Snapshot: Synchronous and asynchronous learner support & learning & teaching delivery, informed by an awareness of the social and cultural contexts of learners
This article was written for the eMatrix by Dr. Agata Sadza, Senior Lecturer in Applied Translation at London Metropolitan University.
One important characteristic of the HE student body in the UK nowadays is its diversity. With the expansion of the EU, intensive marketing activities worldwide and increased emphasis on widening participation in the domestic context, UK HE institutions face an increasingly diverse mix of students. This diversity, traditionally seen as related to disabilities, is now perceived as involving at least four dimensions (see this guide to inclusive learning and teaching in higher education by Liz Thomas and Helen May for more details):
The presence of such diverse and often multiple identities has an important bearing on blended learning delivery and provision of synchronous and asynchronous learner support. This post will look at some aspects of this complex issue with a view to providing some ideas about practicalities of learner support in blended learning scenarios.
The development of distance and blended learning has had an enormous impact on how learning, teaching and learner support are conceptualised and practised. While traditionally learner support was understood as separate from course design, nowadays the boundaries between two sets of activities often no longer hold. With learner-centred activities based on constructivist principles of collaborative learning and meaning construction in communities of practice, where the tutor becomes more of a facilitator rather than transmitter of knowledge, learner support has become to be seen as "all those elements capable of responding to a known learner or group of learners, before, during and after the learning process" (this definition comes from a frequently cited article by Mary Thorpe "Rethinking Learner Support: the challenge of collaborative online learning",an excellent resource to introduce the vast topic of learner support in online environments).
More details and practical guidelines can be found in the panel on "Online learner support" below.
You may also find this article on facilitating online learning processes in a virtual learning environment useful to help you apply learner support processes and procedures in actual teaching practice.
You may find this guide to inclusive learning and teaching in higher education by Liz Thomas and Helen May (also quoted above) a good help in developing a holistic approach to issues of diversity and inclusivity in day-to-day institutional practice.
This report by Helen May and Kath Bridger provides several case studies of approaches to these issues at various UK HE institutions.
To learn more about practical ways of responding to the growing internationalisation of student body, check this list of resources by the HEA.
Christine Hockings' report includes a useful synthesis of research on inclusive learning and teaching in HE.
On the importance of systematic inclusion policies in HE institutions (or the "inclusive culture") see this report by Mike Wray.
See the resources below for more information and guidelines on learner support in online environments.
This webpage provides a list of practical steps that teachers can take to facilitate learning in a culturally and ethnically diverse student body. A number of these steps will also apply to instructional design for online contexts.
This book by J.E. Brindley, C. Walti & O. Zawacki-Richter (eds.) includes a selection of papers on various aspects of online learner support.
This article by Ivan L. Harrell II provides a usefully concise description of learner support in online environments with an extensive reference list.
On the importance of scaffolding in online learning design see this article by Stacey Ludwig-Hardman and Joanna C. Dunlap.
This useful resource by Catherine McLoughlin discusses a possible model for learner support in an online environment.
Criteria for evaluation whether a distance or blended module includes appropriate learner support framework can be found in the Blackboard Exemplary Course Program Rubric. According to these criteria, learner support within an online component should include the following elements:
Orientation to the module and the online system used (e.g. induction activities and easily accessible tutorial materials delivered through a variety of channels: audio, visual, text-based)
Supportive software (information on other software required with links and installation instructions)
Instructor role and information (description of instructor's role, expectations and responsibilities, contact details with multiple forms of communication)
Module and institutional policies and support (e.g. clearly labelled links to student support services, library services, relevant institutional policies, netiquette policies)
Technical accessibility issues (e.g. use of standard formats and files optimised for web delivery)
Accommodation for disabilities
Feedback (opportunities for learners to give anonymous feedback during course delivery and after completion).
Specific examples of learner support techniques and procedures embedded in module design, including accommodation for disabilities, are presented in the first half of this video. It also includes an interesting case study of a module where these techniques and procedures were successfully applied.