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Dialogic Learning Objects: Inviting the Student Into the Instructional Process

Arvan argues that properly employed, course management systems can change the model for teaching and learning in ways that engage students more and increase their learning. He offers the "dialogic approach" to using a question-answer-feedback cycle to accomplish this and provides sample files for reader experimentation.

Viewed from the vantage of the student, the typical instructor uses a course management system as a publicly accessible file drawer and little more. We know from the literature (Faculty Use of Course Management Systems; Morgan, 2003), and Student Satisfaction and Perceived Learning via a Course Management System; Bielema, 2002) that the main CMS use is posting lecture notes and the syllabus. Perhaps this offers convenience over distributing notes through the copy shop, but d'es it have a fundamental effect on learning? How can we get beyond the "lecture note phase" and have instructors produce sites with interactivity, where there is an overt benefit to the learner, where the online part of the course complements the face-to-face part, and vice versa?

On most campuses, there are some exceptional course Web sites that are well regarded by the students and faculty alike. Nonetheless, the earlier adopter faculty who produce these well-done sites don't have the broad coattails that might help change overall campus behavior (Interesting Practices and Best Systems in Faculty Engagement and Support; Hagner, 2000). Many instructors who are not doing innovative online course development feel overburdened. A common concern, especially among those who have been teaching the same course for some time, is that what they are doing is stale. Their reading lists are not current, their assignments need to be redone (the fraternities and sororities have on file papers that received high marks on these assignments) and their own enthusiasm for teaching has waned as a consequence; it is hard for them to be straight-faced with the students when they are not proud of the content they teach. They see the need to re-invest in their course, but where do they find the time?

It seems incumbent on those of us who support educational technology to make the teaching and learning benefits more obvious to the typical instructor, and then help them to deliver those benefits, regardless of their aptitude for designing Web pages. One important benefit is the ability to co-mingle presentation, absorption of content, and assessment of student comprehension, moving from the traditional pedagogy toward something that is closer to the way people actually learn.

One promising approach is to model instruction as question-response rather than lecture, a challenging idea for a large course but ideally suited to CMS delivery. On my campus, where there has been extensive reliance on sophisticated quiz software (which allows the students to repeat the quiz until correct) we have found that students often go directly to the quizzes and only seek out the presentation material as needed to complete the quiz. A well-designed quiz encourages the student to absorb the material in the process of completion. A poorly designed quiz, on the contrary, allows the student to mechanically get the right answers while remaining puzzled why the responses were correct or how they were related to the course learning objectives. The framing of the questions as well as the associated response and sequencing of the dialog are critical to learning.

Imagine that instead of lecture notes, instructors delivered "content surveys" where similar to the TV show Jeopardy, every few paragraphs a special text insert appeared "in the form of a question." This would require a written response from the students, then more instructor content followed by additional questions. The effect is to move from a discursive to a dialogic approach to learning.

For these exercises to have meaning to the students, their responses must be reviewed. Conceivably, the instructor could critique these individually. Yet that would entail substantial effort. An ensemble critique done in class places more modest demands on the instructor's time and should make the live class relevant for the students, since the focus will be on their work. What insights did the responses show? Where did students react in a way the instructor didn't anticipate? Were there patterns or commonalities among student errors? Can those errors be used to help steer the discussion "on course?"

After a few experiences with these content surveys, students will become comfortable with the format. At this point the instructor can "go meta." Instead of assigning a term paper, have the students design their own content survey. On campuses that have the third-party quiz software, Respondus (which works with Blackboard, eCollege, and WebCT), the technical part of making the survey is easy to manage. Students can submit Respondus files and the instructor can upload them into their course site so that other students might take the student created survey. (On campuses without Respondus, this can be done with the students submitting text documents as long as the instructor is willing to do some cutting and pasting to make the surveys.) The hard part is designing and researching the survey, selecting the right topic, and creating a presentation that is compelling and illustrates the key points. Whereas students often view term papers as drudgework unconnected to the rest of the course, here the motivation for the student should be much greater because their work will be viewed and utilized by other students. This is a powerful way to promote student engagement and interaction.

The fundamental change we are after is to encourage students to become the creators of learning objects and to move the instructor's role from the reluctant author who d'esn't have time for the task to the enthusiastic mentor whose main job regarding learning objects is choice of topic and coach of the students during the creation stage. If this strategy works and students willingly donate their intellectual property, then we have an organic learning system. Instructors can use the better content surveys made by students in prior semesters to amplify or even substitute for their own creations in subsequent offerings. In this way, the online materials in the course and the topics that are covered grow and are refreshed over time.

Can this really work? Certainly there are places for both the instructor and the students to stumble. It is just as apparent, however, that the benefits from making this approach work are substantial. Students become more engaged in the learning process and faculty exercise their instructional skills in rewarding new ways. With proper faculty training, our course management systems can support this new approach to learning.

Some samples of the approach are available at


Bielema, C. (2002). Student Satisfaction and Perceived Learning via a Course Management System. Flashlight Case studies Available at:

Hagner, P. (September 9, 2000). Interesting Practices and Best Systems in Faculty Engagement and Support Available at:

Morgan, G. (May, 2003). Faculty use of course management systems ECAR Key findings Available at:

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