Thursday, March 08, 2007

Are you pampering your students?

I always share my enthusiasm about developing an e-learning course with my colleagues and very often one of the issue raised during our discussion is “spoon-feeding”. “Don’t you think you are spoon-feeding your students by putting your hand-outs, notes, PowerPoints slides, etc. for them to freely download?” – This is the question commonly asked by my colleagues and also when I give a presentation about my e-learning course. Hmm....actually I hate this question because to me there is no fine line or clear demarcation as to what constitutes “spoon-feeding” and what is not. True, the overwhelming majority of educators fail to make use of the potential pedagogical advantages offered by online environment. According to Badge et al. (2005), when academic staff begin to use a “virtual learning environment”, they often do not consider how it can be used to improve the educational value of their teaching. Instead, it is seen as a quick way to deliver learning materials that would otherwise have been delivered by alternative means, e.g. printed handouts. In particular, time constraints and the naive expectations that learning technology is either a bottomless pit or a quick technological fix for pedagogical problems, result in the use of sophisticated C&IT systems as mere filing systems.

Recent evidence has shown that simply putting notes on the web does not improve student learning (Evans et al., 2004). The same work also showed that material which is presented with sound pedagogical underpinning and which is easily navigable appears to enhance student learning. So, developing good e-learning course based on sound principles of pedagogy is not a simple endeavour – obviously not for faint-hearted educators. You need a rock (or diamond) solid commitment – you need a burning desire and A LOTS of enthusiasm – and of course, the multitude of skills!! I can say from my experience, it’s not going to be easy.

Well, back to the spoon-feeding issue. This is what the dictionary says about spoon feeding in the context of teaching-learning:
"If you spoon-feed someone, you do everything for them or tell them everything that they need to know, thus preventing them from having to think or act for themselves. e.g. There is a tendency to spoon-feed your pupils when you’re teaching because it is quicker and easier" (Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary).
So, the result of spoon-feeding in the academic context is the inhibition of the development of the capacity for independent thinking and learning.

I posted a question about this issue in my e-learning portal (title: Spoon-feeding: Are you being pampered?) and asked the students to give their response. Here is one the response (verbatim):
Here is my two cents' worth. Honestly, it is not only me that have been spoon fed, in fact "all" of us will have to raise up our hands and own up! (Please don't sue me for defamation because I think that this is true) Ha ha.... From young, we have been fed with a silver spoon by our biological parents and in school, the same goes with our dedicated "second-parents". The spoon feeding practice is part of our Malaysian education culture which has long built its warm nest and is still very much alive and breathing. That is why we turn out to be pampered passive learners. As children and students, we are very much being sheltered and doted on by our anxious "parents" BUT too much of "loving" can also spoil the child. I understand about the worries our "parents" have for us, always afraid that we will fall and never will be able to rise up. To prevent the fall, they provide us with crutches, something which we can hold on to for support. Little do they realize, their noble intentions will render us disable, never again to be able to walk like a normal, healthy individual. Hence, we become too dependent and perhaps a little too complacent while enjoying the comfort of the supporting bars. What happens if these luxury bars were suddenly taken away? Nevertheless, a little fall wouldn't instantaneously kill us. It will constantly remind us to be more cautious and wiser when we initiate our steps, allow us some time to grimace and reflect upon our downfall but most importantly, after that we are able to gather our strength and get back on our two big feet! Now that I'm in the university, the spoon feeding culture is slowly fading away but it sometimes sheepishly reappears. But, I believe all of us are trying very hard to be more independent in hopes that one day, with our very own effort, we can proudly fly, spreading our great big wings and soar up into the sky.....” (Chan Lai Ean).

Badge, JL., Cann, AJ. and Scott, J. (2005) e-Learning versus e-Teaching: Seeing the pedagogic wood for the technological trees. Bioscience Education E-Journal, volume 5 , available at (accessed 1 March 2003)

Evans, C., Gibbons, N.J., Shah, K. and Griffin, D.K. (2004) Virtual learning in the biological sciences: pitfalls of simply "putting notes on the web" Computers & Education, 43, 49-61.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

A long & Winding Journey...

When I first started my e-learning portal, I was practically “in the dark” – not knowing where and how to start. It was such a long and winding journey before I finally realized my e-learning course on the Moodle platform (open access learning management system). In retrospective, it is unbelievable when I imagine the number of hours I have spent on putting the content and the various components of the course. Indeed, I consider the development of the portal as a significant milestone in my teaching career, an achievement that I am very proud of. I was so enthusiastic about the project that I spent at least a few hours a day (and practically everyday, often until late night) for the whole semester (14 weeks).

Why it took up so much time? Let me explain…
The design of my e-learning course is perhaps rather unconventional in the sense that the course content is evolving as the classroom lecture progresses during the semester. The e-learning course is divided into 14 weeks. After each lecture, I will give a summary of the lecture in the portal, usually within 24 hours! In most cases, I add some additional points, analogies, illustrations, and examples. When writing for the portal, I prefer to use informal language or “conversational” style. From the feedback, I find the students like this approach because they feel like as if I’m talking to them directly. Another point that I should highlight here is that I often discuss the important points/concepts of the lecture in the portal from different perspective, not merely repeating the same things I have presented in the classroom. This way, the students would benefit more and try to understand the concept presented in the lecture from different angles.

I spent a great deal of time also in developing the various learning activities. Learning activities can help transform online courses into exciting, meaningful, and active e-learning experiences. Much like the activities and games used in traditional classroom training, these e-learning activities can be used to increase interactivity, engage learners, accomplish learning objectives, develop online relationships, promote active learning, and create learning communities. Some examples of learning activities are:

  • Forum – There are two types of forum: general and specific forum. General forum is the place where the students can post a message, comment, and suggestion related directly or indirectly to the course. Specific forum, on the other hand, is specifically for discussion on topics related to the course. Typically, after a number of lectures, I will post a question related to those lectures in the specific forum. The use of forum as one form of learning activity allows some interactivity because the students can give their response and their colleagues can add or comment on that response. This will generate a discussion thread that lead to close interaction among the students, the extent of which rarely achievable in the conventional classroom lecture.

  • Quizzes & Games – These learning activities are focused on providing the students with an understanding of the related concept, with the element of fun. There are different types of quizzes: fill in the blank, multiple choice and matching pairs. The Word Game that I developed has been very popular (see feedback from students). This game is similar to Wheel of Fortune, i.e., a clue is given and the student click the letter to find the right answer. Another type of game is an interactive crossword. My experiences with “playing to learn” e-learning has taught me that the use of games and simulations can help bring to life knowledge and information that might otherwise exist only as bullet points on slides. The use of stories as the basis for case studies, scenarios, role-playing, and problem solving in a game or simulation-based format provides a memorable, vivid, and fun means for live e-learning session students to learn, remember, and retain knowledge effectively over time.

Perhaps the toughest and time consuming task was preparing the “virtual (online) lecture”. The online lecture is done in the form of PowerPoint presentation (converted into Flash format) combined with narration and “talking head”. Preparation of good online lecture is very time consuming. It involves preparation of the slides, script for each slide, recording and editing the video, recording the audio and finally combining everything into a single presentation. How is the online lecture can be useful? In my case, when I teach about production of snack foods, I can explain the sequence of the process and showing the picture and video clip of each stage of the process. The students can view the presentation repeatedly either for revision or to get better understanding of the process. This is a great way to add value to the classroom teaching because very often the time to cover even the important aspects of the course is very limited.

There are plenty of rooms for the journey continues...