Monday, August 29, 2005

9. On ICP-course development

Here follows my answers to Jordan Gold, Canada, former staff member at Global 100, regarding his thesis for a Master in Environmental Management and Policy at the International Institute for Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University. He defended his thesis "Design and Use of E-Learning to Accelerate Progress Towards Sustainable Development: A Case Study" on Sep 27th.

The answers are related to the second round (2003-2005) of developing and running the Introduction to Cleaner Production and Sustainable Development (ICP) distance education course for Lund University as independent consultant. The first round (1998-2000) was developed under the leadership of Professor Don Huisingh.

1. Do you feel like you had the necessary resources to develop and run the course in the best way possible?
The approach we have taken for the ICP course is to focus on human interaction by engaging non-paid former ICP-course participants, IIIEE Alumni, IIIEE researchers and other experts in the environmental field. Spending more time on people than technology is cheaper and, in several cases, has lead to fruitful follow-up projects. This increased the efficiency of the limited resources offered to run the course.

2. What have been the biggest mistakes made during the development and running of the course?
The biggest mistakes have been to underestimate the time it takes to build a functioning web-community, when you add all the bits and pieces of booking external resource persons, communicating dates to the course participants, adding news features and making assignments self-explanatory with templates and links. On the other hand, this “mistake” of investing a lot of time in the course is what contributed heavily to the good end results.

3. What have been the biggest surprises during the development and running of the course?
The biggest surprise is that it actually works to run academic courses globally on the web, without ever meeting face-to-face, attaining similar academic quality and level of interaction as on-campus courses. The overwhelming positive responses from some of the course participants are always a pleasant and welcome surprise.

4. You said that you have had trouble finding the right pedagogical approach, which will work in distance learning. What have you found does not work? Have you determined what does work best?
What works is supporting experience sharing among the course participants. What does not work is to assume that as long as the course content is interesting, the course will run by itself. As course administrator you need to “sell” the course to the course participants again and again, combining challenging task with encouraging words and building personal relationships with each and every one.

5. Have you ever had problems with interaction between tutor and student, student and student, etc.?
There have been a few misunderstandings, but nothing that could not be sorted out. Normal courtesy is an effective medicine. Moreover, course participants are more often than not aware of cultural differences and try to first understand and then judge. There was a case back in 1998 when I did give a blunt statement on a student report that caused some tears, as this middle-aged woman, it turned out, was on sick-leave while recovering from a period of heavy stress. We worked it out, though.

6. How do you find balance between controlling the course as a teacher/tutor and in giving the learner the space and freedom they require?
Teachers often offer their courses in a way that reflects their own thinking, and tend to favour students who think like themselves. Therefore, what does work is to provide a wide variety of ways to interact with the course material, such as electronic discussions, open-ended assignments, specific reading assignments, one-to-one conversations, traditional exams, field studies etcetera, and giving them equal importance. Catering for different learning styles increases the chances of finding at least one favoured way for the student to engage in deep learning.

7. Do you determine what knowledge and skills the students have before they begin the course?
As the ICP-course is an introductory course, and the idea is for students with varying background to learn more about preventive environmental strategies, the level of knowledge is set to at least two years of full time studies at University level. Most course participants who complete the course, however, are already working with environmental issues as professionals, researchers, volunteers or last-year university students.

8. What kind of feedback is provided to the student and what kind of feedback do the students provide to the teacher (feedback i.e. guidance, answers, input, etc.)?
The ICP-course include various forms of feed-back: personal e-mails with the course co-ordinator, two electronic forums and a specific electronic chat hour each week, along with team work that course participants arrange themselves through a rotating chairperson.

9. Are there any sections of the course, which the students do independently, or are most of their actions interlinked with the tutor and/or the other students (i.e. some e-learning programs are simply the student and the computer; a.k.a. standalone format)?
During the first 10 weeks, the students complete 14 learning units organised as predominantly self-study. This is followed by a home-exam. Those who pass the exam are allowed to continue with the teamwork and project work. This is one way of offering the course to many while spending precious teacher/tutor time on the students most likely to pass the course.

10. Would you ever give the course in a standalone format?
No. If so, it would be designed in a different way.

11. In the course, do you discuss the difference between single-loop and double-loop learning?
No, I do not discuss the difference in the course, but I use the loop-concept when building some of the assignments.