Friday, October 23, 2009

Constructing Courses - Development Ideas 2

In both my flexible learning course and in constructing courses to enhance student learning I have focused on the big picture choosing to discuss the changes that I want to make to my overall program. I want to divert for a time and speak about one course in particular which needs to be changed for next year. This is the first course in my program and the only course I teach which I have not yet put online. All my other courses are on blackboard and I have developed online resources for these. Over 2010 I intend to take the next step in terms of developing these into online learning packages which I see as part of my overall program review and big picture plan. I need to take that first step for my first course and this is certainly a pressing task in my overall plan.

The first course is called ‘The Values Course’ and aims to increase student’s awareness of self, awareness of others and ultimately to increase their ability to work respectfully across cultures. Working respectfully across cultures requires some skills but is more importantly about being aware of ones own values in order that these are not imposed on others. The specific unit standard based learning outcomes linked to this course include:

  • Demonstrate self awareness for working with mental health consumers/tangata whai ora
  • Demonstrate awareness of own values and cultural identity and possible implications for practice.
  • Describe knowledge of Te Tiriti o Waitangi and the implications for contemporary practice as mental health support workers.
  • Describe knowledge of at least two Pacific peoples and the implications for contemporary practice as mental health support workers.
  • Demonstrate knowledge of group and team work theory, group functions and group skills and participate effectively in group or team work.
  • Demonstrate awareness of the importance of integrating knowledge, skills and values in Mental Health support Work.

The course is currently delivered face to face. I combine self awareness and group work unit standards with aspects of unit standards related to working with whanau, working with pacific cultures, Treaty of Waitangi, and Recovery competencies. The course is unit standard light relative to the other courses but the teaching content is significant and much time in the first term is consumed by orientation and administrative issues. I am happy with the content although I intend to move teaching about the Treaty itself into Term Two where the focus is on policy, legislation and application. I struggle with the lack of contact time and constantly feel frustrated that I am unable to cover all that I would like to cover. I look forward to alleviating the pressure by adding more on line components to this course.

In 2009 I have set up blackboard and built up resources for all the courses I teach except this one. I didn’t set it up for this one because I traditionally have a high number of students who are not computer literate and I just could not see how to incorporate computer training into the first terms program which is already packed. I can’t just extend the contact days because many of my students are being released from work to attend. Workplaces can’t afford to cover staff for additional days so I have to work with what I have. I scheduled the computer training for the beginning of term 2 which was okay except it gave some students an opportunity to feel hard done by. I think there is something to be said for starting as you mean to go on and I really want to start 2010 with an expectation that students will need to be computer literate.

My plan is to schedule regular computer lab sessions throughout term 1 and to develop online teaching packages aimed at scaffolding students into confident computer use whilst also meeting course requirements. If the labs are scheduled as part of course time, I can be there to get a sense of confidence and competence levels. In addition I will make it compulsory for students who have no computing background to complete the computing basics course in their own time. Unfortunately I just don’t have enough contact time to incorporate it into their program.

I have the students for a three day orientation, then one day a week for the remaining six days of term one. I incorporate self awareness teaching into the three orientation days. We focus here on individual characteristics and needs. Students complete a range of personality and learning style surveys and evaluate themselves against the recovery competencies. They write a short piece critically evaluating the surveys in relation to the relevance they have for them. This is aimed at getting them to start thinking critically about material they are given. They also collate all the information and use this to write a one page profile summarising their characteristics and needs. They share their characteristics and needs in groups and collate these to create a group profile outlining the group’s characteristics and needs. They then share the group profile with the whole class and together we use the group profiles to create a class contract. This all occurs in the three orientation days alongside all the usual orientation activities. I am really happy with this activity. It stimulates some fantastic discussion, gets students excited, contributes significantly to the building of our learning community and can be broken into small chunks to fit around the various compulsory orientation activities. I currently give students hard copies of the surveys but this would be a great task for the students to access on line.

There does tend to be some difficulties with logging on, related to unpaid fees, technical difficulties and incomplete enrolments in the first couple of weeks so any online tasks during this period would need to be designed in such a way as to be accessible to all students.

I use the class contract to introduce group work theory and the group work assessment task. The group work objective is to create a poster depicting different ethnic and culture groups and subgroups in New Zealand and to present this to class on the final day of term. The group need to work through a guided group work process establishing a group work contract, recording minutes, clarifying the objective, identifying vision, goal and tasks and finally writing up a reflection on the process. This is presented as a formal written report.

I usually spend one day on the group work theory aspect but this does not allow the students time to adequately apply group work process and this is evidenced in a lack of depth in this part of their assessment. I am happy with the learning activities and the assessment but would like to spend more time playing with group work process. Shifting the Treaty teaching to term two will enable this.

I spend one day on culture and values, two and a half days on the Tikanga Maori and the Treaty, one day on Pacific cultures and half a day on presenting posters. The content is rushed but this will be greatly enhanced by focusing on Tikanga rather than the Treaty and by utilising online resources. This material is currently assessed in a workbook format where students provide short factual answers. The workbooks are very tedious for students and me but ensure that I meet all the unit standard requirements. I want to shift all work book material to either the reflective journal or to online self assessed quizzes but I will need to check that these will meet moderation requirements and I will need to learn how to use them.

Students also learn basic mihimihi and waiata during this time and are orally assessed on these. It seems to work so I will maintain this in 2010 then review again.

Finally the students are expected to begin working on self awareness tasks in their own time. Self awareness tasks are presented in a journal. This year I made it compulsory to submit the journal for feedback mid term, each term but not compulsory to complete the tasks. This was an excellent move as it allows students to pace themselves according to their own safety needs.

The self awareness tasks require the student to dig deep in terms of their family and ancestral experiences and values and the impact of these on their work in mental health. I never have enough time to cover the material related to family experiences and values as adequately as I’d like and this lacking is evident in the quality of reflection on related aspects in their journal. The principles and policy informing family/whanau participation is explored in term two and it has just occurred to me that I could cover this material here in addition to developing an online learning package for this material.

I am using the term ‘learning package’ when I am referring to more than just providing on line resources or lecture notes. Reflecting on what I mean by this, I am talking about my teaching plan written up and presented online in such a way as to be accessible to students and to provide a similar quality to the learning as I aim for in my face to face teaching. I like to present information in small chunks and use a range of discussion based, reading or interactive activities aimed at supporting students to consolidate their learning. I have been looking at some beautiful courses colleagues have developed using Exe. This is definitely the right tool for what I want to do but I will need to learn to use it which is primarily about setting aside some time. I also need to learn to use Moodle.

On or off line, I think content delivery should be lively, fun, varied and as interactive as possible. I think lecturer presence is really important in online courses and I’ve been thinking about ways to create that presence most effectively. Check out this site for my ideal. I really love this website but I imagine it is hugely expensive to create something like this.

I do think E-lluminate is a likely possibility and I really must get my head around it but I don’t think it’s the only way. I think a mixture of chatty informal webcam recordings, more formal videoed lectures, audios on powerpoint and regular feedback, emails and phone calls are also useful tools for creating lecturer presence in online courses. These are things I can already do which adds to their appeal but I would like to develop more skill and confidence in using video or DVD camera’s.

I would also eventually like to be able to make more adventurous instructional films but there are some pretty good resources online to tide me over in the first instance.

In my next blog I’ll get a bit more focused on the specifics of my plan.

Constructing Courses - Development Ideas 1

My intention here is to discuss the things which I think are most important in constructing a course that enhances student learning.


Flexibility in teaching and learning is about designing a program which recognises that students have diverse needs and finding ways to cater to those needs. Diverse needs may include different:

  • learning styles and information processing preferences
  • characteristics and support needs
  • ethnic or cultural backgrounds
  • experiences in general and specifically in relation to education
  • starting points in terms of course content and academic skills
  • skill sets, strengths, risks and abilities
  • practical needs in terms of availability and study time preference

Flexibility does not mean online learning but may include online learning as one means of increasing flexibility. Online learning potentially increases flexibility by enhancing accessibility.


Accessibility is not just about being able to access material from off campus in a tangible or physical sense, it is about individual students being able to access, comprehend and engage with course or topic material in a way that makes sense to them. “The essential ingredient for improving student engagement is the creation of a context for learning where the students are able to bring their own culturally generated ways of knowing and learning (Bishop & Berryman, 2006, p5).Regardless of whether the forum is on line or in the classroom, a teacher’s responsibility in my opinion is to make information accessible to students in order to facilitate learning. It is absolutely not to shovel information at students though this approach may be called for occasionally. I do believe that a more structured approach is required when students have no base knowledge of a topic and are new to learning. A little bit of theory provided in lecture format may only result in superficial learning but it provides a base upon which each student can build. Without the theory as a starting point, I do believe that many students flail around feeling stupid and inadequate.

For some students accessibility may mean breaking down the key ideas of a theory into language that targets the particular ethnic or cultural make-up of an individual student or student group. For other students it may mean providing them with a list of primary or secondary readings so that they can break it down for themselves.

Accessibility may mean incorporating material or theories into the program or adapting the program according to the ethnic makeup of the group. It may require bringing in peer support tutors to work with individuals, linking students with voice activated soft ware, learning some key words in another language, running additional tutorial sessions, making material visually appealing, holding lots of discussion groups, doing lots of role plays, including audio’s on power points, providing a glossary of lingo, encouraging the use of dictionaries, goal setting and contracting with individual students, meeting the family, eating together and so on.

Accessibility may also be about ensuring that students have the technical skills required to complete a course. Technical skills may include: basic literacy, research and comprehension skills, essay and report writing skills as well as all the skills required for online learning.

I don’t think that making a course more accessible is as complex as it may sound. It need only include:

  • A power point with visuals that uses inclusive language and breaks down the key ideas.
  • If the course is delivered online, I think the power point should include audio and some live action footage of the lecturer being animated and enthusiastic.
  • A discussion based task
  • An interactive or group based activity
  • Two or Three key readings or links selected so as to be accessible to everyone (and cover different ethnic or cultural perspectives)
  • An assessment that gives options: Write an essay, or create a poster, or create a power point
  • Clear and fair marking criteria
  • Links to online technical support
  • Knowledge of the various supports available at polytechnic for students and a willingness to link students to these supports and work alongside them.
  • Additional (non-compulsory) reading for enthusiasts
  • A shared lunch or some other shared activity once a term
  • Knowledge of your students and a relationship with them

Building Quality Relationships

Constructing a course that enhances student learning is hugely dependant on building quality relationships. How can a teacher enhance their students learning if they don’t know who their students are.The relationship between teacher and individual student is hugely important in meeting student needs but the quality of the relationship that evolves between the students in any particular group is also hugely important.

I think we are privileged in human service education to have program content that enables the building of relationships to this extent but the ability to build effective, supportive relationships is also the primary tool of our trade so it is in part about practising what we preach or modelling what we teach. The importance of relationship in human service courses is perhaps the single most important argument against an imbalance of online learning relative to face to face. Communication in most cultures is something like 90% non-verbal. Tone of voice, facial expression, body language, non verbal minimal encourages and attentiveness provide cues that can sometimes convey a lot more than words.

I do think that increased online learning will pose a particular challenge for maintaining the emphasis on relationships in human service education. That said, I also think that online learning allows for some intimacy and safety in communication that takes time to build in face to face relationships and that this may counteract the loss of non-verbal cues. I also think that online communication allows people the opportunity to express a whole thought in a way that classroom and interpersonal interaction doesn’t due to interruptions and distractions and that this also has potential in terms of individuals getting to know each other – a kind of forced attentiveness.

I recognise that building relationships with students is a luxury afforded in a small course like mine but I also think it’s worth considering the moral and philosophical value of workshop based teaching in small groups. From my perspective that’s what polytechnics do that Universities don’t. It is our point of difference and it seems to be largely why students in our school choose to study here.

Building relationships, getting to know students and students getting to know each need not be labour intensive, particularly in social service courses where we can utilise the learning outcomes and content.

Learning Outcomes

I believe it is really important to focus on learning outcomes and what it is you want students to walk away with and I believe this is critically important when working with unit standards. I have seen that there is a tendency in unit standard based programs to teach each unit standard as a course in itself and to focus on the learning outcomes of each course rather than on the learning outcomes of the program as a whole. This was certainly my approach in my original document and something I would like to change as part of my program review.

Trying to articulate evolving thoughts about overall outcomes will take some time but off the top of my head, I would like the students to walk away from this program:

  • able to build respectful recovery based, cross-cultural relationships with consumers and their families
  • self directed, confident and empowered by knowledge of the industry and knowledge of how to access what they don’t already know
  • self aware and able to critically reflect on their practice
  • healthy, balanced, self and environment nurturing sustainable practitioners

These really are the outcomes that inform what I choose to include and how I choose to include it. This is my ideal. Clearly being a unit standard based course there are specific learning outcomes which I am bound to and which inform the course content and teaching strategies but it is good to have an overall vision.

Structuring Topics or Courses Logically to Foster Deeper Learning

The National Certificate in Mental Health Support Work is a unit standard based course that comes jam packed with things the students have to know. From my perspective there is far too much content and this detracts from the opportunity to learn. I have worked very hard over my four years of coordinating and teaching this program to integrate and streamline the material so that it flows logically, best utilises the minimal contact time I have with the students and fosters the deepest learning experience possible. I still have a way to go with this and a need to let go a little of my tendency to be pedantic.

So far my journey has involved chopping up the unit standards and teaching them across courses rather than teaching unit standard by unit standard. I utilise unit standards and aspects of unit standards that foster a developing awareness of self and others to focus on building relationships in term one. In term two I focus on all the policy and legislation relevant for working in mental health. In term three the focus is on theory, models and skills for mental health support work and in term four the focus is on application in a practice context.

It is so thrilling when students in term 4 are making links between the relationships they are building with clients and the relationship building process they experienced in Term one. As a teacher I get to see and feel my students make the connections, shift from surface to deep and consolidate their learning. This is very exciting. In my view the way a course is structured in terms of topics or content and how you order or layer or build material is critical in enhancing the student’s learning experience.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Lacking Intuition or a Schema?

I've got my tool bar back. It took my husband coming home and suggesting that I try accessing my blog using a different internet explorer. It worked but it left me thinking as I do frequently about my learning style and my learning needs and those of my students. Using technology is often described as intuitive - some people are naturally good at it - but are they or they just practiced users or practiced in skills that are relevant.

I wonder what skill sets people who are described as intuitive in this field have. I expect someone's done some research on that. It would be worth looking at in the context of the course - constructing courses to enhance student learning - and in the context of the drive for more online learning.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Where's the damn toolbar gone?

Here I am back on my blog, excited to be here, finally have some time. I'm rearing to go, lots of things to say, lots of links I want to make and pictures to add but I get here and my blogs got no toolbar. I've been sitting here for the last 40 minutes trying to figure out where my toolbar has gone. Does anyone know where my tool bar might be??? I've looked in help, I've turned off and come back in, I've highligted everything there is to highlight. There is a wee note down the bottom about shortcuts and I've looked there but it doesn't give me everything I need.

I do have my font box and I can obviously write but nothing else and since the topic of this blog is shifting from Flexible learning to Constructing courses to enhance student learning, I really want access to the things that I think enhance learning.

oh well. Perhaps I'll go do some stuff in good old dependable word and copy and paste it in then go through the tedious process of deleting all the garbage to make it compatible. Ho Hum!