The online educator: Interview with Florence DuJardin

November 18, 2010

This is the first in a series of interviews with people who specialise in interaction.   I work across three or four different areas including research, user experience, training and science communication.   My core interest is in high quality interaction, and I’ve decided to put together an interview series with people from very different subject areas who are involved in creating successful interactions.

My first guest is Florence DuJardin, who is Senior Lecturer in Communication Studies at Sheffield Hallam University.  Florence runs the online Masters programme in Professional Communication, which is delivered entirely by distance learning.

In the interview, we cover:

  • Three phases of evolution in online learning
  • How students get settled into an online course
  • The design perspective and the importance of ‘open space’
  • Social talk as the starting point for deep engagement
  • The concept of network learning
  • Adding richness through social media
  • Group blogs, Diigo and Tweetorials
  • Tips for experimenting with online tools
  • How online tools are reshaping our models of teaching and learning
  • The end of ‘the sage on the stage’.


Q:  Can you tell me a little about the course that you run?

A:  It’s an online masters, and it’s taken by people working in area such as corporate communication, PR, marketing and technical writing.  These are professional people who are writing on behalf of others.  About a quarter of students are trying to shift careers.   Students are drawn from the UK, mainland Europe and outside Europe, including students from Africa, China and the Far East. About a third of students are non-native speakers of English.

Q: Tell me a bit about how you came to work in this area…

A: I was a technical writer, who got interested in training and change management related to IT.    I applied for a two-year post at Sheffield Hallam, and 15 years later I’m still there.

Q: Was it an online course at that stage?

A: I suppose you’d call it more a distance learning course, a correspondence course.  I was taken on because they wanted to make it into an online course.  This was 1996, and the web was still very young!  The work I’d done before had involved designing a website and they were interested in people with a little web experience – which at the time you couldn’t really ask for!

I found that I really enjoyed the work, basically.  To begin with the technology was very difficult to use, and I ended up using email instead. Then Blackboard arrived (virtual learning environment or VLE) and things really took off.

The evolution of the course

Q : How have things changed over that time, in your teaching and in the technology?

A: In fact the technology hasn’t really moved on that much, but I know that my practice and how I use the technology has changed enormously.  Initially there was no one doing what I was doing, so I was on my own, reading books, desperately trying to find things on the web. What I would characterise as the first phase was a very transmissive view of education, putting material online but without much dialogue.  That’s an inevitable first step because it’s easy to do but I remember at the same time feeling uncomfortable with that, because I was thinking, so what?  Gradually I started to play with the discussion forum, initially for social chat, and that was the second phase in my learning curve.

After that, in the third phase, I was trying to use the forum to do work with the students.  So the challenge there was to design tasks that the student felt able to do and yet also stretched the student.  And now I think I have got a nice online culture going.  It takes them a little bit to get started, but it’s working well.

How students adapt

Q Are there phases that your students go through in coming to terms with the online learning environment?

A I think there are, and I take that into account.  The first time they go on, it’s quite a lot to take in, it’s quite daunting.  They have to get to know the system, the library, and the course team.  So I’ve designed short screencasts using Jing to help go over the technical aspects.

I also set their expectations up front, that there will be problems with the technology so don’t be afraid to ask. As well as the technology, there is also the adaptation to a different level of learning, to a Masters level.  I also encourage people to share their uncertainties on the forum, so that there’s a self-supporting system.

Q What sorts of theories of online learning do you draw on?

A There wasn’t much to begin with, but there is quite a lot now.  There’s even people who look at online learning from a design perspective.  One important element there is to leave room in the design for students to explore, room to manoeuvre.  You have to put in a scaffold to help people, and then your support guides them.  So it’s an idea of ‘emergent design’.

Q How do you motivate students? Are they motivated enough to get through by themselves, or do they need help?

A I have to put things in place. I use a model by Gilly Salmon of Leicester University, who says that you need to start from a strong social base.  So at the beginning of each module I use social talk – what practice you have in that field.  The focus is on their professional persona, because they are writing for work.  That exercise helps them get acquainted with Blackboard and with each other, and they don’t have to think too much, they can just spout.  So then I can build on that, suggest different analyses and critical lenses.

Q What’s happening in your field that you think is interesting?

A  The idea of network learning, of learning as the student networking with other people, with resources (like the workbooks I design) and even with the university and what it means to have a UK degree. For me this idea is quite a powerful one, not just looking at the technology but all these actors.  Looking at technology as a flexible ecology, a porous ecology. Making links and having conversations with people.  Most of the people on the course are knowledge workers, so it’s also about helping them become more efficient. Using social media to support their practice or change their practice.

Social Media

Q And you’ve mentioned social media…what part does social media play in online learning?

A. Social Media!  It’s crazy, in a good way.  It’s challenging and amusing.  I don’t always agree but it brings a different perspective on learning.  I think it can be a really good adjunct to the VLE.  The VLE has advantages – it’s a walled garden so it deals with the issues of security and privacy that are very important, but it doesn’t prepare people to use tools outside.

Take blogging – Blackboard has a facility for blogging but the usability of that tool is very poor.  So I ended up using a group blog on WordPress, because then you can see who said what, you can extract everybody’s contributions for assessment, it’s very easy. It’s a private site, it’s password-protected and not listed on Google, so that we can protect students’ privacy.

I’ve used Diigo, a social bookmarking tool which also allows private discussions, threaded discussions. Online students miss out on the kind of informal talk about books that students on face-to-face courses can have. So I set this up so they have a place to talk to each other about the literature.

And I’ve also used Twitter for Tweetorials! It all happens through the DM system – we have open discussions on Twitter but we also have more sensitive discussions on DM.  It’s a little private space within the public space.

Tips on making it work

Q  Finally, any tips for people who are getting involved in his area, to make it work?

A  I think it’s quite important to use these things for yourself first, and read around.  For example, for Twitter I read Joel Comm’s book, Twitter Power.   I don’t use it the way he describes it, because he has a marketing angle, but it’s interesting.  And then look around and see how it’s used in other fields to see what other people are doing because that can spark nice ideas.   And then try on a small scale with one tool.  Look around at what there is, see what you can play with and how it works for you at a personal level and then think, how can I push that to support people or connect people.

And it changes your practice.  On one social bookmarking project, people put up links to the text in relation to an essay.  And they put up all sorts of links and I hadn’t read everything; reading what they had bookmarket, I started to learn myself.  I find that interesting.   The teacher used to be described as ‘the sage on the stage’, then it changed to ‘the guide on the side’.   I felt more like ‘the peer who steers.’   I had to manage things, but I wasn’t in control any more. There’s a role reversal in that students come up with different things and you follow them. And there’s a record of everything that was said, so you can go back and look at the conversation. It’s very powerful.

Thanks to Florence for getting things started. She is @afdujardin on Twitter where she is a regular poster of interesting stuff. I’m now off to explore Diigo…

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