Michael Coghlan, TAFE SA, firstname.lastname@example.org
(This paper was presented at the Opening Gates in Teacher Education conference in Israel, February, 2001.)
Context - TAFE South Australia
TAFE SA is an organisation that consists of eight independent multi-campus institutes. Together these eight institutes cater for approximately 90,000 adult vocational students. TAFE SA is an acronym for Technical and Further Education South Australia, and focuses on vocational training for adults. Although each institute delivers their programs independently of each other, TAFE SA's professional development program for online learning has been coordinated centrally through an Online Education Services unit. Individual institutes may also run professional development activities locally. As I have a teacher training role system wide, and also for one particular institute, the following paper will include both perspectives.
It should be noted that whenever the term professional development is used, it is synonymous with the notion of in-service teacher training, and will refer to the ongoing training of staff who are already employed as lecturers. This paper makes no reference to pre-service training for staff.
Getting large numbers of lecturers to incorporate online teaching strategies has not been an easy task. Early adopters needed no encouragement. True onliners, they jumped in several years ago and experimented as they went, learning along the way. No theoretical persuasion was necessary. They enjoyed being online, and were happy to create materials or mine the web for suitable resources for their students. In their enthusiasm they assumed that thousands of students would flock to the new medium, and that colleagues would embrace the new way of learning.
TAFE SA's early adopters certainly had some success with the new medium. Much online material was created, and growth of online learning was steady. Then it plateaued. The number of students enrolled in online courses was not growing exponentially, and neither were large numbers of lecturers queuing up to become online teachers. Metaphorically speaking, we had hit the wall. Why the hesitation? Why weren't staff jumping on the online bandwagon? A professional development strategy was needed to encourage more staff to participate. And perhaps the whole idea of online learning needed to be redefined….
Online Learning - what is it?
The term online learning started life with a very narrow definition. It referred principally to the delivery of programs to remote students who never met each other or the lecturer. Before it could take place course materials had to be created. These materials, not surprisingly, tended to be based on existing print based materials and resources, which were translated to the web for electronic consumption. Students would be issued a password and log in and start working through the materials, in more or less linear fashion, until they reached the end. They would read the materials in isolation (either online or print them off), send in the assignments, and contact a teacher when necessary.
Who benefits from this kind of approach? Highly motivated students, preferably with teachers who had good computing and Internet skills, and a sound grasp of the pedagogy required for online teaching. And students at university level with courses that have a high percentage of text based interaction - lectures, tutorials, readings, essay or prose based assignments. I would suggest that his does not include the bulk of the world's adult students. TAFE SA is a vocational enterprise with many of its courses containing a great deal of practical content that needs to be practiced and demonstrated. Many of its students are not of purely academic orientation and are not following courses that are primarily text based - instruction in many courses is by lecturer demonstration, and assessment is often based on the demonstration of practical skills. Obviously teachers of students with this kind of profile were going to be hesitant to put their courses fully online. They needed another option to entice them into the online arena.
It is only comparatively recently that the notion of online learning has been expanded to include other teaching strategies, most importantly the combination of face to face teaching and online, or even incorporating use of the Internet in classroom teaching. I prefer to use a term that has recently gained currency - 'e-learning', to acknowledge these other potential uses of Net based technologies.
Examine the following table.
Activities 1 - 11 above are all examples of learning arrangements that took place in TAFE SA in the year 2000. It is an interesting exercise to ask staff whether or not they consider these to be examples of online learning. (You might ask yourself now.) I am not so much interested here in the answer to this question, but it does further explain the need for a new term (e-learning) to embrace all this activity. Each of these activities are valid approaches to using Internet technology and many of the teachers involved would say that are not involved in online learning, for they still conceive of online learning as per the narrow definition alluded to above. The more fluid notion of e-learning encompasses activities such as 1-11 above, and professional development strategies aimed at assisting staff adopt some of these activities with their learners are more likely to succeed than strategies aimed primarily at producing online deliverers, because staff see these activities as achievable and doable within their current teaching arrangement.
The 100% remote online learning arrangement is a hard nut for many teachers. It takes hours to become computer savvy (and this is usually time put in after hours), a familiarity with the Internet, and a belief that it will work with their students. Many staff do not have the time, and were not convinced that it was what their students wanted or needed. (Remember too, that approximately 80% of all online students live within driving distance of their institution. Why would local students want to do study online? Isn't online study something for those who live far away?) TAFE SA staff who realise that they are not expected to transfer all of their teaching online have been much more responsive to the idea of incorporating e-learning in their teaching, and it has helped us as an organisation get over the metaphorical wall I referred to earlier. Ideally, staff that develop the confidence to use Internet technologies in their teaching with campus based students will later develop the confidence to become online teachers.
Professional Development Strategy
The first attempts to engage staff in professional development strategies for online learning were conducted wholly online. Their focus was solely to encourage staff to become fully online teachers. It became clear that this approach was not catering for all categories of staff, for the reasons outlined above. An Introduction to Online Learning module was added to give a taste of the medium for interested teachers, but was still conducted fully online. Conducting such a module exclusively online is a touch anomalous, as staff who are becoming acquainted with the medium are not necessarily sufficiently skilled to study using the medium. And so a combined face to face (f2f) and online version was introduced. Offering an introductory module, and adding a f2f component drastically increased the numbers of participating staff.
There are indeed still some groups of staff who prefer the whole of their introductory training to be f2f, and though this may seem as equally anomalous as the wholly online arrangement, it is a reasonable option for those who have clearly expressed a preference for this mode of learning.
This catering for the needs of different staff of course raises the intriguing question of learning styles. Though learning styles theory is still very much in vogue, considerable research has shown that it consistently fails to be borne out in practice. That is, if you study a course designed around your particular learning style it will not guarantee you automatic success, or even better results than if you were studying a course that used your least preferred learning styles. What building in a range of learning styles can do though is assist in maintaining a healthy level of motivation - a significant factor in combating online education attrition rates.
The next stage in developing a range of online training modules was to add courses that were designed to give teachers specific skills in WebCT, and allow them the option of using them in their classroom based teaching with no pressure to become true online teachers. It is now an accepted part of our strategy to upskill staff who have no intention of becoming online teachers, but who are keen to make good use of Internet resources and interactive online tools for parts of their classroom based programs. This approach resulted in even larger numbers of TAFE SA staff being involved in these professional development programs.
Mentors, Champions, and Networks
The use of mentors has been a crucial factor in success of these online training modules. In many cases these are voluntary positions filled by enthusiasts. Some individual institutes have allocated funds for the remuneration of mentors. Paid or not, we are fortunate enough to have at least one mentor per campus who can offer face to face help to training participants when it is needed. These mentors are also important for maintaining the momentum of online discussions in discussion forums, and for providing facilitators with feedback on methodology, module structure, and navigation, for it is they who see people working with the training modules at the coalface. In short, if we didn't have this network of mentors much of our online training I believe would stall - many staff require the assistance of someone physically at their side. It may be just for a few minutes, but those few minutes can save hours of frustration.
There are other individuals who have no formal training position in their work groups, but whose influence is far reaching. These are the champions, the early adopters, the true onliners who have already developed web based materials and lessons. They do such good work that just their enthusiasm and commitment is infectious and results in colleagues wanting to use their materials, and ultimately develop their own Internet skills and content.
The existence of networks - groups of key and interested staff who meet regularly in their own time to discuss, plan, and coordinate approaches - not surprisingly has a positive effect in pushing the online movement forward within organisations. TAFE SA has a statewide network for this purpose, and it is clear that individual institutes that have their own internal networks tend to be more active in promoting and developing online approaches to teaching.
The Role of WebCT
TAFE SA has been using WebCT as its delivery platform since 1996, and was in fact the first designated WebCT institute outside of North America with the authority to offer WebCT training to other organisations. Internally, it has provided teacher trainers with a delivery tool that houses all online training programs, and introduces novices to a suite of interactive tools (principally email, discussions, and chat) that can be accessed from one site. As much of our online content is housed within WebCT it provides easy and inconvenient access to student online course materials. Staff quickly become familiar with a consistent interface and can transfer skills learned in the training modules to using online materials with students.
WebCT also features a range of tracking tools which are very useful in monitoring the performance of staff in the training modules - dates of accessing the course, length of time spent in the course, and frequency of contribution to discussion boards.
These training modules however comprise just one part of the overall strategy in getting lecturing staff to pass through the online gates. While some of these strategies will be obvious to some, they are all important components of a complete program that reach staff in various ways, and thereby increasing the effectiveness of the Professional Development program.
1. Work Based Learning Projects
Perhaps the most significant of these other approaches have been externally funded projects that allow teaching staff to come offline for a period of intense learning and application. Work teams that have had the benefit of such project funding clearly have taken quantum leaps forward in integrating technology into their teaching. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss these projects in more detail but I recommend that you browse the LearnScope site - the foremost Australian site for staff training in online technologies - http://www.learnscope.anta.gov.au/. These projects are based on Work Based Learning theory. For a brief synopsis of Work Based Learning see this article by Anne Walsh.
2. Appointment of Online Learning Professional Development Staff
TAFE SA has appointed two staff whose brief is to promote and support the growth of online learning across the state. While this may seem like a tall order (it is!) it has enabled staff from the eight institutes to identify and use these staff as a point of contact for all issues to do with online learning. There are many other staff across the system who have complementary roles, but the existence of staff who have an oversight of staff training and more importantly, staff training needs across the state (particularly important for non-metropolitan staff who may live several hundred kilometres from the capital, and whose needs are often overlooked due to their isolation and fewer numbers), has enabled TAFE SA to tailor provision of professional development programs that are more attuned to specific and local needs. These needs do vary according to discipline or subject area, and geographic location.
3. Special Events
Not all staff have large blocks of time available to participate in online training modules, or other extended projects. Special events over a one or two week time period can entice such lecturers to try their hand in online learning, and preferably should contain social contact and an element of fun. Examples of recent successful activities are the Online Games (programmed just before the Sydney Olympics), programmed group participation in online conferences (such as this one) at a prearranged time in a computer lab, and interactive email games.
a. The Online Olympics
Run over ten days, this was essentially designed as a fun activity that showcased the potential of WebCT (and the Internet) to deliver highly interactive and entertaining content. Activities were designed to show lecturers that such activities can be adapted for their students. (If anyone is interested in viewing this site, please contact me and I can provide a password and site URL.)
b. Online Conferences
As wonderful as they are, online conferences are a huge imposition for the uninitiated. They are generally complex to navigate, produce vast amounts of content (via discussions) in a short space of time, and demand several hours of one's time (preferably daily) to do them justice. To minimise the terror for new users, two TAFE institutes arranged group sessions where interested staff came to a computer room to join in the online conference together as a social event. This allows mutual troubleshooting if there are technical problems, and the sharing of ideas gained via the remote conference.
c. Email Games
Still another method that is not part of any official teacher training strategy is the use of email games. TAFE SA's Marie Jasinski has partnered with world renowned Games Creator and Facilitator, Dr. Sivasailam "Thiagi" Thiagarajan, to explore the use of email games. These games allow participants to gain insight and understanding about the online medium via the simplest form of Web based technology. These are by their very nature very text dependent activities, but highly interactive, and some thrive on the exploration of ideas in email exchanges that also incorporate entertainment, fun, and gentle competition as part of the online learning experience. Many of these games can be easily transferred to teaching situations with students. For more information on Thiagi see http://www.thiagi.com/about-thiagi.htm
d. Hosting International Conferences
Physical conferences on online education can of course be effective in galvanising and enthusing staff to join the online world. TAFE SA has gone one step further and is again hosting an international conference in April. (see http://www.tafe.sa.edu.au/top/webctconf/index.html) Hosting international conferences promotes a feeling of ownership among staff, and is visible evidence that their institution is a leading player in the field. Visiting international and interstate practitioners are also valuable resources for local staff while they are here in South Australia for the duration of the conference.
TAFE SA's professional development strategies for getting lecturing staff through the online gates are many and varied. In summary, I'd argue that the success of our professional development program is due to the following core ingredients. We
It is however not yet the perfect training strategy! There is still room for improvement. I would like to see constructivist methodologies employed more in our training modules, and mechanisms for more free ranging debate on the pros and cons of online education. I think it's important to allow lecturing staff to air their concerns - even if negative. Though I have some sympathy with administrators who try and force staff to incorporate the new technologies into their teaching, no one should feel pressured into taking the online path. And we should have more laptops available for home use, unlimited bandwidth, staff given cash incentives for developing and delivering online content, free ISP service for all staff, …..but now I'm entering the world of fantasy. Where are the gates that lead there?