On the one hand, we have technical assistants and virtual learning support staff who help the student to get going with the virtual campus infrastructure and systems so that they can access the course contents and media facilities while the academic support will be mainly delivered by tutors, instructional designers and academics who will help the students achieve the learning objectives through well designed instructional activities and through computer mediated pedagogical communication.
The importance of a model lies behind the fact that it is believed any educational intervention needs to have an underlying assumption, philosophy and theoretical models that will guide the support activities and The model is illustrated in figure 3.
Figure 3. UoM Learning Support Model
The UoM Online Test Center
The VCILT Test Centre (http://vcampus.uom.ac.mu/testcentre) is an online assessment and student performance monitoring tool offering academics of the University of Mauritius the opportunity of carrying out curriculum-based multiple choice class tests using automated marking techniques. The ability to administer and score an assessment quickly is one of the main strengths of computer-based assessment (Hasselbring, 1984). Curriculum based Measurement and Online Assessment Strategies have similar theoretical strengths, which facilitates combining the two for a more streamlined and time efficient process of evaluating student progress within a particular curriculum.
Theoretical background for online tests: curriculum-based measurement
The main characteristics of Curriculum Based Measurement (CBM) include its focus on direct, repeated measurement of student performance in the curriculum using production-type responses (Marston, 1989). CBM is based on a major premise that assessment and decision-making are curriculum referenced (Fuchs et al., 1983), meaning a student's performance on a test should indicate the student's level of competence in the local school curriculum. CBM allows the examiner to reference the student’s performance in four ways (Deno, 1985):
Individually, in comparison to how the same student has done recently on other
To a goal, how the student is progressing toward a long term goal;
Instructionally, before or after adjustments in instruction have been made; and
Normatively, in comparison to a local group such as the classroom or grade level.
Online testing allows for the same comparisons, since each student’s performance can be recorded and stored. By recording and storing student performance on CBM tasks, online assessment provides the teacher more information without additional time commitment. This data can be saved and analysed in a variety of ways using basic statistics at a future time.
Pedagogical strategies used for online tests
Since the introduction of online computer-based class tests is a new concept to students (just as e-learning is), the right pedagogical strategy needs to be adopted to prevent students from stress and frustration that can affect their performance and willingness to take online tests. Moreover, it has been taken into account that students are not familiar with IT tools especially web-based assessment systems.
In this respect, mock test sessions are organised for the students to familiarise themselves with the system and its functionalities. It is scheduled one week before the test under the real exam conditions. Students are also be informed at different time intervals about the time remaining for them to complete the test.
As a result, rules/procedures are clearly documented in order to run the test and to ensure there are no confusion amongst the students and invigilators/assistants. Clearly, the normal examination rules of the University of Mauritius are applicable but some of them need to be adapted/re-asserted to this new context. In this respect, the annexed set of rules/procedures has been devised to adapt to the new context.
The integrity of the class test is very important to the lecturer since the feedback will provide for an assessment of what the students have grasped so far in the course. Plagiarism and copying are strongly discouraged and the system achieves this purpose by having the questions on the screen randomised. The test paper will be the same for each student but the questions will not appear in the same order.
Approaches to Teaching & Learning Online:
Content-based or Activity-based?
The concepts of virtual learning platforms and learning portals
Learning platforms are mainly web-based integrated information systems that have administrative tools, pedagogical and communication tools to support online activities of a group of persons implicated in a teaching and learning task. E-Learning platforms typically serve as a delivery medium for distance education materials over the web since they are basically web-based environments. Most e-Learning platforms currently available are generic software not specifically tailored for a particular pedagogy or university’s needs. They have basic communication tools like forums, wikis and web logs that support collaboration. A major limitation of such platforms is that they guide the instructional design of the course to be delivered since we need to make sure our design fits in the framework provided by the system.
Brockbank (2002) on the other hand, emphasizes on the concept of “learning portals”. He postulates that e-learning is critical to the success of individuals, organizations, communities, and economies, and e-learning portals top the list of effective training and educational strategies. Schneider (2003) defines such environments as content, community and collaboration management systems (C3MS). As Gilroy (2001) has pointed out: “The emphasis of most e-learning programs to date has been on the accumulation, organization, and delivery of content”. Schneider postulates that C3MS systems are efficient learning tools to support socio-constructivist approaches such as project-based learning in a virtual environment. In a portal environment, Schneider (2003) argues the new teacher’s role as manager, orchestrator and facilitator. He has to be present in the environment as well as the students. This so-called concept of ‘social presence’ is often overlooked in classic e-learning platforms where forums are used just as a communication tool.
Content-based e-learning courseware: the CSE 1010e experience at the UoM
The CSE 1010E (Introduction to Information Technology) was initially delivered through print-based distance education mode and it became the first module to be delivered online at the University of Mauritius on a very large scale (~ 1000 students). The CSE 1010E module (Figure 4) has now been delivered without any major problems, for approximately two academic years now. The module is hosted by the University of Mauritius Virtual Campus, which provides the technological infrastructure and pedagogical tools to enhance the teaching and learning process.
Figure 4: The Cse1010e Homepage
Students have an online study guide (also available in print format) where they have access to an instructional plan that helps them in their learning. They get instructions about chapters to read and exercises to carry out. The contents section provides students with a multimedia learning material arranged in a hypertext structure that helps them to understand concepts easily. Students also have access to a range of self-assessment questions for each chapter. The assignments and practical sections contain necessary information about continuous assessment and hands-on activities to be carried out in the lab. Students also have access to online discussion forums where they can discuss concepts and topics related to their module with peers and tutors. Participation on online forums counts as part of the continuous assessment. This acts as a motivation factor for students to participate.
An evaluation of the module from a cognitive perspective (Santally & Senteni, 2004) revealed that the module was only an electronic version of print-based distance education materials that were previously delivered to students. The module was rated average from the evaluation since it was obvious that the instructional design process for print-based material cannot be directly applied for e-learning courseware design. Even when the module migrated in an online environment, the contents, assignments and evaluation modes remained the same. In short, the behaviorist approach was still prevailing. Students, in this case would prefer to print the materials to read since the content-based chapter-wise approach was used in the design of the module. As a result, it was not seen to be adding to the learning process.
Re-engineering for an activity/competence-based pedagogy:
The MSc Computer-Mediated Communication and Pedagogies (CMCP)
The principal objective of this Postgraduate Programme is to train professionals, who after a minimum of two years of studies and industrial placement, will be able to master the engineering of e-learning content development, communication and pedagogies to benefit companies and public administrations. Beyond the response to significant needs and the creation of an economic niche on a national level, it is also a question of consolidating a process of regional development which, taking into account the infrastructures of technology, should end up in the integration into a network of schools, as the one currently created in the EU (European Union). The intention is to create special links with businesses, making it possible to offer them specific support for retraining of their staff while developing promising niches of activity. Moreover, the "practical" approach chosen as a teaching model is intended to fill the skills deficit, as expressed by professionals.
An innovative approach to teaching and learning at the University
The programme will be delivered neither through the traditional classroom-based delivery nor through the classic e-learning approach. We firmly believe that classic e-learning through well-structured platforms, diffusion of contents online with structured chapters and classic activities such as open-ended questions and Multiple Choice Questions defeat the purpose of using e-learning to foster innovative pedagogies and to promote knowledge construction and autonomous development of the student (Santally & Senteni, 2004).
The programme is more centered towards knowledge construction, socialization and collaboration based on a set of authentic activities (Fig 5) that will help the student develop an understanding of the subject matter, formulate personal learning goals depending on their professional interests and to use a set of pedagogical and technological tools to support them in the process. The instructional design of the programme has been done with contemporary models. We applied the MISA (Méthodes d’Ingenierie de Systèmes Apprentissage) framework for instructional design and used the modeling tool MOT (Modélisation Objet Typés) (Paquette, 2003) to create prototypes of learning activities.
Another prototype activity includes the online collaborative editing of a glossary of terms related to the module they are studying using for instance, wikis. A Wiki is a piece of server software that allows users to freely create and edit web page content using any Web browser. Every student needs to have a wiki as his web log, which we call journal where he records all the activities, problems, and other issues related to his learning experience in the course. These activities form the core of the students’ continuous assessment that mainly focuses on the targeted competencies and skills that the student needs to demonstrate using higher order cognitive skills.
Fig 5: Model of an activity using MOT
Observations from the Field with the CMCP Programme
It is currently the fifth week of the semester for the Masters programme in CMCP and 18 students are presently enrolled. The students come from various academic backgrounds such as French, Agriculture, Computer Science, Physics, Math and Engineering. Most of them are primary school teachers and secondary school education officers. The first session of the course was a face-to-face one and most of the students were very motivated to follow such a non-conventional course. They were delighted with the fact, that there will be no formal lectures and classroom attendance is not a pre-requisite to sit for the exams. The principle is that attending classroom lectures does not guarantee successful learning, which is different from passing an exam.
We define the occurrence of successful learning in our programme as a three phased activity: (1) Knowledge Acquisition phase; (2) Knowledge Application Phase; (3) Knowledge Construction through Sharing and Reflexive Practice. The students carry out the first two phases after going through the detailed activity guidelines and the third phase normally has an overlapping component with the other two phases. This is normally carried out online through collaborative learning tools such as a discussion forum and it is a continuous process of negotiation, sharing and reflection with the peer community. We define this system of activity as an educational ecology, is a (micro)-educational system linking an educational (virtual) community and shared resources, through technologies. The activity of the community consists of interactions between its members and also with the external world to produce new knowledge and resources for capacity building (Fig 6):
Community mutualizes human resources.
Technology is the instrument.
Shared resources are available locally but also elsewhere through an external community of proxies (close friends, physically not so close).
Fig 6.0: Structure of an Educational Activity,
inspired from Engestrom (1987,2001)
At this stage, the students started to realize one important aspect of the course that was completely mismatched with the reasons of their rejoicing for not having classroom lectures. Their workload has greatly increased through this new learning paradigm and they realized the importance of good time management. They were not devoting enough time to read the guidelines for the activities and this was affecting their confidence. As a result, some of them wrote to ask for weekly face-to-face sessions. This would however defeat the very purpose of the course. Our answer to that was very simple and it was in fact a question that made the students reflect on what they have asked. How can we teach you not to teach through classroom lectures by having classroom lectures?
There were many reasons for a student’s apprehension at this stage. First, some are not familiar with internet environments and approaches. However, this experience is part of learning from the web and is an important objective of the programme. Some students find it difficult to plan and manage their learning. This is also an important objective of the programme. Some students have problems expressing themselves through computer-mediated tools and/or do not read messages and emails that would guide them. As a result, progress is impeded or deadlocked. Use of web tools and interactions was an important objective. These obvious problems show that students are still exam-oriented and lack skills and confidence in elearning. Our task now was to reassure the students and to get them back on track. Here comes the importance of the blended approach. We arranged a face-to-face seminar and let the students express about their concerns. We stressed that this is not only a change of teaching and learning methods but it touches the roots of the existing teaching and learning culture and they are among the first ones to experience this effect.
Implications on Instructional methods and design
The need for innovative and more flexible methods
A comparison of the two programmes, the Computer-Mediated Communications and Pedagogy and the Introductory Course in Information Technology (Cse1010e) shows an obvious difference in the instructional design methods that have been employed. For instance, ensuring that a manual is well structured so that students can easily understand what they need to do would correspond to usability issues related to human-computer interaction principles while designing an online course. Hypertext is an attribute of web pages that provides interlinking of documents together in a web site or across web sites. Print manuals do not have this facility. When properly used it facilitates exploration and research; inexperienced students can easily become lost in hyperspace while browsing the courseware materials and become disoriented.
Designing for the online environment therefore needs a blending of Information Technology and pedagogical skills. The architecture of an online course can be viewed as three-level one (Paquette, 2003). It consists ideally of a pedagogical infrastructure, a media infrastructure and the information technology infrastructure that supports the other two infrastructures. The real concern for teaching and learning is at the pedagogical infrastructure where the pedagogical strategy guides the course toward a content-based or activity-based approach. As we have already postulated, the web can be used as a very good environment to support (socio)-constructivist activities that emphasize knowledge construction and sharing processes rather than passive knowledge acquisition.
The implications on the instructional design process directly imply a role shift for the conventional instructional designer. Along with a courseware re-engineering, traditional instructional designers need to be trained to evolve in such novel situations. Many instructional designers have very limited information technology skills and sometimes it becomes really difficult for them to get going in the new work environment. Instructional designers need to be able to depart from their well-structured instructional design methods to respond to ad-hoc situations that arise during design and delivery of an online course. The elements of flexibility and adaptability from the design to delivery phase of an online course are crucial to ensure successful learning and minimum disruptions during the semester.
Assessment methods are also an important issue in the reconceptualisation process. While the focus is laid on knowledge construction, application, sharing and reflection based on authentic activities, traditional examination methods show clear limitations in providing for a fair and reliable assessment. Project-based approaches are very good alternatives to written exams where students may have viva voce presentation, participation in online forums and in virtual seminars. The problem here is the integrity of assessment methods since with the Internet, plagiarism is often a big risk to the integrity of assessment methods based on socio-constructivist approaches.
The shift in the role of the teacher and that of the learner
As we have seen in previous discussions, the instructional methods to be used in socio-constructivists web-based environments no longer position the student as a passive recipient of knowledge and the teacher as the one who will transmit the knowledge. The student becomes an active agent in the teaching and learning process who continuously seeks for new information and experiences under the guidance of the teacher. This paradigm shift also implies in some cases, the loss of authority of the teacher in the classroom and this has been the main reason behind the reluctance of teachers to adopt the innovative methods. Migrating to the online environment does not only have an effect on the learning culture of students but also on the teaching culture and the educational conceptions of teachers. The loss of authority is however, not a direct implication of the new mode of teaching and learning. In fact, there should not be any loss of authority of the teacher, but instead the student should be given more autonomy. As we have seen with the MSc CMCP, if as teachers, we had lost our authority, then we would have already reverted to the traditional classroom teaching when students requested it.
The reality is that during reconceptualisation of the learning process, the roles of the teacher and the learner change, which simultaneously increases the load of both actors. While students did not realize these implications, many teachers started to feel the burden after their courses started. In fact, the load is directly proportional to the motivation level of the students to actively participate in the virtual environments. The need to respond to students challenging questions and thinking based on fresh Internet documents involve lots more research work from the lecturer.
We have seen how computer-mediated frameworks can bring about new horizons for the improvement of the teaching and learning process. There are however, many issues involved such as the need to adopt new instructional methods, the need to re-shape the teacher and student roles and assessment methods, and the continuing need to coach students. The transition should be a gradual process. The ultimate challenge is to change the learning culture that has been prevailing for decades in order to reap the benefits of the new paradigm. At the University of Mauritius, our framework is based on the educational ecology concept where teaching and learning is re-conceptualized as an activity framework governed by the following rules:
Self-Reliance: Act using the resources available locally using for example our learning object repository.
Empowerment: Enable subjects to react immediately to changing circumstances by having access to decision-making.
Interdependence: Obtain resources elsewhere in order to act, to mutualize [human] resources using Internet, and peer-networks.
Asynchrony: Enable subjects to operate as quickly as possible, given local circumstances.
Reflexivity: Enable critical thinking and creativity to continuously improve current practices.
Commitment: Regulate social interaction, reciprocity and collaboration for knowledge construction and sharing.
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About the Authors
Mohammad Issack Santally has been working as Instructional Designer in the Virtual Centre for Innovative Learning Technologies (http://vcampus.uom.ac.mu) at the University of Mauritius for 3 years. He is in charge of the Online Courses Development Section and research in the e-learning/technology in education field under the supervision of the Director of the Center. email@example.com
Alain Senteni is a Professor in Computer Science and is currently the Director of the Virtual Centre for Innovative learning technologies in Mauritius. For the last fifteen years, Alain Senteni’s teaching and research have been related to the uses of technology in education, including computer-mediated communication, multimedia, technology-based training and pedagogical engineering. firstname.lastname@example.org