Friday, November 28, 2008

CCK08: Motivating and engaging students in networked learning

The connectivism course that I have been following as an informal student is coming to a close, and now I am left to think about how I can apply what I have learned into my teaching. In particular, I am thinking about how I can work with students in a way that captures their imagination and increases engagement with the course.

I also want to evaluate the 'Reflection on Practice' course I have been running, and to do that I want to provide myself some 'standards' with which to compare the course design and construction against.

The networked student
To be honest, I could just finish this post with Wendy Drexler's video because it encapsulates what I have learned about connectivism over the last few weeks, and illustrates so beautifully what networked teaching and learning is all about.

Back down to earth
But the reality is that I have to run a course and deliver online content in a way that is meaningful to the student. I've got all fired up about networked learning, but wonder if the existing online midwifery network is 'strong' or 'big' enough to support midwifery students, especially undergraduates looking at clinical issues? When you look at the material relating to midwifery in Delicious, YouTube and SlideShare for example, there is very little that can be used in an 'academic' way. Peer-reviewed articles in credible journals that you find in Google Scholar are often unavailable without paying. And there's only limited access to full text articles through online databases. Blogging midwives are currently extremely wary about what they write and many have closed their blogs to public view.

Quality of the network
And what about the quality of information that is freely available? Is it information we want undergraduate midwifery utilizing in their practice? It's one thing for a history student to get a date wrong, but if a midwifery student accesses and implements wrong information there could be fatal results. How do we manage this?

Is networked learning enough?
As you can see, I have more questions than answers. Is networked learning sufficient motivation in itself? How do I help students develop networks - what about those students whose learning style does not suit this methodology? Is networked learning more suitable to post-graduate students who are already registered midwives with a little clinical experience under their belts; who are already familiar with the concept of networking, and have an understanding of midwifery principles? On the other hand, if we do not introduce undergraduate students to the concepts of networked learning, are we not disadvantaging them and reducing their ability to become life-long learners?

Where to from here?
Whilst I am still working my way through these questions, there are several aspects of design that I feel is important to be mindful of in relation to online courses

E-teaching is more than content delivery
In order for students to be motivated and engaged with e-learning, courses have to be more than just content delivery - courses need to be interactive. To my mind, the problem in the past with e-learning has been that many teachers (myself included) have considered that all you have to do with an online course is to load up some PowerPoint presentations into a learning management system (LMS) like BlackBoard, and throw in a few questions on the discussion board. But my experience (as a teacher) has been that these courses are boring and fail to engage the majority of students.

Klemm (2005) contends that teachers should be using activities and technologies that encourage students to share learning and resources, and form communities or cooperatives of learning. He says that students should be encouraged to
"build their own knowledge and understanding, typically by doing some task and producing some kind of deliverable. The deliverable could take the form of a report, a plan or recommendations, a literature review or Web quest, a data sheet, problem-solving exercises, insight challenges, a presentation, Web pages, portfolios, or other tangible materials that emerge as learners construct their understanding of the required subject matter".

Even synchronous teaching using tools such as web conferencing requires careful thought and planning, with an emphasis placed on involving students in activities that will orientate them to the technology and support them to interact with each other. Strategies include making full use of white boards, quizzes and 'games' to encourage participation - ideas for using Elluminate can be found from Jo Hart and Sue Waters.

Initiating a sense of community
What ever learning theory and methodology you subscribe to, it appears that students in the online environment learn more effectively when there is interpersonal interaction, sharing and a sense of community. Klemm also talks about cooperative learning that brings the students together to support and learn from each other.
"Cooperative learning requires a group of learners operating as a team to help each other learn. Paradoxically, though seldom used in E-learning, cooperative learning works better on-line than it does in face-to-face classrooms. The reasons include: 1) All students can find the time to do their share of the work. No longer do they have the excuse of conflicting work or study schedules; 2) Thinking is more focused and clear because everything is done in writing; 3) Everybody is more accountable. Everyone sees what everyone else is doing (and not doing); 4) All inputs are organized and archived for later review and update" (2005).

McElrath and McDowell suggest that a sense of community can be fostered by using three steps, first suggested by Ruth Brown (2001, cited by McElrath & McDowell, 2008):
  • making friends
  • community conferment
  • development of “camaraderie”
It is important that this is done as soon as possible after commencement of the course to reduce likelihood of drop-out (Berge & Huang, 2004). From a practical point of view, this means the teacher needs to capture the students' interest from the beginning; orientate the students to the course and the technology; role model by using personal examples; provide opportunities for students to share ideas, resources etc, and listen to students' feedback (McElrath & McDowell, 2008).

Growing a learning network
Beer and Jones (2008) suggest the best way for students to grow learning networks is to move courses out of the LMS, and instead encourage students to develop a personal learning environment (PLE). The PLE overcomes the restrictions that LMS put on the learning experience by allowing students to take control of their learning as opposed to it being dictated by the teacher and LMS functionality. The PLE allows networking with the wider professional community and provides ongoing support and learning after students have finished their formal course (Beer & Jones, 2008). For further information about the concept of the PLE and the tools that may make up a PLE, have a look at this slideshow by AJ Cann called "What the heck is a PLE and why would I want one?".

Cognitive overload
Whilst an aim of a course may be to encourage students to utilize a variety of technologies to develop a PLE, it is important to avoid cognitive overload which has been shown to cause high attrition rates, especially for first time students in the online environment (Tyler-Smith, 2006). Overloading students at the beginning of a course with information and material, as well as requiring them to engage with many different pieces of unfamiliar technology may cause students to lose confidence. This in turn affects their ability to learn and ultimately leads to drop-out.

Remembering that students have a life
A lot of the research that looks at students' satisfaction with e-learning concludes that they are motivated by online courses that are flexible in delivery - that fit in with their various life commitments, give them geographical freedom and allows them access to learning opportunities that would not otherwise be available to them (Jain & Ngoh, 2003). A flexible approach to teaching and learning will involve thinking outside the square and being creative when it comes to communication, delivering material and designing assessments. And the teacher has to be especially mindful that students have other life pressures on their time and resources which impact on their learning and academic performance. Therefore, it is really important to make sure content, tools and assignments are relevant and appropriate so that students do not feel they are wasting their time, and can see the practical application of what they are doing (Anderson, 2008; McCloughlin & Luca, 2001).

Scaffolding and support
Finally, but by no means least, students will be motivated when they feel they are being well supported by their teacher and education institution. This support may range from help with study skills and digital literacy, to regular formative feedback on their progress through the course and in relation to assignments (Allen, 2003). Scaffolding students through the course is vital (Caplan & Graham, 2008);
  • providing clear information and support at the beginning of the course, especially if unfamiliar technology is being used
  • keeping in touch with the student whilst she is working her way through the course, especially when she faces issues that have the potential to impede her learning
  • making use of a range of communication tools as the student becomes familiar with online tools eg text reminders of online meetings and assignment due dates
  • creating opportunities for problem-solving as individuals and as a group or community
  • create activities and opportunities for reflection and community dialogue
  • building assessments in a way that supports students to grow and learn, and receive feedback as they work their way through the course (Wilson, 2004).
This post was written as part of course requirements (which is why some of you may find it rather boring). Is there any comments and feedback you would like to give on any of the topics I have raised here? What are your experiences as a teacher or learner with regard to motivation and e-learning? What works for you and what doesn't?

Allen, M. (2003). Michael Allen's Guide to E-Learning. Hoboken:Wiley. Retrieved 3 December, 2008, from,M1

Anderson, T. (2008). Teaching in an online learning context. In T. Anderson (Ed.), The theory and practice of online learning (pp 245-263). Athabasca: Athabasca University Press. Retrieved 18 November, 2008, from

Beer, C., Jones, D. (2008). Learning networks: harnessing the power of online communities for discipline and lifelong learning. In D. Orr, P.A. Danaher, G. Danaher & R.E. Harreveld (Eds.), Lifelong Learning: reflecting on successes and framing futures. Keynote and refereed papers from the 5th International Lifelong Learning Conference (pp. 66-71). Rockhampton: Central Queensland University Press. Retrieved 1 December, 2008, from

Berge, Z., & Huang, Y. (2004). A Model for Sustainable Student Retention: A Holistic Perspective on the Student Dropout Problem with Special Attention to e-Learning. DEOSNEWS, 13, 5. Retrieved 2 December, 2008, from

Caplan, D., & Graham, R. (2008). The development of online courses. In T. Anderson (Ed.), The theory and practice of online learning (pp 245-263). Athabasca: Athabasca University Press. Retrieved 18 November, 2008, from

Klemm, W. R. (2005). Interactive E-learning - Why Can’t We Get Beyond Bulletin Boards? Educational Technology & Society, 8, 3, 1-5. Retrieved 30 November, 2008, from
Jain, K., & Ngoh, L. (2003). Motivating Factors in E-learning – A Case Study of UNITAR. Student Affairs Online, 4, 1.

McCloughlin, C. & Luca, J. (2001). Quality in online delivery: what does it mean for assessment in e-learning environments? Retrieved 3 December, 2008, from

McElrath, E., & McDowell, K. (2008). Pedagogical Strategies for Building Community in Graduate Level Distance Education Courses. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 4,1. Retrieved 30 November, 2008, from

Tyler-Smith, K. (2006). Early Attrition among First Time eLearners: A Review of Factors that Contribute to Drop-out, Withdrawal and Non-completion Rates of Adult Learners undertaking eLearning Programmes. Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 2, 2. Retrieved 2 December, 2008, from

Wilson, C. (2004). Learning about e-learning. Retrieved 3 December, 2008, from Retrieved 2 December, 2008, from


Anne Marie Cunningham said...

Hello Sarah
What a wonderful post! Firstly, it asks the same questions I have been struggling with in the past week. How can clinical topics be addressed from a connected learning perspective? I suspect that there are many more opportunities that immediately strike us as obvious. Integrating the patient's voice from health 2.0 into learning is one place to start eg accessing public discussion forums for narratives relevant to midwifery. Maybe you already do this with students?
But this is a topic that we will think a lot about in the coming years.

Secondly, you have provided an excellent summary of the current state of play.

Thank you very much,

Anne Marie

Sarah Stewart said...

Thank you, Anne Marie, for reminding me there are patients/clients/women/families in all of this. To my mind, this is the beauty of open networkedlearning - health consumers will become part of that network. And you're right, we will need to think about how this is 'managed' (I know 'managed' isn't the right word, but am stuck for another one at the moment).

A colleague of mine had an open blog in which she taught nutrition - she had a couple of women who had had babies join the discussions, and it was a fabulous learning experience for the students & really motivated them to keep using the blog. I am very excited about the potential networked learning has for the inclusion of health consummers - not something that has been considered much. We should start a dialogue about it & see what others think.

Anne Marie Cunningham said...

It would be great to talk more about this. I'm meeting with some students in the morning and it was something that I was going to float with them. I'll get back to you.

David McQuillan said...

I agree. Great post.

Something I've been thinking about lately is that if you want your students to use a PLE, you will need to regularly check to ensure that they are tapped into all of the course communication channels that you're expecting them to be receiving.

As an example our pageflakes course hub developed some bugs half-way through the second semester, and so I hacked up an iGoogle page with similar content, then shared this with my students. At that point they all should have had an iGoogle page with the same feeds as the orginal pageflakes hub. I did ask them to check if it was working alright, and to get back to me if there were any problems. I had to sort out a couple of things for a couple of students, but after that things went quiet, and I assumed that everything was fine. Later down the track I was talking with one of the students and she mentioned that she hadn't been receiving any of my weekly directions for one of our courses for over a month. A week or so later I had a similar conversation with another student!!!

Sarah Stewart said...

Gosh, that's a salutatory reminder, David, to be mindful of technical issues. At the moment, we're going down the Moodle route with our undergraduates so my opportunities to experiment with PLEs is going to be restricted. I would like to have a look at elgg ( - do you know anything about that?

Carolyn said...

Two things Sarah. One about students and networking. Do you think our current students are in class together most of the time so networking online is not such a big thing for them. Perhaps when they are more scattered they may value this more. I think the time involved in developing the skills for social networking puts lots of people off.
Secondly, you know me, you tell me about a new online thing and I have to go and check it out. so I saw this wee mention about elgg. I decided to go and check it out and downloaded it. It is nerds-ville I think. It seems to me that you have to have some computer programming knowledge or have support from someone who does to use it and I am still not entirely sure what 'it' is. So I have it on my computer and have no idea what to do with it. Can you enlighten me further?

Sarah Stewart said...

Hi Carolyn

I'm sure you're right that the students who live on campus do their networking face-to-face but we still need to teach them how to network with the wider midwifery community. As for time, I think teaching students about the skills should be integrated into our program as well as the actual use of networking eg assignments integrated into blogging. We have students for 3 years - by the end of that time they should be firmly networked with the aim that their transition into practice will be widely supported.

As for elgg-I don't know much about it, which is why I need to check it out-sorry I can;t help more.