My digital teaching practice and opportunities for change 2/5

As a result of this module, I have been trying to find ways of using digital technologies to extend student learning beyond the classroom and create opportunities for students to exchange experiences online.

I teach a group of ten students on the MA International Journalism (not an online course). Because they come from so many different parts of the world and so many different journalistic backgrounds, I see the “group” as a valuable learning resource. To take advantage of this, I have set up discussion threads in Blackboard, encouraged them to share material on Twitter using our course hashtag and we also use a blogging platform, Creative Hive, for students to create and share content.

However, in spite of these different technologies being available to the students, I’ve been disappointed with the results, especially the Blackboard discussion.

Why wouldn’t they want to do this?

A few students do take part and make interesting contributions. But it is always the same few students. Once they’ve posted their comment, they tend not to return to that thread to enter into a discussion.

I have tried asking them to suggest a discussion topic but that didn’t lead to better participation rates.

It was not all negative. I realise that the students who are quietest in class are the most active in any online discussion I set up. The students who contribute most in class never participate in online discussion! Is this reason enough to continue? It would comply with UKPSF V1, V2, K4 and A4 in providing opportunities and learning environments for different learners.

Dialogue has to have purpose

The literature confirms this is not easy. Students cannot be relied upon to participate and the tutor/moderator needs to work hard and devote time if it is to reap benefits (Wozniak and Silveira 2004)

Wozniak and Silveira (2004) describe highly structured online discussions which are embedded into the design of the module and the assessment. As an HPL, I’m not in a position to change module design but I can feedback my suggestions and look at the design of my own sessions.

Dialogue has to have a purpose, otherwise we cannot expect students to participate (Coomey & Stephenson 2001). So how can I help my students see the purpose of these online discussions?

Bringing online discussions into the classroom

Having reflected and investigated, I now think I need to give students more support (scaffolding) to help them see the value of and participate in online discussions. I tend to assume they are all happy in the online world but I’m increasingly coming to doubt that. So I need to be clearer about how the discussion forum is used, perhaps with some taster discussions in class (UKPSF K3)

I should explain very clearly the purpose and value of engaging in the discussions. I am already working to bring the discussions into the classroom to integrate them into our face-to-face time so they become a “near-synchronous activity” (Macdonald 2008 p.60). I also make sure I actively participate and respond to students’ posts.

Perhaps students in a traditional face-to-face course don’t see any value in discussing online.

So why do I see value in it? I see it as a way of collecting and sharing practice in a way that produces an online archive of experience. I think that complements the discussions in class which leave no digital trace and can be superficial because students don’t have time to think through answers before speaking (Garrison and Kanuka 2004).

Increasingly, we’re going to need to make use of these online interactions as socio-economic changes mean more students will seek distance/flexible alternatives to traditional higher education provision (Mahieu and Wolming 2013).

Looking at my own profession in accordance with UKPSF V3 and V4, there is a growing demand for training in digital journalism skills and, according to a report just published by the Knight Foundation, an increasing number of journalists are willing to have that training online because their own news organisations are unable/unwilling to provide it. (McLellan and Newton 2013)

Creelman notes that online courses with active discussion forums have better completion rates so investigating ways to motivate students to participate is both important and timely (Creelman 2013)

However, my investigation suggests there are no easy answers.


COOMEY, M. & STEPHENSON, J. 2001. “Online learning: it is all about dialogue, involvement, support and control – according to the research.” In J. Stephenson (ed.) Teaching and learning online : pedagogies for new technologies. London: Kogan Page.

Creelman, A. and Reneland-Forsman, L. (2013) Completion Rates – A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality?: Let’s Call in the HEROEs Instead. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, v. 16, n. 2, p. 40,

Garrison, D. R. and Kanuka, H. (2004). Blended learning: Uncovering its transformative potential in higher education. The internet and higher education,7(2), 95-105.

The Higher Education Academy (2011) UK Professional Standards Framework. Available from:

Macdonald, J. (2008) Blended learning and online tutoring : planning learner support and activity design.  Aldershot: Aldershot : Gower

Mahieu, R., & Wolming, S. (2013). Motives for Lifelong Learners to Choose Web-based Courses. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-Learning,16(1), 1-10.

McLellan, M. and Newton, E. (2013) Digital Training comes of Age. Knight Foundation   Retrieved from

Wozniak, H., & Silveira, S. (2004). Online discussions: Promoting effective student to student interaction. In Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 956-960).


PBL, group work and ME

Maybe I’m not cut out for group work?

This was how I was feeling at the start of our first group online PBL project. I found the whole process of getting in touch with people I didn’t know, had never met and starting to produce work together very stressful and surprisingly time-consuming. There were so many barriers to success – synchronising times, finding technologies that worked, agreeing common goals.

At the same time, my attempts to engage in the OpenFDOL group work failed when my group collapsed and was disbanded by the facilitator!

It was getting hard not to take it personally…

“Distributing the cognitive load…..”

I like the idea of group work and felt I had the technological skills and tools to succeed. Constructing knowledge through social interaction is an important part of the learning process (Chernobilsky, Nagarajan, Hmelo-Silver 2005) and I was definitely pleased with our finished product – the beautiful images created by Nadine. We worked asynchronously on google docs and synchronously on google hangouts and old-fashioned telephone. I found the sharing of information and solving problems together rewarding and enjoyable because of the shared responsibility. (Busfield and Peijs 2003)

But flexible…..?

So why was I finding it so frustrating and time-consuming? Reflecting back on the process I found that my frustration came from two directions. I felt I had to work immediately to complete the work needed by my group because I worried that others would be waiting for me. That led to work overload at times and resentment of the task. Secondly, I found sometimes I couldn’t progress when I did have time because I was dependent on others. Those two factors combined meant my work felt totally dependent on other people’s timeframes and I did not have any control over it. So all flexibility was lost!

This would, presumably, be the same for everyone in the group – although I accept I probably worry about it more than most sensible people would!

So are online group work and flexibility mutually exclusive? Or do I need to find different strategies for making it work? Certainly work carried out by Chernobilsky et al in 2005 suggests that collaborative, asynchronous learning does require more dependence on others which would seem to go against the flexiblility usually associated with online courses  (Anderson & Simpson 2012; Creelman & Reneland Forsman 2013)

Making it work

The group work definitely improved by the second task as we learnt from our experiences and, importantly, I think, got to know each other. Was our face-to-face meeting the trigger for this? I felt it removed a lot of my fears and helped to foster trust and confidence in each other.

We started to establish mutually agreed working practices but I think we need to work even more on this. “I will do this task by this date” allows other people to build their work around you and start to reclaim that flexibility.

For me, that helps me regain some control over my time and manage my expectations.

The support of the facilitator was also a key factor although I envisage we will need that less and less as we become more used to this type of collaborative work.

So I shall continue to reflect on this as the module progresses not only because of its implications for me as a learner but also as a teacher who wants to foster these collaborative practices in students.


BUSFIELD, J.; PEIJS, T. Learning materials in a problem based course. Materials Education, v. 12,  2003.

CHERNOBILSKY, E.; NAGARAJAN, A.; HMELO-SILVER, C. E. Problem-based learning online: multiple perspectives on collaborative knowledge construction. Proceedings of the 2005 conference on Computer support for collaborative learning: learning 2005: the next 10 years!, 2005,   International Society of the Learning Sciences. p.53-62.

CREELMAN, A.; RENELAND-FORSMAN, L. Completion Rates–A False Trail to Measuring Course Quality?: Let’s Call in the HEROEs Instead. European Journal of Open, Distance and e-Learning, v. 16, n. 2, p. 40,  2013.

Online Learning: it is all about dialogue, involvement, support and control – according to the research (Coomey, M. and Stephenson, J. 2012)

SIMPSON, M.; ANDERSON, B. History and heritage in open, flexible and distance education. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, v. 16, n. 2, p. 1-10,  2012. ISSN 1179-7673.

Handouts – Beware the sell by date

As we were discussing digital literacies in our PBL group recently, we started talking about what teachers of online/distant courses can do to improve students’ digital literacy. We agreed that digital literacy greatly enhances online learning such as enabling students to access resources and collaborate beyond the classroom (Keegan, H. et al 2009).

But how do teachers of online courses get all their students up to scratch so that nobody feels left behind, isolated, frustrated and eventually drops out? How do you teach digital literacies?

One suggestion was to use handouts. Give students handouts about how to use Twitter, G+, Hangouts, Collaborate, Google docs, Storify etc and they’ll become digitally literate.

This took me back to my student days. I used to love it when lecturers gave us handouts. It meant we didn’t have to take notes. Or concentrate. Or think. We had the handout which solidified All I Need to Know About This in a once-and-for-all format. The subject was closed. The handout was the last word.

This led me to think that such a static form of teaching content was probably inappropriate in an environment where the very meaning of literacy is changing so rapidly (Belshaw 2012). Today’s handout will be obsolete so quickly – but how’s the student to know that? It won’t send a notification to the student’s inbox alerting him that paragraph 3 of the handout is no longer valid! How will the student update their understanding and skills if they are used to waiting for handouts?

We create a dependency and that’s not going to enable them to become digitally literate for life rather than for yesterday.

If I reflect on how I have worked to develop my own digital literacy in recent years, I find it  is always self-directed and usually starts with an online search for the latest tutorials (always check the dates though!). If I encounter a problem, I’ll go online to find an answer. For example, I discovered at the start of this course that Collaborate no longer worked on my Mac because of various secret updates it didn’t tell me about. It wasn’t a problem Salford’s IT helpdesk had come across so they couldn’t help. But I did find the answer on the San Jose University website in their Blackboard Collaborate recently-updated FAQs!

Similarly, I’ve used G+ and hangouts a lot since starting this course. I’d never used them before. As it happens, I was a fairly early adopter of G+ but lost interest because nobody I knew was using it so it was pretty lonely and I couldn’t get a feel for how it could help me. I went back to twitter which was where I felt comfortable.

I always promised myself I’d look into Google Hangouts because they sounded pretty cool but I was just too busy to invest the time into doing that.

Then suddenly I find myself having to organise group discussions online and G+ and Hangouts now seem the answer to all my needs! As a result, I am suddenly no longer too busy and I have invested time into finding tutorials online, looking at forums etc to answer all the questions I have. I’ve updated my digital literacy with the new knowledge I need for the latest task.

So I think it’s not simply a case of “teaching” our students digital literacies with a set of handouts or similar static information. I think we need to create the motivation that makes them want to learn this new stuff (Belshaw 2013) otherwise they’ll just see it as another time suck.

Then we need to foster in students the ability to Google their way out of any situation. The knowledge they need doesn’t sit on a handout waiting for them to look at it. The knowledge is being created, updated, remixed and shared every second online all around the world.

I now need to think how we might actually foster those behaviours and whether there is anything in my current practice which encourages or discourages this.


Belshaw, D. (2012). What is’ digital literacy’? A Pragmatic investigation(Doctoral dissertation, Durham University).

Belshaw, Douglas Tedx Talk YouTube. Available TEDxWarwick – Doug Belshaw – The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies Accessed 13.10.13.

Keegan, H et al (2009) ‘Mentoring For 21st Century Skills – It’s all about the Learning’ University of Salford