Continuing our stories from the front line blogging project around the five main chapters from E-Tivities 2nd edition- Now AVAILABLE, is Gabi Witthaus from The University of Leicester AND Bradford University School of Management (UK)... Gabi is one busy woman!
Gabi Witthaus (about)
Distance Learning Manager at Bradford University School of Management.
and Teaching Fellow at University of Leicester
Connect with Gabi:
Linked In: Gabi Witthaus
Please tell us a little bit about yourself and your relationship to e-tivities:
I started my career in the NGO sector South Africa in the 80s, teaching adult literacy and English as a second language and training tutors. In the 90s, I did some Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) work in Spain, and returned to South Africa where I worked as a trainer, writer and skills development consultant. I then spent six years in the Middle East, leading a multimedia curriculum development team in a large petroleum company. I came to England in 2009 as a teaching fellow on the University of Leicester’s online MA TESOL programme and a research associate with Beyond Distance Research Alliance (now Institute for Learning Innovation), spearheading the use of innovative technologies in distance education. Today I am still working part-time at the University of Leicester, and am also the distance learning manager for the Bradford University School of Management.
My relationship to e-tivities (and e-learning in general) started in 2005, when I started studying online for a Masters in Training and Development via the University of Southern Queensland. In the four years that ensued, I completed the programme from four different countries, never once setting foot in Australia. I found the whole experience energising and inspiring – and to my surprise, much more engaging than studying face-to-face. I discovered Gilly’s e-tivities early on in my studies, and loved the fact that the concept was so practical and yet also based on empirical research. I have subsequently used e-tivities in almost all of my online teaching work, including recent projects involving the training of academics, from a range of universities across the UK and South Africa, to do technology-enhanced learning design.
Interview Questions: Creating E-tivities- Ideas, Lessons learnt, Resources, Pitfalls, Sparks, or Case studies
1. When creating e-tivities, how do you help your ideas come to life? What creative or brainstorming techniques would you recommend designers try?
If I’m stuck for ideas, I usually try to get a few colleagues together and have a brainstorming session. More heads usually leads to more, and richer, ideas. I might also go away from the computer for a while. Sometimes drawing up an e-tivity on a large flipchart sheet with coloured sticky notes and marker pens frees up a kind of creativity that eludes me when I’m looking at a blank screen. Another trick for me is to find a picture to use as a spark (more about that below) – I could sit and look at pictures on Flickr for hours on end without getting bored, and every now and then, I stumble across the perfect picture which gives me a metaphor for framing the e-tivity. For example, I once needed to create an e-tivity in which participants were encouraged to volunteer for something, and I searched Flickr for a long time without any joy, trying different search terms. I finally tried typing “Hands up!” into the search box and got lucky - the first image that came up was of a guy on a snowboard in mid-air, with one hand in the air. It gave me a brilliant metaphor to frame the e-tivity, with all the connotations of risk, excitement and exhilaration that it conjured up.
2. What are the key lessons you have learnt when designing e-tivities?
Keep it simple. It’s easy to get carried away writing long, complicated instructions for a really amazing, fantastical e-tivity, but students either won’t read them, will misread them, or will get stressed at the sight of them. And you can be sure the amazing e-tivity will fall flat on its fantastical face.
3. What are your favourite (online) resources for creating sparks, or finding supporting the designing process of e-tivities?
I know there are two schools of thought about the usefulness of pictures as ‘sparks’ for e-tivities: some people think pictures tend to be viewed merely as decoration by students, and others believe that well-chosen pictures can actually spark interest for participants, or get them to think about something in a new way or to laugh about something, which creates interest. The jury’s still out – to my knowledge no-one has actually researched this. Anyway, I fall into the latter category and I tend to use pictures quite a lot as sparks. My essential tools for that are http://www.flickr.com/creativecommons/by-2.0/ (this URL searches only for pictures with a Creative Commons-BY licence, which means I can crop them or otherwise edit them, and I only have to remember to attribute the creator), and the website www.imagestamper.com. Imagestamper allows you to create a (free) account and then save cached images of pictures with CC licences from Flickr. That way, you have a record of all the images you’ve ever used and also their associated licences, in case an original owner removes a picture from Flickr (or changes the licence).
As for tools I use for supporting the process of e-tivity design, I would highly recommend the 7Cs of learning design toolkit. (Disclaimer: I have been involved in creating these resources!) The toolkit is available from www.tinyurl.com/etivities-7Cs-framework. This Google spreadsheet has links to several e-tivities for learning designers, which were developed from a combination of the University of Leicester’s Carpe Diem learning design workshop, the Open University’s OULDI project and more recent work being done by the Institute of Learning Innovation. For more information on the 7Cs framework, see my blog post ‘7Cs update – the toolkit takes shape’ and this slidecast by Prof. Grainne Conole.
4. Do you have a memorable "ah ha!" moment in the process of designing successful
e-tivities? Or favourite stories you would like to share?
We have been using e-tivities with students on an online programme that I am an e-moderator on, for the last few years. One particular e-tivity required students to write at least five blog posts throughout the term, and to comment on at least two of their peers’ blog posts. In a review meeting by e-moderators, it was noted that there appeared to be wide variation in the level of engagement of students, with some writing the bare minimum posts and keeping their posts very short, and others writing quite lengthy, frequent posts. Because the students’ performance in the e-tivity contributed to the assessment, it was suggested that the task should be standardised by giving students minimum and maximum word limits for their blog posts. When this was tried the next term, however, the net result was many students felt very constrained by the maximum word limit, and almost all the posts (and peer responses) were quite stilted and lacking in the real ‘voice’ of the students. We lifted the word limit restriction for the next cohort, and the blogs proceeded to flow again, evidencing much greater enthusiasm and engagement on the part of most of the learners.
To solve the assessment problem when we returned to the freer, no-word-limit blog task, students were asked to choose what they considered to be their five ‘key’ posts at the end of the term, copy and paste these into a Word document, and submit that for assessment. There were a few other criteria, such as that their five posts must include at least two other ‘considered responses’ to other students, and that they had to include at least four references to the literature in total. This meant that the students who wanted to write a lot more than the minimum requirement were free to do so, but all students were judged by the same benchmarks. And crucially, it was the students’ responsibility, not the e-moderator’s to demonstrate that they had met the minimum requirements, which made the e-moderator’s task a great deal more manageable.
5. Is there anything else you would like to add when reflecting on designing the best e-tivities possible?
When you’re trying a new e-tivity, it’s often hard to predict how well it will go down with students, and which aspects of the e-tivity they will find challenging/ confusing. Two ways we have used at Leicester to test the waters are, firstly to do a ‘reality check’ of an e-tivity before inflicting it on students. The reality checker can be a colleague who has not been involved in designing the e-tivity, or a student volunteer. That person must actually try to follow the e-tivity instructions exactly as a student would, on their own without any assistance from you, and then give you feedback. It’s surprising how much you can learn from a single trial with a single reality-checker! Another thing we have tried is giving students the choice to either do a pre-existing (tried and tested) task, or volunteer to do the e-tivity. That way you get the more adventurous students who are willing to pilot the e-tivity for you and give you feedback, and you can give a polished version of the e-tivity to the next cohort of students with more confidence. Even when I have a ‘final’ version of an e-tivity, I like to think of it as a constantly evolving beast, and am always looking out for ways to improve it before I use it with a different group.