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Key challenges faced by new e-moderators

August 26, 2010

The following is based on insights I have gained from supporting new e-moderators in two distance education institutions over the last 18 months.

Courses that have previously been delivered without the use of online technologies can be dramatically changed by the affordances of online technologies. In traditional distance education programmes, students generally receive materials via the post, which they are expected to work through in solitary isolation, supported only by a personal tutor (either e-mail or phone), and in some cases, a tutorial group of peers which meets infrequently. The tutor’s role is well defined, and is usually limited to helping students interpret the course materials and giving feedback on assignment drafts. When institutions that offer these kinds of programmes start using a virtual learning environment (VLE), tutors may suddenly find themselves with an expanded job description that includes the role of e-moderator. Many of these new e-moderators feel overwhelmed by the challenges that are presented by this transition, and do not feel that they get sufficient support from their institutions in addressing them. Below are some of the key issues that came up for me in liaising with such tutors, all of which point to the importance of tutor support when making the transition from paper-based to online distance education.

  1. The need to reconceptualise the course design to take account of the collaboration opportunities provided by the online technology. The existing materials are likely to be based on a philosophy of individual constructivism (if any approach to learning design is discernible at all). The introduction of discussion forums and other online tools for collaboration implies a transition to a social constructivist model of learning, which some new e-moderators think of as ‘cheating’, or time-wasting. Whatever the e-moderator’s views, she or he is often not supplied with a newly designed curriculum when moving to online delivery, with the result that the e-moderator may decide to simply use the VLE as a content repository and avoid using the interactive features altogether.
  2. Uncertainty about the best way to make use of the discussion forum, and lack of understanding as to how its purpose differs from all the other ‘spaces’ available in the VLE, such as wikis, blogs and virtual classrooms. In the absence of support from the institution, the e-moderator may well end up using only one tool (most commonly the discussion forum) and ignoring the others, thereby depriving the students of potentially dynamic and enjoyable opportunities for information sharing and knowledge construction.
  3. Fears about the extent to which online technologies will impact on the flexibility of the course for students. E.g. What if some students don’t have easy access to the internet; what if some students don’t like collaborating; what if some students are unable to participate in e-tivities within the stipulated time-frames? These fears may lead e-moderators to make the interactive aspects of the course optional, with the result that there is very little student engagement on the VLE, and the course continues to be run along very traditional lines as before.
  4. Anxiety about the amount of time that will be required for the e-moderators to learn how to use the new technology – and the amount of time required to actually e-moderate the course – leading again to the minimum possible use of the online platform.
  5. Worries about a perceived increase in opportunities for plagiarism (e.g. students copying and pasting from their peers’ online contributions), leading to an avoidance of online interaction for any assessment-related tasks, with the knock-on effect that students see very little point in participating, and there is minimal engagement.
  6. Fears about the possible challenges to the e-moderators’ subject matter knowledge as a result of student interaction on discussion forums and virtual classrooms. These fears can be particularly stressful and disempowering, as they go to the heart of the person’s sense of professional competence, and can result, again, in minimal encouragement for students to use the online platform by the e-moderator.

All of these challenges and fears are real and need to be addressed at an institutional level when introducing online technologies. Some ways of addressing them that seem to be successful are:

  1. Support for tutors in the redesign of their courses to use online technologies  in enabling ways (e.g. the University of Leicester’s ‘Carpe Diem’ workshops).
  2. A consultative process for redesigning the institution’s student support system. This may involve re-allocating resources (e.g. reducing the amount of individual support provided by tutors and re-allocating funds towards e-moderation of groups or cohorts).
  3. An online community of practice (e.g. ‘Learn with Maggie’, now moved from Ning to Facebook) where e-moderators can share knowledge with colleagues informally, while also learning to use online communication tools effectively for their personal benefit.
  4. Training workshops for staff in the use of the new technologies. (However, a once-off workshop or training course is not enough. Tutors, like students, need ongoing support when making the transition to technology-enhanced education.)
  5. The use of a teaching fellow model, in which a person with subject matter knowledge as well as expertise in the use of educational technologies is ’embedded’ in the course team, to provide support for tutors and students in the use of new technologies.
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