Packaging key to effective e-learning

--The Straits Times, 05 Oct 2013--
Lessons must be engaging, come in bite-sized chunks, says NTU don on university's latest foray online

By Pearl Lee
WHILE online learning may be the new buzzword for universities, the key to its effectiveness is packaging. And that means traditional e-learning, in which whole lectures, some lasting close to two hours, are recorded and put up online, is passe, according to Professor Kam Chan Hin.

Instead, online lessons have to come in smaller, bite-sized chunks with each lecture not going beyond an hour, said the associate provost of undergraduate education at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), which is going online in a big way.

"When lecturers teach online, they have to think very carefully about how to structure their lessons... You segment your teaching, and then at appropriate segments, you ask the students questions, and the idea is not to test them, but to get them more engaged," he said.

This is how NTU will tackle its latest foray online. It will start offering massive open online courses, or Moocs, by early next year after inking a deal with United States-based online education company Coursera in August.

The university had earlier commissioned a survey of 2,100 students, including its undergraduates and those from junior colleges and polytechnics, to gather what they thought about online learning.

A key finding of the survey was that most preferred learning in a traditional classroom. Half of those surveyed also felt that online learning should account for only 20 per cent of curriculum time.

"I think it is understandable, because I think students were thinking about the old style of e-learning," said Prof Kam. "My belief is that once they get on to learning with Moocs, I'm sure they will be more receptive to e-learning, because the experience will be so much better."

He made these points on the sidelines of a World Academic Summit session on how to build world-class universities. The summit was jointly organised by NTU and Times Higher Education.

Those attending the plenary session, chaired by National Institute of Education director Lee Sing Kong, included Monash University president Ed Byrne, president of Seoul National University Oh Yeon Cheon, and Professor Luc Weber, the former president of the University of Geneva.

They identified three key challenges facing universities today - globalisation; decreasing government funding in some countries such as Australia; and changing methods of lesson delivery, including going online.

At Monash, there are plans to implement the "flipped" classroom approach to the whole university by the end of next year. Instead of teachers introducing material in the classroom, students first learn from pre-recorded lectures and other online sources before coming in for in-depth discussions.

"Students come in prepared, and they can then spend the time they have with their lecturers discussing the topics," said Prof Byrne.

Another new approach to lesson delivery involves lecturers collecting real-time data about their students, also known as "learning analytics". For instance, students can punch in their answers to questions electronically, and the data collected.

"In the past, there was no feedback. But with learning analytics, lecturers can collect information about their students immediately, and the learning is more interactive," he said.

At the session, Prof Oh defined a world-class university as one that is open, shares its academic knowledge, and embraces cultural diversity. To keep up with globalisation, his university has recruited over 200 international faculty members, who made up 30 per cent of all its new hires in the past seven years. It also introduced new scholarships for international students, who now make up over 10 per cent of the enrolment.

Faculty members are encouraged to deliver their lessons in English. "Currently, more than 15 per cent of courses... are conducted in English... But in reality, this is hard to implement," said Prof Oh. "Not all faculty members and students are comfortable with lessons being conducted in English, but it is one challenge we are trying to overcome."
This session was one of three held yesterday at NTU, which hosted the World Academic Summit. The Straits Times is the official media partner of the summit.

Experts discussed topics ranging from the role of government in supporting research, to how to assess research outcomes and impacts.

NTU president Bertil Andersson said in his closing address that universities should be in "cooperative competition".

"We must be working in split mode, collaborating and competing at the same time," he said.

Challenging times

The three main challenges universities face today:

The steady rise in research co-publications across countries has intensified the competition that academics around the world face.

Teaching styles have to be adapted to suit the profiles of today's students, who are largely digital consumers. And that means more online learning, for one.

In some countries, such as Australia, the government is reducing financial support, and this may affect the quality of research at universities.

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