Lessons learned from an online distance module

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Image: Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

I’m coming to the end of my first module ‘H800 Technology-enhanced learning: practices and debates’ on the Open University Masters in Online and Distance Learning (MAODE). In order to prepare myself for the next module (H808 The ELearning Professional) and to reflect on my experiences, here are my top tips for making the most of a distance learning module on a week to week basis:

1. Planning and motivation: I was very keen and motivated to do this module but there were still some weeks when looking at the amount of reading required, I felt daunted and overwhelmed. Plan to read at least some core texts otherwise you will fall behind. Knowing how important that texts are for overall understanding, I would have made more of an effort to read and note take. If you have a holiday coming up, try doing some reading beforehand rather than catching up when you are back. I found that reading and holidays did not go together! When on holiday, switch off as much as possible.

2. Get your kit sorted: make sure you have your computer and filing system sorted out from the beginning. Create a folder per week and place all the readings and notes in one folder. When you come back to assessments, you need to know where everything is. A generic H800 folder with everything dumped in is a nightmare. I experimented with various tools and technologies and now have a a core set of tools: Evernote, Mindmanager (note taking and bookmarking) and devices (laptop, kindle, iPad and smartphone) that hang out together. Keep backups too! I’ll be using dropbox for the next module for extra insurance.

3. Decide how you will take and store notes. I find that reading an article is not enough for me to adequately engage with it. Most of the module activities have prompt questions so pre-read the prompt questions as you read the article. Eventually I found that reading the article and highlighting key points worked, but that if there was something that had to be written down, I interrupted my reading to make a note in a mindmap that I had set up for that week. There were times when I just couldn’t engage with an article, so I left it. Often going back a week later or near the end when doing a TMA helped as it seemed to make more sense.

4. Make use of dead time. I got a lot of reading done waiting in cars, cafes and airplanes as I had downloaded files to my kindle (and recently iPad). How to take notes in this situation? I used the email client on my blackberry to email myself notes as I read. Even if the email can’t be sent immediately, it can be saved.

5. Use a smartphone or mobile device to access the module : I found I was able to respond to forum posts quickly while on the move but keeping myself in the loop. I could also read the web-based readings and explanatory matter on my smartphone. PDFs, however, I had to read on a kindle, iPad or laptop.

6. Get involved in discussions: Without this the tutor groups will be stale and boring. You will also get more out of it because you contribute to the knowledge of the group, you make friends, it gives you a boost when someone appreciates your contribution and you are practicing what you preach (technology-enhanced learning). It’s gratifying to read back through one’s posts and (sometimes) be pleasantly surprised! Some assessments give marks for discussion posts, and it’s a shame to throw away those marks. Subscribing to email alerts for the discussion forums helps keep the course in your mind and you can weave in postings and readings during the day.

7. Use the posts in the tutor group forums (TGFs) to help you when the week’s reading and activities are becoming arduous. Sometimes reading comments and opinions on an article will help focus your mind and speed up the reading for yourself. You might also get a view on whether it is worth the time investment that week based on others’ opinions. It’s OK to leverage the distributed knowledge of the group.

8. There are NO silly questions to ask in TGFs. Don’t be afraid to ask an obvious or what sounds like a silly question. Others will probably be grateful and you can reap the benefits of more expert opinion.

9. There are lots of acronyms flying about (EMA, TGF, TMA, AM, PM, AT). Don’t be afraid to ask if you don’t know. Once you know, you’ll be more comfortable participating in the community. People are going to use acronyms as it is efficient, so go with the flow rather than fighting it.

10. Take a look at the Tutor Marked Assessments (TMAs) a month or so before you are about to start them so that the questions can percolate in your mind. You can also start collecting resources and references over a longer period of time which will help plan and produce the TMAs. Flag up what might seem like relevant discussion forum posts for use in your TMA using the flag feature in the forum post itself.

11. Be adventurous with tools. Try out Twitter, Diigo, blogging and the other tools suggested. I didn’t really take to Diigo but I am a much more confident Twitter user now.

12. Blog your experiences regularly. This is something I didn’t really manage. Perhaps it was time constraints, but I wish I had done it more as it keeps a record of self-development and ongoing reflections that you can’t really get back. Don’t worry who is or isn’t reading your blog – do it for yourself. If you can’t blog regularly, read other colleagues’ blogs and comment on them. It will keep you in the blogosphere and get you writing mini blog comments.

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