Toujours la change: new champagne in new bottles

While I was still working in the Institute of Educational Technology at the Open University in the 1990s, I led the development of the Institute’s distance-taught MA in Open and Distance Education. It was an exciting time, as the university was trying to go more global: we had students on the MA from many countries. And the programme was going online: the first courses for the MA were not entirely online but did incorporate email, discussion fora, use of web sites and electronic submission and return of assignments. The development created quite a few problems for the university’s systems. I was not very popular as I ‘pushed at the envelope’, as the Americans say. Could my students in Ulaan Bator (Outer Mongolia) and Argentina pay in sterling? With great difficulty. What if the Internet ‘lost’ a student’s assignment en route from Japan? Could the final exam be sat, offline, in Hong Kong? How should we handle students who wrote pages and pages for the primitive blog, and others who never surfaced because they were totally daunted?

I chaired the course team for H801 Foundations of open and distance education, a 60-point nine-month course first presented in 1997 with about 40 students guided by three tutors. The team drew quite heavily on existing text material, including some from the University of South Australia, with which we had a materials exchange agreement. In fact, we soon discovered the course was seriously overloaded. Our estimates of time needed by students were too low. We made the necessary changes for the second presentation. In fact, we may have been learning more about distance education than some of our students! They were drawn from many institutions, mostly ones teaching on campus.

You may be interested to hear that last February a very different MA course team and tutors launched the first presentation of H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates. H800, another 60-point nine-month course, has exceeded its target recruitment by more than 20, with a record number of over 120 students beginning a packed programme of activities and interaction. One distinctive feature of the design is the use of Elluminate – a new tool for most tutors and students. Elluminate tutorials play a major role early in the course, and students also have the option to use the tool for their own study groups. Early feedback has brought largely positive reports on the Elluminate tutorials, and has commended the clarity of the H800 activities – which enable students to explore key issues and practices in the field of technology-enhanced learning. Later in the course, students will use social networking tools such as Delicious and Twitter.

Doubtless the university’s systems are being stretched again as H800 brings new challenges, but that is how innovation goes ahead. Toujours la change (have I remembered the right French saying?): this is new champagne in new bottles.


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