How I support my students and opportunities for further improvement

Today, I’m reflecting on how I support my students’ learning today and opportunities for improvement using online tools. I teach two courses at the International master program in health informatics in at KI. The student group is very heterogeneous with varied experiences and expertise; roughly half have a clinical background (physicians, nurses etc), whereas the other half have a technical background (software engineers, computer scientists etc). The entire program is campus based, and most interactions are f2f. However, in my courses I use the learning platform pingpong to guide the students through the course. There I post information about the different parts of the course, clear instructions for assignments and deadlines (the students also upload their assignments there and get feedback on them), all literature and lecture notes are posted there, and we use pingpong for communication. One of the courses is based largely on collaborative group work, where the students are divided into smaller groups and work together to produce a requirements specification for a health information system of their own choice.

Coomey and Stephenson identify dialogue, involvement, support and control as four key elements in designing online courses [1]. Of course, my courses are not exclusively online, rather blended, but I still consider online tools great for improving the all four aspects in my teaching practice.

Support: When I first started teaching my courses, I gave the students their assignments and told them to contact me whenever they needed support. Needless to say, it didn’t work. The students that did contact me were the ones that were doing really well, the groups in trouble didn’t contact me at all. When I realized they were not on track, half the course had passed and they had no time to catch up. So, after this experience, I’ve changed my teaching practice to a more pro-active approach, and now we have scheduled check-up points ones a week where the students present their work so far and we discuss any difficulties they’ve run into. Works much better! Still, for me to able to give really useful formative feedback (something stressed in the literature) I would have to monitor their work more more closely than I do currently, and I simply don’t have the time to do so. Therefore, I have considered using online tools to help the students engage in more peer feedback (which is also very useful for learning). For example, by making the students share work in progress between groups, they can (with clear instructions) also feedback on other students work on a regular basis.

Dialogue: I’ve also showed the students all the discussion boards and tools for online collaboration that are available within our learning to platform, but without any clear structure for when and how to use these tools. Again – discussion does not occur spontaneously, quite in line with the results described in [1]. Now, the two courses I teach are very different in structure – the first is very much based on group work (face-2-face) and we meet on campus several times/week, whereas the second course stretches the entire semester and we only meet every 3 weeks for a seminar, in between the students are expected to work individually analyzing different cases. In the second course I intend to add more structured discussion forums next year. The students will be divided into smaller study groups, and each group will have a discussion forum online where I (and hopefully some teaching assistants) will post questions on a regular basis for them to discuss. This way, I hope to support their learning through more proactive dialogue.

Involvement: according to Coomey and Stephenson this relates to learner motivation and having relevant tasks which can engage learners in the activities. This is something I’ve spent a lot of time struggling with, and I have some ideas for how I can use online tools to both increase motivation and opening up the learning practices. In a previous blog post I discussed using blogging as a tool to motive learners and engage with a broader audience. I plan to experiment with this next year – I’ll keep you posted!
Simpson also focus on motivation as a key aspect of online learning [2], and I believe that both peer feedback and meaningful activities can increase student motivation.

Control: relates to how much the learners can control e.g. their time, managing their activities and their collaboration. I must say, the FDOL course I’m taking now really gives most of the control to the learners, and I’ve appreciated that quite a lot (although it is quite challenging). I try my best to relinquish control to the learners in my courses, but I believe it’s important to keep a balance between control and support. As discussed in [1], learners with little experience of self-directed learning can struggle if they are not given too much control without enough structure. In my experience, teaching at a global master program, students experience with this varies greatly. Many expect the teacher to have the control, and get frustrated if they are asked to act more independently, finding their own literature and setting their own goals. Therefore, I try to provide structure and clear instructions to keep all students on the right track – but at the same time encourage learner control by e.g. letting them choose the topics of their own group work.

As much as I would like to say that my teaching practice is of the learner managed type, I have to admit that I still keep a lot of control. I suppose it is a process one has to go through as a teacher as well, to give up control to the students.

[1] Marion Coomey and John Stephenson. Online learning: it is all about dialogue, involvement, support and control

[2] Ormond Simpson. Motivating learners in open and distance learning: Do we need a theory of  learner support?

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3 Responses to How I support my students and opportunities for further improvement

  1. Anne Lee Solevåg says:

    Dear Maria, thank you for your reflections. I have a few comments: How many students do you have in the masters’ program? It sounds very time consuming to monitor each and everyone’s progress weekly.

    I find it interesting that you have used Coomey and Stephsenson’s DISC model in your reflection, in particular when you mentions the FDOL course in that context. My PBL group in the FDOL course have made an attempt to place our group in one of the paradigms and ended up in the teacher determined task specific quadrant… Perhaps that’s what’s happened in the master program you teach in: It should be learner controlled, but end up to be teacher controlled because people simply just don’t manage to learn in a completely self-directed manner.

    How do we support our student in their self-directedness without taking over control????

  2. Thank you for your comments! Regarding the size of my class – I could have been a bit more clear… we have 30-40 students each year, so yes, as I said in my post it would take too much time to give individual feedback continuously. But in one of my courses they work in smaller groups of 5-6 people, which means it’s 6-7 groups that need feedback. All of a sudden, this is more feasible to feedback on. In addition, I believe peer feedback with more of monitoring role for me as a teacher would be a way to support the students more while not forcing me to work 24/7.

    Finally, yes – as you could probably tell I struggle with supporting self-directedness and I have a tendency to take control as it makes me feel more at ease (and many of the students appreciate it too). But as I’ve written somewhere in a previous blog post, I think it also has a lot to do with ones progress as a teacher – we often start out with what we know, and I think most of us are used to a teacher-controlled learning environment. But I’m working with myself to become more comfortable “letting go”. Difficult balance though, and very much dependent on the context of the course I suppose. What’s your view?

  3. Hi Maria,

    This has been fascinating reading. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and reflections and being so open and honest. This is the real value of reflection but also sharing with others and engaging in conversations to stretch our understanding. Wonderful. You have some wonderful ideas about how to take your practice to the next level and I am really pleased that you are open to new ideas and experimentation. You raise some interesting questions also about peer support and being or not in control. I think this is something we all struggle. When to let go and when to stop ‘micromanaging’ learning if that makes sense. Might be useful to think about supporting students by providing a scaffold that will do some handholding at the beginning when needed more and then letting go. LIke learning to ride a bike and using stabilizers at the beginning. Some don’t need them and we need to remember this also. Feel free to share further thoughts and perhaps ideas also how a scaffold would look like in one of your modules/courses.

    Great work Maria!!!


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