Making the transition from the classroom to on-line

Making the transition from the classroom to on-lineAs elearning becomes more popular and more learners’ expect elearning in some form as a part of their course, more schools and academies are thinking about adopting a learning management system to meet their expectations. So how does an organisation make the transition from the classroom to on-line learning activities?

What can you successfully transfer to on-line activities now?

There’s tremendous scope for exploration and letting your creativity run free, but you have to start somewhere. There’s so much to choose from and so many possibilities, so where do you start? Well, a lot of teachers already use email to keep in touch with learners and allow them to submit writing assignments. They might be using or at least recommending blogs, wikis and forums for learners to practise and study very productively. The majority of EFL/ESL course books now come with CD-ROMs and accompanying websites for learners. Your organisation might already be using elearning without you realising it and your teachers may have some useful expertise at setting activities and tasks for their learners to do on-line.

So why not start with what you already have? Ask your teachers what they’re using and what they’re doing with it. Get them to meet and share ideas and help each other to make their activities as effective as they can be. This is an opportunity to create not only learning communities among your students, but also teaching communities among your staff.

Give yourself and your staff enough time to prepare

Formally adopting elearning and using an LMS is a very steep learning curve and I guarantee you’ll make a fair number of mistakes and go up a few blind alleys along the way. It’s a normal and inevitable part of the learning process. You also have to consider how many people have to learn to administer the system, train staff, design, develop and deploy courses, deal with teachers and learners, collect feedback, and design or adapt activities so that they are more suitable for elearning. To this end, it’s worth getting started on using an LMS as soon as possible. LMS’ are incredibly useful resources in themselves and open up new possibilities in ways that would be difficult to foresee.

You don’t have to jump in at the deep end

Do you really want to take all this on at once? Why not take a gradual approach? You can start by using your chosen LMS as a communication system to organise meetings and professional development sessions, and share ideas and original materials. After all, it’s your teachers who will have to engage their learners on-line so why not give them a taste of what it’s like to be the learner? They’ll also learn a lot about how the LMS works and what it can do to make their lives easier and help their learners learn better.

As for getting learners on board, start simply and understandably. For example, give learners straightforward tasks that they can see immediate benefits from, such as writing assignments that they can hand in and get feedback from their teacher before the next class. As I said before, some teachers probably already do this via email and the transition to an LMS means that you can also set deadlines, inform learners about assessment criteria and have a well organised record of submitted works, assessments and grades given that are accessible at any time to learners, teachers and DoS’. You can also analyse results and records for general learner performance and inter-rater reliability in great detail. It’s a definite step up from the possible confusion and “muddiness” of using email for this purpose.

And talking of detailed analysis, how about giving tests on-line? You can potentially free up a lot of valuable classroom time by giving at least some of your progress tests on-line as “open book” tests. Since a larger proportion of learners’ production will be available for teachers to see and hear on-line, continuous assessment also becomes a more viable option. Again, traditional issues such as inter-rater reliability can easily be resolved when teachers have access to other teachers’ results and assessments from other classes. Additionally, most LMS’ have quite sophisticated tools for doing item analyses on tests to make sure they’re no longer than they need to be (take out redundant questions and tasks) and find out how accurately they’re testing what learners are being taught (or learners are being taught what you want to test them on).

Social networking

As I have previously alluded to, elearning becomes most effective when we create on-line communities; both communities of learning and communities of teaching and, to this purpose, most LMS’ today have well developed social networking and collaboration tools at your disposal. I mentioned that some teachers use or at least recommend blogs, wikis and forums to learners. Why not use these tools productively as part of your curriculum? Teachers can set discussions or projects rolling and only have to moderate and finally assess the learning outcomes. Peer assessment and learner created tasks and tests can be powerful learning tools too. A complete record of the entire process, along with assessments, is always available to learners, teachers and DoS’. And then, there’s nothing quite like hind-sight for everyone to learn from.

What business are you in?

One thing to decide is where your expertise is and how that can be successfully transferred to elearning. Most EFL/ESL schools, academies and organisations adopt curricula and syllabuses developed by the major publishers and other 3rd parties. They’re not publishing houses and they’re definitely not IP companies nor should they try to be. It’s tempting to think, with all your talented teaching staff, some of whom might be good writers, orators, actors, etc., that you could author enough content for an English course or two. It’s true, you could produce some very good prose, monologues, performances, etc., but think about it again, what would you really have to do? Texts have to be carefully selected so that they’re not only interesting and engaging to learners, but also so that they’re on the desired topic areas and at an appropriate level of reading proficiency. And the same goes for audio and video resources: Do you really want to become a story and script writing agency, and an audio and video production studio too? Don’t forget all the equipment, software and especially expertise necessary for audio and video editing and pre- and post-production. You’re already taking on a lot by adopting elearning, do you really want all of this on top?

Know your limits and go with what works best

So rather than turning your first experiences with an LMS into an insurmountable burden, start with what you know, what you know will work and what will make everyone’s lives easier. If everyone gets off to a positive start, they’ll be more likely to overcome negative preconceptions or apprehensiveness they may have towards elearning. Your learning and teaching communities should start small and tentatively, learning and adapting as they go, and eventually flourishing into sophisticated, varied, stimulating and engaging centres of learning. Keep it relevant, keep it purposeful, keep it fun!

SWF Activity Module updated for PHP 5.3+

SWF Activity Module updated for PHP 5.3In the world of software development, you always have to be looking ahead. The web server language that Moodle and the SWF Activity Module are written in, PHP, is constantly evolving and being updated. PHP 4 is no longer supported, we’ve been on PHP 5 now for over a year and PHP 6 is just around the corner. How does this affect Moodle and the SWF Activity Module? Read on…

The most significant change

With PHP 5.3, a number of functions have been deprecated, or in other words, there are other newer, better, shinier functions to use in their place and we shouldn’t use the old ones anymore. If we try to use these old functions, PHP 5.3 will send a deprecation warning, telling us that we should change the code. Any code that uses the old functions will probably still work at the moment, but their days are numbered and they’ll vanish in the next version, PHP 6.

Changes to the SWF Activity Module

Adapting the SWF Activity Module to these changes is no problem at all and I’ve updated the module download packages on the project site accordingly. However, Moodle 1.9 and 2.0 still contain a large number of these deprecated functions which can cause problems. So far, I’m happy to say, the new version of the SWF Activity Module seems to function if your server is upgraded to PHP 5.3.

Ongoing issues

However, this does mean that Moodle may be unable to confirm whether or not a grade has been successfully recorded in the grade book. It seems to work in all cases that I’ve tested but there’s no confirmation message because instead, all Moodle sends are the deprecation warnings. Until the Moodle core developer team can fix these issues, there isn’t much more I can do about this. From what I understand, they’re working on replacing the deprecated functions as and when specific errors arise.

What should we do?

The solution recommended by Moodle core developers appears to be “don’t upgrade your server’s PHP version to PHP 5.3”. Fine if you’re running your own dedicated servers but that’s out of your control if you use a shared hosting service. Some other CMS’s are reporting similar issues so we can hope that hosting providers won’t be in any great rush to upgrade anytime soon for fear of annoying the majority of their clients. Mmm… all I can say is upgrade to the latest version of the SWF Activity Module and hope that the Moodle development team can sort out the deprecation issues soon!