Empowering An Cosán to implement Learnovate’s Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) strategy recommendations

By Mirjam Neelen

In a previous blog, Learnovate explained how the partnership between An Cosán and the Learnovate Centre was conceived. In September 2014, An Cosán was ready for the next step. It was time to implement the VLE strategy recommendations as provided by Learnovate and so the journey continued. There were a number of steps associated with the implementation which included design, development and of course, running the actual course. We focus on the design and development steps here, as the course has not rolled out yet.
Learnovate’s major job was to empower An Cosán by enabling them to, first, design an integrated blended learning solution that supports building online learning communities. Next, An Cosán needed support to ensure that they could develop the blended learning solution in Blackboard Learn (the asynchronous VLE) and Blackboard Collaborate (the synchronous VLE) themselves.
Learnovate’s pedagogical team has developed a robust ‘how to’ learning design template that enables An Cosán to design their own sessions applying a flipped classroom model. Each session starts in the asynchronous VLE. The learner completes learning activities to prep for a synchronous session. These activities then seamlessly flow into the synchronous session, which combines synchronous virtual and face-to face learning activities. The synchronous session focusses on collaborative and consolidative learning activities. After the synchronous session, additional learning activities focus on consolidation again to ensure deeper learning.

A large proportion of this project phase was to support An Cosán in developing the actual sessions in the VLE. Learnovate has created a ’how to’ guide for Blackboard with well-structured step-by-step development tasks. Learnovate has also introduced An Cosán to Elluminate Plan, which helps them to organise their synchronous sessions and allows the facilitators to focus their energy on the learners and the learning activities in the synchronous sessions.

The Challenges and Celebrations
Learnovate took a scaffolded approach; the intensity of the support gradually decreased. First, Learnovate designed and developed one full session for An Cosán as an exemplar. Next, we ran a workshop with An Cosán to design and develop two sessions collaboratively. After the workshop, An Cosán worked independently, designing and developing the remaining sessions. Learnovate’s pedagogical and technology teams remained available to provide guidance and support. We gave feedback on each fully designed and developed session and then we worked in a face-to-face setting with An Cosán to support implementation of the feedback.

Initially, it was challenging for An Cosán to let go of their old design approach and dive into the new learning design and development challenges. Using a flipped classroom model, ensuring an integrated learning experience, providing consistency in instructions; they are all examples of challenges that had to be tackled. However, as soon as An Cosán grasped the major design concepts for a VLE, they started to progress swiftly. It must be said that An Cosán’s excellent subject matter expertise and strong facilitation skills have helped them tremendously. After all, designing is easier when you know your learners well and when you have a clear vision on what you want your learners to achieve!

Another challenge was the technology itself. Blackboard is not intuitive, neither to develop content nor for the learner to navigate. Therefore, it was a tipping point when An Cosán realised that using the ‘how to’ guide for Blackboard that Learnovate had provided was critical. In a VLE it is essential to use a consistent structure and to provide context for the learner by using consistent wording and clear instructions. The ‘how to’ guide for Blackboard helped to accomplish that.

The fact that An Cosán’s learners are often times educationally disadvantaged was another challenge. For example, they need to develop their computer literacy skills and online experience. Hence, a face-to-face component is still critical at this point. An Cosán’s learners need the face-to-face support initially to build confidence and relationships. Moving forward, An Cosán ideally will be able to encourage its learners to move to a VLE only.

Next steps
We are currently partnering with An Cosán so that we can evaluate the upcoming course and compare it to the pilot course. An Cosán will roll out their next course in spring 2015 and Learnovate is proud to be part of it.

“An Cosán aims to use 21st century educational teaching and learning technologies to fast track individuals and communities out of poverty all over Ireland. Learnovate have been key to enabling us develop and implement a realistic strategy to achieve this goal. The learning curve in developing our programmes for a VLE has been steep but we have been supported every step of the way and the resulting outcomes have been impressive. Personally everything I have learned has impacted very positively on my face to face teaching where the ‘flipped classroom’ has become the center of my teaching strategy.”

~ Liz Waters,
Director Virtual Community College