Thursday, September 28, 2006

Supporting an online course

What is it that you use?
Wageningen International uses an e-learning platform, which is defined and maintained using a Content Management System (CMS)
What are the main options of the CMS?

Courses websites can be easily defined, developed and maintained. The system contains multiple websites, a library and there is a link to a discussion forum. Groups of course participants can be given special rights in the system.
The sitemanager

The next interview took place at July 6, 2006 with Mirjam Schaap from Wageningen International.

Meeting place

“I work in the Capacity Development and Institutional Change Programme. I am one of the administrators of the CMS we use. We started to design this system about 4 years ago. We have different websites for the courses we provide and we were looking for a place to manage all these. We decided to design our own system, because we couldn’t find any application that conformed to our needs. We have a lot of clients abroad and not all these people have access to the internet. Therefore we were looking for a system with the option to place selected contents of a website on a CD-ROM.” What are the features of the CMS? “There are about 35 websites inside the CMS now and each website has a library. People can keep their own library bookmarks inside the system and they can place a profile with a photograph of themselves. The contents of the profile can be adjusted per website. That way people can see who else is taking part in the course. The website developed using the CMS is the meeting place for the course and contains all information about the course. Course participants can upload information to the website. A while ago we also developed a discussion forum or actually we made a link to a forum, which is not integrated into the CMS.”

The usermenuProud of what you made

How do people respond to the system? “It is all very simple and website owners – often course leaders- find their ways quickly and easily. Besides that we have an extensive manual to the CMS. From feedback from our participants we got the impression that people like the fact that there is a place which contains all their work. It makes people proud to see what they have done. It gives a sense of: ‘Look! This is what I made.’ The forum isn’t used extensively yet. The idea behind it was that people could stay in touch and support one another after the course. During the course a plan of action is created and the participants are supposed to put this plan into action in their work situation, after the course. The forum would then be the place to talk about the difficulties or problems people come across. They can consult each other and support one another. Unfortunately, when the forum is not moderated, people do not use the forum a lot.”

Integrating the forum with the course

Have you taken steps to encourage people to use the forum? “Yes, we have tried a couple of things. What we want is that people don’t consider the course to be finished after the weeks or months in Wageningen. We want people to consider the face-to-face course to be a part of a learning process of several months. The discussions on the e-forum are another part of the learning process. Right now the participants meet at the beginning of the course and the forum will be brought into use later on. What we hear is that people find it difficult to change from the relatively easy way of communicating at a face-to-face course, to the more complicated contact at the forum. This is why we want people to be already active on the forum, before the course takes place, but this is very difficult. Also we will put more effort in moderating the forum. We are also considering implementing a buddy system in the future. Every participant gets linked to another participant for feedback and support. They should then use the forum to keep each other posted.
We also noticed that calling upon the expertise of the forum participants works to increase the activity on the forum. We posted on the forum that we are working on another similar course and that we would like their input. More reactions came through than normal, but that doesn’t work for everyone.”
The forumIs the forum the only option for interactivity? “We are currently looking for a chat application, which we can integrate into the CMS. We want to use an open source application, but the problem so far is that for most of the chat application to work, people have to download big files. But we want to keep the tools which support the online learning as light as possible. Downloading big files doesn’t fit into keeping the use of the system accessible for people with slow internet connections. So we are still looking.”

Content management

What are the most important features of the system for your purposes? “The fact that content from the different websites the CMS manages is very easily transferable or shared with another website is very useful to us. Subjects or courses are often alike or share similar backgrounds and with the CMS we don’t have to create the same content twice. The most important benefit of the system though is that the content can very easily be taken and viewed offline. You can mark the different things you want to place on a CD and it is taken care of. This way we can distribute the information very easily to people without internet access and document the information. This was also the main reason why we chose to create our own system. The forum we selected to use also has an advantage: you can choose whether you want to receive the posts made in your e-mail box, like at D-groups, or you can go to the website and check them there. If you receive them in your mailbox, you can also reply by e-mail, and you can also start a new topic by sending an e-mail. If you post something at the forum you can also add an attachment, but to keep the e-mails small, you will not receive the attachment in your e-mail box. Instead it gives a notice quoting the size of the file, so you can go view it online. These attachments can be viewed linked to the forum posts, but they are also listed in a small library.”


Are there any future plans for the CMS? “Well, we are looking for a chat function, as I have already mentioned, but you have to be careful not wanting too much. We encountered that with the forum and the library for the attachments. With every new feature you start to see a lot of other options to add and most of them don’t even require a lot of work. We want to keep the CMS as simple as possible. The system now works well with low bandwidth and we want to keep it that way.”

Tools should be used

“The major challenge is to increase the use of the tools to support learning processes in our courses and projects. It is not the tools themselves that are important. We are now working on the pedagogy of our blended learning, and try to put more effort in facilitating and moderating e-collaboration. Also we plan to develop short bits of e-content which can be used for self-paced learning.”

Another point of view

The advantage of building an application yourself is the control. You can decide yourself what you want to adjust or add. The downside is that you have to do the adding and adjusting yourself. Nowadays many applications are available to choose from.The added forum is a clear example of a feature that is not specifically developed for a clear use or need from the participants. The problems of the low number of visitors are due to the fact that the participants of the course do not need the forum at the moment to finish the course. Once a need is created, for instance, like the initiative to make couples and let them support each other, people will start using it themselves. This also explains why asking for somebody's skills only works half the time. People reply if they want to show what they know or just want to be helpful. There is nothing more in there for them, so they will only do this if they have the time and can bring the effort.You can also approach this from another point of view. Since the forum isn’t used there is no real use for it, so why do you want people starting to use it? It is a choice you have to make: do you consider the process as an important stimulating feature or can you accept that the forum is not used?


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