See also: Part 2 – a design proposition for Moodle course front page

(Update July 5th: Working on the follow-up article is taking longer than I expected. Bear with me, it is on its way! :)

Inspired by Tomaz’ blog post, I did an informal interview with a business and marketing teacher I know. There are two separate points I want to make about the interview, so this article starts a series of two articles.

I wanted to go thinking on a very general level of what are the tools that can be used for helping individuals learn on a given theme. I will here call the place to do such learning, a course.

The questions I presented:

What constitutes a course?
What are the defining factors; what do you do on a course, how, and why? In other words, we playfully tried to generate a definition of a course.

What kinds of tools can be used in order to facilitate learning of individuals on a course?
Then I asked the interviewee to list the tools that can be used for learning in each aspect of the course’s definition. “Tools” are defined very widely here, as anything that can facilitate learning on the theme. They may sometimes have natural hierarchy, but here I want to perceive them such that each we can each still see the relations differently.

The definition here is of necessity more narrow than that discussed by Tomaz – I believe that restriction helps when thinking about the design of a platform for courses.

The main bullets of the list below are what defines a course. The sub-bullets are tools for reaching the goal/factor of definition in question. Text in italics is my reflection on what a given point could mean to Moodle.

A course (instance) is defined by:

  • The defined content learning process of the course – (however loosely “content” is defined); taking into account the gradual learning of an individual in the course. She described one such process she uses to me (below)
    • Schedule (how much more emphasized could it be in the course frontpage UI for a student that there is an explicit schedule for a course?)
    • Teacher/facilitator as the one who defines or facilitates definition of the process and content
    • Learning theory being used
    • “Traditional” teaching methods: lecture, guidance counseling, …
    • Theme discussions
    • Study circle (a specific kind of forum)
    • Course community itself (as a tool for learning)
    • Private discussions for gaining trust between teacher and participant
    • Deadline for returning assignment (as deadlines are seen as something that is defines the course, should they be associated to the course on the UI level so teacher can see all deadlines she has defined at once, in addition to being defined in the module itself?)
    • Student awareness of eventual evaluation
  • Community
    • Teacher as facilitator of building common trust
    • Introductory forum, sharing what expertise participant can bring into the community
  • Evaluation
    • Guiding/counceling discussion (chat; private messages?)
    • Calculator could calculator or excel be used as a stronger metaphor in the UI whenever Moodle assists the teacher by calculating grades or when the db module estimates the reliability of a student grade?
    • Exam
    • Peer review (apparently Blackboard does not allow anonymous peer review?)
  • Learning goals of course: generic learning goals, specific learning goals
  • Content – a clearly defined theme
  • The external representation of the course: the criteria a student uses for determining if they want to take part on the course
  • The intended position of the course in the curriculum: If the course is given as a part of a curriculum, including the prerequisite courses/understanding of student
  • In the personal learning process of the student, where does the course fit; i.e. how what is learned in the context of the course fits in the mental model of the student

(I exhausted both myself and the interviewee before getting to the tools for the last parts of the definition.)

The point here is when designing a learning management system, we need to give teachers tools that are needed, in the context of their goals, taking into account their perception/definition of what is a course. The reason for defining a tool so broadly, allowing both very abstract to very concrete tools, is that whatever a teacher uses, is an expression of the teacher’s need in reaching a goal. So anytime a teacher states to use a tool, it is something we can consider as a potential need Moodle can fulfill, one way or another.

She also outlined a content learning process on an online course she has:

  1. Before course: Reading assignment of book(s) chosen by participants on the topic, two-page reflection writing assignment
  2. Making sure communication channels are open (valid e-mail addresses), clarifying the rules of the course
  3. Introduction: members present themselves and the existing knowledge they bring into the community (forum)
  4. Questions assignment: Think of two or three questions one should be able to answer after reading the books you read for the first assignment (forum)
  5. Based on questions assignment, teacher defines themes that are central to the participants. Participants are asked to give feedback if themes they think are central are missing
  6. Teacher creates forums for each theme selected. Teacher asks students to discuss the themes. Teacher may participate herself.
  7. Teacher asks students to summarize the discussion in one of the forums with a theme.
  8. Assigment to apply the gained learning in a real enterprise
  9. Learning diary
  10. Feedback form on the course

Here, the principal lesson to learn is that the modules that the teacher requires are not that many, but each time the teacher uses a module they do so in a specific context. It is these contexts Moodle needs to understand if it wants to be distinguished as

  • a tool that really supports learning and those facilitating that learning, or
  • a pile of tools you can use, if you learn a sufficient number of combinations of arcane settings by heart.

Presets of module settings, intended for a given purpose, labeled according to the pedagogical purpose, is the main means to get there. Instead of/in addition to just allowing the teacher to label a forum according to the pedagogical purpose they want to use it for (“Introductions”), have a Moodle preset module that is exact fit for that user goal.

Of course, knowing what the presets teachers actually need so we can serve, say, 80% of teachers, requires both interviews and ethnographies to really know what most teachers think is meaningful.