Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thinking through my experience with e-learning at the University of Sfax

In the run-up to this coming December's Conference at the Higher Institute of Applied Languages in Gabes, Tunisia, I would like to start describing and assessing my e-learning experience at the College of Letters and Humanities of Sfax, University of Sfax, Tunisia.
In the main, I think it is fair to say that it is something in the making. This year, I am using Moodle with my 4th year English Department students as well as at the graduate level. Moodle is a learning management system that is open source, free to use, and compares very favourably with its commerical counterparts, namely Blackboard (Bb) and WebCT. Some people prefer the label LMS, for learning management system, while others sometimes call it CMS, for content management system. There are others who would rather use a combination of these two appellations and that produces LCMS, short for learning content management system. Basically, this is a system that allows teachers and trainers to place teaching material somewhere on a server that students and employees, and anyone who wishes to learn, can access from a computer with an internet connection. There is the teacher who may be one of many in charge of providing content. There is also the graphic designer who can provide help with how to present the material, in terms of sequencing and units. And of course, there is the software if you like, which someone or actually many people have prepared to accept various kinds of inputs, including lecture notes, assignments, grades, evaluation, what have you.
So now, we have an idea what LMS does. The main point to keep in mind is that students who have access to the system are not asked to be in any walled, chalk-and-talk classroom. Their classroom is in the virtual world. That's why this type of environment is often called VLE, virtual learning environment. There, they can meet their classmates and their instructor, submit their assignments, and receive feedback from the instructor or their peers.
What about our experience here at Sfax University? I must say, to begin with, that I was and am still thrilled about the possibility of making my courses available for students online. This could deprive me from the joy of meeting with them on a regular basis, and talking to them outloud, in front of them, in an auditorium that is packed to capacity. I am starting to think that traditional students, and we all are, to a certain extent, like to see a teacher in front of them, not an avatar of a teacher, even when they can actually hear and watch their teacher speak on the system. This is in part my experience here. I tell my students by way of jest they like to see a teacher speak himself hoarse in front of them (I refer to myself throughout, so I am entitled to use referent he, rather than the usual he/she). They like to see a teacher sweating, on the forehead and under the armpits, rusting his clothing with chalk, walking between the rows, raising his voice at times, and commending a large presence. It's a little bit like the kind of play that you have to attend without participating or entering into a discussion with the players.
In principle, of course, there should be nothing wrong with that. After all, a teacher is an educator, and students stand to benefit simply by listening to him, and absorbing material he has to say. Our students have also been born and bred into a tradition of note taking. Note taking is very big at the college. I may be wrong, but students seem to enjoy coming to class, listen, and take an inordinate amount of notes. To them, that is an indication they they have attended, and that they have learned too. Those who miss class will usually ask someone to provide them with notes of notes, usually copies of notes from the notebook of a presumably good student. When pressed for time, teachers usually give students copies of their last lecture notes. Students, as I said, like that, and probably feel their job is half done and that the second part of the job will be to reproduce what the teacher has said on exam day!
Well, what happens when you actually provide your whole course package to the students from day one? You tell them, well, here guys is your course. Everything, from A to Z. Thus, in order to prepare my Sfax students for this online course, I told them from day one that they were to have a copy of everything, specifically and most importantly my lecture notes. But I also provided readings assignments and other activities. Those assignments are, for all intents and purposes, samples of what they might expect on the exam. I have two colleagues to help me with the tutorials, Pr. Chokri Smaoui and Pr. Salaoua Abid. and I thought, well, this is pretty much it. Students will be able to take full advantage of the course. Tutors will do the rest, and much of my work has been done; I thought I might meet students every now and then to assure them that I was still around and alive, and then, we'd see them in the final exam.
Well, as it turned out, it wasn't so! There are difficulties that I have to recognize. Some of these relate to the grip of tradition, and those are understandable, and with time, you would hope to be able to do something about them. There are other difficulties, difficulties of access. In my next blog, I will start broaching those two types of difficulties. It might actually be a good idea to get some feedback from students themselves. And as I stand here to relay and relate their experience to you from my own perspective, I think I also owe it to them to give them a chance to just report, in their own words, how they feel about this. And as we will see, this is not a question of a homogeneous block of students who are all shouting: 'Sir, Sir, back to the old system, please'. There may be a bit of this, for some, but there is also recognition that the learning and teaching landscape has changed tremendously elsewhere, sometimes beyond recognition, with implications for how we conduct business here. More on this soon.
Ali H. Raddaoui, University of Sfax, FLSHS, Sfax, Tunisia


ilhemrakam said...

I want first to thank my teacher Dr Ali H Raddaoui for his hard work and effort that he does not save in order to make this online experience succeed.
I must say that, in the begining, i and my friends were frustrated from this new way of studying. but now i, personaly, feel at ease with the new system that is to say in stead of going to university i am well in my bed in front of the computer drinking a cup of coffee and readind my lectures and trying to do the assignments. In addition to that, in America and other developed countries this issue is even "old fashioned", may be i' am exaggerating here but what i mean is that we should make some changes and innovations in our system of education in order for us not to be "lost" if ever we wanted to carry on our studies abraod.
But i want from Mr Raddaoui to try to give us as many feedback as can, of course he cannot do it regularly and for all students because of our great number and his other responsibilities. thank you. Ilhem.

Ali H. Raddaoui said...

The point you have made is indeed correct, Ilhem. In a globalized world, we should stop thinking of our students as competing only with/against other students at the national and local levels. The point I never tire repeating is that our students have to be every bit as competitive as students in other parts of the world. Ushering them into online learning is a step we take along this path. Between our goal of being on a par with everyone else and where we are, are many measures to take and many steps to make. And for this, we need concerted effort: students, teachers, administration, technical expertise, and good will on the part of all. Thanks for posting.

hajer said...

First of all thank you sir for allowing us to talk freely and I'll seize the oppotunity to tell you MY point of view. I think that the way we are reacting to e-learning is tightly related to our mentality and to our perception of education, time, and life in general. As a student, I see that ,because of our lack of motivation and our laziness, we are oftentimes passive, waiting for the course to be brought to us without any efforts. The problem with e-learning- actually it is not a problem inherent in e-learning but in its application in tunisia- is that ALL the courses are available ALL the time. This is positive from one perspective but for many students, not to say the majority, it aggravates their laziness. Personally speaking,and I am ashamed of it,I reasoned in the following way: well the courses are safely stored on the net and whenever I need them I can get them in a few minutes, so let me do sth else now.
There is a tendency that whenever we don't feel forced to work, we don't. This fact contradicts with the principles of e-learning which is primarily designed for people who glorify time, studies and work in general and who are very organized.
Nevertheless, I believe that this method of teaching, despite all he difficulties it faces, is a must. In fact, the gap between our technological level and that of the West is widening every second and if we don't cooperateto to bridge that gap, the consequences will be horrible( or rather will continue to be because we are already suffering). Undoubtedly, online learning, which we are still qestioning the validity and struggling to implemant the use, is more than basic to reach that end.

Khaled said...

I have come across your blog by pure chance and I am happy to find out that there is at least someone who looks favourably at e-learning. All the best, dear professor. We need someone like you to make a difference.

Ali H. Raddaoui said...

Dear Khaled, thank you for your words of encouragement. Interest in e-learning in Tunisia has been growing since at least 2002, when Tunisia's Open University (Université Virtuelle de Tunis -UVT) was created. There is now in excess of 8.000 hours of online courses served by UVT. Last year witnessed the birth of the first Tunisian Online Teaching Association called APREV: Association pour la promotion de l'enseignement virtuel. I think it is synergy like this that is likely to strengthen our our determination to be members in good standing of the international online club so to say. Thank you for posting.

houda said...

I want to thank my teacher for this new (as far as Tunisia is concerned) method of teaching. I really appreciate your work and effort, sir! When I heard that our class will be an e-learning one, I was very motivated, as I always enjoy using new and more developed technology. So I don’t see any difficulty on your method
Actually, it is not the case of shouting: “Sir, Sir, back to the old system, please!” as you have said, but it is rather: “Sir, Sir, carry on the new system, please!” and I add “you are doing a great job, please go on”.
With all my thanks. Jarmoud Houda

Ali H. Raddaoui said...

Hello there, Hoda,

Judging by the number of people in my 4th year class who have accessed my moodle course, I would like to agree with you that there is a sizable minority of students who are actually benefiting by the online nature of this course. I think you're right in saying that not all students are disinterested in online learning. Given easy and free access, I tend to think most students would, like yourself, welcome the chance of having at least part of their courses 'delivered' online. If acess is difficult, it will be easy to understand those who do not wish to be evaluated in the end on the strength or weakness of a system to which they are not connected. The fact of the matter is that e-learning is the way to go, regardless and despite of access.

In the meantime, in order not alienate anyone, I will continue to host my courses on Moodle for those for whom this is no problem, and will do my regular face-face weekly meetings with those that do not have easy access to an internet-rich environment either at home, at school or in the halls of residence.

Thank you for commenting.

Hassen Zriba said...

Well, I do believe that it is high time to take the electronic endeavour seriously. Time will never forgive us; we have to narrow down the digital gap.

araddaoui said...

Thank you for your comment, Mr. Zribi.
Universite' Virtuelle de Tunis has gone actually quite a long way in making the provisions of e-learning less daunting and easy to meet. Both students and teachers have easy access to the content management system that it uses - Moodle - and Moodle itself is not so difficult to master.
I agree with you that we as teachers need to upgrade our teaching methods, and students too should learn to take advantage of the possibilities. This entails that a lot more work needs to be done by way of making computer labs available and open on a daily basis at higher education and other institutions. The cost of a broad-band internet connection should also be more within reach, and traditional lessons, in the forms of article copies need to be enriched with alternative content sources and alternative delivery methods.
We all need to chip in to outline the contours of this revolution in learning, and I think the fact that there are many people, students, teachers and regular citizens now blogging in Tunisia indicates that this is starting to take shape. Thank you.