Describing Teaching and Learning Innovation

In this post I want to propose three ‘lenses’ that may be useful for describing and understanding the nature of a teaching and/or learning innovation. Innovation is certainly a prized commodity; deemed important enough to use to structure formal university module development and delivery processes, and to trade across and between practitioners and instititions. We also know that the question of innovation is likely to be an important consideration early on in the process of creating, designing and teaching a module or learning activities (and hopefully later on in the process also!). 

So how do teachers talk about and represent their innovation? I have been involved in a couple of projects that sought to to capture innovation and, like similar attempts elsewhere, found it difficult to define what innovation was. The conclusion is, of course, that innovation is a nebulus term embracing everything from a paradigm shifting idea to borrowing one from a colleague and using in a class. Broadly speaking, one could suggest that innovation is anything that creates new possiblities by combining different knowledge sets that should result in positive change or added value. This expectation for there to be a positive result I think distinguishes innovation from other terms such ‘something different’ or ‘ something new’  and prevents it being abused to the extent that  ‘being innovative’ becomes an aim in itself.   

So if innovation can be many things, do we need to be more precise in how we talk about it? Perhaps, like for other aspects of learning design, it could be helpful to have some lenses with which to view, describe and define it. Fair enough, each lens will present only a partial representation, but together such views may help better understand the character of the innovation and to use and evaluate it effectively.

LENS 1: For who is the innovation innovative? Each individual, group or community who experiences the innovation will likely experience it differently: what is innovative for one module author may not be for their students who did it last year on a previous course; what is innovative for the general way a subject is taught may actually be ‘common practice’ for a ‘leading-edge’ faculty or university; what is innovative in one faculty may not be so across the univeristy.

So this first view represents seven key stakeholders in the educational innovation. When selecting these seven, I looked at the ways practitioners (in interviews or in written documents) spoke about who their innovation was innovative for. I also thought it important that the diagram be organised in terms of the scale/size of the group effected (note the progression from the individual (on the far left) to the entire sector (on the far right)). Arranging the representation in this way should make it is easier to see how extensive or local the innovation may be. 


One way of using this view would be to determine how innovative the innovation is for each stakeholder and assign a score from 0-5. These scores could be written in the blanks provied. Scoring may Read more of this post

Assessing the potential for adaptation and personalisation of teaching and learning

Over the last few months I’ve been working with Simone Davies at the OU’s Learning and Teaching Solutions unit on (a) an online guide to help course authors use the study planner in Moodle to build adaptive elements to their learning content and designed activities (b) a review of current use of the study planner in selected courses (c) developing a specification for a new Moodle Study Planner ‘Decision’ plug-in (d) a review of the nature, benefits and barriers associated with adaptive learning and teaching (adaptive learning systems) based on staff interviews and a literature search. I touch upon (d) and a little of (c) in this post.

In 2008, Kelly and Tangney’s discussion of adaptive learning systems notes that they ‘can bring different benefits such as increased learning performance, greater enjoyment, enhanced motivation and reduced learning time’. In outlining this quartet, they hint at just how useful adaptation could be in an online distance teaching context. However, to date, the realisation of properly adaptive teaching in distance learning and the planning for adaptation in their design remains arguably quite limited.

If there is indeed the potential to make improvements to workload, to better engage and empower students in their own learning, to increase retention and to help students achieve more, then it is imperative that online and blended learning understand when and how adaptation can become an effective teaching tool could be used.

Of course, designing adaptation requires a departure from the linear, single path a learner is taken through a course, be this across a lecture series, a distance learning guide or a series of online learning tasks. Reigleuth makes the point that ‘one size does not fit all’ and indeed, in 1999, the materials for the OU’s own course on Teaching in Higher Education stressed how students learn differently and proposed as good teaching practice that the teacher understand and respect their student needs, approaches to learning, stage of learning development, interests, motivations, backgrounds, prior knowledge, etc. Read more of this post

Introducing learners to open distance learning: a new 1-2 hour study module

The openED online open distance course titled ‘Business and Management Competencies in a Web2.0 world’ commences its third presentation next week. As before, I’ll be involved in the research and evaluation of the course and the use by distance open learners of the website.

For this round, I’m also written a new additional module titled An Introduction to how to learn with open distance courses such as openED.  The aim of this module is to help the learner understand how to study better using open online material and should last 1-2 hours. This module is based on the most common questions asked by openED participants which I have identified from a detailed review of the Round 1 and Round 2 forums and over fifteen hours of text-chat session transcripts. The module uses examples from the openED course to help illustrate ‘real-world’ examples and includes three short reflective exercises (5-10 minutes) aimed at thinking how using online social spaces such as forums can enrich learning experiences. The module includes short sections on:

  • What is open distance learning?
  • When to start?
  • How to study an open module
  • Using forums to meet others, share work and resolve questions
  • Live text-chat sessions
  • Group working
  • Getting feedback and recognition for your work

To see the module in situ check out the openED website. I have also made the original text document (3,600 words) available under a limited creative commons licence for reuse and repurposing. You can download it using this link: Introduction To How to Learn With Open Distance Courses_Cross_2011_v6  

One exciting feature of this module is my sharing with the learners a basic visual representation of the recommended learning route (learning design). I have of course had to abstract the design to suit any of the 10 mondules (each differs in content) so it does not convey the detail or nuance that I would often put in such designs. 

 Image of the openED Task Seuqnece diagram

The intention is that participants work through the Introduction module first. This will better prepare them for the course modules and we will monitor how this contributes to greater or more prolonged engagement. Read more of this post

Conference poster: How do ‘WP’ students differ from others in their engagement with e-learning activities?

Tomorrow evening I’ll be presenting a poster with Rita Tingle at the OU’s Widening Participation Conference. In it we look at evidence from a student survey (n=120) and weblogs of student access to our VLE (n=650,000) for possible differences in use of online course components by Widening Participation (WP) and young students. Click here to view the Poster (PDF 97k)

From the weblogs and survey we identify a gradual fall in use over the course despite the fact that the end of course surveys show no major issues with the technology (and indeed students apparently appreciated much of it). We find that, whilst there is little difference between WP students and other students, students under 25 used online quizzes and optional podcasts less than other students – the graph below is one of six on the poster (the labels ’09B’ and ’08J’ indicate the year in which the course was presented).

We also find from the survey that daily use of a computer for study is highest for 35-46 year olds and use for leisure highest for 25-35 year olds. This is apparently at odds with the discourse (/myth) that ‘Net’ Generation students are more likely to use such technologies and suggests potential for a larger study.

This data represents only part of our broader investigation which covers students’ initial reaction to online components such as course website, study planner, forums, podcasts, videos, quizzes, etc., how their use of them changed, reasons for skipping activities, use of computers and study preferences and practices. Together this may help explain why use falls and for differences such as those we find in this poster. We also aim to ask it there are trends in relation to student educational qualifications and completion/pass rates that are also evidenced in relation to engagement with online course resources.

How do ‘WP’ students differ from others in their engagement with eLearning activities?

Towards the end of last year I started working with a colleague, Rita Tingle, on developing a student survey on the uses and perceptions of online resources and tools offered in a first year course. One direction this work has taken is to look at sub-sets of students asking do students see the tools as properly integrated in the course? Do students see the technology as helpful and relevant? How does student use of each, and cumulatively, change during the course?

Anlaysis is currently under way but we’ve already identified one possible outlet for a sub-set of our work – the Open University’s Widening Participation in the 21st Century Conference (24-25 June 2009). Here’s the poster abstract Rita recently submitted:

How do ‘WP’ students differ from others in their engagement with eLearning activities?
Tingle, R. and Cross, S.

Our study aims to explore the patterns of participation in, and attitude towards, eLearning activities by students considered to belong to the ‘widening participation’ group. This represents a group who can be considered to have overcome the initial barrier of gaining access to ICT – often portrayed as a key enabler to participation by less advantaged students and for widening participation – and who are now experiencing eLearning. Does the experience of these students differ from other students (Jones and Cross, 2009) and should this be interpreted as representing a continuing gulf in educational access? Are trends, such as those observed by in relation to student educational qualifications and completion and pass rates, also evidenced in relation to breath and complexity of engagement with online course resources?

These questions touch both upon research that recognises the challenge to widening participation as multi-dimensional and complex – where social, economic and cultural factors such as motivational issues, prior encounters of eLearning, and level of understanding of the learning process, augment technical ones; and on critical reflections on the gulf between rhetoric and reality of ICT-based adult education which suggests that access to ICT is not a magic bullet but can only go some way to altering patterns of participation in education for some individuals (Selwyn and Gorard, 2003).

This poster presents some initial results from a recent study of 120 students who completed a Level 1 Computing course at the Open University which, as well as printed study materials, had a significant number of computer based activities many of which required internet access.  Part of the questionnaire used in the study asked about students’ patterns of engagement with activities which involved significant use of online resources such as forums and online quizzes. 

> Link to our conference poster

Jones, C.& Cross, S. (2009), ‘Is there a Net generation coming to university? ‘ in ALT-C 2009 “In dreams begins responsibility”: Choice, evidence and change, Manchester, UK, 8-10 September 2009. (

Selwyn, N.& Gorard, S. (2003) ‘Reality bytes: examining the rhetoric of widening educational participation via ICT’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 34 (2), pp. 169-181.