I think it is safe to say that the Open University are considered the leaders in distance learning and online training. In the UK they have certainly experimented with new tools and technologies long before other universities have even realised that those tools exist. I was therefore very pleased when three representatives of the OU MA History course kindly agreed to give a short presentation of their experiences at our recent Developing Online Research Training and Course Delivery workshop. I already knew that the OU use Moodle as their virtual learning environment (VLE for short) which is the same system that I have been learning to use over the past year for the IHR. I was also aware that their courses generally provided face to face sessions and textbooks and CD’s delivered to students. What I was much less clear about was the difficulties that they had to tackle (and continue to tackle) to translate complex subjects into usable online resources. Chris Williams, Stuart Mitchell and Wendy Mears stated that it takes them three years to develop an online course. That is much longer than we have to develop training courses ourselves but then ours will be that much smaller and more narrowly focused.
Stuart stated that they generally make two basic assumptions about their students. First, that each student will have at least a basic IT literacy that includes using the internet. Second, that they have at least an undergraduate knowledge of history, historical skills and common terminology. However, these assumptions were also shown to be the main difficulty involved in developing online courses. Not all students do have the same knowledge and expertise as each other. This is relatively straightforward to deal with in a face to face setting, but all the more harder online. The OU library therefore provides a support IT helpdesk for its students. Each year a face to face or virtual session is offered to deliver basic navigation advice to students. In addition an online helpdesk provides students the opportunity to offer advice to students individually on a need-to-know basis. Content is also a problem. Content has to be broken down into gobbets otherwise texts are unwieldy and unmanageable – imagine, for example, trying to explain the complexities of Foucault online in one big chunk! It just wouldn’t work.
Further Resources: Open University History MA course pages