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The use of advanced organisers to aid learning in Blackboard Course sites

Read the following passage. When you have finished, immediately write down what you think is being describe1d before you go on to the next paragraph.

The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange items into different groups. Of course one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step; otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things. In the short run tthis may not seem important but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to forsee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one never can tell. After the procedure is complete one arranges the materials into their appropriate places. Eventually, they will be used once more and the whole cycle will then have to be repeated. However, that is part of life*.

You probably had difficulty in identifying what the passage was about. Why was that? Well, according to Ausubel, we need a context in which to place information if we are to make sense of it. Making sense of information, i.e. understanding it, is a key process in effective learning. One way of providing context for information, particularly complex, even abstract information, is to provide it with a title. This title acts as an advanced organiser. What happens is that the title cues up the individual’s pre-existing knowledge, memories, feelings and so on and thus provides a framework, or scaffolding, to which the new information can be related and thus understood. So, once you know that the title of the passage above is ‘washing clothes’*, it is far easier to decipher what it is about.

So, how do you insert advance organisers into Blackboard course sites? The obvious answer, and something you cannot avoid doing due to the default settings for adding folders and files, is to give every folder and file a title. It is important, however, that the title is specific and relevant rather than general. Consider the following screenshot:

Labelling the folders ‘Unit One’ Unit Two’ etc., simply informs the learner that information in the folders relates to the different units that make up the course. Whilst this is an important thing in itself (it helps to re-inforce the structure of the course), it tells them nothing about the contents of the units. A more effective advanced organiser would be like the example below:

The ability to add a description to the folder/file allows you to take the idea of advanced organisers even further. A few well-chosen sentences describing the contents of the folder/file would increase the context of the information they are about to access for the student, and so, aid more effective learning, as shown below:

It is also well known, and supported by a wealth of psychological and educational research that the use of images improves recall. It is also possible that the use of images can act as very powerful advanced organisers. As well as making the sites more aesthetically appealing, the images aid the learner in placing the information they are about to access into context as shown below:

At City of Sunderland College, we are actively developing the use of images as advanced organisers across a range of course sites as part of a Blackboard Course Site ‘Health-Check’ service that we offer to teaching staff. We are selective in our use of images, however. By this I mean that not every file or folder will have an image attached. If we cannot find an appropriate image, then we will not use one, but we do ask staff to include titles and brief descriptions of content as a minimum advanced organiser.

Also, we are aware that the number of images, and their size, will impact on download times and, as not all of our students have access to a broadband connection outside of the college, we take this into account in determining the number of images to use in our Blackboard course sites as advanced organisers. Additionally, we ensure that all images are either produced in-house or have no copyright protection on the use to which we are putting them, and that, for accessibility purposes, all images used are provided with alt text for screenreaders.

* Washing Clothes: ref: Bransford and Johnson (1972) cited in Hardy, M and Heyes, S (1987), Beginning Psychology (3 rd Ed.), Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London.

Author: Merv Stapleton

22 June 2005

VLE: Blackboard



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