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We can think about a wide variety of environments within which technology is used in support of teaching and learning, including previous notions of Computer-based Education/Training, Web-based Learning/Instruction/Training, various digital communication tools, and the use of digital storage media such as CDs and DVDs.

Introduction

Technology includes a rich array of available digital tools with which to enhance our teaching and learning practices. Importantly, technology should not drive the learning process. Rather, the identified learning needs and access to an appropriate learning environment should determine the technology and resources to be used, and also how they are best used in a particular learning intervention.

Characteristics of Technology-supported Learning Environments

  • Changed roles for teachers and learners.
  • Greater emphasis on learner- rather than teacher-centred engagement.
  • Encourages collaboration and sharing rather than competition.
  • Learning community interaction not bound by time or place.
  • Multi-sensory experience, possibly using a variety of digital media.
  • Expanded access to teaching and learning opportunities.

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Structure

When designing a course for online delivery, the presence of the learning pathway becomes more important than ever and needs to be carefully designed and implemented, so that the navigation framework for the course is entirely clear. This is discussed further in section 2 of this Guide: Course Design.

The course should be structured in such a way as to take maximum advantage of the online mode. An online course offers significant opportunities for online engagement via appropriately constructed activities to support a variety of learning interactions, such as teacher–learner, learner–learner and learner–content (Anderson 2008: 61).
One of the strengths of online learning is the flexible nature of place, time and level of appropriate mediation for the teacher and learner.

“Educational decisions should be based on a deepening understanding of the ways in which face-to-face communications, telecommunications and independent work can fit together for the best learning and teaching” (Gilbert 1997: 6).

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Learning Support

The use of technology to support teaching and learning requires us to think about the kind of support learners need in order to access and use the technology effectively in addition to the required academic support. When designing courses and developing materials for online delivery, the following considerations should be taken into account:

  • Choice of information and communication technology (ICT) to support the driving pedagogical intention.
  • Appropriate target access devices (e.g. mobile vs desktop or laptop).
  • Capacity building and technical support for teachers, learners and technical administrators.

Note: This Guide is intended as a generic resource for all modes of course delivery, and as such will not focus any further on the technology support aspect. Find more information on how to incorporate learning support in sections 2.3 and 3.3. of this Guide: Course Design: Learner Support and Materials Development: Learner Support.

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Learner Engagement

One of the most important advantages of using technology to support teaching and learning is the multitude of online communication options currently available. This communication could be educator–learner or learner–learner, and may be a combination of the following:

  • Synchronous and asynchronous methods (temporal flexibility).
  • Closed (restricted participation) or open discussions.
  • Supported by a private/restricted or publicly accessible learning environment.
  • Encompassing a variety of pedagogical intentions (informal or formal learning).

Examples of informal community building/networking and communication 'social' software include social networking systems (such as LinkedIn and Facebook), micro-blogs (such as Twitter), and blogs and wikis (collaborative spaces), among others. When deploying social software for teaching and learning, we should be sure to adhere to the intended pedagogical intention of the activity. Much of the functionality of these social software tools has been encapsulated in dedicated virtual learning environments (VLEs) and learning management systems.

Virtual Learning Environments

A VLE is a software application system, usually accessible via the web, that is designed to support teaching and learning. It may be used for purely distance education, or for blended learning at an on-campus university. In the latter case, the term blended refers to a combination of face-to-face, digitally supported, and online interactions.

You may have heard other terms sometimes used interchangeably with VLE to refer to the same application genre e.g. learning management system (LMS). Both VLEs and LMSs have supporting content management systems (CMSs) to store the digital resources for courses housed on the system.

Examples of well-known VLEs are Moodle and Sakai - both Open Source Software (OSS), which means that they can be customised for particular contexts and there are no licence fees. Proprietary systems include BlackBoard, among others.

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MOOCs

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have attracted interest from educational institutions as a possible way to move into online learning as well as possibly provide learning at scale. Various MOOC platforms and partnerships have been developed worldwide, such as Coursera and EdX. Although an experimental and evolving area, MOOCs offer possibilities for promoting lifelong learning, greater variety of courses and the use of social learning pedagogies.