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

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Let's try blended learning

In this post, I wish to address the question of e-learning as course delivery method. Over the past month, I have used Moodle CMS to make my courses for available for my students at the College of Letters and Humanities of Sfax. There's a lot that's exciting about e-learning, not least of which is its relative novelty in the Tunisian context. There is nothing more reassuring for a student than to find their teacher lectures notes available in one specific space, with readings, activities and assignments. It is also very reassuring to be able to talk to peers in this space, chat with them, know their ideas using the forum, see pictures and video from the instructor, and have all the work based in one public place. Great, isn't it?

Well, yes and no. As a teacher, I realize that an internet connection is not equally available for all students. Some do have easy access to a computer and the internet, but for others, hard as they try, access is by no means granted or automatic. I am glad that those of them who have access to my online course have it, because at the very least, we can claim that our students have had experience with online learning during their four-year course of study at the College of Letters and Humanities of Sfax. I personally consider this to a step forward, regardless of all other considerations.

I am however concerned on behalf of the many, possibly more than half of my students who do not enjoy easy, equal, free and unconditional access to my online course. I know some of those who have already enroled for the course must have been to an internet cafe to do so. I respect this, and appreciate it. I know ability to pay for access in this manner takes money, not an awful lot if you wish to belittle the sacrifice, but it's more than some or many people can or would like to spare. I am very sympathetic to this position, and it is my express goal that students who do not have access to the course online not be made to pay a price of any kind.

Herein comes blended learning. Simply put, the equation is the follwoing. The way we used to conduct business, three to four years ago was to have only traditional, face-to-face teaching. In September of 2007, I was hoping to have a course that is 90% online, with only token (phyical) presence, such as during the first two contact hours. With weeks passing, I am now more of the view that there should be a mixture of the two kinds of learning: (face-to-face) + (online). What does that equal? It equals (blended learning). This means that my online course will stay on. Students who have the desire and the will to take it online can do so, and they are more than welcome. Students who wish to see me in class, talking and walking, clearing my throat and cracking the odd joke with them can also have this option.

For this term, it just brings me joy to say that more than 40% of 4th year students have already registered for the online course in Sociolinguistics, and they know pretty much what online learning is about. We have reason to believe credible promises that our online situation is going to improve tremendously and that access will be a lot easier from within the College in the next few weeks or months. Meantime, I will be available both online and offline so to say. My two colleagues, Pr. Chokri Smaoui and Pr. Saloua Mrabet Abid will also continue to do the tutorials in-class. This is, however, not an invitation for those who have not had a chance to access the online course to drop the plan. I hope that this continue to be a priority for them. Very soon, we all realize how valuable this online experience has been. Ali H. Raddaoui, University of Sfax. November 14, 2007