Friday, November 9, 2012

My experience with Open and Online Learning
In Al-Quds Open University
Learner and Researcher perspective

What is a synchronous virtual class? How could it be synchronous and virtual class at the same time?! In simple terms, a synchronous virtual class is a non-conventional classroom, where learners are connected with instructor(s) via an internet platform, which provides a variety of real-time communication tools as written chat, audio and video conversation, and interactive white board.

Virtual keyword refers to the fact that the classroom is not physically real but in a metaphorical way. The desks are replaced with visual sets of icons, buttons and emoticons. The board and chalk or marker, are replaced with interactive white board and a wide set of tools, which enables users to interact with this item. The Physical presence is reduced to a nickname; voice and text messages are sent through the platform.

Before delving into the main goal of this article, I would like to shed the light on my background to show how I ended up working on this subject.
Few years back I’ve been working, but without any long-term or career plan. I did work in many fields like graphic design and radio. Later, I started to be drawn to the internet and programming as the web technologies were evolving.

As a self – learner, I made quiet good progress in learning software programming basics using the internet. Back at that time, YouTube was not there yet, and all tutorials were mostly linear and textual. Then I thought of following – up a university degree in computer, and so I joined Al-Quds Open University, which is a flexible university for working persons.

Entering the open learning world was my first step toward finding a long-term career as an educational technologist. Before the E-Learning era, QOU was a classical open university which is attracting more people and professionals who are looking for a flexible opportunity to learn and get a degree. The courses were based on the university book and optional face-to-face meetings with instructors.

However, the increasing number of learners (65000 by a 2007 annual statistics), and adding to it  the expensive direct and indirect costs of running 26 branches over Palestinian cities led the university to rethink on its long – term strategies. “The administration and delivery of higher education in Palestine are mired with challenges, foremost the associated issues of mobility, security, and difficult socio-economic conditions. Despite this harsh environment, universities and colleges have continued to operate, for the most part, delivering a range of undergraduate and graduate programs all over Palestine. Unique to the Palestinian system is the large number of learners studying within an open university. Currently, over 40% of the undergraduate students in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem are studying at Al-Quds Open University (QOU). 

QOU is considered as the only institution in Palestinian Higher Education System that provides distance education courses and programs. Now it is serving 65,000 students and for the majority of these constituents provides their sole opportunity of higher education

A comprehensive evaluation of QOU, funded by the World Bank and the European Union, resulted in a series of recommendations, paramount being the development of the scholarship of teaching within distance, open, and online environments.”(Matheos, Rogoza, & Hamayil, 2009).

E-Learning started with the creation of ODLC (Open Distance Learning Center which became later OLC) and the implementation of several courses, to be adopted for blended-mode learning. Personally, I had the chance to validate a course, fully online, using both modes: synchronous and asynchronous classrooms.

As I graduated in Computer Information Systems and Education – I did a diploma in French taught as foreign language and worked as an instructor in many institutions. I chose to combine my skills in both fields, and to go toward a Master degree involving computers and education.

My project took place when I started to prepare for my Master’s Memoir this year. Because E-Learning involves multiples platforms and models, I decided to build my work on the synchronous virtual classes. I started working with a set of hypotheses in my mind linked to my paste experience as a learner in QOU. Being a former learner and a future employee in the same institution is great when it comes to research. It enables a person to see things from a different perspective. As a learner I was able to see things that instructors could not see from behind their desks. I’ve been also very close to other learners and could feel and understand their needs and demands. Planning to work as instructor and educational technologist in the same university after my Master in France, enables me to reduce the gap between instructors and learners in order to put on a project based learning (PBL) and innovative ways that would help learners enjoy the use of technology in their open and online learning experience.

Research with QOU

I’ve been selected by the French consulate in Jerusalem to pursue a Master in France related to Open, Distance and online Learning, in order to continue the development of the E-Learning project launched by QOU in 2006. QOU has Software and telecommunication engineers who are working around the clock to ensure full accomplishment of the network and the several online learning platforms. It has also instructors and a department dedicated to open learning (Open Learning Center); but it is missing the “link” between that department and instructors from one side, and the instructors and learners from the other. Here comes my work as educational technologist from which I will be the direct link between the instructors, the online content and the instructional designers. In addition, I will have direct insight on the interactivity between instructors and learners.

In-depth study about synchronous virtual class
The first phase of my project was to conduct a research with QOU about synchronous virtual classes. The University uses Illuminate Live, which is fully designed under Java platform. The aim of my study was to describe the use of the virtual class by instructors.

As I am currently in France, I fully conducted this study online, using Google collaborative work tools for the survey. I sent to the instructors of the university a set of questions related to their daily practice in the classrooms and to e-Learning and innovative ways in education whether it’s online or face-to-face. I even analyzed two random recorded samples of virtual classes taken this year.

Moreover, I noticed through the feedback I got from the survey, that instructors have heard about innovative ways in education such as: project-based learning, formative assessment, critical thinking, and all important aspects that modern pedagogy provides nowadays in higher education. Still the system lacks how to implement and normalize those innovative ways in the university. Implementation here means to have them as a long term strategy, and not as ideas vanishing after a several shy experiments.

Generally speaking, the educational environment in Palestine is based on indoctrination, where the “teacher” has the full supremacy and knowledge over his students. Fortunately this year, I read several articles written by well-known journalists about the Palestinian educational system which is getting very old, and that it perhaps needs an urgent and full reshape. As I went back to Ramallah for the summer break, I talked to the OLC’s director (Mr. Mohammed Abu Mulaiq) and asked him frankly if it is possible to ask instructors to abandon their old habits and descend to the level of the learners in order to get to know them better. His answer was positive; It is possible to find “some” instructors who are willing to apply that and experience new ways of thinking. 

As mentioned before, the first phase was a descriptive study about the current practices in synchronous virtual classes in Al-Quds Open University. I gathered my data from various sources: my first source was my own experience, back at the time when I was still a learner in the university and was enrolled in a full-online course; the second source that I used to analyze the practices was 2 courses recorded with “Illuminate” platform.

Also I used the analysis of two recorded sessions via the platform of “Illuminate Live” as I was looking for the meta-information by analyzing the shared time between instructors and learners, among instructors, and among learners. As in any indoctrination configuration, it’s the instructor who talks all the time. In the best case scenario and when it’s given, the instructor may give the microphone to some learners to comment or reply to a question which they can easily find in the university course book. In addition to that, from a pedagogical and instructional design point of view, I did not notice any difference between the online session and the face-to-face one. The used material was few pictures, power point templates and one YouTube video. The latter did not work because of a bandwidth problem, so the instructor could not have the time for a live comment about this video and talk about it with his learners during the online session.

My third source of information were two interviews with two educators specialized in e-Learning. The first interview was with Mr. Ahmad Ben RAOUANE, an online instructor at Minnesota School of Business, and the second one was with Mr. Majid HAMAYIL, an online instructor at Al-Quds Open University and the former president for ODLC (open distance learning center) which is now OLC (open learning center).

Discussion with Mr. Majid HAMAYIL via Skype was very interesting. We talked a lot about issues which learners’ faces once they enter the open learning world. As he had been the responsible of the team who launched the E-Learning in QOU, he had a very deep insight about the different experiences which were carried out.

I classified my study observations in main categories in order to have them related to the most important parameters in the integration of ICT in education:

1. Number of learners,
I exchanged with many online tutors and E-Learning experts about the impact of the number of learners in a synchronous virtual class session. Also, I looked into some specialized books about distance and online learning. Moreover, Mr. Ahmad BENRAOUANE stressed out that he taught in sessions where the number of learners was in between 10 and 12. M. LEBRUN, D.SMIDTS, G. BRICOULT (comment construire un dispositif de formation, p. 151-152) mentioned in their book, that the best number is between 6 and 8 learners in the same session.

But what if the reality in certain context is different? The groups in Al-Quds Open University are bigger. I’ve personally been in a group of learners where the number was more than 98 as the enrolled learners were from all Palestinian regions. Despite this huge number, the course went as planned (at least for the instructor and the luckiest learners who could get some benefits from the course).However, what would the rest of the learners do when they face some difficulties and cannot follow up with the class?

Mr. Ahmed Benraouane said that if he gives 1 to 1.30 minutes for each learner, he can at least hear everybody by the end of the session. In bigger configuration, it is impossible to follow everybody during the synchronous session; the instructor then, will be forced to give team work in asynchronous mode, using Moodle platform. Not to forget that I asked the instructor who gave us that course in the early of 2009, and he said that he can manage overbooked and crowded groups. However, let me ask him again of what is the destiny of the learners, who are not able to follow with the others, for any reasons? 

As I mentioned in the beginning of my research, the synchronous class is the best point where instructors can “interact” and “get to know” their learners. Once learners are enrolled in work groups in asynchronous mode, it’s then difficult for the instructor to put “names” and “profiles” on the faces.

2. Needs and motivation
When I was in the university, I always heard instructors (face-to-face or online) spelling out the objectives of the course or a chapter, but what I needed to hear more was: what is your need? And what is your goal and personal objective by taking this course? Unfortunately, instructors are often “busy” trying to cope with the objectives of the book, forgetting whether intentionally or not, the needs of their learners. I am not blaming the instructors because the level of the maturity of the learners has its own impact too (check the next section), but I think it would be a good leap, if some instructors try to ask their learners that kind of questions. They don’t need to fulfill the needs of everybody, but the fact that they ask them, would create social links and make learners more enthusiastic and devoted to learn.

If I were an instructor, I would conduct at the beginning of every course a survey with clear questions about what it might be interesting for learners, what they are already looking for to achieve and yet better: why they choose to follow the course in the first place? By knowing these elements, I will be able to have a clear view of the level of each learner aside, and try to give more attention to critical cases.   

Virtual environment is different than the classical face-to-face. Abundance of information may overwhelm the learner and the whole course could divert to brain flooding. As learners are alone behind their monitors most of the time, a real work should be done to motivate them; keeping them “tuned” is crucial to land the course on a safe happy ending. Brain flooding also refers to push up information inside the learner’s brain without any immediate intention to use it, whether to solve some real-life problems, building projects or building skills and critical thinking. I noticed in the survey that I sent to QOU’s instructors that only a few of them give attention to the quality of information that they use during the course.

3. Maturity
Let’s just don’t fall out inside utopia: how can we expect learners especially younger to be both mature and engaged in a successful learning pathway? If it is important to a student in a classical university to have a futuristic plan to get his or her degree and find a descent job; the task is more complicated in online/open configuration. Why?

In an open university like QOU, a full course contains around 4 face-to-face meetings, besides a similar number via synchronous virtual classes. In theory, learners are asked to carry out their learning process, by looking for the appropriate material and resources.    However, what happens in reality is different. As a former learner in QOU, I noticed that learners do not go beyond the printed material given by the university, despite the fact, that the university offers a good set of multimedia materials in the portal, e-campus, and Moodle. Furthermore, I did not find any learners who were willing to push off the limits, by finding additional online resources, or interested to compare what they learnt in class with what is published online.

4. Pedagogy versus andragogy
QOU was initially created for adults but today learners are mostly young and coming directly from high school, where the educational context is different and based on indoctrination and brain-flooding.  As an open learning institution, learners should have a certain degree of maturity as I evoked before. The majority of QOU’s learners, especially the youngest, treat the organism, as if it is a classical university. Problems related to indoctrination kill any chance to build critical thinking and self-learning strategies. 

Since school for most of learners means brain – flooding with relevant and irrelevant information; trying to do a mid-course correction would not be easy. Thus, we cannot wait school to create next generation learners, but I believe with a good strategy, this problem could be resolved.

5. More learns reactivity
While I’ve been analyzing the interaction between instructors and learners in the recorded sessions via Illuminate Live platform, I noticed that the participation of learners does not go beyond replying to a question asked by the instructor, and in better cases, they might be asked to make a comment.
Most of the session’s time is reserved for the one-way lecture. The instructor uses his PowerPoint presentation to explain the lesson, in a very linear way.

What we can imagine here to prompt more reactivity from the learners? There’s a lot to do.

6. Contents and storyboarding
Content for virtual classes and face-to-face sessions are based on the university printed book. Instructors have to cope with the objectives written in the book and walk throughout the different sections of the chapters. Thus, any attempt to push learners to the next level is killed by time and curricula constraints. A project based pedagogy need a flexible environment in which instructors can cope with their learner’s level and not just the curricula’s one.

In other way, scenarios for a virtual class are book-based. Instructors use slideshow presentations, websites, and sometimes video as multimedia resources for the online sessions. In the two samples that I analyzed, the instructors for e-commerce used live demonstration for web purchasing applications, and the instructors for social service used pictures and a YouTube video. But what about the courses which are more theory oriented? Creating multimedia content is not easy in this case.

7. Balance between synchronous and asynchronous mode
In the analysis phase, I noticed that instructors did not mention the work in Moodle platform. When I asked Mr. Majid Hamayil about that, he replied that they do it only in the first session. The question that I asked myself is that how instructors are going to follow their learners and advise them, if there is any exchange during the synchronous sessions. Supposing there is an asynchronous exchange between instructors and learners via the forums in Moodle.

Asynchronous mode is a chance to learners in order to search, organize their ideas, and formalize their learning by writing. But instructors should use the synchronous courses as a live follow – up and discussions about activities, issues or any related question.

8. Indoctrination versus new pedagogy
The pedagogy in Palestinian’s schools is based on indoctrination. After 12 years of brain flooding, the new comers to universities find themselves with a brain full of unused “data” and without any plan on how they can use it. Consequently, instructors find themselves in front of an unexpected problem which is how can they deal with transversals know-how.

Students at this stage should be formed on how to work in fully autonomous mode. While instructors expect that their learners are in a very advance stage in managing knowledge, they find themselves instead in front of students who want more classical lectures and one-way learning process, which is not convenient for autonomous workflow and does not encourage student to have self-initiative profiles.

 We love technology project

This summer, I negotiated with the OLC’s director- Mr. Mohammed Abu Maileq- a project on how we can manage to give new learners the appropriate tools to be efficient in open learning context. When I was in university, I noticed that most of the leaners do not know how to use the web as a tool for building their capacities or simply to satisfy their curiosity.

If I would say that in another way, the learners are not interested to go beyond what the university course book is asking them to do. They ignore the fact that in open educational context, the accent is put on the students’ personal achievements and on how the far they can go looking for information and knowledge.

The idea behind the project is to let learners discover the potential strength behind technology in a very creative way. The storyboarding and the creation of the material for the course 0102 (Introduction to Computers) will be based on Brainstorming and creative workshops, which I will organize hopefully next month, with the participation of some Palestinians and French instructors.

When I met the head of research in ICTC department Mr. Nael Abu Halawa, we had a look on the introduction to computer course outline. The outline was modified to give learners more insight on how to use some office tools and email, but still it was not taking in consideration the open and online dimension in learning. It’s great if learners knows how to use an editing text tool or tabulating application, but still they’re missing the know-to-how collaborating online with instructors or other learners. 

Learners and instructors in open and online educational context may need the following capacities:

- Self-management for the learning process: in online and open educational context, learners need always to dig up more, in order to obtain information and convert it to knowledge.
- Learners have mostly to solve some issues alone. They should know how to act when they get obstacles ahead.
- Instructors need to know the different profiles of their learners, and also their capacities, limitations and sometimes phobias towards technologies.
My project will be set on several critical activities, that any instructor should implements in order to get closer to their learners’ needs, and enables them to be efficient with the variety of tools proposed by the university.

- It’s critical to conduct some online questionnaire and help learners fill them up efficiently. This will help the instructor to have an immediate idea about the level and most importantly the orientation of the learners toward the course itself, toward technology, etc.
- I will help instructor to create a full planned program for the course.
- I will help instructor in creating ice-breaking activities.
- I will help to implement collaborative and team work.
- I will help instructor in evaluation and assessment processes.

Master Student in Technology for education & professional certification
Educational Technologist
Université de Rennes 2 РHaute Bretagne, France