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:

How-to Make Group Work Collaborative In Online Courses: Four Strategies

“CL (collaborative learning) occurs when small groups of students help each other to learn. CL is sometimes misunderstood. It is not having students talk to each other, either face-to-face or in a computer conference, while they do their individual assignments. It is not having them do the task individually and then have those who finish first help those who have not yet finished. And it is certainly not having one or a few students do all the work, while the others append their names to the report (Klemm, W.R., 1994).” (Laal & Laal, 2012).

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Group Collaboration

Providing interactive learning opportunities in online courses is frequently cited as a best practice by institutions offering distance education—Penn StateUniversity of Illinois and Grand Rapids Community College are three of many examples. Yet I know from experience on both sides, as a student and educator, the challenges of functioning within and facilitating collaborative learning activities—group work especially.  In theory, collaborative learning is a sound idea given the numerous studies that suggest the benefits of students learning from and with each other by sharing ideas and perspectives:

…Samuel Totten (1991) who claims that: The shared learning gives learners an opportunity to engage in discussion, take responsibility for their own learning, and thus become critical thinkers. (Laal & Laal, 2012)

And:

Palloff and Pratt (2005) suggest that online courses that are rich with student interactivity facilitate the development of critical thinking skills, better learning, socialized intelligence, and reflection.  (Zygouris-Coe, 2012)

Yet all too often students’ experiences in small virtual groups contrived for the purpose of creating group learning experiences, result in frustration and even resentment. It’s no wonder educators often question whether group work is worth the aggravation. Is student collaboration really necessary for learning? And if it is, how can it be successful?

This post aims to offer support and resources for readers looking for answers to these questions; I incorporate research from four recent papers on group work and collaboration in online learning environments specifically that shed light on the realities of contrived collaborative activities for students. One in particular, “Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions)” (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007) provides practical and helpful suggestions for course designers developing group activities and for instructors facilitating group work. Another, “Collaborative learning: what is it?” (Laal & Laal, 2012) is particularly helpful and applicable to educators; it clarifies what collaborative learning looks like and describes in detail the required elements.

Group Work for Closed Courses not MOOCs
This post outlines essential conditions for group work in online learning environments and suggests four strategies that hone in on the key components needed to create collaborative activities specific to closed, online courses, not MOOCs. In my experience with Massive Open Online Courses, it is not possible, nor desirable for instructors to require or mandate class activities where students collaborate in small groups. Collaboration in MOOCs is ideally student-driven, in keeping with the pedagogy of massive courses. In small, closed and for-credit online courses, the pedagogical approach is different—it requires involvement of the instructor, and a more structured learning environment and activities that support specific learning objectives typically associated with for-credit courses.

Learning Theory and Demand Behind Group Work
Before discussing practical strategies, it’s worthy to examine how group work became an accepted practice in education. The idea that students need to work together to learn, stems from several learning theorists including Piaget, Dewey and Bruner. The premises of their theories are that learning is active, and knowledge is constructed through interaction with the environment (constructivism). Building on the constructivist premise is social learning, where learning happens through active engagement with others (Vgostsky). Yet the concept of students needing to work in groups to learn, is not the only driver of group work in online spaces. The other is the idea that students of today require a unique skill set to work, engage and collaborate as global (and digital) citizens. Businesses also demand that employees be team players, have excellent communication skills that includes working virtually in teams, as well as proficiency with digital platforms. Recently the Wall Street Journal featured an article about companies that seek employees who are able to collaborate with colleagues anywhere in the world, often without ever meeting in person (Rubenfire, 2014). These factors contribute to the perceived need to provide learning opportunities for online students that involve small groups.

Group Work: Cooperation versus Collaboration
Two concepts frequently used interchangeably when discussing group work is cooperation and collaboration. Though each concept is distinct; each suggests a different level of learning in practice. I suggest that both exist on a continuum of student interaction in online environments, with students ‘discussing’ a topic (in a forum for instance) on one end, and ‘collaborating’ where students work and learn as a team—creating for example, a final product interdependently that represents their knowledge construction, on the other.  In their paper, Laal & Laal define each:

  • Cooperation is a structure of interaction designed to facilitate the accomplishment of a specific end product or goal through people working together in groups;
  • Collaboration is a philosophy of interaction and personal lifestyle where individuals are responsible for their actions, including learning and respect the abilities and contributions of their peers. (2012, p. 494).

In most instances, group work in online courses is cooperative at best. Small group exchanges within online courses were examined and discussed in the paper “How much “group” is there in online group work” where students interactions were categorized as: 1) parallel, 2) associative and 3) cooperative interactions (Lowes, 2000, p. 4). Only one group of the five examined approached the higher level of cooperation. However, there are methods and strategies educators (and their institutions) can implement to move students along the continuum of group learning towards the collaborative. There are several conditions necessary for cooperative and collaborative learning identified in the literature referenced in this post—summarized below.

Required Conditions for Cooperative and/or Collaborative Learning in Closed Online Learning Environments

  • Dialogue amongst students is a fundamental component of the group activity; assignments should be designed to encourage discussion and brainstorming (asynchronous and synchronous) rather than a division of labour. One paper suggests that group assignments be constructed for “positive interdependence” where each group member contribution is unique and indispensable (Lowes, p. 12) though examples are not given
  • Understanding of the purpose of the activity—achieved by communicating to students why group work is necessary, e.g. sharing how the project aligns to the learning goals, how students will benefit
  • Access to digital platform(s) and tools that support online collaboration—for discussion, creation of final product, etc. e.g. Google Docs, Google Hangouts
  • Support for students unfamiliar with collaboration platform & tools
  • Guidelines that outline: student expectations, netiquette, procedure to deal absent group member(s), assessment methods, examples of collaborative exchanges between students, team roles, etc.
  • Instructor (and institution) efforts aimed at developing and supporting student skill set for cooperation, collaboration and working in teams
  • Instructor involvement to address non-contributing group members, group challenges, etc.
  • Inclusion of an assessment mechanism on two levels—group and individual

Four Strategies for Instructors (and Institutions) That Support Online Group Work

1. Design a Group Assignment that is complex, that challenges students to apply and discuss course content using multiple perspectives to solve a problem or develop a solution. Include expectations, purpose and clear instructions about how students can collaborate and provide feedback to each other. (Lowes, 2007, p. 12)

2. Model and support the development of collaborative skills • Develop collaborative learning protocols and establish clear expectations about student and instructor roles • Promote student self-monitoring of learning through progress reports, feedback, discussion forums, virtual student-instructor conferences  Cover the skills required at the beginning of the course… An extensive list of ideas in “Collaborative learning in an online teacher education course: lessons learned” (Coe, 2012, p. 339)

3. Facilitate and be involved in group activities.Closely monitor group discussion boards to identify student involvement at beginning of group work, contact students not participating early in the group process.  Collect ongoing data on student progress.

4.  Make the assessment criteria explicit. “Several effective solutions may be employed to do exactly as Webb suggests, that is, to measure group productivity and to measure the individual students’ abilities within the group. Exactly which of the solutions is the most
appropriate will depend upon the circumstances.” (Roberts & McInnerney, 2007, p. 263).

Closing
There is no formula for creating effective group learning opportunities in closed online courses, yet there are shared experiences from educators and academics that provide a starting point as outlined in this post. I encourage readers to share their own experiences, ideas and suggestions for facilitating group interactivity either here with other readers, on other social media platforms or with colleagues. What works and what doesn’t?

References:

Laal, M. & Laal, M. (2011). Collaborative learning: What is it? Social and Behavioral Sciences 31: 491 – 495. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1877042811030217

Lowes, S. (2014). How much “group” is there in online group work? Journal Of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 18(1). Retrieved from http://jaln.sloanconsortium.org/index.php/jaln/article/view/373/82

Roberts, T. S. & McInnerney, J. M. (2007). Seven problems of online group learning (and their solutions). Educational Technology and Society 10(4): 257-268. Retrieved from http://www.ifets.info/journals/10_4/22.pdf

Zygouris-Coe, V. (2012). Proceedings from ICITE 2012: Collaborative Learning in an Online Teacher Education Course: Lessons Learned. Rhodes, Greece. Retrieved from http://www.icicte.org/Proceedings2012/Papers/08-4-Zygouris-Coe.pdf

“Would you say that to me in class?” Online Disinhibition and the Effects on Learning

What are the effects of benign, inappropriate or even toxic student-to-student or student-to-instructor exchanges in online learning communities? How do such exchanges affect learning outcomes?  It’s a topic that’s had little attention from researchers and educators, but as learning continues to scale-up with online and open communities educators need to be paying attention, examining and addressing such interactions. This post shares highlights from a recent paper, Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.

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‘Angry’ from iStock

“As Suler (2004) observes, people say and do things in cyberspace that they wouldn’t ordinarily say and do in the face-to-face world. They loosen up, feel less restrained, and express themselves more openly. So pervasive is the phenomenon that a term has surfaced for it: the online disinhibition effect.”  (Rose, 2014)

When reading the paper “Would you ever say that to me in class?”, I considered my experiences as an online student—having more than one exchange, though not toxic, that were strong enough to leave a sting—dampening my enthusiasm for engaging and participating with my classmates. I’ve since worked with students and faculty that have experienced similar exchanges. Though not all reach the toxic level, there have been instances where faculty encountered students using strong and offensive language, requiring the removal of offensive posts within discussion forums and other actions.

Lack of civility in online forums within learning communities is manageable in small, closed online learning communities where an instructor is in control of a class of up to thirty, or even forty students. However, as classes expand, with MOOCs, and other types of learning communities growing, in combination with platforms that allow anonymity (such as Coursera) it will become an issue for educators [and their institutions] involved in online learning at some time or another. Peers within my network have shared their experiences as students and instructors within MOOCs that involve politically charged or contentious subject matters where discussion forums are fraught with offensive, even toxic comments and vitriol discussion.  It is for this reason that I write this post; to provoke thought and discussion in order for educators to be proactive and develop appropriate strategies.

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Community of Inquiry via coi.athabscau.ca

More so because online behavior in learning communities is complex.  On one hand, a sense of presence, or “being there” is critical to deep and meaningful learning and thus needs to be encouraged. The Community of Inquiry (CoI) is a well-researched framework (Garrison, 2007) that addresses three dimensions of presence—social, instructor and cognitive that are deemed necessary for higher education students to experience deep learning in online environments.

Yet on the other, the CoI framework, due to its two-dimensional nature, does not give us insight into the type of exchanges, the tone behind the student-to-student exchanges online and how they might affect learning. Just as tone of voice, eye contact and body language affect verbal communication—word choice, characters used, even font size and type, (e.g. CAPITAL LETTERS), in text exchanges affect meaning of a message conveyed in an online space. Yet some students will exhibit online disinhibition, emboldened by lack of personal contact, distance and in some cases anonymity. Such behavior can wreak havoc within a learning community—can discourage participants, damage student confidence, stall, or impede learning.

In open learning situations that are not controlled by any one individual due to a connectivist learning approach or student-centered focus for example, dealing with such behavior is challenging, though not impossible. Swift and deliberate action is required by one or more individuals. Even in controlled settings, on a closed platform, or within a small learning community, action is required to preserve a learning climate and community.

Highlights from the Paper:

Below are highlights from “Would you ever say that to me in class?”: Exploring the Implications of Disinhibition for Relationality in Online Teaching and Learning.”

  • The study is qualitative in nature. Analysis of data collected from two universities, from undergraduate and graduate students revealed “instructors’ and students’ experiences of connection with, or disconnection from, each other were profoundly influenced by the phenomenon of online disinhibition.
  • Students recounted stories of class peers turning “ugly” or “abusive” in online posts, making “personal attacks” against classmates, even “swearing at people, calling them idiots and stuff like that.” One student, attributed this tendency to people’s comfort with the online environment: “something that was surprising to me was that people were comfortable enough with the environment to lose a sense of decorum…like they just lost it.”
  • In most of the students’ stories, arguments and disruptive behaviour were seen as the direct result of the kinds of miscommunications that occur in online environments, where paralinguistic cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice are not available to clarify meaning.
  • Online disinhibition is also associated with positive outcomes— In some cases, the student-to-student or student-to-instructor relationship may be enriched—for example, when a student shares an experience that personalizes and thus deepens the learning for everyone, or when a shy student opens up.
  • In other cases, the relationship may be inevitably damaged, as when a student confides something she or he later regrets, or says something that other students consider inappropriate or offensive.

Conclusions
Online disinhibition is a phenomenon that affects not only learning exchanges in online communities, but social (e.g. Twitter) and gaming platforms, etc. Yet learning environments need a special layer of protection that goes beyond a ‘report abuse’ option that exists within most online platforms, e.g. Facebook and Twitter. Learning in online communities requires a level of trust, familiarity, and has associated with it an expectation of a ‘safe’ zone. How can educators create a safe learning community in a closed, online class? What about in an open learning community, in a MOOC?  Answers to questions like these depend upon the learning community, the participants, the purpose of the learning and other factors. But it is up to us as educators to look for answers; we need to have strategies and built-in mechanisms within the different types of online learning communities that will provide [albeit wide] guard rails to foster, yet protect a climate of learning and development.

I’ll be writing more about this topic, specifically anonymity in online learning communities. Stay tuned!

References:

 

How to Create a Video Strategy for MOOCs: Costs and Considerations

“Harvard has built what amounts to be an in-house production company to create massive open online courses, or MOOCs…[it] has two video studios, more than 30 employees, and many freelancers — an astonishing constellation of producers, editors, videographers, composers, animators, typographers, and even a performance coach to help professors get comfortable in front of a camera.The Boston Globe

Harvardx Studio Filming for MOOC

In the HarvardX video production studio, Harvard historian & museum curator being filmed for a MOOC.  Image credit: Katherine Taylor for The Boston Globe

I saw scores of dollar signs when I read about Harvard’s production studios created solely for the purpose of producing videos for MOOCs to put on the edX platform. The article featured in The Boston Globe about Harvard’s new studio, describes videos that share traits similar to documentaries rather than the typical lecture videos featuring a professor speaking to the camera, typical of xMOOCs. Here’s the catch though, the money spent on these production costs for MOOC videos, which is dear, may not always be worth the investment according to recent studies (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014), (Hollands & Tirthali, 2014).

For readers considering, or are in the process of developing a MOOC I’ve outlined guidelines that will help in the development of an instructional strategy for the delivery of the course content for xMOOCs (MOOC featured on a platform such as Coursera or Open2Study).  I’ve drawn from recent research on video production and student engagement specific to xMOOCs—one study out of MIT using data from edX, and the other a noteworthy report released this May “MOOCs: Expectations and Realities”.

Following are considerations and questions to guide the development and choice of the content delivery methods, including videos for MOOCs. Don’t be misled by the flashy [and expensive] studios that Harvard established, thinking that this is a requirement for putting on effective MOOCs. This high bar set by Harvard, may be unjustified, more so when analyzing why institutions choose to offer MOOCs, and how they fit into the vision, and long-term strategy. For the most part institutions’ reasons for offering MOOCs are vague, and few establish metrics to measure the effectiveness of MOOCs, including return on investment, as discussed in Hollands & Tirthali’s report:

“…Most institutions are not yet making any rigorous attempt to assess whether MOOCs are more or less effective than other strategies to achieve these goals.

The Numbers $$$
The two primary cost drivers of MOOC production are the hours invested by faculty members, administrators, instructional designers, technical support and the costs associated with the quality and type of delivery method for the course content. Videos, the typical mode for xMOOCs, can range between high and low production values. The estimated costs for high quality video production is $4,300 per hour of finished video (Hollands & Tirthali, p 11). High quality video production typically involves a team of at least five video experts each involved in one aspect of the process, including  filming, sound, lighting, editing and project management.

  • Development costs of MOOC vary significantly: as low as $38,980, Teacher’s College, Columbia University, to a range between $203,770 – $325,330, Large Midwestern University (Hollands & Tirthali, p 12)
  • Harvard’s costs as per the Boston article, $75,000 and $150,000, though depending upon the method for calculating, it’s difficult to compare to the study quoted above.
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Chart showing student viewing time in minutes.

Guiding Questions and Considerations for Creating a Video Strategy

  • Consider goals for each module/week within the MOOC when planning for content delivery. What delivery method will communicate content to students effectively? Is there an opportunity for student-developed or student-curated [and shared] content sources?
  • Consider a variety of content delivery methods: video, open source content (video and other), interactive online resources, etc.
  • If using video, consider between formats, tutorial-style (illustrating a procedure, step-by-step, i.e. Khan Academy-style) and lecture.  Within each format there are variations influenced by filming technique [screen cast, podcast, filming on laptop, studio, etc], media choices, etc. Research shows students engage differently with each (Guo, Kim & Rubin).
  • Consider: the average engagement time of any MOOC lecture video maxes out at 6 minutes, some as few as 4. However, students engage with tutorials quite differently, often pausing, re-watching, fast-forwarding, etc. (Guo, Kim & Rubin).
  • Are there existing open and accessible content sources on the web that can illustrate a course concept [rather than filming from scratch]?
  • Call students to action to use and apply content from video, i.e. via a  discussion forum or upcoming assignment.
  • Finally, plan the strategy upfront where: 1) each content delivery mode (video, etc) is planned by module/week (content is outlined and scripted when necessary), 2) content within delivery mode links directly to goals of given week, and 3) there is a requirement for students to apply and use the content, for example in discussion forum, assignment or quiz.

References:

Further Reading:

How and Why Institutions are Engaging with MOOCs…Answers in Report “MOOCs: Expectations and Reality”

How do institutions use MOOCs; and to what end?  •  Why do institutions pay thousands of dollars to develop and offer a MOOC on an external platform?  •  How do institutions determine the effectiveness of their MOOC efforts?  •  What are the costs associated with producing and delivering a MOOC?

All good questions; questions that policymakers, administrators and other stakeholders within higher education institutions that are considering MOOCs or already engaged with, want [or should want] answers to. The 200+ page report “MOOCs: Expectations and Reality” by Hollands and Tirthali of Columbia University attempt to answer these questions by surveying 83 faculty members, administrators, researchers and other actors within 69 education institutions. The report delivers on the promise of its title—how and why institutions engage, and provides the reader with even more insights.

The report is meaty, worthy of review for anyone with a vested interest in MOOCs of any type. In this post I provide a brief overview of the report, but focus specifically on one aspect of the ‘how‘. I highlight the resources required to develop a MOOC—how many people it requires, the job titles, the [estimated] costs associated with development. This may be useful for readers considering developing a MOOC for a platform such as Coursera or another, or for a cMOOC using a collective course design approach. This report brings into focus just how resource-hungry MOOCs are, and after reading the report, readers considering developing or contributing to the development of a MOOC might feel enlightened, encouraged, or perhaps even discouraged; at the very least, will have a better understanding of MOOCs and their place in higher education institutions.

 Overview

Who sponsored the report?  The Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education (CBCSE), a research center at the Teachers College at Columbia University. The mission of the center is “to improve the efficiency with which public and private resources are employed in education“.  Note: the report is open and available for download.

Purpose of the Study: Given the work of the CBCSE, and its pursuit of improvement of cost efficiency in education, the report is an extension of its mission. The purpose as outlined in the report, “the study serves as an exploration of  the goals of institutions creating or adopting MOOCs and how these institutions define effectiveness of  their MOOC initiatives“.

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Figure 1 ‘MOOCs: Expectations and Reality’ (p 22)

Report Snapshot:  The report sample includes 83 administrators, faculty members and researchers, all of which were interviewed, at 62 institutions. The institutions: public and private universities, community colleges, platform providers, research organizations, for-profit education companies and a selection of institutions deemed ‘other’ including one museum (p 180). Of the 62 institutions in the sample, 29 at the time of the study were offering or using MOOCs in some way; the remaining were either not participating or taking a wait-and-see position.

Why a MOOC? One of the reasons this report is instructive for the education community is the inclusion of the data about why institutions offer MOOCs. Many have asked why some institutions (several public higher education institutions) have spent thousands of dollars, invested considerable resources into this method of education delivery to the masses that has yet to be evaluated and tested for effectiveness. The chart below summarizes the six reasons identified.

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‘MOOCs: Expectations and Reality’ (Hollands & Tirthali, p 8)

The above table is merely a snapshot.  Each goal is described in further detail within the report. A case study featuring an institution accompanies each which gives a contextual example of the reasons.

A snapshot of How? MOOCs are resource intensive efforts, and the report validates this. Development of a MOOC, and the facilitation of the course once its live (accessible to students) requires significant amounts of time and energy from individuals across several departments within the institution. The faculty member (or members) acting as the subject matter expert for the MOOC requires a team, each with different areas of expertise to support him or her in bringing the content to life and creating an environment of learning for hundreds, if not thousands of course participants.

“Number of faculty members, administrators, and instructional support personnel involved MOOC production teams seldom included fewer than five professionals and, in at least one instance described to us, over 30 people were involved. Faculty members typically reported spending several hundred hours in the production and delivery of a single MOOC” (p 11)

Example of Human Resources Requirements: Case Study 11

Case study 11 provides an excellent example of the commitment of resources needed for developing a course for a MOOC platform which in this example is Coursera. The institution in the case is an unnamed MidWestern University (p 144). The school invited faculty with prior media experience to develop a five to eight week MOOC. This study is representative of the human resources required for development of a MOOC.

Human resources requirements by job title for course development of a MOOC:

2 x Faculty Members: (Subject Matter Experts)

1 x Project Manager: Leads the project, coordinates all elements of development. Liaise with departments as needed within the institution. Manages the project timetable; keeps project on time and on budget

4 x Curriculum Design Team Instructional Designer (works with faculty to present course content and create a learning environment with it on the course home page). • Instructional Technologist (works with instructional designer) • Video Production Liaison (works with faculty member in production of videos, and liaise with video production team)

5 x Video Production Team:  Production Manager •  Camera operators/equipment technicians • Audio-technician

In this case study, videos were produced at a high quality, using a full video design team. The final costs were calculated using records from the institutions, though the report authors made some estimates due to lack of detail on some aspects of human resource inputs.

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‘MOOCs: Realities and Expectations’ (p 144). One of the two data tables accompanying case study #11. Table 7 gives the range of hours spent on MOOC design (p 144)

Lecture Videos: Costs and Student Engagement
One of the primary drivers of costs in MOOC development (for platforms such as Coursera, FutureLearn, etc.) is video production. The more complex the video, for instance addition of graphics, multiple cameras used for shooting, post-filming editing, the higher the costs. Low-tech efforts,  where there might be one camera person, or even the faculty member self-recording on his or her laptop requires far fewer resources.  Some institutions seek a higher quality finished product, which in turn demands a high level of production using a team of video professionals. Accordingly, the costs vary dramatically. ‘MOOCs: Expectation and Realities’ estimates high quality video production at $4,300 per hour of finished video (p 11).

One may be tempted to think that the higher the video quality, the better the learning outcomes. However a report published recently by EDUCAUSE, What Makes an Online Instructional Video Compelling? suggests that students engagement with videos relies upon several factors, including whether or not the video links to an assignment within the course. Furthermore, the average viewing time of videos is less than five minutes (Hibbert, 2014). What this suggests is that videos presenting content must be carefully and strategically planned for during the course development phase, and tied closely to the instructional strategy. Higher production costs does not necessarily mean higher student engagement or learning outcomes.

Closing Thoughts

The report discussed here, ‘MOOCs: Expectation and Realities’ is an important contribution to the MOOC discussion in higher education. In my opinion one of the greatest benefits of the report is the spotlight it puts on the resources required for developing a MOOC, in contrast to the reasons why institutions engage with MOOCs. When one examines closely the reasons, it appears that the amount of resources invested, in some cases is extreme. I agree with the authors in the point they make in the executive summary,

” [we]…conclude that most institutions are not yet making any rigorous attempt to assess whether MOOCs are more or less effective that other strategies to achieve these goals” (p 11).

I’ll add one more point to this, and that’s the need for a complete and comprehensive approach to course design, (applicable to any course) that involves from the beginning, a thorough needs analysis that determines the goals of the organization and how the [potential] course fits into it. It’s only after this analysis that the course design process can proceed.

References:

Hibbert, M. (2014). What Makes an Online Instructional Video Compelling?. EDUCAUSE Review Online. Retrieved from: http://www.educause.edu/ero/article/what-makes-online-instructional-video-compelling

Hollands, F. M., & Tirthali, D. (2014). MOOCs: expectations and reality. Full report. Center for Benefit- Cost Studies of Education, Teachers College, Columbia University, NY.  Retrieved from: http://cbcse.org/wordpress/wp- content/uploads/2014/05/MOOCs_Expectations_and_Reality.pdf

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:

MOOC ‘Jam': Highlights from a Jam on Digital Pedagogy

This post includes takeaways from a ‘MOOC Jam’, a synchronous discussion online I participated in with a group of educators about digital pedagogy. 

MOOC_Jam_Image

‘Jam’ by John Wardell (Flickr)

“What is a Jam?  A Jam is an asynchronous, typed, online discussion designed to work around your schedule. The goal of a Jam is to gain perspective and solicit ideas that inform the community. After the Jam is over, you can read the exchange and the posted resources, which will remain available for several weeks.” MOOC Jam II, Digital Pedagogy   (The three threads of asynchronous discussions in this jam are: 1) Competencies for teaching online, 2) Developing Faculty Competencies, and 3) Learner Analytics for Faculty)

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Screen Shot of participants online during the Jam participating in the threaded discussions (only partial shot of participants)

This past Tuesday, I participated in a  MOOC Pedagogy Jam via the website Momentum, a platform created for stakeholders to discuss critical issues related to education, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The purpose of the platform is to provide a space to host online events about topics related to online education, with the ultimate goal of the Jams ‘to gain perspective and solicit ideas that inform the community’.  I participated in the first MOOC Jam this past November. The topic, “Peer Review of a Framework for MOOCs” hosted by George Siemens, focused on the design of the MOOC Framework. Siemens, creator of the Framework, sought input from the community of participants.

The topic of this Jam, [which turned out to be more of a synchronous discussion] was digital pedagogy, divided into the three threaded discussions as mentioned above. Each discussion featured a moderator, responsible for responding to participants and furthering the discussion, and another moderator summarizing key themes of the discussion each hour. I chose to participate in ‘Competencies for teaching online: describing effective pedagogy’ given its description— “An exchange on how information is delivered to students, how they are engaged as active learners and community is built and how learning is assessed”.

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Screen shot of one the three threaded discussions of the Jam held on the Momentum platform

Digital Pedagogy: Themes and Highlights
Following are my insights from the discussion on digital pedagogy and I’ve included comments from other participants. (Jam II, Momentum, Digital Pedagogy).

The discussion was rich with ideas, insights and provided a glimpse into the issues and challenges with online instruction. Though the title of the Jam featured ‘MOOCs’, much input from contributors pertained to closed, online courses which created an interesting discussion by highlighting one of the primary challenges in online education—the application of appropriate pedagogical methods, which will vary depending upon the learners, the delivery method and goals of the course.

Themes:

1)  Part of the discussion was devoted to the contrast and challenges between learner-directed and instructor-directed learning. The fact that much discussion focused on this issue highlights one of the challenges with MOOCs; a MOOC, due to its scale and format lends itself to be learner-directed. It’s not surprising then that MOOCs attract learners that already know how to learn, are motivated and educated. Several Jam participants discussed methods to get learners involved in learning, how to encourage students to engage and participate [typically in the context of closed online classes].

“I’ve done something similar to engage students in action research with me. I was teaching Web Development and was not happy with the development framework we were using. So as a class we researched the pros and cons of various frameworks and decided as a class (with my approval) which one to use. This worked well – they had “buy in” as we used to say.  Beyond that, I set basic specifications as to what they were to include in their work product, but allowed them to choose the subject matter (content). I also had to give approval before they began coding.”

I see the above challenge highlighting two opportunities: 1) to provide support to students to learn how to be self-directed, and 2) to provide skill development for educators and course designers in how to be flexible and adapt instructional strategies by assessing learners, the learning context and creating appropriate learning experiences, implementing pedagogical methods that match the learning needs.

One Jam participant shared an initiative that his institution recently started for its students; a program designed to address much of what was discussed here.

“California State University, Monterey Bay, is creating an online training module for training in baseline skills in web technologies for collaboration and other soft skills, such as team working relationships. Selecting appropriate pedagogy again depends upon an analysis of the learners — goes back to careful and thrustful planning”

2)  Considerable discussion focused on how to get students to interact, collaborate and engage with peers in online classes, and what the instructors role is in facilitating group formation, participation and learner engagement. Though this theme is similar to the theme mentioned above, interesting thoughts on group formation and collaboration emerged—should it be encouraged, facilitated or left for students to form spontaneously? And if so, how? This relates to the motivation of the learner, which is quite different when students are in for-credit classes versus ‘free’ and open classes  [MOOCs] that are driven by interest and desire to learn—essentially self-directed.

But a key trade-off when you have non-static groups, as Michaelsen, Fink et al have looked at is that you lose the crucial accountability factor and or the time to form constructive group norms/roles etc. — this then leads to the ‘freeloaders’ issue that gives groupwork such a bad rep.  There is the challenge — in a MOOC context, can you establish stable, productive learning groups with accountability, positive norms, roles etc to really activate the engagement, peer learning and other benefits of group learning?”   

The comment above is interesting—is it really possible or desirable in a MOOC environment that the responsibility for group accountability and productivity rests with the instructor?

3)  The session wrapped up with discussion that focused on supporting learners, helping learners to learn in a MOOC format.  The question appears to be—how can this be accomplished, is it through course design, or while the course is live, accomplished via course facilitators?  Or do we need to teach students how to learn in a MOOC?

I think one of the goals for a MOOC is enabling learners to make connections, share, collaborate and learn from one another. Rather than thinking about self-directed or facilitator directed maybe we need to think about how we can create ways that encourage learners to support one another?”

I am very interested in how learners can and do support one another’s learning in MOOCs. Do you have some thoughts in mind about the answer to this question? What can we build into the design that supports and encourages peer-peer learning?”

Closing Thoughts
Discussions, similar to those within this Jam, create excellent opportunities to get the issues and challenges facing education, specifically online education, out in the open.  It also helps stakeholders identify what needs to be discussed and explored within their own institutions. There are commonalities across all institutions when it comes to online education, and ironically the very barriers affecting these issues, exist within institutions at all levels. Fortunately there is progress—many institutions are experimenting, collaborating and striving to adapt to cultural shifts, increase access, yet still provide high quality, relevant education. Are there similar discussions happening within your institution?