Thursday, 29 May 2014

Learning design with NEC and the Open School in a Box Project


The mobile future is here and now
In the crowded train carriage this morning the man next to me was snoozing, one young woman across the aisle was deftly applying make-up in spite of the jerky ride, and another was reading a newspaper. All the other passengers were busy with various mobile devices: rapidly texting on a smart phone, reading an ebook, playing a game and watching a movie with earphones on a tablet, and working on a small laptop… the mobile future has arrived. Shame about the rickety train compartment!

The statistics bear this out – access to the internet using a mobile phone more than doubled between 2010 and 2013, from 24% to 53% (ONS, 2013, Internet access – households and individuals).  

So when we want information or entertainment we increasingly reach for our highly portable internet and cloud-based mobile devices. When we want to learn something, we will do the same, at least some of the time.

Adding technological to the traditional
I say ‘some of the time’ because mobile e-learning seems to be a new and additional way of learning that doesn’t replace (at least not yet and not for everyone and not all the time) more traditional ways of learning. People still like and trust books and printable resources (see for example The Times, 17 May 2014, ‘Hold the front page’, Culture section) and value personal contact with a tutor and other learners (see for example City and Guilds 2013, Learning Insights). Pen and paper remain an excellent tool for learning. The physical act of making notes can, for some learners, help to embed knowledge and understanding. Besides this, many exams continue to require students to work on paper: quick, legible handwriting is a key examination skill.

Courses need to be flexible to meet diverse needs and appeal to different styles and approaches to learning. We need to give learners materials in various forms – so that they can study online or on screen or via the printed word – and in different media, including video, audio, webinar and games. We need to enable learners to interact and engage through digital games and quizzes, as well as via contact with tutors and fellow learners.  

In short: we need blended learning.

The internet is a compelling resource for learning. But the internet also presents challenges in terms of access and the overwhelming amount of information we can access. Connectivity in many rural areas and even in the middle of a major city like London can be so poor that it is impossible to download or stream big files. Some people, such as prisoners and members of the armed forces on active service, have restricted or no access to the internet. Other people find the internet confusing, dangerous or chaotic, with hazards such as unwanted adverts, cyber-bullying and stalking, misleading or inaccurate information, as well as cyber crime. All of these aspects can effectively exclude some people from the digital world. How do learners judge the authority and veracity of what they find on the internet, and how do they manage to focus on the task with all the distractions available online?

Enter the Open School in a Box
The Open School in a Box (OSB) responds to these opportunities and challenges. The OSB can go places the internet can’t yet reach, and can reach people who are digitally disadvantaged – giving them access to carefully selected digital resources and learning opportunities.

It’s a mobile wifi hotspot, hosting a library of different media, including course and learning materials. It is robust and easy to use – you really do just plug it in. Anyone with a wifi-enabled device who is within range of the Box can access and use its resources and learning material. So you can download ebooks and pdfs, read webpages, complete interactive activities, stream movies and listen to podcasts in the same way as you would use the internet. Crucially, though, it sits apart from the internet and doesn’t give access to the internet.

I like to think of it as a local, small-scale controllable internet: it’s controllable because we can precisely determine what resources go onto the Box.
Learners may use the Box in a wide variety of ways.  They may be part of a group led by a tutor or facilitator, they may use course resources as the basis for group work or they may be studying on their own. They may have easy access to the Box, or only occasional access. They may bring their own mobile device, or one may be provided to them. Learners also have different styles and approaches to learning. For example, some will enjoy reading, exploring or thinking, others may prefer testing themselves, checking that they understand something and that they’re making progress. The learning design needs to be flexible, so that learners can work through the course in different ways to suit their circumstances and preferences.

The Open School in a Box Project – course development
For the Open School in a Box Project funded by the Nominet Trust, the National Extension College (NEC) development team are working to adapt two of NEC’s courses – IGCSE English Language and IGCSE Maths – to a digital environment on the Box.

The original print-based courses were carefully structured and designed with sound pedagogic principles to facilitate learning: an easily followed route through the course materials to achieve clear learning objectives; short manageable chunks of input; activities and self-assessment that encourage active participation; marked assignments that allow for personal tutor support and guidance.

We aim to retain these principles while also:

  • making the most of the way we use devices to negotiate and navigate digital information
  • using rich media – video, audio, visually rich text – by drawing on open educational resources  (OERs) where appropriate to enhance or extend learning
  • using digital quizzes, games and activities that give immediate feedback so that learners can see when they’re making progress.

Alpha trial
The main aim of the first or alpha trial for the OSB was to test the proposition that the Box can be easily accessed by a wide range of different devices, and by several devices at once.

For the trial the development team explored different ways of presenting the course material on the Box. We used Exe, which is an open source elearning authoring tool and experimented with interactive pdfs. It was a useful exercise as it highlighted some of the issues we would have in adapting existing printed course material for digital use:

  • How to efficiently convert existing courses into an editable format
  • How to provide an elearning experience that works well on different devices and is attractive, fun and engaging to use
  • How to source and integrate appropriate OERs
  • How to enable learners to use the course in different ways to suit their needs.

The next steps for the Beta trial
The next stage of development is to take what we’ve learned so far and prepare for the beta trial, which will test the course material in its various forms. There is a lot of work to do but key to our approach is the decision to adopt a more appropriate e-learning tool, from Adapt Learning. You can try out a demo of the framework here.

Adapt Learning
The Adapt Learning Framework is a new open source elearning authoring tool created by Kineo, City and Guilds, Learning Pool and Sponge UK. Crucially, for the OSB project, it works across a wide range of devices, adapting the layout of content to suit the type and size of screen. A page on screen is equally readable on a desktop computer and on a smart phone. The work to make websites mobile friendly is not a simple matter, but it is fast gathering pace, and Adapt Learning seems to be at the forefront.

The screenshot below gives an idea of what the IGCSE English Langage course page may look like on a laptop:


The Adapt Learning Framework is set to develop functionality quickly and become an easy-to-use authoring tool. We’re going to be using it at its early stages, so the NEC course development team will work closely with OSB’s technical team to use the framework for our courses on OSB. It’s a steep learning curve and we’ll see the results in the Beta trial in July.

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