Flexible Learning: Creating engaging and inclusive online learning environments
Dr Simona O’Brien, Unit Coordinator and lecturer for Engineering and Health Sciences units at Edith Cowan College and Curtin College in Perth, Western Australia, redesigned her Chemistry and Mathematics units as part of the Flexible Learning Design program, with engagement and inclusivity as a priority in her learning design approach.
What were your initial thoughts about Flexible Learning?
It was exciting to discover the Flexible Learning model, the opportunities it presents to students and teachers, as well as the professional development program offered by Navitas. I gained solid foundations in teaching and learning strategies and technologies from completing previous Navitas professional development programs, however, I was slightly overwhelmed at first. Still, I was very keen to learn more as I believe it is important to accommodate synchronous and asynchronous students in recent, and potentially future, challenging times created by the pandemic.
What was your approach when undertaking the Flexible Learning Design program?
The main approach I took to develop my units was to establish a workable structure and format for all weekly sections. I wanted my learning management platform (Moodle) to look attractive and professional. The first step in helping me achieve that was by de-cluttering and removing all unnecessary files from the old format, creating booklets rather than pages, and hyperlinking most files and activities so that the original files could remain hidden but available to students via booklets.
How did you go about redesigning your unit for Flexible Learning?
The hardest part for me was writing and embedding a narrative that could be easily followed by all students. Following the Universal Design for Learning Framework discussed in the Flexible Learning Design program, I tried to anticipate learner differences and how they may engage with the material provided. I included signposting to indicate how students can navigate, or even print, the contents of a Moodle book, as well as reminders to review resources before class, and study tips. I kept in mind that when teaching face-to-face certain instructions are taken for granted, but students learning online and in an asynchronous mode need all the guidelines to be readily available.
I am passionate about sharing my Engineering and academic experience with my students and getting feedback from them. I wanted to ensure that my approach was current and relevant while suiting the new Flexible Learning Design template. In addition to interacting with students during live sessions, I also developed participation activities, such as reflection tasks, throughout the semester to regularly monitor the progress of, or any difficulties experienced by students across the three learning modes.
What educational technologies from the Flexible Learning Design program have you applied in your teaching?
Equally important as the navigation experience are learning resources and tasks. Throughout the Flexible Learning Design program, I dedicated time to learn about a range of educational technology tools and embed them in my unit to help keep students engaged. Promoting connectivism and a learning community (Siemens, 2011; Goldie, 2016), I embedded Padlet walls to enable students to contribute and collaborate, as well as for a ‘Getting to know you’ activity. H5P activities and brief (3-5 minutes) animated summary videos were created to revise weekly content. During the live sessions, synchronous students can participate in polls in real-time via Zoom or Poll Everywhere as well as having fun with quick ice-breaker activities on Kahoot! For pre-class and post-class activities, to extend the students’ practice beyond live sessions, I also created online quizzes. It was very useful to incorporate the Community of Inquiry Framework in my design to avoid using a tech-tool for the sake of using it, and to really reflect on the importance of cognitive, social and teacher presence throughout my unit.
A common challenge often encountered by Science teachers is finding ways to replicate lab experiences online. These ‘hands on’ activities are important to enhance students’ employability skills so I introduced lab simulation PhET activities, accessible from any browser. This eliminated technical disadvantages that students sometimes experience if they need to download software. Openstax.org is another teaching resource that provides invaluable peer reviewed resources for students that I have found useful in developing new test banks, answer guides or slides.
What was the student experience of Flexible Learning?
The tools and pedagogies of Flexible Learning helped me with delivering fun and engaging live sessions. Using tools such as Zoom, in combination with the Poly Studio camera on campus, made the online learning environment more user friendly and facilitated active learning and teacher-student/student-student connections. Students were actively engaged and asked questions if further clarification of the concepts was needed through various means such as Zoom chat, Moodle forum posts, or asked during live sessions.
Assessment tasks and information are just a click away in the Flexible Learning Design template, so students have the required information at their fingertips. The suggested ‘Assessments’ tile, which is part of the Flexible Learning template, makes it easier for students to easily locate the information and links needed for assessment submission. I was very pleased with students’ regular assessment submissions, the higher-than-average marks, as well as the positive student feedback I received.
What are the main benefits of Flexible Learning?
Greater simplicity and enjoyment for both teachers and learners are a great benefit of Flexible Learning. Teaching online gives me access to numerous resources that I can include in my units and allows students to have more control of their own learning. The learning journey now feels more inclusive as students requiring reasonable adjustments can be accommodated more easily. For example, my new unit design was slightly adjusted to suit a student’s specific needs after their request was approved by the college counsellor. Not only was this a constant priority in my personal design approach, but accessibility is also one of the five principles of the Flexible Learning model.
I also now have greater insight into my students’ study habits through Moodle’s activity completion reports. Through learner analytics reports I can see who has completed important pre- and post-class activities and potentially spot weaker students earlier so that relevant study or counselling support can be offered in a timely manner.