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Towards the promotion of effective e-learning practice for academic-staff development in DIT

Author - Roisin Donnelly and Frances O' Brien

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In recent years, increases in class size, the diversity of student populations and changes in the expectations of students have all acted as stimuli for an examination of approaches to teaching and learning at third level. The DIT’s strategic plan, A Vision for Development 2001–2015, identified a need for the development of online courses and encouraged academic staff to develop online materials. Coupled to developments in DIT in the area of ICTs, and in particular to the purchasing of a site license for WebCT, the virtual learning environment (VLE), these stimuli have generally led to a need for different and more flexible approaches to learning. To help teaching staff cope with these new pedagogical shifts, and their potential move into the area of e-tutoring, the Learning and Teaching Centre and the Learning Technology Team have collaborated to share expertise in this area. Together, they have designed an e-learning training programme that aims to combine a systematic process of planning, design, development, evaluation and implementation to create an online environment where learning is actively fostered and supported. The resulting e-learning courses produced should be meaningful not only to learners, but to all stakeholder groups, including tutors/instructors, support services staff and the institution.

The need for academic staff development in ICTs

Many teaching staff adopting the role of online tutor are often persuaded to do so based on a number of misconceptions:

- they already lecture on the subject and have ample notes;
- student contact will be at a minimum, and only via email;
- it is just a matter of beautifying their existing lecture notes for online delivery;
- it’s all about facilitation – they do not actually have to teach online, only 'facilitate' students learning.

The adoption of e-learning in the past, therefore, appears to be based on finding ways of presenting lectures and tutorials through various types of technology without changing very much the function or the content of the lecture. This has led to the situation where any change to the role of the teacher is perceived mainly as a need for greater and more thorough planning and preparation of their lectures, rather than the need to learn new skills.

When teaching with new technology, the most common form of training given to academic staff is showing them how to use the technology rather than how the technology can be used to aid the teaching and learning process. According to (Salmon, 2000) ‘online teaching and learning changes the scope and the competencies we require of academics and lecturers. It changes what we actually do with students.’ She goes on to suggest that online teachers do not themselves have enough training to make the online teaching environment successful for productive learners: ‘where training is provided, it concentrates on the use of the technology rather than on the role of the online teacher.’

Teaching online requires a different set of skills and a different pedagogy to that of the face-to-face classroom, none of which can be developed quickly or easily. In fact, experts in this area warn against assuming that ‘people who can teach face-to-face can surely be expected to teach online’ (Rowntree in Salmon, 1998). Managing learning in a VLE demands new and specific skills, and furthermore, tutors also need ‘to be aware of the learner-centred nature of online learning environments’ (Holland, 1998). Salmon argues that before concentrating on the skills and techniques needed to facilitate online learning, potential tutors need to ‘become familiar with the new medium, convinced of its potential educational value and confident to use it effectively for interaction with students’ (Salmon 1998). She goes on to suggest that a deliberate training programme is necessary as prospective tutors ‘need to understand through experience which techniques will transfer and how they can be deployed’. Such was the theoretical basis for the development and implementation of the training programme in the form of a series of workshops offered generally to DIT academics staff in February and again in April 2003, designed to show how technology can be used most effectively as a teaching tool.


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