Dogged optimist?

Being an optimist sometimes seems to require a degree of dogged determination. It can be necessary to hang on, sometimes for years, in the hope that things will be right in the end. Those of a more pessimistic persuasion would probably describe it as delusion rather than hope but that’s the core of the difference between the half-full and half-empty views of the world.

USQ has been offering fully online courses for almost 20 years. Unlike the early online offerings in some places that required attendance at face-to-face class meetings at beginning and end, and sometimes in between, USQ dived in at the deep end. Online courses had no required face-to-face meetings, no printed or optical media materials through the post, and mostly no required synchronous connections. An online or WEB course was just that. It all happened on the web.

All, that is, except staff training (professional development). Perhaps paradoxically, the institution was prepared to believe that students could find their way into and through an online course and associated systems without the benefit of any face-to-face introduction or support but staff, who were more familiar with the systems, needed face-to-face training. Argue as I might, and did, I was never able to make much progress in persuading the relevant authorities that what was good for students would be equally good for staff. If we believed in the power of online learning for all manner of subjects, including getting students up to speed in our learning management system, why could we not believe that staff could learn what they needed to know about such systems through the very same systems? No. Those who mattered clearly believed that students were much brighter than staff, at least when it came to learning how to use USQ systems. There seemed to be something about it that was reminiscent of Alice’s White Queen, who believed six impossible things before breakfast.

Years later there is still face-to-face training for staff to use systems that are supposedly sufficiently intuitive for students to learn without the benefit of any such training. We have had some worthwhile forays into packaged online training. Most recently we have had CLOVeR (Creative Learning Online Via e-Resources) which offers mostly short video clips with commentary. Although that material has been offered within a Moodle implementation and includes material about Moodle, it does not really model the ways in which we might use Moodle with students in regular courses. However, there is now a glimmer of hope that we might be ready to walk the walk with Moodle. Somewhat surprisingly for a very Microsoft-centric institution we have never really implemented the Microsoft maxim to eat our own dog food but now it seems we might.

USQ has recently rolled out an updated Moodle implementation using Bootstrap code to achieve a responsive design with a much more contemporary look and feel. As part of that Personalised Learning for Academic Staff (PLAS) is being offered online using the same LMS as will be used for courses offered to students. In my mind that makes sense for multiple reasons. It will enable staff to see and experience the system as students do. That should help staff to be more sensitive to the effects of design decisions they take about formatting materials provided to students. It should provide a real site for demonstrating good practice and for staff to learn about what works well for various purposes and how to achieve those outcomes. It will avoid running different systems for essentially similar purposes, supporting learning by students and staff. Those are all reasons to be pleased that, after so many years of simultaneously holding contradictory beliefs, we may have got our institutional head into one piece.

Has dogged optimism earned its reward? Perhaps, but then again we should be careful what we wish for. There is much to like about the new skin on the LMS but I suspect it is largely cosmetic surgery – nip, tuck, smooth. Underneath it is largely the same old Moodle. There will be features of the new system to like and admire. There will probably be some losses to mourn and possibly some dubious interface features driven by excitement about new possibilities or perceived limitations. Time will tell.