Three Actors that Contribute to Student Success in Online Courses: The Institution, Instructor and Student

This post examines three actors that are essential to student success in online courses: 1) the institution, 2) the instructor and, 3) the student.

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Actors Contributing to Student Success in Online Courses

What contributes to student success in a course delivered online? To consider the question from a different perspective one can pose the question this way—who is ultimately responsible when students are not successful—when they fail the course for instance? Is it the student for not having the discipline for online learning? The instructor for not providing support, or the institution for not providing services to support the online student? These are questions worthy of examining at a philosophical level, though in this post I examine select behaviours and strategies associated with the three actors involved in the process of students learning online, 1) the institution, 2) instructor and 3) the learner.

What Contributes to Student Success?
Before examining the three actors roles in the learning process it’s helpful to identify the factors contributing to student success in online environments including the skill set required. It’s also instructive to acknowledge that there is an underlying expectation that students enrolling in online courses are self-directed and capable of managing the tasks associated with online studies. Yet research and feedback from educators reveal something quite different; many students are unprepared to learn online, lack the basic skills, and are not capable of assuming responsibility for their learning. Online course work requires that students use a range of skills including accessing resources, people and content within a network, analytic and synthesis skills to distill relevant information from an abundance of information and resources (Kop, Fournier, & Mak). Though as mentioned, it’s not uncommon to find students lack some, if not many of these skills.

Not only are students often unprepared, but institutions often fail to prepare faculty and instructors for online facilitation. A starting point in boosting student success is identifying the behaviours associated with each of the three actors.

1) The Institution: Student Support Services via the Institution 
One characteristic of institutions offering successful online programs is their ability to support the unique needs of distance students through a student support services function.  As online programs evolve and mature we now have numerous programs to examine and study. Though each unique, there is a common theme—a focus on the students by acknowledging their diverse needs and challenges of studying online. Below are select examples.

Services for online students need to be customized, re-tooled from those provided to traditional students. Services should include technical support, academic advising, online community programs and clubs, library services and career planning.  Some institutions have gone further and developed programs that offer personalized academic support, SUNY Empire State College for example offers a peer tutor program. This program is unique, it’s not a subject matter coaching program, but a mentoring program where the goal is for tutors to help students identify and implement strategies that promote independence, active learning and motivation.

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“Creating College Success” from Rio Salado College,  an Award Winning Program

Rio Salado College developed an orientation program “Creating College Success”. It’s a one-credit course delivered fully online. The goal of Rio Salado’s program is similar to that Empire State’s—student self-sufficiency in academic environments.  Penn State World Campus, one of the first universities to deliver online degrees has a comprehensive roster of services for virtual students. One service that all institutions should consider is offering extended hours for technical and academic help via email, phone, or instant messaging.

Western Governors University is one that offers not only academic and technical support, but wellness services through its Well Connect program where students can call a toll-free number any time of day or night for support including personal counseling, legal and debt counseling, new parent transitioning support and more.

2) The Instructor:  Course Design and Instructor Support 
There are two areas that fall under the instructor support: 1) course design, and 2) instructional support.

Course design plays a significant role in students’ potential for learning online, given that students engage with course content, instructor and peers through the course platform. The way in which course content is presented on the course site, the instructions for assignments or activities are written, even the structure and order of the tabs on the course home page (course interface) have an effect on how the students engage with the course, will potentially affect students’ learning. Professor Robin Smith, author of “Conquering the Content: A Step-by-Step Guide to Online Course Design” (2008) describes course design this way:

Design features incorporated in [the] system course development and the learning guide, will create an environment in which students are confident of their pathway, and the only challenge is the course content, not the navigation of the course or figuring out what must be done in order to complete the course…this focus on course design, will free you [instructor] up to spend the semester teaching and interacting with students rather than answering questions about course navigation or specific directions about assignments.” 

The instructor’s role in online courses will vary depending upon the nature of the course, but more importantly instructor behaviours will be a function of the level of students educational background and students’ skill level in the areas mentioned above (collaboration skills, technical, etc). To assess what level students are at when entering the course, ideally the instructor does so through involvement in discussion forums, course introductions, synchronous activities, etc. that allow the instructor to get to know students. Instructors also can do so by reviewing student work early in the course so he or she can provide detailed feedback, challenge the student, suggest external writing support as needed, etc.

The goal is that the instructors focus on challenging students academically in the course via feedback and interaction; individually and as a class. Support for technical, research, or basic academic skills should be provided by the institution, via support services. Institutions should also offer professional development courses, workshops or resources to support online instructors and faculty in course development and instruction.

3) The Student:
The student is ultimately responsible for his or her success in the learning process; it is up to him or her to leverage the resources of the institution and the support of the instructor. There is an effective tool however, a leader readiness questionnaire, that many institutions make available on its website which identifies the skills and tools students will need to be successful with their online studies. Also the concept of giving the responsibility of learning to the students, is another method to encourage success—letting students know they are ultimately responsible.

Below are links to several learner readiness questionnaires provided by various institutions, one is licensed under the creative commons share alike license which makes it available for use to anyone.

In a follow-up post I review tools and resources available on the web that support the development of the skill-set students need for online learning. Readers may also find a previous post, Five-Step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning helpful— it outlines behaviours associated with successful outcomes for online students.

Conclusion
Supporting student success in online course work begins with the institution—ideally with a strategic plan that includes a system for provision of administrative services, academic counseling, and support specific to online students, as well as professional development and comprehensive resources for faculty and instructors teaching online. Yet to maximize the value of the support offered by the institution and instructor, the learner needs to own the learning, and know the responsibility for success ultimately rests with him or her.

Resources:

If Change is Inevitable–Is Progress Optional? Four Education Institutions Opting for Progress

“Change is inevitable. Progress is optional.” Tony Robbins

change-architect-sign1The above quote from author and motivational speaker Tony Robbins sums up Dr.  Richard DeMillo’s presentation The Fate of American Colleges and Universities delivered in May of last year at Dartmouth University. Readers might be familiar with DeMillo—professor of computer science, speaker, author of several articles and books including Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (2011). He currently serves as Director of Georgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities. His talk carried a similar message that’s outlined in his book— colleges and universities in the Middle will need to change—and if they don’t they’ll be headed for irrelevance and marginalization‘ (MIT Press). It’s been three years since the book’s publication and many of his warnings about higher education appear close to reality.  In the book and in his talk at Dartmouth, DeMillo doesn’t candy coat his message, wrap it up into a more digestible form, but serves it straight.

The system of higher education…is not a sustainable system. I don’t know anyone who has seriously looked at American higher education that can come to the conclusion that what we are doing is financially, socially, pedagogically and morally sustainableRichard DeMillo, Dartmouth University, May 7, 2013

Though the message may be grim, the education sector needs individuals like DeMillo with their extensive experience and knowledge of higher education to tell it like it is. Granted, some will say DeMillo is wrong, is only making predictions and value judgements. However, three years after Abelard to Apple’s release, events described are no longer predictions

Responses to The Message
DeMillo describes leaders’ reactions to what he has to say—some are open, eager to look for ways to adapt to change and move forward, and others are unaware, dismissive, or even defensive.

University leadership in the United States for the most part is unaware that the crossroads is ahead.  […] The obvious question is how so many smart people could miss what seems to be an inevitable crisis?”  Richard Demillo, Abelard to AppleThe Fate of American Colleges and Universities (2011)

But many institutions are listening, are opting for progress, embracing change and striving to remain relevant. Below I share four examples of institutions that are choosing to implement strategies for change. Some projects are complex, are institution-wide, engaging the majority stakeholders. Others are on a smaller scale, yet no less bold.

Readers may question whether all initiatives are progressive, a way forward. Some appear to be going backward, as the University System of Georgia where several institutions are merging, resulting in some institutions names disappearing altogether. Though institutional leaders of these schools might say that it is progress for the long-term, with changes in the short-term that are difficult.

Below are descriptions of the strategies of each, and related links to outside sources with further information.

Four Institutions Opting for Progress

1. Corporate Sponsored Degree Program: University of Maryland, Cybersecurity

Strategy: Universities are beginning to seek funding support for undergraduate programs by partnering with corporations and other private institutions to build infrastructure and curricula for specialized degree programs. Companies are motivated to do so, hoping to fill skill gaps within their own workforce by creating a pool of educated potential candidates. This initiative is part of University of Maryland’s overall plan to remain financially sustainable, and relevant; it has also cut costs by eliminating seven varsity sports teams and forcing faculty and staff to take furlough days.

change_image2. Strategic Planning InitiativeBeyond Forward, Dartmouth University

Strategy:  Dartmouth University provides an illustrative example of an institution seeking to embrace change and prepare for the future by implementing a comprehensive strategic planning effort. Dartmouth’s end goal—’to identify significant opportunities and challenges as we consider an ambitious and forward-looking course for Dartmouth’s future.’  The website describing the program is detailed, sharing many resources, including the recorded talks of experts and scholars as part of the Leading Voices in Education series of which DeMillo was one. The two-year effort involved over 3,000 stakeholders including faculty, administrators, staff, students and alumni, and assigned nine working groups a topic to research, report upon and develop recommendations for. Impressive. To learn more, you can read Dartmouth’s Synthesis report of ‘Beyond Forward‘. Other institutions that have implemented a similar strategic initiative and shared the process are Georgia Tech University, Brandeis University, and Brown University.

Strategic planning is the first significant phase of opting for progress, however putting the plan into action—the execution of the plan requires more than talking about and planning for change, it’s about making it happen. Action.

3. Institutional MergersUniversity System of Georgia

Strategy: The primary motivation for education institutions to merge is to realize costs savings through sharing of administrative expenses common to each, i.e. finance, human resources, facilitation services, IT, etc. Universities merging is not new. There’s been several examples of institutions coming together over the years. Though recent mergers are on a large-scale. Not two institutions merging, but in the State of Georgia’s case, eight in all since 2012. As you can imagine, these actions are drastic, messy, often chaotic and stressful for all involved. Even more so when communication is poor, which it usually is. Though perhaps necessary to remain viable, and may be a way forward, no doubt it must appear institutions are taking several steps back. Successful mergers require a tremendous amount of planning, communication and diplomacy. Merging Into Controversy, Inside Higher Ed (2014).

4. MOOC-Inspired Initiatives. Penn State, flex-MOOC and Georgia Tech Institute.

Strategy: There are a few institutions seeking to use the MOOC format to seek sustainability for the long-term. Even though MOOCs continue to enroll and engage thousands of students, few higher education institutions have demonstrated how MOOCs will contribute to its sustainability, relevance, and direction for the future (more so when there is no strategic plan for the future). Two schools that are taking a step forward are Georgia Tech with its Online Master of Science in Computer Science and Penn State.

Georgia Tech: “OMS CS officially launches with first cohort Today about 375 students begin coursework as the first cohort in Georgia Tech’s online Master of Science in Computer Science (OMS CS) program, offered in collaboration with Udacity and AT&T. The group was admitted from some 2,360 applications…”

Penn State: “A flex-MOOC is a MOOC that offers content in modules that the learner can assemble into a personally relevant “course” and giving learners control over content, the sequence and timeline…creating a learning path that is relevant given learners’ individual contexts, strengths, and leaning needs.”

Closing
Change will happen. It is happening. Examining how institutions handle change, move forward is instructive. Is not changing an option and the right thing to do? Possibly. But making a decision not to change but is backed by a strategy, makes sense, not changing with no strategy doesn’t. How does your institution deal with change?

Related Reading:

Image credits: ‘Time for Change’, by marsmetn tallahasse, Flickr

Resources to Help Students Be Successful Online in Three Areas: Technical, Academic & Study Planning

iStock_supportsginXSmallThis post features a collection of carefully selected resources for students learning within online environments; it’s geared to leaners and educators seeking resources for just-in-time learning for technical, academic and study skills required to learn efficiently and successfully in a for-credit or open online course.

Students need a wide range of skills to learn successfully in online settings; they need to be tech savvy, know how to collaborate with peers, conduct online research, navigate proficiently within the learning management platform, manage their time effectively and engage in the learning process by interacting with content, peers and completing course work via the learning platform. Many high school and undergraduate students (perhaps even learners with an undergraduate degree or higher) have a skill gap in one area or another when beginning an online course for the first or even second time. It’s also likely a significant number of students lack the required academic skills for the online course they plan to complete. Research states that as many as 60% of entering college freshman do not have the math or writing skills required for college-level course work.  It’s no wonder that some college-level students are not successful with online studies. Several students will fail, withdraw, or may not learn as deeply as they could have due to a lack of skills in one or more areas.

Three Categories of Resources: The resources featured here address skill gaps in three areas: 1) technical, 2) academic and 3) study skills. The academic section includes resources for subject areas of writing composition, grammar and math. The technical section links to sites that provide instruction for learners in basic web skills including e-mail and file uploads, how-to navigate and search on the web, and it also features a list of resources for student support specific to learning management (LMS) platforms. The section on study skills provides a list of resources geared to learners studying online; skill development for time management, study planning and prioritizing.

How to Help Students:  I’ve compiled the following resources hoping it may help  online learners, by readers sharing ideas and strategies for learning support as discussed here. To further support students, I also recommend institutions create an orientation program for new online students that introduces students to the LMS platform, the features specific to the course site, the syllabus, as well as the resources for academic and technical support. Another idea implemented already by several institutions is a learner readiness quiz, specific to online students. Illinois Online Network has a Self-Evaluation for Potential Online Students, as does Penn State’s World Campus, with its Online Readiness Assessment. This quiz is licensed under that Creative Commons Share Alike license allowing other institutions to use it as long as certain conditions are followed.

It goes without saying, though I’ll emphasize the point anyway, that the onus lies with the student to take advantage of support and resources provided; educators and institutions do have a responsibility to support learning, but it’s the student’s responsibility to take charge and learn.

I. Resources for Technical Skills
Basic Web Skills: Students require a minimum set of skills to function within an online course that includes: how to email, browse the Internet, upload files, download needed plug-ins or software, etc. Yet some students won’t have one or more of the needed skills when beginning an online course. Below are suggested resources to fill in the skills gap.

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Image of Mozilla Foundation’s ‘Web Literacy Map’ developed by Doug Belshaw that outlines the skills and competencies people need to read, write and participate effectively on the web. Further details see resources section.

  • Digital Learn.org: tutorials between five and seven minutes on: email basics, web search, basics of Windows or Mac operating systems, and navigating a website
  • Teach-ease (University of South Florida) how to use a web browser, and Internet basics

How to Use Google Drive (formerly Google Docs): Knowing how to share documents, collaborate within virtual teams are other skills needed for students, and not just for learning online but for working and functioning within a digital culture.

How to Bookmark Sites: Bookmarking, also known as “social bookmarking” are actions that allow students to save web sites and online documents for later reference, reading, annotating, and even sharing. There are several online bookmark platforms:

How to Navigate within the LMS Platform: Each learning management platform has its own unique features, and though many are designed to be intuitive and user-friendly, some users require instruction in the form of video clips or text documents to develop confidence and proficiency. It’s helpful for the student that just-in-time-learning is provided by way of links within the course site to instructions specific to a task—for example: how to comment within a discussion forum, or how to upload an assignment file. Several institutions have created tutorials geared to the institution’s students. One example, New Jersey Institute of Technology created tutorials on how to use features of Moodle.

I can see why some institutional educators create their own instructional videos for students, as unfortunately many help videos and text instructions offered by the LMS providers are geared to instructors, not students, per below.

  • MoodleStudent Tutorials are written for instructors, not students
  • CanvasCanvas Student Guide also appears written for instructors, note the first help topic ‘Where do I find more help for students?’
  • Desire2LearnDesire2Learn Resource Center another example of the poor support options provided for students. I found nothing on this site that provides support for students, yet numerous help documents and resources for instructors. It’s no wonder that many institutions have created student help videos—all on the same topics, for example ‘how to post to a discussion forum’ see examples from Mansfield University, Montana State, San Jose State University, Clayton State University, (the list goes on) all which provide the same instructions. This is further evidence of the barriers students face when learning online; unless their institutions provides detailed support, some students face barriers to learning due to lack of support for navigating within the learning platform.
  • Blackboard: Blackboard for Students: tutorials geared to students and instructors
  • HaikuFor Students: Using Haiku LMS: of all the platforms, this is the only one (I could find) featuring a section specific to students.

II. Resources for Academic Skills

Writing Help:

  • OWL The Purdue Writing Lab: Purdue is the mother-of-all sources for writing help of any kind—from grammar help, to developing thesis statements, to report writing, citation help and more. The site features over 200 free resources , all of which are available to anyone.
  • Guide to Grammar and Writing by Capital Community College Foundation. Very good site covering a breadth of topics to support various aspects of writing including essays, outlines and reports. Includes a section on grammar.
  • Institution resources. Many institutions offer writing help centers free of charge for students. Ideally, students studying in for-credit online classes should have access to similar support services online. If a writing center for online students is available at your institution, provide details on the course site, and/or post a note on message board with details for students.
  • e-Tutoring.org is a collaborative online tutoring program and platform for writing skills that provides one-on-one, online support to students from numerous subscribing colleges within the US. It offers two models: collaborative and single. Within the collaborative model, participating institutions share resources to provide greater coverage and quicker turn-around time. e-Tutoring monitors the quality of the tutor feedback. Within the individual model, an institution is free to use the software platform with their own tutors.” The platform appears to be a viable option for institutions with a large online student population. Click here to view the list of the participating schools.

Grammar:

Math:

  • Kahn Academy:  Khan academy is one of the most comprehensive web sites providing skill development in algebra, trig, calculus, statistics, chemistry, biology as well as subjects in history and language arts. Lessons begin at the elementary level, and continue to up to university-level topics and subjects. The site features hundreds of short videos on specific concepts within a subject that range from five to twenty minutes in length. Also offers practice exercises, and support forums.
  • Institution support. As mentioned above some institutions offer virtual support in math for online students, if this is the case, provide details on the course site, and/or post a note on message board with details for students.

III. Resources for Study Skills

  • What Makes a Successful Online Learner? by iseek education with Minnesota Department of Education and Minnesota Online High School
  • Effective Habits for Effective Study, Study Guides and Strategies Website
  • Five-Step Strategy for Student Success with Online Learning, Online Learning Insights
  • HowtoStudy.com: A clean, clutter-free site dedicated only to study skill development, and though it’s geared to college students, any student may benefit from the concise and focused information provided. The site features twelve chapters, ranging from time management, to creating a study plan, note-taking, etc.
  • My Study Life, a new [and free] app—an online student planner designed for students to plan and manage their learning time. It appears to have numerous features including tracking of due dates for assignments, schedule of classes and study times, notifications for scheduled tasks, due dates, and study times.

Closing Thoughts
There are numerous other sources on the Web students can turn to for help. The list above is but a very small representation of what’s available.  However, often time is a barrier for students needing help; searching is time-consuming which is why institutions offering online courses [ideally] need to make help available, and easy to find to support learners that are still learning how to learn. Offering just-in-time help that is focused, and specific to a deficient skill can reduce barriers to learning, and lead to meaningful and successful education experiences.

Resources/Further Reading:

An Unique Approach to a xMOOC — Learner-Centric Course Design

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Applied Sustainability” Fanshawe College

Not all MOOCs are created equal. I know of one, Applied Sustainability, delivered by a community college in Ontario, Canada that defies what many have come to expect from a Massive Open Online Course offered through a university-sponsored platform such as Coursera, Open2Study or edX. What makes Applied Sustainability offered by Fanshawe College unique?  It’s the learner-centric course design that makes it different, where the focus is on students and their learning. This approach contrasts with an instructor-centric design—an approach which emphasizes content delivered by faculty with a learning strategy that follows accordingly. Though both formats are applicable in given learning situations, few student-centric course designs in xMOOCs exist, which is what motivated me to share a learner-centric design example with readers. It’s a worthy endeavor for educators to explore and consider different approaches to course design for MOOCs, to improve upon what already exists, and bring xMOOCs to the next level.

How Fanshawe’s MOOC is Unique:  Fanshawe’s MOOC takes the form of an educative journey that engages students in the learning process with active, and practical learning assignments that make learning meaningful, relevant and specific to each student.

The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.”  MOOCs at Fanshawe

This approach contrasts significantly with the course design model that the majority of MOOCs delivered on university platforms feature.  The pedagogical methods used in xMOOCs  are remarkably similar to the traditional classroom format—course content delivered via the subject matter expert. xMOOCs typically are associated with top-tier higher education institutions, and are led by faculty members, sometimes referred to as ‘super professors‘, or ‘talking heads’, labeled (not so kindly) by MOOC skeptics. The instructors deliver content that mirrors the classroom method quite closely, but without the accessibility and feedback capability that instructors offer. Fanshawe’s format is closer to the original version of MOOCs as its co-creators [Downes and Siemens] introduced in 2008, where the focus was on learning within a network where knowledge is co-created, not from one expert i.e. the super-professor, but from many sources including the learners within the course.

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Image from Presentation Slide featuring student project, posted during Webinar with Contact North, with Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

“For the students, the most significant benefits they reported on the first offering of this MOOC were the changes they made in their thinking, behaviour, and habits concerning sustainability – for some it was truly life changing.The wide range of students from around the world appreciated the truly applied nature of the course.”

Course Description: Applied Sustainability: The course is designed to emphasize the practical and the personal elements of sustainability, with each of the six modules featuring on-site video interviews in locations and with experts involved with different aspects of sustainability. The themes of the modules focus on: water, waste and wastefulness; homes; streets and neighbourhoods; cities and regions; policies and certifications; and a final section on our community, your community. Applied Sustainability, Desire2Learn

Below is a brief outline the characteristics of Fanshawe’s MOOC that make it unique. For readers interested in learning more, the Pockets of Innovation series on Contact North’s website provides further background and description—Designing and Offering a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) at Fanshawe College.

Characteristics of the Learner-Centric Design

1) Diffusion of subject matter expertise: Rather than one subject-matter expert leading the course, there is an interviewer who travels to visit numerous subject matter experts in the field. The interviewer acts as the ‘host’ of the course, going on exploratory journey along with the students to learn about applied sustainability by conducting interviews with experts in the field.

“Three short videos (8 to 10 minutes) highlight three specific themes through visits to facilities directly related to waste and water such as the Greenway Wastewater Plant and the Upper Thames River Conservation Authority (pictured below). Staff interviews, facilities tours, and demonstrations of their ongoing work are presented.  The interview approach supported the practical focus of the MOOC – as the interviewer was learning along with the student, as opposed to having an expert deliver a presentation.  Topic-related links are provided to articles, report summaries, videos, TED talks, and other resources.”

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Presentation Slide posted during Webinar with Contact North, featuring Wendy Wilson describing the MOOC’s development strategy

2) Reliance on open resources, with a collection of curated resources. Students accessed content on the course topic (sustainability) primarily from the experts in the field, on the field trips with interviewer, and by exploring list of curated resources provided on the course site. The resources are from a variety of sources, with very few coming from scholarly or peer-reviewed sources.

3) Customization of learning experience. The Fanshawe MOOC provided options for students to customize their learning by offering four options for course participation. The four levels of achievement—Green, Silver, Gold and Platinum.

“… At the Silver level, students take part in weekly discussion on such topics as the use of rain barrels and antibiotics in agriculture.  The Gold level involves completion of a weekly task, such as undertaking a three-day waste audit at home, posting a photo of the accumulated waste, and reflecting on personal consumption and disposal habits. The Platinum level of achievement requires the completion of one project over the length of the course, assisted by a project manager from Fanshawe. The project-options include creating a Green Gaming Journal by using a blog, Tumblr, YouTube, or a podcast to comment on the green elements of a video game with ecological themes, such as SimCity. Another choice involves using QGIS, an open source geographic mapping system, to map a neighbourhood and analyze issues such as park vs residential space usage.”

Conclusion
We can credit MOOCs for generating discussions among educators and stakeholders about technological advancements and education, specifically how technology can be used to improve access, quality and cost. Yet we need to move discussions about online education forward, and one dimension which needs attention is how to create learning experiences for students that are relevant and meaningful. The current format of most xMOOCs are not much different from the traditional instructor-focused model, yet student-centered course design is a viable option very worthy of our time and energy.

Update: After this post went live, two other institutions reached out to share MOOC, learner-center models.  Open2Study, customizes courses for the MOOC format; you can read more from the comment posted. Another, Penn State’s Center for Online Innovation in Learning is developing a ‘flex-MOOC’ framework, which appears to have much potential.

Further Reading:

Why Google’s ‘Helpouts’ Concept is a Brilliant Idea for Online Education

Help wanted Sign

Students seek real-time help and support as demonstrated by community use of Google Helpouts

I wrote about synchronous learning in a recent post where I suggested that technological applications have advanced to a point where real-time exchanges between students and instructor, students and students can be facilitated seamlessly, leading to improved quality and better outcomes in online learning. Real time interactions can fill the void frequently mentioned by students and educators—the absence of a personal connection, the human touch in online learning environments. My position is that synchronous, real-time exchanges will bring what we now call ‘distance learning’, or ‘online learning’ to a new level, where distance is no longer a barrier, and online learning becomes ‘learning’. Distance and the barriers associated with it will disappear.

In this post I review the Google Helpouts platform, launched by Google in late 2013 that provides a method for face-to-face learning via a video call, and is one that institutions and online providers could model. Such a platform can bring significant benefits to students and their respective institutions. Benefits that include increased student performance, higher levels of student engagement, and reduced attrition. There is also potential for value-added services that include life skills development, career advice, networking skills, and coaching for students transitioning from school to the work world. Before getting to my proposal for institutions that models the idea of Google Helpouts—first a brief overview of the platform.

Google Helpouts Overview
Google has a long history of launching new tools and platforms, many of which don’t catch on, fade into obscurity, essentially fail, but whether Google Helpouts becomes a success is not the point of the this post, it’s the concept that has great potential for online learning, specifically for institutions and providers of online education that serve high school or undergraduate students. It’s the concept that is worth examining—how can the idea of real-time student interaction help institutions improve learning outcomes.

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Three ‘Helpouts’ listed within the Education & Careers category on Google Helpouts

What’s a Google Helpout?
‘Real help from real people in real time’ is Helpouts tag line. It’s essentially an online service where one can find an expert in a given field, and pay by the minute to receive realtime help and guidance from the expert using a web cam.  I see it as an extension of YouTube, but you get to interact with the expert, get feedback and ask questions.

“Live interactive video. Helpouts are conducted through live video calls with the provider. During the session, you can point your camera to show what you need help with, or take a photo, or even allow the provider to remotely access your computer to fix a problem. For example, you can point your camera at a broken appliance. If you don’t want the provider to see you, you can always turn off your camera. If both you and the provider agree ahead of time, you also can record the Helpout, and it’ll automatically be saved in your Google Drive” Introduction to Helpouts by Google

Google Helpouts features eight categories that include Art & Music, Computers & Electronics, Education & Careers, and more.  Not surprisingly, there are several Helpout options within the Education & Careers category, many related to math, writing  and SAT prep support. But here is where it gets interesting, there are also Helpouts featuring support in Test-Taking Strategies, Giving a Speech: Coaching support for students, Finding a job using Social Media, and Learn more Effectively by Taking Better Notes!.  This last Helpout appears to be one of the most sought-after, with over 45 reviews by users giving five stars (out of five). In fact after reviewing several categories, it appears the Education category has the most reviews by users, which may be an indication it’s generating the most interest. It appears there is a great demand for not only subject specific support, but study skills, communication and job searching skills.

How Does Apply the ‘Real Time Helpout’ Concept to Education?
Given the apparent demand for personalized support related to education, it’s worth examining in light of the problems and opportunities that exist within online education—could there be a fit? I believe so. Let’s look at some of the biggest barriers to online learning cited by students (Muilenburg & Berge, 2005).

  1. Lack of social interaction
  2. Administrative / Instructor issues
  3. Time and support for Studies
  4. Learner motivation

Institutions also face challenges of poor student performance and low completion rates for-credit courses for students enrolled in the online or blended courses. A recent example is the San Jose pilot project with Udacity, where three courses were offered online for students, including a remedial math course. Results were poor, with the pass rate far lower than in the face-to-face class. Student motivation, time and lack of academic skills were factors influencing the poor results.

Low completion rates, another challenge—yet when looking at successful programs we find that one-on-one coaching and mentoring is key component to success. This is a method Western Governors University has relied upon since its inception. And the City University of New York (CUNY), gives us an example of a public institution addressing problems of low graduation rates and low performance with its Accelerated Study in Associate Program (ASAP) that increased graduation rates significantly from 23% to an incredible 56%. Though financial support was part of the program, another was the academic advising and support  “[the] ASAP website  [provided] the personal touch — biweekly seminars and one-on-one advising.(Kirp, 2014).

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Scheduling tool associated with each expert’s service, Google Helpouts

Proposal for ‘Student Helpouts’
I suggest institutions seeking to increase the quality of online programs and success of their students, adopt a platform that closely follows the Google Helpouts format. A platform that features a similar interface (how the platform looks and its ease of use) and infrastructure (how it works) that upon implementation supports seamless communication including online scheduling, ability for students to provide feedback, and a selection of services and educators to choose from for support. The platform would be a landing-place for students that require:

  • Academic advising, what courses to take, drop, and planning for graduation
  • Help with course work that is subject specific
  • Support with the writing of academic papers, essays, etc.
  • Life Skills coaching: time management, stress management
  • Career Building Skills: Resume advice, how to interview, how to look for a job, using social media

How it Might Work
Of course, the question is how would it work, for instance who would be providing the services?  I suggest a combination of students and employees of the institution as the tutors, mentors and advisors. Senior students could be hired to provide tutoring support, even mentoring support for new or struggling students.  Employees working in the institutions academic advising, career services, student aid departments would provide support specific to their department’s services.

Another question, how would transactions be funded? Students could be assigned a certain number credits each semester that they can use towards the Student Helpout platform, which is included in students’ tuition.  Once the credits run out, students can buy additional credits, or apply for ‘free’ credits depending on certain criteria. At-risk students, or those identified as requiring remedial support, may be awarded an additional block of credits.

Conclusion
I see great potential with a platform such as Student Helpouts. It’s a platform that could address the barriers students associate with online learning—the lack of social connection and personalized interaction, poor motivation, and absence of needed academic skills for college level work. I acknowledge that this vision is simplistic, lacks depth, as it is only an idea where the details have not been fleshed out.  Yet my goal here is to provide ideas and perspectives for institutions and educators about technology and its role as a tool for providing personalized support and guidance of high school and undergraduate students. And to meet the challenges of online learning, while at the same time helping educators and institutions remain relevant, effective and prepare students for thinking, living and learning in 2015 and beyond. Now that would be brilliant.

References:

Image credit: ‘Help Out Sign’ by brizzle, born & bred, Flickr

Why is Adoption of Educational Technology So Challenging?… ‘It’s Complicated’

“If an institution’s stated strategy is to promote the use of educational technology, that institution must establish an adequate framework for faculty to use technology successfully. This includes not only formal incentive structures but also the development of a sufficient educational technology infrastructure and a satisfactory framework for educational technology support.” Faculty Adoption of Educational Technology by F.Z. Moser

fighting with technology

Technology Integration can be complicated

After reading the paragraph above readers will likely nod in agreement…yes, yes that makes much sense.  Yet most institutions fail to recognize the complexity of introducing educational technology into the classroom and curriculum. Granted, the majority do recognize that faculty and teachers need guidance on how to use the features of a new educational tool or platform, but support usually stops there. Professional education for faculty and teachers that addresses skill development, focuses on integrating educational tools using pedagogically sound methods, for the most part is nonexistent. Yet what can be done? The answer—it’s complicated, which is the thrust of the research brief from EDUCAUSE—Faculty Adoption of Education Technology. Complicated, but by no means impossible.

Author of the paper Franziska Moser, conducted research with nine U.S. institutions focusing on education technology and the types of support strategies provided [or not provided] for ed tech implementation, and the resulting impact on faculty’s teaching behaviors. As part of her research, Moser put forth the Faculty Educational Technology Adoption Cycle, a model for institutions to consider when working with faculty and their implementation of educational technology.

The Model
Moser’s model includes five behavioral characteristics of faculty, observed upon implementation of educational technology in higher education settings. The model includes outside factors and variables deemed to have positive influence on each characteristic.

  1. Time commitment. The time instructors invest in integrating educational technology into their courses lies at the core of the model. Moser suggests that the level of time commitment depends upon organizational incentives provided (extrinsic motivation) and on individual variables such as personal values and goals (intrinsic). Moser also identified a causal relationship between time commitment and competence development of faculty.
  2. Competence development involves focused skill development for faculty; the skill set required to integrate technology in a pedagogically sound way. Competence also leads to quality course design and teaching expertise.
  3. Course redesign includes support from a variety of departments that may include instructional designer, tech specialists, multi-media experts, peers, department faculty, etc.  Using an instructional design model as a guide, serves as a frame of reference for the design team. The redesign process puts the focus on students’ learning, and the accomplishment of learning objectives via pedagogical methods, not the educational technology tool.
  4. Teaching/Learning experience that includes trustworthy infrastructure with a built-in support mechanism and a feedback loop leads to: teaching effectiveness, better learning outcomes, and increased satisfaction—not only for students but for instructors.  I’ll emphasize here, how critical the availability of support for instructors is—without such support, student learning is at risk, as is the motivation of the educators.
  5.  Reflection, the final phase encourages faculty and instructors to examine newly implemented teaching strategies, consider student feedback, discuss and share results with peers.
Screen shot of Faculty Adoption of Educational Technology

Franziska Moser’s model depicts a circuit of faculty behavior activities (bold) which are influenced by several outside factors and conditions (italic).

Moser’s diagram is instructive as it is insightful; it highlights the complexity of the course design process in a simplified format.

Fast Forward to 2014
Moser’s article was published in 2007, quite some time ago in this age of rapid technological transformation. Yet many institutions still face the same challenges that Moser describes in her paper.  There are but a few institutions that appear to follow a model similar to Moser’s. Two that I’ve studied are Purdue University with its IMPACT program and University of Central Florida’s Distributed Learning Program. Both schools’ invested, and continue to invest significant effort and institutional resources in supporting faculty in the redesign of courses and implementation of innovative teaching practices. Though there are others that I haven’t mentioned, these schools are in the minority. Why this is the case I don’t have the depth of expertise to answer completely, but I do see that many institution look externally to address the implementation of technology as a method to increase efficiency and improve learning outcomes rather than creating strategies with the human resources they have within, by human resources I’m referring to faculty, technical and media experts, graduate students, etc.

There are numerous examples of higher education administrators going externally, making decisions about the use of technology without involving internal stakeholders.  A recent example is California’s public higher education system. One school in the California state system San Jose State University, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a pilot project with MOOC provider Udacity in an attempt to solve the schools’ challenge with bottleneck courses in its institutions. The pilot served as a potential model for other California public higher education institutions. The program failed. Yet University of Central Florida dealt with a similar issue of bottleneck courses and limited institutional resources to accommodate students, yet were able to solve the problem by relying upon its own faculty and staff. UCF’s solution involved developing four types of learning formats including, mixed-mode, face-to-face, and video-streaming, all of which were completed by UCF faculty after they engaged in a comprehensive development program that provided skills training and support for course redesign. The result was a roster of courses in a variety of formats that allowed administrators to achieve a significant reduction in institutional overhead, while getting students into courses they needed to graduate.

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Screen shot of the headline from the Los Angeles Times Newspaper

There are other examples of failed roll-outs of education technology programs where there was little, if any instructor development plan in place as per Moser’s model. One that is incredibly expensive is the L.A. Unified School Districts’ iPad program. The program cost is said to be $1 billion dollars, which aims to put an iPad or computer into the hands of every student, teacher and administrator in the district, yet little if any resources are allocated to teacher competence development, support, instructional education, lesson planning strategies or curriculum redesign.

Why is Integrating Technology so Challenging?
So why don’t institutional leaders take a strategic approach to address the challenges associated with integrating educational technology? My guess is that it’s a combination of factors—some that are common to all, and some unique to the institution. I suggest strategic planning is required for educational technology implementation program, course redesign, or roll-out and that takes a strong leader that is willing to challenge things as they are. Doing this is difficult. Also required—a leader who can assess what is needed, create and communicate the vision of the project, build a team of experts, and follow through on its implementation. Also difficult.  It also requires short-term and long-term planning, and patience. Challenging. Course development takes time, as does learning the skills needed for implementing new teaching practices and methods.  Another obvious factor is resources—needed are a significant investment of funds. Most Challenging.  And finally, knowledge of a model or framework such as the one presented here, that outlines the complexities and dimensions of technology integration and course redesign. Complicated, but not impossible.

Conclusion
The transformative nature of technology offers tremendous opportunity to improve learning outcomes, improve access, and even reduce institutional overhead costs that does not involve reducing faculty or instructors, yet as discussed it’s challenging to accomplish given the complexity of such an undertaking. But as stated, not impossible as evidenced by institutions like Purdue and UCF that have forged a path of leveraging internal resources to redesign courses, implement technology and develop innovative teaching practices. I’ll delve into Purdue’s program in a post next week, share details of IMPACT, and a selection success stories from faculty.

 Resources:

Student Perceptions of Online Group Work: What They Really Think and How to Make it Work

This is the third post in a three-part series featuring strategies and skill development for instructors wanting to create, facilitate and encourage collaboration among students working in groups. This post identifies what students really think about group work—the three most significant barriers to working in online teams and strategies to help students overcome each.

Young Couple Sitting with a Pile of Books

Success of the group learning process is dependent upon the target outcomes of the assignment and design of the collaboration activity

 “Working with other people on a real project can actually be a valuable learning experience. The problem is, if it’s mandated by school, and participants aren’t really interested or motivated, that’s not a “real project.”  If there was a way to facilitate projects that were relevant to participants’ interests, and perhaps some kind of meaningful output, that would likely result in a different kind of experience.” Student comment on the School Survival Forums [an uncensored forum for students created by students in 2001]

It’s a myth that students in online courses don’t want group work. Most students see the value of working in groups, but are resistant when the project appears unrelated to course goals, is simplistic, without a purpose—busywork.  When introducing and writing instructions for group activities, I emphasize the why of the activity—what’s in it for the students. I’ve outlined other strategies below focusing on the three most significant barriers to group work based upon research of group work specific to online learning, and personal experience as an educator and student.

Meaningful Learning
Before getting to the strategies for overcoming barriers to team work, I’ll point out what’s needed to highlight the what’s in-it-for-me part of the assignment descriptions for students, what I refer to as the marketing element or selling of the group work. The assignments need to be weighty, not necessarily in grades but in terms of complexity; projects that encourage students to synthesize, analyze and create a product that showcases their knowledge via a ‘meaningful output’ as mentioned by the above-quoted student.

A meaningful output might be a group essay, a narrated slideshare, Prezi presentation, a video, or wiki—also known as digital artifacts. The slide below from the slidesharestudent perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools” outlines the elements of a problem based learning approach, necessary to foster meaningful and authentic learning via collaborative learning environments that are designed to develop expertise by helping learners discern patterns and create meaning in a non-static, collaborative setting. According to “How People Learn” (Bransford et al, 1999), such environments encourage the development of deep factual knowledge bases where knowledge is easily retrieved and shared, and conceptual frameworks built.

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Slideshare: ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects using synchronous and asynchronous tools’ slide #4  (Wicks, 2011)

Significant Barriers to Group Work and How to Overcome Each

 “I feel sometimes you have to give in to some other people’s ideas so that you    can finish the project.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

“I like working in efficient groups. Not many groups I’ve been in were as such. Most we’re “Hey, who doing the work?” or “You just do x-y-z, and we’ll stand here” Student comment on School Survival Forums

1.  Accountability

…among the factors that either facilitated or impeded progress, individual accountability was perceived as being the most critical factor. A lack of individual accountability is consistent with what Latane et al. (1979, cited in Levine, Resnick, & Higgins, 1993) referred to as “social loafing.” This term was defined as meaning that when individuals think they are working in a group, they anticipate doing less work than when they think they are working alone.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

Suggestions:

  • Have students create a team charter. The charter includes the purpose of the group, the rules and guidelines for group interactions, using their words, rules and guidelines.  See example  below right:
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Sample of Group Charter, slide # 13, from Slideshare ‘Student perception of collaborative small group projects’ (Wicks, 2011)

  • Provide an outlet for students to get help with group collaboration and conflict. Include on the course site steps to effective group work, and steps to resolves issues.
  • Create small groups – ideal size is three or four students, maximum five.
  • Provide a mechanism for students to give feedback and reflection on group participation and the experience overall. Readers that have read several of my other posts on group work, may see that this contradicts my views on group work (my initial position was to have self-reflection only, not rate other groups members), however research says otherwise, and I do see that a carefully facilitated method where students submit to the instructor, evaluations of other team members that is kept private, and not shared with other members in the team,  addresses this barrier.  See below the form used by online instructor Larry Ragan from Penn State World Campus.
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Screen shot from open course, “Best Practices in Online Teaching”, by Larry Ragan

#2  Technology

“Participants indicated that the challenges inherent to virtual communication relying solely on written language was the second highest impeding factor (19%). Although online communities can provide a supportive context that makes new kinds of learning experiences possible (Bruckman, 1998), online faculty need to consider the inherent limitations of asynchronous, written communication. Because of the challenges of its usage (time lags, lack of spontaneity), and the dependence on the written word, a number of students indicated that they were overwhelmed, especially when they faced conflicts and when they felt isolated from the group.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

 Suggestions:

  • Provide recommendations and guidelines for one or two tools that facilitate group collaboration that are user-friendly and foster seamless collaboration. Group discussion boards don’t have enough features, and students often find the discussion threads overwhelming and difficult to follow. Google Docs is an example of very good collaborative tool.
  • Recommend groups schedule at least one synchronous discussion during the course of the project using a platform such as Google Hangouts, Skype, or a new video conversation tool appear.in.
  • Provide orientation to course site and tools. The institution should create and offer a course that introduces the student to the learning platform, and the features and tools within it. The institution should also highlight to students within the course site the help services available for technical and trouble shooting solutions.
  • Where possible, encourage group members to be in similar time zones to facilitate synchronous communication (a three-hour time difference or less).

#3  Leadership

“Another noteworthy response is related to the perceived role of the group leaders. Having a positive group leader was recorded as the third highest facilitative factor (16%), while the absence of this factor was believed to have negatively impacted the completion of collaborative tasks (5.9%). For our study, it should be also noted that the course instructor merely suggested that each team elect a team leader, rather than making this a requirement.” (An, Kim & Kim, 2008)

Suggestions and Comments:

  • Recommend that the group select a project or team leader. Though I’ve seen some instructors select the group leader, I suggest having the group determine their own roles. In the long run this creates more autonomy and trust within the group, even more so when done in conjunction with the creation of a team charter as mentioned above. A shared leadership role is also possible.
  • The need for leadership in groups working asynchronously is more acute given the nature of the medium.

Further Reading

References