The weebly, the wiki and the webquest: an experiment in rapid, collaborative e-learning authoring

One way to create e-learning courses is to appoint armies of instructional designers, Flash scripters, Java programmers, graphic designers, audio-visual experts and quality testers, and have them monitored and chivvied along by Gantt-chart-wielding project managers as they churn out high-level specs, low-level specs , scripts, storyboards, prototypes and so on. In many cases, this is the way to go. Sometimes, however, something a bit simpler, faster and cheaper is needed. As Thiagi (my favourite rapid-instructional-design guru) points out: ‘There is a built-in bias toward overkill in the conventional [instructional design] process. The obsession – for doing it right the first time through painstaking analysis and planning, for pleasing all the people all the time through incorporating everyone’s inputs and feedback, and for attempting perfection through several rounds of testing, revision, and retesting – violates the Pareto principle. Much time (and other resources) can be saved by focusing on critical content and key steps and producing a lean instructional package. Improvements to this core package can be added gradually after it is implemented.’

Last weekend, with my student hat on, I stumbled upon the simplest, fastest, cheapest way I know to do collaborative e-learning authoring. In the context of a course on creating educational web environments which I am doing through USQ, a motley team of three of us (in Fiji, Kuwait and England) produced a very useable, 40-hour online course in the space of a week, with most of the work being done over the period of a single weekend. A process model emerged, which can be summarised as: get a couple of writers (maybe an instructional designer and a subject matter expert), have them go straight to the Web with the first draft, and then have them collaboratively build the learning programme ‘live’. That’s it. Simple. Fast. Cheap. Effective if your writers know what they’re doing. Several Web 2.0 tools make this scenario possible now – even desirable… but more about that in a moment.

First, a bit of background on how the model arose: Our task was to collaboratively create a WebQuest, which is ‘an inquiry-oriented lesson format in which most or all the information that learners work with comes from the web’. (See http://webquest.org.) The concept of the WebQuest was popularised by Bernie Dodge from San Diego State University in the mid-90’s, and is even more relevant today in view of the increasing availability of open educational resources on the Web, allowing course designers to focus on designing the learning process rather than creating the content. It can be used at all levels of education and training – our focus was on work-based training.

My WebQuest team started the assignment late and so we were forced by necessity to come up with a process for rapid design and development of our WebQuest site. This is how we did it:

1. Through our initial discussions on USQ’s Moodle discussion forum, we agreed on the basic parameters for our WebQuest – the target audience (health and safety officers in a company), the topic (instructional design – how to create a health and safety induction course for employees) and the task (learners were to produce a report for the Board of Directors outlining how they proposed to develop the health and safety course). We also agreed on the stages and steps that the WebQuest would be divided into.

2. Having recently discovered the wondrous, WYSIWYG, free weebly programme for website building, I decided to create a weebly site for our WebQuest, with page headings reflecting the learning stages and steps we had agreed on. By going straight to the Web with only the most tenuous outline of the course we were developing, we were implementing the notion of rapid instructional design in the extreme. If there are any Gantt-chart wielding project managers out there, they might be throwing up their hands in horror at this scenario, arguing that you can’t build the house before you’ve built the foundation. But Web 2.0 tools such as the weebly are so sophisticated now that you can add and remove web pages or completely alter the navigational structure of the site with just a few clicks and no knowledge of html at all (although you can view and tweak the html if you want to) – almost like modifying the foundation of your house after you’ve started building it, if you decide to move a wall or change the angle of your roof.

3. To organise the work of the WebQuest design team, we set up a work-allocation-wiki in the USQ Moodle forum, with a table indicating all the pages that needed to be developed for the WebQuest site, and who was planning to do which ones, along with a short ‘status report’ for each page. We updated this frequently – sometimes several times a day.

4. All three of us in the WebQuest design team had the password to access the weebly, so we could take turns to go in and add content to the sections we had committed ourselves to completing. This worked particularly well with the person in Fiji being in a different time zone – it was always exciting to see what she had added while I was sleeping!

5. We used the blog within the weebly to summarise the changes we had made, keeping this updated on a regular basis, so that the rest of the authoring team was continuously informed of developments. (Bearing in mind that the weebly can go into the public domain from day one, and can be viewed by anyone who has the URL, this has significant implications for participation and collaboration by stakeholders. The blog could also be used for commentators to add their feedback as the work progresses.) The blog would probably be deleted or hidden when the WebQuest was piloted with learners, although the transparency of the authors’ process might be of interest to some learners – especially as in our case, the subject of the WebQuest was instructional design.

6. In addition to the weebly, we created a wiki using the free pbwiki, to enable our WebQuest learners to summarise key points as they worked through the WebQuest. The wiki was also to be the main point of reference and collaboration for learners in the final stage of their WebQuest, when they were required to jointly produce a report to the Board of Directors, reflecting how they would apply their knowledge of instructional design in an authentic context.

The final product was a website containing a very structured process for learners to learn about instructional design by exploring selected resources that are freely available on the Web, with the help of some carefully scaffolded questions. Trainers’ notes were also provided. It’s not perfect and there are plenty of ways in which it could be improved with the addition of more time and resources, but in the hands of a capable online facilitator/ trainer, it could provide a stimulating and useful learning experience for the learners. Much more so, I suspect, than some of those content-heavy, ‘electronic page-turner’ type courses that some commercial companies spend fortunes, and many months, on producing.

By Gabi Witthaus

Social Notworking

Before you all jump in with comments about my spelling, don’t worry I have not misspelt the title of this posting, it is simply a play on words, for today trusted readers, I’m talking about a new phenomena known as ‘Social Notworking’ which is a term I suspect will be included in the next edition of the Oxford English Dictionary!

It appears that students at Bournemouth University have been complaining that access to computers has been reduced because fellow students are hogging the machines to check their Facebook and Twitter accounts. There is a call for certain computers at Bournemouth to be specifically marked for academic use only. Interestingly the debate has rumbled on with some university sources defending social networks as they are also being used for legitimate academic reasons.

I find this scenario particularly interesting with the growing support for Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) and Cloud Computing – is this another ‘greying’ of the boundaries which technologies always appear to cause? Or is it that the growth of technology adoption is out-pacing our understanding of it potential and therefore is easily frowned upon?

I personally find Facebook and LinkedIn excellent ways of keeping in touch with large numbers and various cohorts of people from all aspects of my live; I also enjoy reading people’s statuses and the kind of things that are happening in others lives, where they are in the world and the issues they are reflecting on.

Perhaps you can share your experience of social networking and we can discuss the positive and negative aspects to help us clarify the situation for the future?

Matthew Wheeler
Keeper of the Media Zoo

Ja well no fine

As I’m relatively new to the BDRA, I will use this post to tell you a little bit about myself. I’m from South Africa, which means that I say ‘Ja’ (pronounced ‘Ya’) rather a lot. (South Africans almost never say ‘Yes’, although we’re known to say ‘Yeeees’ when adding special emphasis to the affirmative.) I also come from that generation of South Africans whose vocabulary irritatingly includes the phrase ‘Ja well no fine!’, which means roughly the same as the Indian head nod (I learnt this by spending most of last year in India and frequently getting into trouble for misinterpreting this vital but cryptic bit of body language) – which, depending on context and accompanying clues such as a smile or a twinkle in the eye, can mean yes, no or maybe. (And in India, a twinkle in the eye can just as easily mean ‘No’ as it can ‘Yes’, as if things weren’t confusing enough already.) ‘Ja well no fine’ has the added advantage though, that it can stand in for ‘Well then!’ or ‘Oh!’ or any other English conversation filler that you might use when you don’t know what else to say. I’m pretty sure it was the writer Robin Malan, better known in South Africa by the phonetically spelt version of his name, Rawbone Malong, who popularized the phrase in the early seventies with the publication of his book Ah Big Yaws? A Guard to Sow Theffricun Innglissh, which, roughly translated into standard English, means ‘I beg your pardon? A Guide to South African English’, and which instantly became the definitive, if merciless, guide to white South African English pronunciation – even being used as a reference by the BBC’s drama department at the time.

Of course things have changed since then, and so-called Black English has taken its rightful place in the annals of our nation’s linguistic history. There was that great story some years back, of how Nelson Mandela once asked a member of the South African Airways crew for the black pepper, and she returned with that day’s edition of The Sowetan newspaper. (Those were the days when our national carrier crew’s fame revolved around more innocent things than facilitating South Africa’s international trade in dagga. Um, ja well no fine…)

That whole, rambling preamble was just to say that my interest in joining the BDRA’s DUCKLING team, specifically to work with the School of Education on the MA in TESOL & Applied Linguistics, has a few of its roots in my lifelong interest in regional dialects and world languages, living and dead. Apart from laughing deliriously at Malan’s exquisitely accurate transcription of our local idioms in my teens, I also studied Latin at school (while my friends were doing more sensible subjects like Science or Accountancy), after which I learnt a bizarre mixture of German, Swiss German and French on an exchange student year in Switzerland, which only my host family, in particular my ‘Mami’, who expended many hours teaching me her native French through the medium of our shared but totally butchered version of Swiss German, could ever fully understand.

Back in South Africa, I immersed myself in the anti-apartheid struggle in the eighties, majoring in Zulu while engaging in the deliberately subversive project of teaching literacy to black adults who had been denied an education by the evil Verwoerdian policies established in the fifties, all the while losing friends and colleagues for various periods of time to detention without trial, solitary confinement and other forms of institutional abuse in the political cauldron that was South Africa at the time. My postgraduate studies in Applied Linguistics provided welcome light relief.

A year in Spain in the early nineties, just before South Africa was due to undergo its peaceful transition to democracy (although we all feared that the Bothas and De Klerks were going to lead us into the bloodiest of civil wars) helped to calm my frantic spirit, while simultaneously adding to the linguistic muddle in my head – the murkiest depths of the latter being reached when I was commissioned to translate a novel from the Galician dialect into English, with the help of a hastily scribbled German translation that the (German-born) author had written for her mother. Learning Spanish was not without its mishaps. I think I will forever be remembered by my Spanish flatmates for casually remarking over lunch one day, ‘No me gusta nada la comida que tiene preservativos’, which translates as ‘ I can’t stand food with condoms in it.’ (I was only trying to say I don’t like preservatives…)

Subsequent attempts to learn Arabic while on a working stint in the Middle East yielded frustratingly little fruit: I got blindsided by the Arabs’ utterly inconsiderate convention of writing from right to left, in squiggles that represent only consonants, leaving the vowels almost entirely up to the reader’s imagination. And as the old Zen saying goes, in the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities… (But seriously, on the subject of different alphabets, there is a fascinating account of the development of writing systems in Maryanne Wolf’s book, ‘Proust and the Squid’. Frustratingly though, her wonderful historical descriptions are somewhat marred by her rather apocryphal views on the emerging culture of what she calls the ‘Google universe’, in which ‘continuous partial attention and multitasking’ are the norm. She fears (but does not substantiate) that this will lead to huge compromises in the human race’s ability to conduct the ‘deep examination of thoughts, words and reality’ which is characteristic of literate societies. Ja well… she hasn’t convinced me. More about that in a later blog, perhaps – in which I promise I will focus on matters related to learning and technology…

My recent stay in India immersed me in the quaint and colourful world of ‘Indlish’ (Indian English) – part charming old English from the Raj era, and part off-the-wall linguistic idiosyncrasy. The owner of the travel agency I used in Bangalore had the distinction of being called the ‘Proprietrix’ on her business card, store rooms were called ‘godowns’ (even if you had to go upstairs to get to them), and shopfronts frequently displayed beautifully calligraphed notices advising customers to ‘Enter from the backside only’ – a surprisingly common linguistic quirk, which was immortalised by author Binoo John, in the title for his book on Indlish. Perhaps the most memorable example from his book is the supposedly popular opening line in official letters: ‘Dear Sir, with reference to your above see my below.’ Ja well…!

And now, here I am in England, where all manner of Innglisshes are spoken by the local tribes – some of them completely incomprehensible to the untrained ear. No fine… it seems my journey into linguistics has only just begun!

By Gabi

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