Need-to-Know-News: Blackboard’s ‘Delightful’ New Learning Experience, e-Textbook Trends & A Nifty, New Digital Bulletin Board

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

MP900405500Blackboard Launches ‘The New Learning Experience’

The vision will be brought to life through technology and services that are focused on the wants and needs of the learner; tightly integrated into connected and sensible workflows; packaged in a totally new, intuitive and delightful user experience; accessible, mobile and always-on; and layered with data and analytics capabilities. — Blackboard Press Release via PR NewsWire, July 21, 2015

‘Delightful’, ‘intuitive’ and ‘sensible’ are hardly words educators (or students) would associate with a learning management platform, yet according to Blackboard Inc. ‘The New Learning Experience’ of which the LMS Blackboard Learn platform is part, will be just that.  Announced last week at the BbWorld 2015 event, the New Learning experience includes the re-designed Blackboard Learn platform, the new and improved Blackboard Collaborate, web conferencing platform and a new Bb Student App. Blackboard’s CEO, Jay Bhatt, in a keynote presentation, described the new learning experience as ‘student-focused’, ‘connected’  and outlined how it will ‘follow the student on their learning journey’ through K-12, Higher Ed and beyond.  And, since Blackboard is the dominant platform in the U.S. LMS market, it’s likely that ‘the new learning experience’ may be coming to a campus near you.

LMSs_by_the_numbers_2015Spring_700FTE

LMS Data – Spring 2015 Updates [edutechnica.com/2015/03/08/lms-data-spring-2015-updates]

Insight:  Blackboard’s ‘new learning experience’ sounds pretty great—an integrated learning experience for students, delightful, user-friendly—a learner’s utopia! But can a LMS platform really deliver such an experience? More importantly do we really want to have one company managing all the functions and components of the learning experience?  I’m not a LMS expert, but after reading articles from those that are, over at e-Literate blog for instance, I’m not sure that Blackboard will even be able to deliver such a product. Furthermore after reading the disclaimer at the beginning of a Keynote of the CEO’s New Learning Initiative on YouTube, I don’t think Blackboard is either.

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Blackboard CEO Jay Bhatt at #BbTLC15 presenting the ‘New Learning Experience’. Keynote extract – May 2015 [YouTube: youtu.be/E7FALEA7ACU]

E-text books in Higher Ed — Low Adoption Rates Explained
Textbooks in most higher education courses are a key source of content for students. Yet the adoption rate of e-textbooks among students is low; on the surface puzzling given the high rates of device ownership among college students. EDUCAUSE published a paper earlier this month that explored e-textbook use in higher education, specifically student usage patterns, adoption rate, and the role of the instructor in e-textbook use. The report is helpful; the study used benchmark data gathered via an online survey in 2012 with undergraduate (n=809) and graduate (n=133) students and compared it to data gathered in 2014 using the same (and some additional) questions.

Surprising is the little difference between results from 2012 to 2014. The one significant difference is the awareness of e-textbook availability which went from 30% in 2012, unaware of e-textbook as an option, to 10% in 2014. Overall the findings suggest that lower cost is the driving factor for students’ decision to buy textbooks with convenience ranking second.

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Figure 2: Factors influencing e-textbook adoption, 2012 – 2014 (deNoyelles, Raible, & Seilhamer, 2015)

Instructor use of the e-textbook is also factor in student use, third ranked behind cost and convenience. The study indicated that instructor annotations and embedding questions in the e-book (feature available within  e-textbooks platforms) was a driver of student purchases of the e-text over print. Yet the overall the rate of instructors using e-textbooks was low in 2012, and lower still in 2014:

In 2012, 75 percent of participants claimed that instructors seldom or never used the features within the particular e-textbook. This rate remained low two years later, with 77 percent of participants reporting that their instructors seldom or never used the features of an e-textbook… Only around one-third of instructors acknowledged the e-textbook option in their syllabus … less than 30 percent of instructors actually modeled the use of the e-textbook. — Exploring Students’ E-Textbook Practices in Higher Education, July 6, 2015, EDUCAUSE

Insight: There are several barriers to e-textbook adoption and though EDUCAUSE’s paper suggests that instructor adoption is a significant factor, there are others—one not mentioned is the fact that college students as a demographic group don’t like to pay top dollar for digital content—they are used to getting content for free or for a minimal cost with monthly fee-based platforms such as Netflix for movies ($7.99/month) and Spotify for music ($4.99/month for students). This phenomenon makes the idea of investing a significant sum in an e-textbook inconsistent with this groups’ view of digital content; a physical textbook might be viewed more worthy of the significant investment. Secondly, what is mentioned in the paper is that most student-respondents didn’t use the interactive elements of the e-textbook, only 28%. The interactive elements are one of the primary benefits of the digital format—interactive features can provide additional and/or enhanced learning. The fact that students aren’t using these elements, whether due to availability, awareness or platform limitations, is significant barrier that once overcome will greatly improve adoption rates.

There are new developments in e-textbook platforms, one highlighted in The Chronicle of Higher Education (listed below).

Nifty, New Ed-Tech Platform  – Realtime Board
I’m a big fan of the digital white board platform, Padlet, which is an excellent tool for virtual team brainstorming sessions, back channel discussions during virtual meetings, or for team communication. Though it can be buggy especially when there are multiple users, which is why this new platform Realtime Board looks promising. It appears to be able to scale up to multiple users, can handle a variety of file formats, has an attractive interface, and is supported by multiple device platforms. The downside is that there is a fee for users, however there is a free licensing option for educators, click here for more details.

Below is an example of Realtime Board used for a Mind Map assignment.

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Example of a Mind map using Realtime Board, [https://realtimeboard.com/examples/mind_map/]

Make Teaching ‘Stick’ with Ideas from “Make it Stick: The Science of Successful Learning”

make it stick book cover

make it stick: The Science of Successful Learning, Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, & Mark A. McDaniel

In this post I review key takeaways from the book “make it stick” and delve into its practical applications for educators—how instructors who teach face-to-face or online can help their students learn better, and for course and curriculum designers—how they can support learning through unique course design strategies.

The book begins “…people generally go about learning in the wrong ways…” and authors describe how the methods we typically use to learn—reviewing material again and again to get that ‘A’ for instance, or practicing the same skill for hours on end until mastery, are essentially ineffective (pg. xi). They don’t work, and ‘make it stick’ explains why. Despite the title, “… Science of Successful Learning”, the book is more about the practical than the science though the authors do a fine job of referencing research to support their claims. For these and other reasons, the book is enlightening—refreshingly so. I approached the book with few expectations; with the numerous titles out there on learning—How we Learn, The Science Behind Learning, Accelerated Learning, etc., I’m a bit skeptical. Though most concepts presented in the book aren’t new, like the debunking of learning styles*, the methods described on how we learn provide a new perspective on teaching and developing coursework. For instance forgetting is good; good when we space out learning then forget enough that we have to retrieve it later and relearn it. Another, changing up topics frequently is also effective—just when we think we are beginning to ‘get it’, it’s a good time to move on to another topic.

Make it Stick Applied to Teaching  & Course Design
“Make it stick” is a how-to book geared to students and life-long learners that describes how to not just remember, but how to apply, analyze, and synthesize concepts.  This post presents a different perspective, how the principles in “make it stick” can be applied to teaching and to the development of curriculum and courses—online and face-to-face. We could just as easily substitute ‘teaching’ for ‘learning’ in the opening quote, ‘people generally go about teaching in the wrong ways’.  In this context ‘people’ refers to teachers, professors, trainers, tutors, coaches and parents, as well as curriculum and instructional designers. I’m in the latter category and used principles from the book when developing  an online, four-unit professional development course for faculty.

Overview
The book is a fairly easy read with enough challenge and complexity to make it a page-turner.  It’s also cleverly written; authors embed some of the learning methods described in the book in the writing. For example they use ‘interleaving—which is a method of introducing a new idea or concept, then layering in an additional concept (or concepts)—for instance concept ‘a’ is introduced in a chapter, and just when you start grasping it, authors switch to concept ‘b’, then come back to concept ‘a’ in the next chapter, while introducing concept ‘c’.  Concept a, b and c (and d, e and f) are interleaved throughout the book in this way, turning up in subsequent chapters with different examples to illustrate each. Just when you might have forgotten concept ‘a’, it appears again, along with yet another topic. This technique, switching topics frequently and interleaving, represent two methods authors described in the book, one is to mix it up (vary) and space-out, content frequently, before you’ve mastered the material (pg. 46 – 49). Then review the material later, retrieve concepts when you’re on the brink of forgetting them altogether. Apparently this repeated retrieval, going back to concepts again and again, embeds the knowledge and skills (pg. 29), and is far more effective than concentrated study sessions of re-reading, reviewing and highlighting text passages. The second concept interleaving, which is the idea that learning two or more subjects, or practicing two or more skills, is a more potent that massed practice focused on one topic.

Book Highlights

  • Learning is deeper and more durable when it requires effort. This idea explained in chapter four, ‘embrace difficulties’ which authors describe difficult learning as desirable due to the idea that the brain encodes and consolidates learning when learning it’s ‘effortful'; is strengthened through mental representations associated with retrieval and making connections (pg. 73).
  • * Learning styles debunked; there is no empirical research that supports the idea that learning is more effective when instruction caters to the learners preferred style of learning, e.g. auditory, visual, etc.
  • Learners are susceptible to the ‘illusion of knowing’.  It’s not uncommon for learners to ‘not know what they don’t know’.  Being aware of what one still needs to learn, or what skill needs developing is known as metacognition, and it’s part of overcoming the illusion of knowing. Chapter five lists tools learners can use to gain a sense of knowing.  Educators play a critical role in helping students overcome the illusion of knowing by providing constructive feedback (pg. 126).
  • Learning requires a foundation of knowledge, which supports the idea that we do need to learn foundational concepts even in a world where we can “Google it’.  It seems that when knowledge is deeply entrenched in long-term memory it supports the learner’s ability to make connections with other knowledge held in one’s memory (pg. 76).  ‘Googling’ a fact or concept will likely be stored in the learner’s short-term memory, and while useful in certain contexts, it does not replace a learner having a knowledge base to call upon when working on complex projects or initiatives.

1197947341_89d0ff8676Tips for Instructors/Faculty/Teachers to Help Learning ‘Stick’
The following tips section is a summary of concepts presented in the book. The final chapter of the book, Make it Stick, also outlines some general tips for teachers, though authors caution that teachers must find what’s right for his or her classroom (pg. 225). Agreed. But still the tips are worthy of careful consideration.

  • Focus on active learning methods—retrieval, elaboration, reflection, generative learning. This idea of active learning is not new, but the book provides excellent suggestions for active learning that can be applied to the classroom and online. One example I particularly like is the use of ‘summary sheets’, where students are required to submit a single sheet at the end of a week that illustrates the prior week’s material with drawings annotated with key ideas, arrows and graphs (pg. 231). This could be done in an online course where learners share their summary diagrams with each other via a forum, or group’s are assigned to create a collective summary diagram for a given week and post it for sharing.
  • Create ‘desirable difficulties’ where learners struggle with material, make mistakes and even fail, yet do ultimately receive corrective and constructive feedback from the instructor.
  • Provide constructive feedback — once learners have wrestled with the concepts and material (as above). This method not only strengthens learning but creates an open and challenging learning climate
  • Incorporate frequent, low stakes testing.
  • Provide opportunities for elaboration, reflection.
  • Explain to students how learning works—sharing with students what empirical studies have revealed on how people learn will help students manage their own education. The other benefit—teaching becomes transparent; students see the purpose behind the methods, e.g. reflection exercises, frequent quizzes, etc. Students may also see that learning is supposed to be challenging and difficult and that making mistakes and not always succeeding is part of the learning process. The book does a good job outlining how to explain learning to students (pg 225 – 230).

Practical Applications for Course/Curriculum Designers

  • Create frequent and varied active learning exercises — focus less on content that students consume through reading and watching, and more on doing.  Active learning in online courses, though more challenging to create, supports effective and dynamic learning experiences (Austin & Mescia, n.d.).
  • Use quizzes as exploratory, reflective learning exercises with the primary purpose to help students learn. This means creating quizzes that provide immediate feedback, even during the quiz, where students can check their answers. In order for this to be effective the feedback needs to be specific, describing why an answer is correct or incorrect. The feedback is an opportunity to reinforce concepts and can prompt students to dig deeper into a subject area. If using the quiz feature in a LMS, it’s possible to provide customized feedback, even include Web links to further resources.
  • Incorporate concepts frequently throughout the course in a variety of contexts by creating learning exercises and assignments that require students to draw upon concepts from previous modules/units of learning.  Do not approach learning modules or units as independent ‘chunks’ of learning, but fluid and porous ‘blocks’ that draw upon previous concepts that interlock and build a structure. It’s a common term in online course development to ‘chunk’ learning into segments, yet it’s critical to thread concepts consistently throughout the modules/units.
  • Don’t make it too easy — make students work at learning, e.g. by posing more questions and opportunities for discovery through discussion and interaction with other students. Though structure and outline of purpose for activities is the framework, students need to find solutions and solve problems wrestling with concepts and ideas. This last component is perhaps the most challenging to structure within an online course.

Examples of Methods Applied from ‘make it stick’

1) Interleaving in an online course: As mentioned earlier in the post, I applied the idea of interleaving in an online course I recently created. Rather than topics introduced as separate units of instruction within independent modules, I threaded concepts from previous modules into the new ones. Concepts from prior modules were referenced frequently in different contexts, and in the learning activities participants are required to incorporate concepts from previous units along with newly introduced concepts, as well as to draw upon their knowledge and experience.  I also incorporated frequent, cumulative quizzes for review in each module that covered concepts from all modules. Quiz settings were adjusted so that learners can check their responses before moving on to the next question and the feedback provides a review of the concept.

2) Generative learning is a method discussed in the book. It’s a process where students are given a problem to solve before being taught the concepts or method. The idea is that learning is stronger when students invest more energy and effort looking for a solution. Critics of this teaching method say it’s more time-consuming and not as effective as direct instruction. In Ontario, Canada this method of generative learning is introduced in select public schools to teach Mathematics.

“He (the math teacher) presents a problem at the start of class, and lets the students try to figure it out. Hopefully, he says, the students will struggle. “That initial moment of struggle prepares them for what they’ll learn later,”  — Old School or new? Math teachers debate best method as Canadian scores fall, Liam Casey

Closing
I give ‘make it stick’ five-stars, not only for the concise, crisp writing but the thought-provoking and actionable content. Teachers, instructors and course designers will no doubt find the book useful, at the very least it will provide a refreshing take on learning. The book’s website, makeitstick.net provides a good overview of the content by chapter.

Are you Ready to Teach Online? Readiness Surveys Aim to Help Faculty Prepare

“…the following questions will help you determine what you need to do to succeed at online learning. Post-survey feedback will also provide you with information on what you can expect from an online course”  — The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Online Learning Readiness Questionnaire for Students

Teaching Readiness ChecklistThere are several excellent self-scoring assessments on the Web for students to assess their readiness for online learning as the one mentioned in the opening, yet few for instructors and faculty planning to teach online. The purpose of such questionnaires is to help students identify what skills they’ll need to be successful; technical and ‘soft skills’ such as self-direction, time management, etc. This post aims to help instructors prepare for teaching online by reviewing readiness tools and questionnaires that help to assess and determine what skills they will need to make the transition from teaching face-to-face to an online learning environment.

Shared below are two surveys and key findings from two papers on ‘readiness’ for online learning and teaching; both are examined briefly. One paper discusses student, instructor and institution readiness and argues that a successful online learning program must include a systematic process of planning, designing and creating environments where learning is actively fostered and supported (Mercado, 2008, pg. 18.2). In the same paper, Mercado stresses that teachers must also “possess personal attributes to perform online teaching and administration of the online environment successfully“. And most instructive are the tables within the paper with questions that focus on attitudes that aim to assess instructors’ perceptions towards online teaching (screen shot below). It’s the attitudes that are most important given that a student-centric mindset is required for successful online instructors, one that differs significantly from traditional, face-to-face instruction.

“Teaching in an online course involves more than replicating classroom strategies in a different form. It “requires a different approach—one that focuses less on the amount of time students spend together in a particular place, and more on facilitating a distance community and on activities designed for students working individually” (University of Washington, 2004).”

Screen Shot 2015-06-21 at 3.27.14 PMScreen Shot 2015-06-21 at 3.27.28 PMScreenshot above: Excerpt from survey that assesses teachers attitude towards online teaching as part of readiness. Designed to encourage teachers to reflect on their teaching style and strategies, circumstances, abilities, motivation and time management. (Mercado, 2008, pg.18.6)

Though there is little research that supports the thesis that readiness questionnaires lead to better learning outcomes for students, there is consensus that readiness assessments at the very least emphasize for students and instructors the expectations and demands of learning and teaching in an online space, encouraging the assessment-taker to take the necessary steps and actions to prepare in an effort to reduce the learning curves associated with technology and teaching approaches (Gascoigne & Parnell, 2014).

Categories and Barriers to Readiness
The assessments available on the web specific to instructor-readiness are few—two are listed below. Both categorize the required skills into three areas; 1) technology, 2) pedagogy and 3) administrative skills. Though as already mentioned, the paper by Mercado includes attitudes and perceptions of online learning as one component of a readiness which highlights the different mindset required for teaching online. It’s the mindset of a traditional education model that puts up the biggest barriers to instructors transitioning to teaching online. An extreme example of an instructor unable to adapt to a student-focused approach is from a MOOC on the Coursera platform where a faculty member quit midway through “because of disagreements over how to best conduct this course, I’ve agreed to disengage from it” (Kolowich, 2013).

I suggest that the required skills fall into three categories. Though the two surveys included below are good, they do not encompass all of the skills I suggest are required. In lieu of a survey that includes all three areas, I recommend consulting the “Teacher Attitudes” survey questions in Mercado’s paper in conjunction with one of the surveys below pages (18.5 to 18.7).

1.  Technology and Social Media Skills: Technology skills are fundamental, and though social media skills not an essential, they enhance the instructor’s ability to connect with students. Skills include: ♦ basic computer skills ♦  proficiency with software applications ♦ installing/updating software and plug-ins ♦ internet search literacy ♦ proficiency with features and functions within the LMS including uploading files, grading tools and grade book ♦ LMS tools for asynchronous/synchronous communication ♦ familiarity with platforms for communication/engagement outside of LMS, e.g. Pinterest, Twitter, Google+

2.  Administrative and Organization Skills: Includes skills such as time management e.g. ability and willingness to respond to student questions with immediacy e.g. within  24 hours ♦ provide constructive feedback on student assignments in timely manner ♦ proficiency with grade book and ability to submit grades by required ♦ monitor/follow-up with academic integrity issues

3. Pedagogical Skills and Teaching Approach: ♦ student focused learning model ♦ instructor focus on supporting and guiding learning not delivering content and instruction ♦ providing constructive feedback ♦ establishing and sustaining online presence

‘Readiness for Teaching Online’ Surveys

1. Faculty Self Assessment: Preparing for Online Teaching from Penn State University is free to use under the Creative Commons license. It’s excellent. One is required to input a name and email address to access the survey, though apparently it is not stored on the school’s server, and you to get a very detailed, comprehensive report emailed upon completion based upon your responses (check your spam folder; email is from PSU Online). CUNY published on its faculty website an example of a feedback report of the Penn State Self-Assessment—you can see the example by clicking here.

There are thirty questions ranked within three categories: technical, administrative and pedagogical competencies. The survey assumes the instructor has teaching experience—it includes questions about familiarity with LMS features and teaching online for instance, but it does highlight for instructors new to online teaching, the skills and expectations required.

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Screenshot of Penn State’s Faculty Teaching Readiness Questionnaire https://weblearning.psu.edu/FacultySelfAssessment/#

2. Faculty Online Teaching Readiness Survey from the University of Toledo, twenty-question self-scoring survey. This survey is not nearly as comprehensive as Penn State’s, but it does provide a snapshot of skills required and provides in the feedback for each response, a detailed description of the skill with links to resources for further learning and/or information. Note, the selection buttons are misleading on this quiz, when completing it select the radio button that is above the answer you want.

Resources

Need-to-Know-News: Micro-Credentialing Movement in Higher Ed & Active Learning Trumps Lectures

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

credit1) The Micro-credential Movement in Higher Ed
The latest trend in higher education is micro-credentialing, the non-traditional education path where students gain skill sets in a specific area and receive a credential. Case in point, Udacity announced this week a new nanodegree (Udacity defines nanodegrees as ‘curriculums designed to help you become job-ready)’— the Android nanodegree in partnership with Google. Another example—Penn State’s College of Business also launched this week an online bootcamp course, ‘Supply Chain Leadership Academy’, to educate “supply chain leaders of tomorrow in leadership and best practices in holistic supply chain management”.

The micro-credentialing trend is driven by business entities that have a real (or perceived) workforce skill gap, where jobs can’t be filled due to lack of qualified applicants. Google reports it has thousands of jobs to fill given a dearth of qualified applicants. The Linux Foundation, also offering a certificate course in partnership with edX, reports it has over 50,000 open jobs.

MOOC providers and select higher education institutions are leveraging the apparent skills gap, using their platforms to build their online program offerings with credentialing options for a fee. A good idea. The target market is not traditional higher education students, but non-traditional students that are already in the workforce and are looking to further their careers and/or switch career paths. Alison.com is a platform offered credentialing in specific skill sets long before MOOC providers began doing so. Though Alison’s business model is different from MOOC providers such as Coursera or edX. Students aren’t the revenue source but advertisers, featured on the platform, are.

Sampling of micro-credential programs and associated fees:

  • edX’s Linux System Administration Essentials course, “This Linux course is for those just starting their career in IT as well as professionals with experience on other operating systems who want to add Linux to their portfolio”. Fee: $399
  • Stanford Online, Professional Certificates, “Our professional certificates offer short, focused courses that give you tools and techniques you can apply right away“. Fee: $1295 per online course; required number of courses vary by certificate.
  • Udacity’s Nanodegree – “All the course content is free online, but the $200 per month pays for the non-scaleable parts of the degree: project grading, feedback, instructor mentorship, assistance and a final certification”. Option to receive reimbursement of 50% of tuition upon completion.
  • Digital Literacy & IT Skills Diploma Courses, Alison.com. Free with option to pay nominal fee for paper certificate delivered via mail.
  • Coursera’s Specializations – “Master a skill with a targeted sequence of courses”. Fee: $95 per course, with a fee for the ‘capstone project’, e.g. Business Foundations Specialization = $595 for four courses and capstone project.
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Screenshot of recent email from Coursera announcing upcoming Specialization certificates. ‘Specializations’ consist of a two or more courses on focused area.

Insight: This non-traditional student population, which micro-credentials target, is an emerging market and such options are a boon to working or unemployed adults seeking skill development. It’s a positive development in higher education. Employers appear receptive to micro-credentials. However, micro-credentialing is favorable provided the programs provide quality learning resulting in tangible, applicable skill sets. The majority of the credentials require not only a financial investment, but a significant investment of students’ time and energy. It’s buyer-beware; credentials do not guarantee a job, though the courses backed by business entities likely have higher placement rates than those without a business affiliation.

2) The Case for Active Learning over Lectures*
This is not new news, but worthy of review—evidence that performance of students engaging in classes that primarily offer active learning is improved over classes involving primarily lectures. A significant study on active learning was released last year; it provides compelling evidence on active learning benefits specific to STEM subjects in higher education (Freeman, et al., 2014). Researchers conducted a meta-analyses of 225 studies in published and unpublished literature that documented student performance in courses with at least some active learning versus traditional lecturing.  Though intuitively we might know that active learning is more effective for learning, there’s now solid evidence to back it up:

The data reported here indicate that active learning increases examination performance by just under half a SD and that lecturing increases failure rates by 55%. The heterogeneity analyses indicate that (i) these increases in achievement hold across all of the STEM disciplines and occur in all class sizes, course types, and course levels; and (ii) active learning is particularly beneficial in small classes and at increasing performance on concept inventories.

Implications: Is the lecture dead? Absolutely not, but to increase student learning, retention and success, involving students in active application of concepts should be the norm not the exception. However, implementing active learning is challenging for many educations, and especially for online courses, yet it can be done with deliberate, thoughtful development of a course learning strategy. Below are links with suggestions and examples of active learning applications. One of my favorite examples of active learning, is an online literature instructor Laura Gibbs, who creates assignments using online platforms—blogging platforms, Pinterest, etc. where students engage with content, each other and the Internet community.

References:

Feature Image: by GotCredit on Flickr

How ‘Good’ is Your Online Course? Five Steps to Assess Course Quality

The view that online education is “just as good as” face-to-face instruction was not widely held in 2003: 42.8% of chief academic officers reported that they considered the learning outcomes for online instruction to be inferior to face-to-face instruction. The view of online quality has improved over time. However results for 2013 revealed a partial retreat in faculty perceptions of online learning providing quality learning experiences. The 2014 results indicate that the retreat continues—there’s an increase in faculty that perceive online education as inferior. — Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States, 2015

quality-controlOne of the main criticisms of online courses is they are of poor quality as revealed in the annual Babson study mentioned in the opening. Positive perception of online learning by faculty has declined in 2013 and 2014 (Allen & Seaman, 2015). Face-to-face courses appear to be the hallmark for quality when it comes to higher education. Yet this doesn’t seem fitting considering the ongoing and often heated public dialogue about the quality of higher education programs with little consensus on what quality is. In this blog post I suggest that online educators can and should tackle the quality issue in their own courses, and that they do so by assessing their course holistically. A holistic approach encompasses elements such as students’ perspectives, results over a period of time, artifacts created during learning, and the instructor’s course experience.

I also review recent research on quality assessment specific to online courses. I also examine existing frameworks and rubrics for online course assessment and explain why, even if an institution follows such standards, these are starting points. I outline five-steps that instructors can follow to assess whether a course is ‘good’—an assessment for quality that considers foundational elements, student perspectives, course artifacts, student and instructor learning experiences.

What is Course Quality?
Up until a few years ago ‘quality’ in higher education was measured by a course’s content, pedagogy and learning outcomes (Bremer, 2012). This approach has changed to a process-oriented system where a combination of activities contributing to the education experience are considered. Activities that include: student needs, use of data and information for decision-making, department contributions, as well as improved learning outcomes (Thair, Garnett, & King, 2006). This holistic approach of evaluating education experiences is often applied to the development and assessment of online learning. For example, Online Learning Consortium’s Five Pillars of Quality Online Education (below) and Quality Matters (QM) rubric.

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“Five Pillars of Quality Online Education, the building blocks which provide the support for successful online learning”.  http://www.onlinelearningconsortium.org

Why Assessing Quality is Difficult in Online Education
Yet there are challenges associated with setting universal quality standards for online education, and though a starting point, a thorough quality assessment requires ongoing consideration of numerous elements, some that occur over a period of time.  Key challenges with assessing quality through set standards are outlined in ‘What is online course quality‘ and include: 1) the lack of authoritative body (able and willing) to address minimum level of standards across all states with their accrediting bodies, 2) the challenge of creating a comprehensive, evaluative tool to address complexities of online courses, and 3) the implementation process itself given the significant resources that would be required to implement an institution-wide evaluation process (Thompson, n.d.).

Limitations of Quality Assessments
There are other limitations. Some assessments are inherently limiting with a prescriptive set of standards that may not fit all contexts.  Another is the tendency to establish a minimum level of quality, ‘baseline standards’ which limits innovation and creativity (Misut & Pribilova, 2015).  Most course assessments are done at a point-in-time and are unable to capture dimensions over the life of a course and post-course; dimensions that include student perceptions collected as formative feedback (mid-way through course) and end-of-course feedback surveys. Furthermore, quality assessments frequently focus on course/instructional design and fail to include learning experiences of the instructor and students.

What’s involved In a Good Course Assessment?
A holistic assessment goes beyond course design; it acknowledges the nuances that make a course unique, including input and contributions from students, developments in the field of study, and current events. Most valuable are students perceptions of their learning and of the course experience. A good course assessment considers the course over a period of time, and considers interactions between instructor and students, students and students, all of which create artifacts that can be studied and analyzed (Thompson, 2005).  Artifacts might include, emails or forum posts of student questions,  dialogue within forums, feedback from group interaction, end-of-course student surveys, LMS reports on student interaction patterns, student assignment results, and more.  Course artifacts give valuable clues to a course’s quality, more so when collected from two or more course iterations and analyzed collectively.

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Figure from paper describing the Online Course Criticism model based on the concept of educational criticism which suggests a holistic review of a course to assess quality (Thompson, 2005)

Other elements to consider:

  Student behaviours including questions asked in forums, emails, interactive patterns within LMS, interaction with resources, participation patterns within discussion forums,  social platforms designated to course, etc.   Student perceptions evaluated through questionnaires, formative course feedback, post-course questionnaires, one-on-one interactions  ♦  Knowledge creation/transfer by students evaluated through assignment analysis, course artifacts, post-course surveys  ♦  Course design as per rubric/assessment tool    Use of current technology tools and platforms    Course data and artifacts from two or more sessions analyzed and compared  ♦  Quantity and type of interaction between students and instructor

Five-Steps to Assessing Online Course Quality

1) Asses Using a Rubric or Other Tool to Consider Basic Course Elements
Assess course using the tool or framework employed by your institution e.g. Quality Matters rubric. If your institution does not have a tool in place I recommend the rubric created by California State University Chico which covers six domains. The rubric (embedded below) is free to use and download under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.

* Thanks to a reader’s comment – there is an updated version of the Chico rubric which is a checklist format with additional dimensions. It is similar to the Quality Matters rubric. I prefer the version embedded here — its more approachable given it’s less lengthy and rigid. Link here to the updated version.

2) Analyze Course from a Student Perspective
This is perhaps the most difficult yet useful element for improving course quality. There are a variety of ways to consider students’ perspectives, several already mentioned. Other recommendations—take an online course as a student (e.g. a MOOC) in a topic you aren’t familiar with. This provides an eye-opening view of how it feels to be an online student. Another method is to ask a colleague from another department to review your course and provide constructive feedback.

3) Assess Course Artifacts, Materials, & Feedback
Another useful exercise is analyzing course artifacts. Analyzing results from student feedback via a questionnaire midway through course is helpful. If a course is offered more than once, compare data from course iterations collectively.  Consider, is student feedback incorporated into subsequent course re-runs? What about student-generated content? All artifacts and materials associated with a course are valuable material for assessing a course’s quality.

4) Consider Level and Type of Student-to-Student and Student-to-Instructor Interactions
Interaction is critical to an online course; students that feel connected, establish themselves as individuals within an online course are likely to have higher levels of motivation and learning satisfaction over those that don’t. Consider the forums, the interactive assignments where students can participate, the social exchanges within course-associated platforms, and other places for interaction. An example of assignments that encourage student feedback and involvement, leading to high levels of engagement can be found on this online instructor’s (Laura Gibbs) course site here. Also consider the Community of Inquiry model for the types of interactions in an online course that lead to positive learning experiences.

5)  Results: Are Students Learning?
Evidence of learning  is the most important assessment dimension, yet nearly impossible for a standardized quality assessment tool to evaluate.  One could argue that before and after quizzes within a course can evaluate learning. I suggest that the instructor is able to assess at a deeper level whether or not learning occurred, can determine the level of critical thinking. This can be done only when assignments demand that students demonstrate what they know and are required to apply course concepts.  Assignments that draw out students thinking by demonstration either through dialogue or written work allow the instructor evaluate learning effectively. There’s no formula for this fifth step, this is an example of customized course evaluation. But I suggest instructors evaluate student artifacts from one course to another and to consider what students learned and how well  they articulated what they learned. There may be opportunity for revising assignments, activities or other course dimensions.

Conclusion
Assessing quality in online courses is complex as we’ve seen here, yet addressing quality is critical to advance the positive perception of online education for one, but more importantly to provide learning and teaching experiences that are rewarding, rich and meaningful. Quality assessment can start one course at a time, and who better to do this than the course instructor?

References/Resources*

Need-to-Know-News: What Will Next Generation Learning Environments Look Like? Two Reports Share Different Views & MOOC sans Lecture Videos

This ‘Need-to-Know’ blog post series features noteworthy stories that speak of need-to-know developments within higher education and K-12 that have the potential to influence, challenge and/or transform traditional education as we know it.

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New white paper suggests the Next Generation Digital Learning Environment requires a ‘Lego-approach’ to its development

1) EDUCAUSE releases paper “Next Generation Digital Learning Environment”

The LMS has been highly successful enabling the administration of learning but less so in enabling learning itself”

Hear, hear! The above quote from the white paper released by EDUCAUSE this week the ‘Next Generation Digital Learning Environment’ highlights the YAWNING gap between what the current learning management systems (LMS) can provide in terms of a learning experience and what is needed to address the needs of a more student-focused, social virtual learning space (Brown, Dehoney & Millichap, 2015). Though the report hits on the key aspects, to gain a broader perspective readers would benefit by reading another report released this month “Future Technology: Infrastructure for Learning” (Siemens, Gasevic & Dawson, 2015). The EDUCAUSE paper identifies the shortcomings of the LMS, highlights how most platforms focus on teaching not learning, operate in silos, and offer little interoperability. The solution, authors suggest, is a mash-up, a mix of applications that will allow individuals and institutions to construct learning environments tailored to their requirements and goals. Sounds good so far.

Yet the article gives the impression that next generation digital learning environments (NGDLE) be built around the needs of the institution, not the learner.  Statements like “assessment is foundational to learning and therefore of central importance to any learning” suggest an institution focus, as does “the analysis of all forms of learning data—is a vital component”. There’s also considerable emphasis on the need for learning analyticsfor all stakeholders learning analytics….must address three levels including institutional oversight” (page 6). Perhaps it’s the word choice (such as ‘must’) that suggests a directive approach to what ‘needs’ to be included in a NGDLE and gives the impression of an institution-focus. The report concludes with an analogy that compares the needs of the NGDLE to interlocking, building components, a ‘Lego approach’ (page 9).

Legos work because of a design specific that ensures the pieces will interlock, while enabling a wide variety of component parts. For NGDLE to succeed, a similar set of specifications and services will be to be defined that constitute the conformance needed to make the Lego approach workable”

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Image: Geemo toys as an alternative to Lego-approach used in the analogy of interlocking parts for a new generation digital learning environment. Geemo fits the bill – a flexible “awesome-strange-plaything-slash-art-object” that is adaptable and allows building of fluid, creative shapes and structures.

Insight: Using Lego blocks as an analogy is an unfortunate choice to represent the idea of interlocking components for a NGDLE. Lego blocks suggest rigidity, inflexibility, even resistance. And vintage, given Lego’s been around since 1932. I see the next generation technology platform needing to be innovative, fluid, adaptable and customizable by the learner and the instructor. A more fitting toy for the analogy might be Geemo, a stretchy, flexible, connectable set of pieces that can build a variety of shapes and structures by attaching the ‘arms’ to other pieces. It works on the Lego principle, but in terms of a learning platform, is more representative of a system that can adapt to meet the needs of the students and institution, and allow for creativity, fluidity and flexibility. The latter are characteristics needed for a NGDLE.

Further Reading

2) Another perspective in the Next Generation Learning Platforms in “Future Technologies Infrastructure for Learning” (Siemens, Gasevic & Dawson, 2015, pages 201 – 230).

A similar theme in this report—the next generation of digital learning spaces, but it takes a  different perspective providing balance to the article by EDUCAUSE.  It’s one paper of several in the report released this week “Preparing for the Digital University” written by three esteemed educators—George Siemens is one. This article also suggests a needed change in the type and functionality of education technology infrastructures (platforms) required to support new digital learning spaces. There are parallels between the two papers, both identify the gap in current systems, yet this paper takes an analytical and holistic approach. The authors examine learning platforms in distinct phases, or generations of development:

Generation 1 — Basic technology use: Computer-based training (CBT) and websites
Generation 2 — Enterprise systems: learning management systems (LMS) and content management systems (CMS)
Generation 3 — Fragmentation and diversification: social media, e-portfolio software and MOOC providers, integrated vendor/publishers
Generation 4 — Distributed and digitally shared technologies: adaptive learning, distributed infrastructures, and competency models (page 204)

Insight: The holistic approach includes the perspective of the student. Authors also don’t use the term LMS, which is typically associated with commercial platforms (Blackboard, Canvas, Brightspace), but instead refers to learning platforms as ‘technology infrastructure’. The report examines a range of innovative and unique learning platforms that are either research projects that are being piloted in various higher education settings, or are institution-developed and implemented platforms. This report aims to provide guidance to institutions and educators who want to plan and prepare for future transitions, providing insight into how higher education can anticipate the next generation of education software (pg. 204).  The paper can also be viewed as instructive, since several technology infrastructures are examined—platforms that are unique, innovative and model (ironically) many of the needs outlined in the NGDLE paper. Authors examine the platforms via four dimensions, control, integration, ownership and structure. These factors are critical elements in the learning paradigm and are not addressed adequately in the NGDLE paper. The element of control for instance—who has control of the data that students generate during their learning experience, or the content that students (and instructors) generate?

The paper reviews eleven technology platforms with diagrams that illustrate each of the four dimensions on a continuum.

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Screenshot of figure showing how the platform KNOWN aligns with the four dimensions examined: control, ownership, integration and structure (Siemens et al., 2015, p. 229)

3) A MOOC Professor Bypasses Video Lectures

This professor cuts right to the point and shares her opinion on the value of lecture videos in massive open online courses (MOOCs):

Despite their popularity in MOOCs and flipped classrooms, “lecture videos” have the same pitfalls as regular lectures: they provide a false sense of clarity and are utterly forgettable (Barba 2015).

She goes on to describe the design approach of her own MOOC, #NumericalMOOC,

Quality learning is happening without them, because we combine learning pathways, instructional scaffolding, interactive computing with our IPython Notebooks, and independent student work.

Another perspective on MOOC development and one worth examining.

Image credits: 1) Lego Bricks, (2006), Alan Chia and 2) Geemo Building Toy, (2010) betterlivingthroughdesign.com

Does it Take More or Less Time to Facilitate and Develop an Online Course? Finally, Some Answers

How much time does it take to teach an online course? Does teaching online take more or less time than teaching face-to-face? How much time does it take instructors to develop an online course? — Instructor Time Requirements to Develop and Teach Online Courses (Freeman, 2015)

Time business conceptA study released in March of this year set out to answer these burning questions that the majority of online educators would like answers to. There’s considerable anecdotal evidence that favors both sides—it takes more time versus less time to facilitate an online course when using a face-to-face course as benchmark. The purpose of this study was to nail down the facts—to measure the perceptions of and actual time spent developing and teaching online courses. The findings are significant for institutions and educators involved in online education for several reasons. Professional development for one. The report reveals areas where survey-respondents struggled during the course development phase, and where the majority of time was spent when facilitating (the conclusions are surprising). Secondly, results may be helpful for institutions when considering compensation and work-allocation models. Institutions can use the results as benchmark, at the very least the study may act as catalyst for constructive conversations about compensation and support for online course development and facilitation. And finally, it may help online instructors gain insight into their own teaching experiences by considering the experiences of  other educators that have experience with face-to-face and online courses.

This post highlights the findings and suggests factors for educators to consider when it comes to, 1) the time spent developing online versus face-to-face courses, and 2) how much time is invested in online facilitation, and how it compares to face-to-face instructions.

Survey Details
To put the results into context—the survey gathered data from 68 instructors from a total of 165 solicited from three universities across eight academic disciplines. Each respondent had developed an average of 2.13 online courses and had experience teaching an average of 2.03 online courses, and had been teaching at the university level for an average of 14.2 years (Freeman, 2015).

1) Course Development Time: Pedagogical Learning Curve Steepest
Survey results confirmed that developing online courses is indeed more time consuming than developing face-to-face courses. Though the time required declines when the same instructor develops a second or third online course. Twenty-nine percent of respondents indicated they spend over 100 hours (median of 70 hours) to develop their (first) online course. This significant number of hours is likely due to the fact that 59% of respondents developed over 90% of the course without any assistance, which included developing content, assessments, assignments, and time associated with course design. The other 41% received course design support from instructional designer(s) and/or used ready-made content available through textbook publishers. Also significant is the technological learning curve which was found to be shorter than the pedagogical learning curve, in other words instructors required more time to determine how to implement pedagogical methods, how to create learning experiences and deliver content appropriate for the online format than they did learning about the features and nuances of the technology used to deliver the course. The learning curve is described as the time it takes to “get used to” the course elements [platform, tech features] and/or the method of teaching.

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(Freeman, 2015)

Implications:
Developing a quality online course is complex due to the fact that technology adds yet another layer to course design and one that requires a unique skill set. In addition there is an interdependent relationship between technology and pedagogy specific to online courses—for instance the features of a LMS platform will determine and shape the course and the teaching methods. Using the discussion forum as an example—the flexibility of the forum feature—how easy it is to set up by the course designer for group assignments, and how it can be used by students for a group assignment whether it can facilitate the communication and collaboration that is required for the assignment will dictate how effectively the ‘method’ is executed in the course.

Online course design requires a breadth of skills that includes technical knowledge, not only familiarity with LMS features, but also outside tools including social media platforms that can enhance student learning.  Knowledge of user-focused design, or web design principles is also critical in delivering an intuitive, learning experience for students (How Five Web Design Principles Can Boost Student Learning). Second are the pedagogical methods, in other words how learning is sequenced, framed and presented to students.  This array of skills required is far beyond the scope of most faculty, who are experts in their field of study, not necessarily course design. Realistically creating an online course requires at least two or more individuals with specific skills sets working together to develop an engaging, intuitive and quality learning experience.

The onus is on institutions to provide not only professional development for faculty in course design principles and strategies, but to provide support in the technical and pedagogical aspects.

2) BIG Time Commitment Facilitating First Online Course — Levels Off After 2nd Time, But Grading Involves More Time Investment
Though respondents in the survey originally perceived that teaching online took more time than teaching face-to-face, by the third time facilitating respondents reported that it took them about the same amount of time as it did a similar face-to-face course.

There is supporting evidence to the earlier finding that teaching an online course the second and third time becomes about as time-consuming as teaching a face-to-face course the second and third time.  The factors that still remain more time-consuming for online teaching compared with face-to-face teaching, even after teaching the course three times, are Instructor-Student Interaction and Grading & Assessment, the two specific factors  that can not be prepared in advance for online courses (unlike Content Development and Pre-Semester Setup).

Implications:
Sixty-nine percent of survey respondents indicated that it took ‘much more’ and ‘more’ time to facilitate an online class for the first time. Yet by the third time, it dropped to 25% in this same categories (table 4 below), which does support the learning curve theory. These findings suggest that acknowledging that more of the instructor’s time will be required the first and even the second time facilitating a course, is important for both the instructor and the institution. Though it does also suggest that professional development is needed for instructors—development focused on facilitation skills that will support skills specific to the uniqueness of online instruction. Such training can potentially reduce the learning curve for instructors, as well as reinforce the building of effective skills, best practices, and efficient use of time.

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Annotated screenshot that shows two-thirds of  respondents by the third time facilitating online indicate that it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face (Freeman, 2015).

A startling (and significant) finding of this study is the time dedicated to grading and assessing online students. It appears that the time dedicated to grading students’ work actually increased from the first to third time of facilitating an online course (table 4). Two-thirds of the respondents indicated by the third time it took ‘somewhat more’, ‘more’ or ‘much more’ time to grade and assess students in an online course than face-to-face.  I find these results encouraging since an instructor’s feedback of students’ work is a critical component that can motivate students, deepen their knowledge and push them to think critically (Getzlaf et al., 2009). Implications are that skill development in this area are needed and will benefit not only students but can help instructors to provide feedback more efficiently. There are several technology tools and applications that can help instructors achieve efficiency and to make the most of giving feedback using online tools that deliver meaningful, quality feedback for students (Morrison, 2014). Again professional development is needed in the area of grading and assessment to support instructors in their efforts.

Conclusion
By no means is this study the definitive answer on the time requirements for developing and facilitating online courses, but it is an excellent starting point for conversations about ‘time’ needed to create quality online learning experiences.

References