Recently I discovered the question on Quora: „How to get started with developing an online course?“ To my astonishment the question has remained unanswered for more than two years. So I started thinking about it and remembered Gilly Salmon’s famous model of the 5 stages of online learning and teaching.
When I design a new online course, I first try to get a whole picture of what kind of a course it should be, who is my audience, what learning objectives are in the center, and how content will be delivered. I focus on the nine questions: Who learns what, with whom, why, where, when, how, by which means, of whom? All those questions have to be answered in order to build didactically effective learning environments.
For the design process itself the useful model by the British elearning specialist and professor Gilly Salmon is extremely helpful. She developed the 5 Stage-Model of online learning and teaching more than 15 years ago. In 2004 I started to get involved with elearning myself and needed a straw to figure out how to get started. The idea of learning objectives, target groups, didactics and testing along with all the tools available already seemed overwhelming. Then I read Salmon’s fabulous book »E-Tivities, the Key to Active Online Learning« – and it still influences my work today.
If teacher colleagues ask me, how to get started with online learning I recommend this very good guide either to designing an online course as well as to coaching students through their process. If you get familiar with the model and its elements you will be able to adapt it to new environments and implement new ideas or circumstances, and you will be able to make the changes you need in your specific context. You will learn how to adapt it to your new audience, to new learning objectives or new ways of communication. As a scaffold it helps to figure out the steps you have design.
Salmon suggests that every stage lasts two weeks. I think this depends on your audience how much time they need in order to get ready to move on to the next stage. Some groups are ready in no time to start exchanging information and customize their learning environment, others need more time.
The model suits both, online or blended learning settings.
Lets have a look at the model:
Source: Salmon, G. (2013), E-Tivities, the Key to Active Online Learning, Kindle Edition.
Stage 1 – Access and motivation
When we get started to design an online-course we start on stage 1, at the broad bottom of the model. As the title says we deal first with access to the learning content and the LMS we use. As tutors or moderators we have to make sure that every student finds the course and is able to log in. Well, it might sound trivial, but it is not. You might ask: »Aren’t we all used to internet and social media today, in 2016? Well, yes, but still, it is not clear that your students find the virtual ”entrance“ to an online course, so you have to remember delivering the information they need. It is as simple – and as complicated – as that. Make sure that the guidelines are clear, that you provide the right link to the course with the right login information like username and password. Provide guidelines or online helpdesks what to do when students do not understand what to do with the information they got from you.
Now you might ask: »How you know that everyone has logged in successfully and found the first assignment?« Good question! You have to figure out a way to know. One method we used was sort of a connectivity check. It was an assignment the students got in the login information email asking them to find a certain forum and simply say »Hello! I made it! I am here«. Even students with little media literacy will probably be able log in. The assignment has to be this simple, they did not have to be very intelligent in the first place, but friendly. A simple Hello is ok. Anyone can do that.
The second part of this first stage is Motivation as you can see above in the model. Being successful with this very first assignment will already be a great motivation for the students to continue, only because they were successful in the first place. They managed to log in and say hello – and to be welcomed. This is the spark, Salmon talks about in the description of her e-tivities, the spark that leads to action, that makes people want to accomplish something, the little fire of motivation. Now, the assignment Connectivity Check is simple enough, but not boring, because everyone would be able to see who else is enrolled in the course and how they present themselves with their very first posting.
Those assignments, starting with for instance this connectivity check, getting more complex and subject oriented in the ongoing course are the so called e-tivites, a term derived from e- for digital, and activity. It is a digital activity, in a way, pointing out the importance of students activity. Keep your students active is one of the most important imperatives in online teaching and coaching. And your e-tivities are the method – the key – to keep them busy.
Let’s move on. The first posting in the Connectivity Check Forum is not enough to make sure that everyone is on board. Some students might have to get used to log in frequently, others are already used to check out regularly what’s new in the virtual classroom. Easy e-tivities are important for this first group of students. The moderator makes sure the e-tivities are interesting for everyone.
One more thought about motivation. After the connectivity check your students need an personal invitation to the online class. It’s your job to welcome them, in your own way. Use a picture if it feels right, make sure to catch the students rather on an emotional side on order to make them feel comfortable. Content is later.
Stage 2 – Online socialisation
This stage provides also several simple assignments with tasks for all students, tasks they can fulfill effortlessly, but this time they aim to social exchange. Set students get to know each other. Ask your students to introduce themselves. The e-tivities at this stage can be little social games, like writing down three statements to themselves, one of them being a lie. The others would now find out, what the lie is and what is right. Ask them, to read their classmate’s postings and write an answer to at least two of their peers. A lot of students or also colleagues think that this is a silly little game not worth doing. In my experience this stage is normally very busy, because the assignments are easy and everyone can participate. In the meantime your students get used to access the online-environment o r the virtual classroom frequently. If you think they are beginners have them post another e-tivity with a socially engaging question or task, think of new games, puzzles or riddles that are easily transportable in a virtual environment and suit your audience. Work with images or maps, use an online mind map-tool in order to gather information about the group and keep your students socially engaged and busy. Make sure you always mention exactly what you expect from your audience and what they have to do. Remember: e-tivities are activities.
Stage 3 – Information exchange
Now content and research are king. On this stage learning objectives become the main focus. The students start figure out their interests in the subject, if they do not already have ideas about it. The students formulate their subject to work on, research the topic and get closer to a definite problem. In order to do this, e-tivities on stage 3 are very should bring your students closer to their personal approach. It is also question to find the right material and resources to work with. Make sure your students exchange information and material they find to certain topics and support each other in approaching their problem.
On this stage I also made sure that every student had thought about personal learning objectives, also concerning learning strategy and methods.
In this stage the students collect and discuss learning materials and resources, ask questions about the topic and formulate their own perspectives on problems. In the end of this stage every student should be able to present an outline for their work, showing the approach and methods. I’d like to point out the importance of peer-feedback on outlines in order to improve them before handing them in, maybe the workload for tutors, moderators or professors can be even reduced.
What media the students use to present their projects is also a question of the course design. To let the students chose their media can boost their motivation. If you offer freedom or rigidity in this question.
In a less academic setting the students gather and discuss information in order to prepare stage 4, knowledge construction.
Stage 4 – Knowledge construction
The students for now on their own work. It is important that they point out their individual interest and place it in their own learning biography. Stage 4 resembles a construction site, a working studio. Everyone is at work, some individually, some in groups perhaps, teachers or tutors help and coach. Learners are now in the stage of creation, inventing their own knowledge depending on their backgrounds, interests and experience.
In order to keep your virtual environment busy you can implement milestones and timelines for the students to hand in some assignments related to their work. Have them keep a journal with regular posts about their own work, or let them blog about their thoughts on their own progress. It’s a lot, and normally students don’t like it, because it takes time. But it will be a very useful for improving individual learning.
A help line in form of a forum for questions of any kind is required. If you need to meet up with your students in individual coaching sessions this is the time to do so. Coaching can take place online or face-to-face, depending on the setting of the course.
The results of this stage are linked to the online classroom so that feedback can be provided. It is the advantage of online-learning that work can be exhbited and shared.
Stage 5 – Development
In this terminal phase new knowledge is transferred in the individual context of the student. It is a very important stage, the new knowledge is now effective.
Now the students reflect their journey, they refer to themselves and on their new achievements described in their journal. Next steps are defined, new questions emerge, and can be taken to a new cycle back to stage 3 and so on. Also it is time to say thank you for the excellent cooperation, or goodbye to the group splitting up. Often here the atmosphere gets more emotional. The individual baggages are packed with new stuff to be carried out to the world to be verified in the wild, so to speak.
In this stage evaluation must be possible and documented. Thoughts can be aligned on a virtual wall or on a blog with a personal post from all.
The reflection during the whole process, so Salmon, is key to the individual development of effective learning strategies. And it is important that teachers repeatedly ask questions about learning experiences, having their students think about their learning and discuss those questions. The process should be visible at all times.
Five Stages as a Cycle and E-Tivities as Key Elements
You can think of this model also as a cycle of learning processes. I mean that one you arrive at Stage 5 you can return to stage 3 with a new topic, and so on. If the class changes, you can implement some elements of stage 1 and 2 for new students or having regulars to help you with newbies. In this approach it is key to know the purposes of the stages and and design the right e-tivities. It is finally the art to curate the content for those stages with motivating and interesting exchanges. It is the art of online course design, finally, to design the right e-tivities with a spark in order to keep the students motivated. Get to know your students and understand what those sparks could be. I will get back to the spark in another post soon. Stay tuned!