As an example of my understanding of the constraints and benefits of different technologies, I will discuss a training course I developed for an internal client, where I had the chance to consider the pros and cons of various technologies typically used for remote training.
Shortly after taking the post of Academic Developer in Technology-Enhanced Learning at the University of West London, I was requested to provide training on the use of learning technologies, particularly Blackboard and Turnitin, to staff at an overseas partner institution.
I started with identifying the needs of various stakeholders and the existing or past provision of such training. This analysis helped me identify the benefits and constraints of technologies used so far and decide on optimal solutions to be applied in the course I was developing.
Previously, training in TEL for partner institutions had been carried out through synchronous webinars via Panopto and asynchronous recordings of those posted on the University’s VLE (Blackboard). Upon reflection though, I decided that this solution was not suitable, given reported problems with internet connectivity during previous webinars, high staff turnover which necessitated frequent arrangement of very similar webinars, and the length of the recordings. These were the constraints that made me decide against webinars as the optimal technological solution in this case.
At the same time, I acknowledged that videos were probably the best medium to deliver the training required. However, they needed to be much shorter to deliver the content in manageable chunks, and they also needed to be available asynchronously for staff to work through them at their own pace, as and when needed. I made new screencasts using Panopto Recorder, however eventually decided to upload the files to YouTube, as at that time Panopto did not have an option of providing subtitles, which I thought were crucial for accessibility reasons. An example of a video I made can be viewed on this YouTube page.
The whole training course consisted of videos, text and image based guides and a practice area – an interactive element where staff could practise what they learnt from the video tutorials. The videos and guides needed to be presented in a way that would facilitate linear progression, but at the same time allow participants to dip in and out if they needed guidance on a specific aspect. For these reasons I decided to use the Blackboard Learning Module functionality (essentially a workbook where students turn electronic pages). The image below presents a sample page with the main elements: navigation panel, videos, guides and activities (click the image to enlarge).
The course met with very positive response from the staff and heads of the partner institutions who tested and implemented it. It was also mentioned as an example of good practice in a College Board, together with a suggestion to develop it into a university-wide induction (see image below), which has been done since then.
While analysing stakeholders’ needs and existing provision, I have had a chance to reflect on various technological means of providing remote training, and their benefits and constraints. I tried to put myself in the position of a participant and see what could work best within the constraints of the technologies I had at my disposal. My main task was to use these technologies effectively, taking the purpose of the training and intended users into account.
Since the main purpose of the course was to provide training in using Blackboard, using an actual Blackboard course to deliver it seemed the most sensible idea. In this way, participants would not only be introduced to the platform, but would also be able to observe good practice as modelled in the course.
Given the participants’ profile as well as the purpose of the course, one of my main observations was that training should be provided in small and manageable chunks, rather than long videos or written guides. The Blackboard learning module functionality turned out to be the most effective solution as it facilitated delivering content bit by bit and allowed the user to navigate between different topics very easily.
Most of the content in the course is delivered through screen capture videos with demonstrations of the various tools available. Having the ease of access in mind, I decided to embed them as iframe objects (see image 1 above). The advantage of iframes over e.g. links to external websites or video storing platforms is that the learning process is not disrupted by having to switch to another window or tab in the browser and then navigate back to the original Blackboard page. Also, I took care to make the embedded videos large enough for learners to be able to watch them without going into the full screen mode if they do not want to. Embedding videos from YouTube had an additional advantage of subtitles, which was important for reasons of accessibility.
Online training is often delivered through live (synchronous) webinars. On reflection I decided against them as this technology requires both stable and fast internet connection and getting the participants to attend at the same time, which would not be feasible due to time and geographical distance. Also, live webinars do not provide the type of hands-on practice that I believed would be useful for the users.
The fact that the training course was going to be delivered on Blackboard has however revealed a limitation of the platform and necessitated a reflection on the design of the course. Learners are required to access one part of the course in a Student role to familiarise themselves with the video guides and read the guides, and another part of the course as Instructors to be able to practise in a safe environment. The solution to this issue involved creating two separate but interlinked Blackboard courses (a Tutorials Area and a Practice Area) where learners were given different rights. This doubles the time needed for the the user enrolment process, but gives users the chance to experience the systems both from a student and an instructor’s perspective, thus making modelling good practice even more effective.
Designing and developing the course was a very useful experience where I had a chance to reflect on the effective use of existing technologies to develop a professional training course where information needs to be transmitted quickly and effectively, without overwhelming the learners.