Applying Laurillard’s conversational framework to blended learning, blogging and collaborative activity design

This presentation was from Rose Papworth, now at the University of York, (and who some colleagues may remember as a member of the Computing Sciences department in Hull.)

One of the criticisms levelled at virtual learning environments such as Blackboard is that they tend to be used more of a repository for content than as an environment in which students learn. This kind of approach has been criticised by many scholars, in particular Diana Laurillard, who sees learning as a conversation between teacher and learner, in which conceptual understandings are constantly revised. A criticism of this argument though is that while it is well suited for small groups or one to one teaching, it is not really very practical for large group teaching.
That said, the technology does exist to facilitate large group conversations, and Rose’s presentation focussed on developing Blackboard sites to facilitate learning as an active process, a social and collaborative cycle which contained intrinsic feedback to students. The sites were based on 2 3rd year undergraduate case examples, a small cohort in English & related literature and a large cohort in Environmental studies

Both course had a clearly stated idea of what they were working towards which Rose described as “scaffolded teaching and learning” The aim was to extend structural work with discussion time and improve the quality of discussion. In English, they used a blog as a repository for a weekly critical analysis in which the students were asked to consider the relationship between two texts. All members of the course had to read other members analyses and leave at least one comment. In English the intrinsic feedback came from the comment features, where the tutor started the process by making comments on early posts, and this started a cycle of where the students took action (posting their blog entry), received feedback, (from the tutors, who for example, directed learners to reading that may foster emerging interest in themes), reflected upon that feedback, posted revised comments and thus revised their understanding of the topic. In Environment and Health, they experienced some problems in getting students to engage with the process and as well as blogs they used a wiki an which groups published reports. In evaluating the project they found that there was less generic agreement about the value of the process but they did conduct entry and exit surveys with this group and they found that the process of engagement definitely promoted a wider conceptual understanding of the topic.

Rose then presented some findings from the evaluation. There were frequent log ins and wide experience of sharing ideas between students. Everyone agreed it complemented the class based learning and there were lots of positive comments from students and from tutors. One reservation expressed by teaching staff was that it was quite a challenge to give feedback without it sounding like it was the last word on the topic. Students are used to submitting a piece of work, and receiving feedback, but are much less used to the idea that they should respond to the feedback . They also found that it was important to model commenting so that students knew what they were doing.

Lessons learned
It remained difficult to assess group contributions, even with the wiki. Tutors in Environmental studies found that there was a need to make it explicitly clear that students need to do all their work in the wiki so that the tutor can see who has contributed what.
Students also found it rather daunting to be asked to write in public, and there were some examples of group politics, where students deleted each other’s work. Of course, the advantage of a wiki is that all the edits and deletes are preserved, but there is a need to ensure that students have group management skills before embarking on this kind of process.
The final lesson was around scalability. They used adaptive release with postgraduate teaching assistants for large groups but there was some variation in their understanding of the requirements of the wiki and blog environment. In future iterations of the programme they feel they need to more adequately brief the postgraduates about what needed to be done.
Even with these problems this does seem to be a more effective use of Blackboard than simply posting course materials. It