Sustainable PLCs, Part 1: the Role of Desire2Learn

A Lesson

For approximately 15 years now distance education instructors through the province of NL have been using one or another learning management system (LMS) as a means by which courses can be facilitated. Since 2007 this province’s public learning institutions (Memorial University, the College of the North Atlantic, the Marine Institute and CDLI) have been using the same system: Desire2Learn, often abbreviated D2L (see here: http://www.desire2learn.com/) This usage has primarily been roughly the equivalent of the face to face alternative. That is, a D2L course consisted of an instructor, students and a specified curriculum, the learning activities, however are conducted online. I have recently had reason to view this whole enterprise in a different light though and am fairly certain that another exciting possibility for use exists, namely the sustaining of online Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

Last March I spent 2 hours training a group of teachers on how to use some of the features and tools of D2L. This was part of an Information Communication and Learning Technologies (ICLT) project and the intent was to use D2L as a communications home base. D2L would provide the means by which the teachers would communicate and share resources. I therefore focused on the News, Discussion and Content tools. The News tool would be used for any announcements. The discussion tool, as you might expect, would focus on issues related to curriculum outcomes and the associated teaching and learning strategies. The content tool was intended to serve as a small scale Learning Object Repository (LOR)—a place to store and share materials developed by the teachers in the small group.

One thing you learn after many years of teaching is how to recognize when things are and are not going in a fruitful direction. In particular, you look for the negative version; signs that things are not quite going as intended. In this way you are generally able to alter the lesson plan to take advantage of the current dynamic and, so doing, steer the course of the lesson back in a desired direction.

While covering both the News and Discussion tools I had a sense that things were going quite as planned and that the group was progressing as I expected. Once I got into the content area, however, it was apparent that the dynamic had changed. Previously the session was going quite smoothly—but was a little dull—with the participants simply following along and only occasionally asking minor, detail-oriented questions. Once we hit the content section, though, the conversation had become much livelier. The teachers were not just moving through the tasks but were instead sitting upright, leaning slightly forward the way people tend to do when they are actively engaged. The questions were of a completely different nature. Rather than being on the software itself (“So how again do I create a topic within a forum,” and “How do I get confirmation that my changes have been saved?”) they were now on the real topics, namely teaching and learning. Now, when I showed a new feature, such as creating sub-modules or linking items in the file system to the content area the questions were not of a technical nature, but were instead about how this would apply to the overall learning environment and on how this would impact the overall classroom dynamic.

So, obviously, I did what any experienced teacher would do. Not only did I recalculate the destination in much the same way as does a GPS when you miss your turn-off, but also, I recalculated the destination. Initially my goal had been to show the teachers how to use the content area to share individual files. It quickly became apparent to me, though, that this outcome fell far short of the mark that the teachers had in mind. We did achieve the technical outcome—the teachers did walk away with the knowledge of how to upload and share files. More importantly, though, we renegotiated a new teaching and learning outcome. The teachers found D2L to be an appropriate platform for use in a much broader area than I had initially imagined.

The altered session goal thus involved the teachers dividing the scope of the course into manageable chunks. Using the structure of the curriculum guide and the various resources they had, including the authorized resources, the ones they knew existed on the web and ones they had prepared themselves, they were able to create an appropriate instructional structure in the content section to suit their needs.

That, in turn, gave me a valuable lesson. Previously I had framed D2L in the manner one is most accustomed to seeing it, namely as a virtual classroom in which an instructor manages the learning of a group of students. This new model that the teachers had steered towards was, however, something different. There was not one instructional leader. Rather, the room contained equal partners. The instructional outcomes were also dynamic. Rather than being based on a set of pre-decided outcomes as is the norm for traditional classes they were instead dynamically assigned based on the needs of the participants.

Now, at this  point I am not sure of the destination for this project. It has taken on something of a life of its own. I am, however, sure that this unintended consequence mark an exciting new direction for PLCs in teaching.

Application: Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)

So, perhaps it is worth speculating a bit around the possibilities. One thing is sure: it does appear that D2L can be used a tool by which PLCs can be built and sustained. The question include: “How far can we go with this?” and “What should be done?” To speculate on some possible answers let’s take a look at how some of the built-in tools may be used.

Content

Recall, this really started with the content area. At the moment, for the project in question, it is being used as a place where the participants can share links to items found on the web along with actual teacher-generated items. By itself this is quite powerful as the content system does support all of the common media files types (such as HTML, avi, mpeg, mp3, swf, etc.). Using the ‘export course components’ feature in D2l teachers can transfer whatever they want from the shared area into their own course offerings in order to share them with the students. In many ways this is superior to using an external Learning Object Repository (LOR) because the teachers, in this case, have already collaboratively decided on an appropriate instructional structure. In other words, the teachers have already taken the time to decide, in advance, how they would teach the course. In so doing it becomes fairly easy to see how each new resource fits into the puzzle, without the need for any sophisticated taxonomic schema.

Discussions

The discussion forum serves an obvious need. Owing to the wide range of differences that exist in classrooms as well as the now widespread acceptance of the fact that we need to work with the needs of all students and not just those who demonstrate that tenuous capacity commonly referred to as ‘academic aptitude’ there is a real need for places in which teachers can tease out alternative approaches to instruction; where they can report on what works and what does not in various instances and where they can simply get advice from others who have faced similar situations. The trick, of course, in making this work in an online discussion environment is to get an appropriate forum structure so that the general discussion is appropriate to the needs of the group. It may well be that this may emerge through use, providing that the participants are empowered to modify the structure. That said, it is likely that some forethought around an appropriate structure will, at least, get the group off to a good start.

Drop Box

The drop box might have a place in the PLC as well. Normally this tool is where students submit completed assignments. Written projects completed using MS Word™, audio files created using Audacity and video projects created using Flash™ or Windows Movie Maker™ and such can be left there directly. Normally, instructors will open them using whatever tool was used to create them in the first place, or whatever viewer is normally used to view them. Handwritten work, such as a mathematics assignment needs to be handled differently. One practical solution would be to scan the handwritten pages as a PDF and then place that file in the drop box. In its normal use, the student will place the file in a dropbox folder and the teacher will correct and grade it then leave feedback both in the form of a grade and comments, right in that same folder. Drop box submissions are particular to a folder—say “Unit 1, Factoring Polynomials” and individual submissions are private between the student and instructor. At first glance this does not appear to fit well with any need that may exist in the professional learning community environment that is proposed here. There is one, however—the vetting of teacher-created materials prior to sharing with the whole group.

If there has been one lesson learned down through the years since the education community discovered the web it is this: it is quite difficult to get people to share. In general, for learning communities, the majority of the content is generated by a minority of the members. You know the story—it has been often stated (and just as often without the necessary data to back it up) that 5% of the people do 95% of the work. While the reasons for this are many (not everyone has the skills or the desire to compose content, for example) one important item that can be addressed is the fact the people are reluctant to share anything except what they perceive as their best work. So, while a teacher would be quite comfortable using a resource item, such as a video, that they had produced themselves, they would be quite uncomfortable sharing it. Simply put, they know it is good enough but not perfect and, for their purpose it is not really worth the huge added bother in finding the flaws and correcting them. The general feeling might be that the teacher feels themselves judged on the imperfections and, on balance, decides that it is not worth it.

The drop box, however, gives the teachers access to a private area in which they can get the feedback that is so vital to the writing process. Suppose that the participants in the D2L room were assigned an area for which they were responsible for the posting of new content and another area in which they were responsible for review. They would either submit first draft materials to the drop box for review or serve the opposite role—that of providing feedback to a colleague. In this way a trust-based, systematized workflow would support the creation of share-worthy content. Of course there is another way that involves the use of ePortfolio—a subject worthy of a future post.

Competencies

The competencies tool can also be used in shared mode. Normally this tool is assumed to be used by the instructor along with the assistance, perhaps, of an instructional designer. Through its use an outcomes-based structure can be built for the course. Now, granted, competencies are not the same as curriculum outcomes but they are close enough for our purposes here. In my province, with the exception of local courses, this is the task of the provincial DOE. A working group led by a program development specialist constructs the outcome structure and fleshes it out to also include suggestions for teaching and learning, assessment standards and strategies and a list of resources. This is a mostly paper-based approach resulting in a curriculum guide that is intended primarily for print.

Using D2L, however, the competencies tool could be tweaked to serve not only as a tool for drafting and structuring learning outcomes but by linking to activities and content placed within that D2l ‘shell’, could be used to create a complete system comprising both curriculum guide and learning object repository.

Rubrics

While Rubrics have been in general usage for a considerable time, the time and effort required to compose ones of high quality have lessened their impact overall. D2L’s Rubrics tool is well positioned to help alleviate this issue. First, the tool is powerful and is relatively easy to use. Second the composition workflow for rubrics is that they can be held within the system until the author is ready to publish them for use. In that way, a team approach can be used. The under-construction rubric can be left in draft while a subset of the PL community works on it, fleshing it out and refining it, as necessary. Finally, once completed, Rubrics can be easily shared. A rubric created inside the PLC course can be easily shared—at the author’s discretion—with all users on that system, regardless of whether they are part of the PLC.

Quizzes

The quizzes tool can be used to share the construction of assessment items or of complete evaluation instruments. The quizzes tool, as it exists, is quite powerful, offering instructors the ability to construct and administer quizzes than can contain a huge variety of assessment item types including: True or False, Multiple Choice, Multi-Select, Constructed Response, Fill in the Blanks, Matching, Ordering, and auto-generated items based on a formula or which will check for correct usage of significant digits. Individual assessment items, banks of items and entire instruments can be uploaded and shared. The system can then administer the quizzes online or export them in a common format for usage in wither a word processor or other online testing software.  By coupling this capability with another software product, Respondus™, teachers can compose the items and quizzes offline using simple, familiar tools such as MS Word™.

Other Tools

The surveys tool can also add value to the PLC. Member-generated online surveys can, first of all, add interest to the PLC by determining what prevalent opinions exist. This can be used to help build consensus and to help set shared priorities within the group.

The calendar tool, which enables the user to merge calendars from all course offerings along with the calendars for whatever PLC’s they are members of, can allow the members to coordinate and events, and to remind the users of them, as needed.

The News tool, which, to a large extent defines the front page of the PLC helps to bond the members of the group by celebrating and popularizing what is currently of the highest priority. Used correctly the News item would help to keep the group’s focus on what it has decided are its highest priorities. The recent release of D2L has added a new feature than can help surmount the logistics of coordinating the construction of new items over a fairly large group. News items have two stages—draft and published. Members choosing to submit news items can now compose them as draft and have a partner edit them before publishing them for all to see. In this way a quality assurance system can be added to the news item workflow.

Putting it Together

This fall I plan to collaborate with a program specialist from one of our school districts in the creation of an online PLC that utilizes D2L. This is a small, informal project. We will start small, both in numbers and in scope. We will work with approximately 16 teachers and will limit the scope to one course that has already been implemented. In this way the participants will not have to deal with the stress of learning both a new curriculum and a new type of PLC.

In order to ensure buy-in on behalf of the participants as well as our own bias, we will not select the participants ourselves. Rather we will devise and implement an application process and will select 16 from the list of applicants. Hopefully, we will add the remainder later, when we feel the community can sustain growth.

We will start with a fairly simple D2L ‘shell’ and will likely only enable these tools: email, discussions, content, drop box, calendar, rubrics, surveys and news. More tools may be added later, as the need arises.

My initial role will be to provide basic training. I plan to do this online through Blackboard Collaborate™. Using its whiteboard and audio tools we can “meet” virtually in real time and share the broad vision. Then, using application sharing I can demonstrate the usage of the D2L tools we will be using. Using the same tool, or perhaps the Bomgar server (used for IT support—it can remotely access and share participants’ desktops) I can work one-on-one or in groups with the participants, as required. Like the PLC itself, the training and initial meetings will be held online.

This project will unfold over the next school year and I have every confidence it will not only prove to be of great benefit to the participants but also it will shed new light on desirable new directions.

In Summary

While Desire2Learn is most often used to manage teacher-led classes it holds immense potential as a tool through which PLCs can be mediated. Teachers can obtain instant access to resources and advice without the need for travel to any central location. As such it will likely serve as one cost-effective means by which PLCs can be sustained in the long term

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One thought on “Sustainable PLCs, Part 1: the Role of Desire2Learn

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