Thursday, 9 August 2012

The Ultraversity model for online learning

Back in 2002 the Ultraversity project was set up to explore how to provide a delightful and effective fully online learning experience for undergraduate students wishing to use their work as a focus for study, the first cohort started in July 2003. As I write this we are recruiting for the 15th cohort of students who will start in September 2012. Many elements of the original vision continue to be mainstays of the current learning design. This post aims to summarise the key elements of the 2012 model and provide an insight into the experience prospective students can expect.

When we say fully online we mean it - students will not meet each other or course tutors face-to-face until graduation day. Some students do decide to move from online friendship to meeting occasionally face to face but this is not a planned part of the course design; many students are far to remote from each other geographically for this to be practical. This does not seem to be a barrier to developing deep and trusting relationships as illustrated by the email tag a year 3 student used: "Life-long learning - life-long friends."

Unlike many distance learning models dialogue between tutor and students is central to the learning experience. We believe participation in dialogue is of more value than mere reading and regurgitation of facts. Discussions are held in a Virtual Learning Environment forum and do not require attendance at particular times or on specified days. Tutors start themed discussion threads several times a week and work with students to develop a vibrant online community. All students are expected to read the discussions and to participate by responding to messages and starting message threads of their own. Discussion posts may also include audio recordings from tutors, this helps convey a sense of person and can also aid interpretation of text based posts from tutors.

As well as the discussions there are online course resources including a module schedule table that sets out a recommended pace for the learning tasks. Students personalise their learning by developing an individual learning plan that is shared with the tutor. This helps convey how the student has interpreted the learning tasks and how they have related them to their personal work context. It also allows the students to vary the pace of study to an extent if this is needed as a response to events in the workplace. For example; a teaching assistant may be faced with an OfSTED visit or a residential school trip and need to adapt the activities accordingly.

Work centred focus - developing professional competences - learning how to become more proficient at doing what you do.

Process driven learning - learning about processes such as Professional Development Planning, Reflective Practice and Action research. Theory is explored through a critical review then by practical application of the theory in the workplace and further review of the effectiveness of applying theory. This provides a good balance between theory and practice, this is something that employees are increasingly looking for when considering applicants for jobs.

Facilitated peer review model - students use constructive alignment strategies to self assess their work in progress. This is supported by peer review where students help each other progress by reviewing each other's work in progress and offering commentary in the spirit of critical friendship. Tutors monitor this process and ensure that review comments are aligned with expectations.

Professional Development Planning - personal target setting, reviewing progress and achievement of targets.

Organisational learning - considering how the individual can contribute to the development of the whole organisation by improving personal practice, involving others in research and sharing what has been learned.

Reflective practice - this is a very effective process and one that is used by professionals in many contexts; healthcare, social work, education, management and many more.

Small-scale practical research projects - using action inquiry methods to identify and implement changes for improvement of personal practice.

Developing use of online search technologies - for locating and retrieving information.

Developing creative use of technologies - using a wide range of technologies to develop presentation skills.

E-Portfolio - assessment products are not limited to the standard essay.  Assessment is by a patchwork of text and media files in an online e-portfolio. Although a proportion of formal writing is required, students are encouraged to use alternative genre and media to present aspects of their assessment products.

Recognition by workplace - with study being focused on workplace competencies and designed to improve performance in the workplace, our students often report significant recognition of their growing abilities by the workplace.

Preparing for employment/further learning - this theme is developed throughout the three years. It culminates with a focused module in the final semester where students develop a systematic approach to preparing for future employment and further learning. They review their progress, create an evidence based impact study, define their strengths and show how they are planning to address any weaknesses. They also identify potential routes to achieve their aspirations. Anglia Ruskin also have specialist employability advice available from: Follow them on Twitter @ARemployability

The course has a significant green impact - learning is paperless, assessment is paperless, there is no transport to and from a university, no requirement for on-campus built spaces. The consumption of domestic electricity can be reduced by accessing the course via portable devices such as laptops, iPads, smart phones etc. that can be powered by solar chargers or in-car inverters.

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