Teaching at a research-led, dual-mode university

I’ve just completed teaching, marking and e-moderating two courses that were completely unrelated to the work we do at Beyond Distance. One was a traditional campus-based MA module in international relations, the other its new distance learning ‘cousin’.

It has been a number of years since I was last involved with the former, and the latter was only launched in 2008/9, so I thought it might be interesting to take a comparative snapshot of the two in terms of my new role as a learning technologist.

The DL course has been an unqualified success. Based around Gilly Salmon’s 5-stage model and use of e-tivities, the students have engaged terrifically well with the course – presented exclusively on the University’s Blackboard VLE – and the successful completion of the focused e-tivities has led them all to submit good essays.

Both in and away from the formal e-tivity forums, the students have interacted well with each other, and have been willing to pass on helpful advice, pointers on good articles and, in one or two instances, some unsolicited – but constructive – criticism.

The campus-based course was also successful. The 2-hour seminars were always well attended (I’d expect nothing less from Masters students), hard work and productive, and the students engaged in some wonderful and at times heated debates.

The classroom had full AV facilities. Each student was required to give a short Power Point presentation (15 minutes). All were extremely comfortable with the technology (enough to make a few jobbing lecturers nervous, I’m sure).

The seminars involved frequent use – by myself and the students, who were encouraged to ‘jump up and surf’ – of the networked PC and the projector to view websites, play short news clips, access prepared files on the servers, etc. This technology allowed for a far more collaborative effort and one removed from the traditional teacher/student format. The seminars were relaxed and informal, but I hope they were also useful. The essays I’ve just marked seem to bear this out.

So what observations can be made about this snapshot?

First, like Matt’s teenage daughter, the students were perfectly at ease with the technology. (I don’t think we should be too surprised at this nowadays.)

Second, this technology allowed us – genuinely – to break through Gilly’s 4th wall. On the DL course, I saw my role as a mentor and guiding hand: much of the instruction (and learning) was undertaken individually or collaboratively by the students. On the campus-based course, by giving the students free access to the AV resources throughout, I often found myself in the role of learner too.

Third, and this I find very reassuring, both cohorts of postgraduates offered the first glimpses of genuine research ability in their essays. Admittedly these skills were online and keyword based, but good questions were being asked, and sensible lines of enquiry followed.

Add some (highly satisfying) pencil-and-paper, dusty, archival research skills, and I’m confident these students are well positioned as 21st century postgraduates.  

Simon Kear

Learning Technologist

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