Friday, 11 May 2007

Learning Content 2.0

There's been a lot of excitement about "Web 2.0" in e-Learning circles over the last year or so. Some of this is undoubtedly hot air but there's a lot of interesting stuff happening and I find the social side of things very interesting. (At least, interesting enough to be trying it all out here!)

One area of e-Learning where Web 2.0 hasn't really permeated yet is in good-old "Learning Content". (This is the name we'll use for the stuff we supply to our students to support their learning.) I've always felt that Learning Content is thought of as untrendy and uninteresting in e-Learning circles and it doesn't get the attention it deserves. There's probably many reasons for this. In some disciplines, Learning Content is not actually all that important and the role of the educator is more concerned with "facilitating" or managing students into finding, curating and assimilating materials from elsewhere, be it the web or the library. Therefore, Learning Content is not seen as important as it's always something that can be imported from elsewhere.

In Physical and Mathematical sciences domains like ours, we've traditionally attached more importance to Learning Content and it's common for this to form a fundamental component of the teaching experience we give to students. Why's this? One reason is that, especially in early undergraduate courses teaching fundamental concepts, we feel that it's important to be very clear about what students need to know and the Learning Content we give them quite explicitly maps out the required depth and breadth profile they are required to follow.

The traditional form of Learning Content in our domain has been good old "Printed Lecture Notes". These are normally produced by lecturers, written in LaTeX and turned into PDF files using the normal LaTeX processing workflow. Early use of the web for teaching involved dumping these files on the web, which is equivalent to the (sadly) ubiquitous "PowerPoint slides on the web" that permeates a lot of so-called e-Learning even to this day. Many Courses haven't gone any further this (and some don't really need to). With Physics 1A, we've gone further by offering richer, more interactive XHTML+MathML-based content for a good few years now. We think it's quite good and the students like it too.

Over the last few months, we've been thinking about how this can be improved. One criticism of the existing content is that it's fairly static and rigid. This was actually intentional as it allows the content to be deployed online (both within or outside VLEs) or offline with virtually no fuss and no effort. We now think this can be done better and that we can make it easier for students to navigate and organise what is actually quite a substantial body of content. So we're going to look at improving things for the students in this area. Example possibilities are letting students build "To Do lists" or attach notes or reminders to pages, better breadcrumb and contextual navigation and revision aids like "Build me a random self test and let me know my score".

We also want to see if we can make it easier for students to "make the content their own".
There are lots of things we can do here. One is to allow students to weave private annotations into the notes, for example, by writing down the conclusion of a rare but important "A ha!" or even "D'oh" moment. Similarly, we could also allow students to make public comments about sections in the notes in order to get feedback or assistance from their peers, making the notes a bit bloggy. Educators could use this feedback to improve notes for subsequent years. This draws on the increased use of Wikis in educational contexts and even things like the MySQL online handbook, which has been around for years now and is often highly praised for allowing the community to build on and enhance the core material within. There are lots of other possibilities which we plan to look into. All of these are made do-able by the way the existing material is constructed and deployed (using Aardvark) so we've already got a good foundation to build on.

Another aspect worth looking at is whether we can exploit students' use of social networking tools within an educational context. Our Physics 1A course usually attracts around 250 students and it's very difficult to form a sense of community in such a large course. If lots of our students currently use Facebook, then it's worth looking at whether we can use Facebook to help bond a little better. Public annotations in notes could very easily link to a little "profile" page for each student that has links to their favourite networking sites. That avoids us having to try to build our own networking tools (which probably won't work as well and won't be used) and is actually quite cheap for us to implement. Will students like this? Or will they resent us encroaching into aspects of their online lives that they consider to be separate from learning?

We're calling all of this "Learning Content 2.0" and will hopefully be able to study this in more detail pending funding becoming available! I'll leave it up to a tag cloud expert to create a formal definition of Learning Content 2.0... I'm off to have lunch, which I've been looking forward to all morning.

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