About Debbie Morrison

Debbie Morrison is an experienced education leader and instructional design consultant with over twelve years instructional design expertise that includes developing successful for-credit online courses, education programs, and workplace training and learning programs. Debbie works as a consultant for Online Learning Insights, a company dedicated to developing effective online courses and learning strategies for education organizations, and advancing skills for educators teaching and learning online. She collaborates with faculty, instructors, teachers and subject matter experts seeking support and guidance when creating relevant and engaging online courses, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and education programs.

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 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.

Lego_Color_Bricks

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

Need-to-Know-News: Harvard & MIT Evaluate MOOCs, ‘Lean Forward’ the New approach to Online Collaboration & Why LinkedIn Buying Lynda.com is Good for Higher Ed

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.

MP9004055001)  Harvard and MIT Evaluate MOOCs’ Impact
Harvard and MIT recently released a report evaluating the impact of their MOOCs offered on edX’s platform (Ho et al., 2015). The report uses data over a two-year period across 69 MOOCs and includes analysis on participation levels, student demographics, profile of certificate seekers, completion rates and more. It’s a worthwhile read for educators involved in planning or the delivery of xMOOCs. Three key takeaways:

1.  Participation* across eleven MOOCs offered for a second time declined by 43% from the first to second version. Of five courses offered for a third time, participation numbers remained essentially the same.  The one exception was for the Introduction to Computer Science MOOC, which doubled in size from the first to second version.

*Participation determined by number of enrolled students that accessed MOOC content at least once.

2. Computer Science MOOCs attracted four times as many participants as courses in three other categories. The four categories: 1) Computer Science, 2) Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, 3) Humanities, History, Religion, Design, and Education, and 4) Government, and Health and Social Sciences.

3. Demographics of participants are consistent with earlier reports of MOOC participants: educated with at least a bachelor’s degree, male, and in their late twenties to mid-thirties. The paper reported revealed a slight shift however in demographics:

“Year-over-year demographic shifts have been slight but indicate a direction toward courses with older, more educated, more US-based, and more female representation”

Insight:  As more data is compiled and shared about MOOCs, institutions will (hopefully) be able to make more prudent decisions about MOOC investments.  Investments in Massive, open online courses are significant, yet often the purpose for, or even the expected outcomes are not determined beforehand. With reports such as this one MOOC, (again—hopefully) decision-makers can make more informed decisions about MOOCs.

2)  Online Collaboration – New Methods including ‘Lean Forward’
The article “What Harvard Business School Has Learned About Online Collaboration” featured in Inside Higher Ed  this week presents innovative methods for online group collaboration, one in particular called ‘lean forward’.  Articles that focus on  pedagogical methods in online course design are scant, which is why this article tucked away within Inside Higher Ed’s blog column section is noteworthy.

It describes unique and novel methods for delivering learning experiences for students in Harvard’s three-course certificate program, Credential of Readiness (CORe). CORe is not a MOOC, but an online certificate offered for $1800 that is geared to undergraduate or graduate students with a non-business background. It’s described as “a primer on the fundamentals of business. It is designed to introduce you (students) to the language of business” (HBX CORe).

The article outlines how courses were designed to change the passive learning approach, typical of MOOCs and some online courses where learners are consumers of content, to an active approach that organizers label ‘lean forward’.  Lean forward means that students will not spend more than three to five minutes on the course site before being required to interact with content or peers.  Some of the methods use to foster learning forward include:

  • Student profiles and introductions were the focus of the first week—not course content. The course site which typically features content at the start, instead focuses on students by featuring their profile pictures and bios. At the beginning of the course students are required to upload a personal picture and create their profile before they can view any course content (quite brilliant!).
  • Collaboration needs a trigger – course organizers used grade incentives to get students started, requiring a “basic level” of participation. After that, momentum of the process itself, students interacting and collaborating, took over.
  • Desired behaviors for online collaboration and interaction where shaped at the beginning of the program. Course leaders actively encouraged desired behaviors, discouraged others, and clarified standards for online conversation. We encouraged participants to disagree with others — but to do it with respect.

Insight: HBX’s approach is worth considering. The innovative methods used for creating interaction and focusing on students and not content, is exactly what online learning needs. Though new approaches for online course design are in demand, there are few  public discussions about online education that focus on pedagogy.  We need more of this—sharing of different approaches that can improve online learning experiences for students. The article is a must-read for anyone involved in course design for MOOCs, open online courses, or for-credit, online education programs.

3)  Linked-In Buys Lynda.com – What it Means for Higher Ed
LinkedIn offered in to buy Lynda.com for $1.5 billion. Lynda.com is a subscription, video-based training platform that offers online training courses for a variety of technical subjects e.g. computer programming, photography, business skills video filming, editing and more. I view Lynda.com as a polished, searchable and sophisticated You Tube-type platform without advertising (bundled into convenient courses) for a fee.

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Screenshot of Lynda.com website

Insight:  Though The Chronicle of Higher Education suggests that the transaction may affect higher ed in some way as per the headline How LinkedIn’s Latest Move May Matter to Colleges (the article is a behind a pay wall), it won’t, at least not in a competitive context. Lynda.com satisfies a need for just-in-time training, training to learn how to do something—now.  Not only does the platform offer excellent training for programs such as Excel or Photoshop, but it also offers skills-training ideal for new graduates, for example Creating an Effective Resume, Insights from a College Career Coach, or Job Hunting Online.  With LinkedIn’s recent moves to attract college students to its platform, this development will only enhance and support higher education institutions by providing their college graduates and students with tools that will make them more marketable and employable—a win-win for everyone.

How Five Web Design Principles Boost Student Learning in an Online Course

“Our team realized quickly that we needed to do a better job cross referencing material on our course site. For example if we mention syllabus, we must link to it. Some students we have learned want a great deal of guidance” MOOC instructor, Karen Head (2013)

great-designIn the quote above, without realizing it, the instructor was referring to the concept of ‘user experience’. And it’s not guidance students wanted so much as an intuitive learning experience. Creating a user-friendly course site begins with incorporating web design principles. Even the most basic of principles customized to online course design reduces barriers associated with virtual learning by minimizing distractions, highlighting concepts and making resources readily accessible. Embedding a link into the phrase ‘assignment guidelines’ for instance, when the assignment is referred to within a course page, is an example of making resources readily available (if the assignment guidelines are within the syllabus, refer students to the page number). This reduces the amount of time students spend searching and frees up time for learning.

The challenge of designing online courses is not only pedagogical, but also technical, which is the category that ‘usability’ falls under. We are at the point with online learning where pedagogy and technology are interdependent; where a well-designed, user-friendly course with a clear learning path needs to adhere to technical principles as well as pedagogical ones. Technology is a new form of pedagogy. The course site design, how content is presented, is an aspect of online pedagogy. In this post I cover five principles of web design that are essential to online course design.

Retail sites frequently adhere to best practices for web design given customers (users) are more likely to spend time and money on an attractive, intuitive website. I suggest educators use similar web design principles to support their students.

Before we examine the principles, defining user experience (UX) is in order. There are numerous definitions of user experience but the one below specific to web design, incorporates key elements of the entire experience:

“User experience (UX) is about how a person feels about using a system. User experience highlights the experiential, affective, meaningful and valuable aspects of human-computer interaction (HCI) …. It also covers a person’s perceptions of the practical aspects such as utility, ease of use and efficiency of the system. User experience is subjective in nature, because it is about an individual’s performance, feelings and thoughts about the system. User experience is dynamic, because it changes over time as the circumstances change…” All About UX

Five Principles of Web Design Applicable to Online Course Design

1. Design for the user
This seems obvious—design a course from the student’s perspective, yet it’s an atypical approach. When designing a web page for a course site, always ask ‘how will this look to the student’? Anyone involved in online course design needs to take an online course as a student. Completing at least one week of course work in a MOOC for example, gives one an entirely different perspective on course design—guaranteed. Design the course from the student’s perspective—always.

2. Consistency
For online course, consistency is probably the most under-utilized principle. Specifically in terms of how resources are titled, labeled and/or placed within the course site. I’ve taken many courses where the same resource, an article for instance, is referred to by two different names—in the syllabus it’s titled one way, and in the course site another. Confusing. Same goes for assignments, calling an assignment by slightly different names, even by one word suggests there are two assignments, not one. Another, posting the same document in two different locations within the site suggests there are two different documents. The time students spend searching, checking, comparing etc. is valuable learning time that is spent on logistics. Consistency is key.

3. White Space
Effective use of white space emphasizes key concepts, improves comprehension (up to 20%) and reduces cognitive overload (Lin, 2004). White space is the part of a web page that is left blank or unmarked. It’s the (white) space between columns, text, images, and margins on the page. This space provides visual relief to the reader and improves readability. Avoid using big blocks of text. Break it up with a graphic, or block of white space or increased line space. See examples below.

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Example of text with little white space.

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Same text as above but with increased line spacing. Effective use of white space improves readability.

4. Simplicity
In keeping with the idea of white space is simplicity. A cluttered page with three or more colors of font, sizes of font and images placed sporadically throughout that are of different type and size creates a chaotic-looking virtual classroom. It’s far easier to study and focus on learning in a physical classroom that is organized with minimal distractions. The same goes for an online classroom. Keep it simple, two colors of font, same size and style throughout, organized and consistent pages creates a Zen-like classroom where students can focus on course content and application of concepts. Learning is enhanced greatly.

“The way information is organized and presented to students affects not only the usability of information, but the usability of the course itself” (Young, 2014)

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Tabs grouped by category (Coursera)

5. Use Tabs Effectively
Imagine opening a file drawer that is full of file folders with inaccurate or missing labels. The same principles of file labels apply to web sites except rather than alphabetized listing, it’s an order that makes sense to the student. For example the ‘start here’ tab should be at the top of the menu not third or fourth down the list (which happens more often than you would think). Tabs should be two words (max 3 words), and with descriptive language, ‘Start Here’, ‘Week One, or ‘Student Support’ for example.  Use sub-tabs if possible, and if not group tabs into categories (screenshot right). Also avoid CAP LETTERS for titles of tabs. CAPITAL LETTERS can appear loud and abrasive on a website (there are exceptions as the screenshot above right demonstrates).

Conclusion
Developing an online course is a multidimensional process. Usability is one dimension often neglected; understandably so given that most educators approach online course design with little expertise in web design. Yet a little goes a long way—by implementing just the basic web design principles, educators can create an intuitive learning path that gives students the boost they need to invest more time in learning, not searching.

References/Resources

Course Design and Online Group Collaboration — What’s the Connection?

teamwork

Facilitating group work in an online course for instructors is often the most challenging aspect of teaching an online class. The amount of time invested by students and the instructor in the group process can be significant; unfortunately there’s often more time spent on logistics of the assignment than on meaningful learning. But there is a solution that significantly improves the process and the outcome. It’s course design. Effective course design, which includes the timing, description and instructions for the group project, is a determining factor in the quantity, quality and type of interactivity (Swan, 2001). Facilitation skills of the instructor is another factor, more so when the instructor uses a specific skill set that supports meaningful group interaction. In this post I focus on the course design component. Though I’ve written several posts about group work, I want to share with readers findings from a journal article “Creating Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment” (Brindley, Waiti & Blaschke, 2009) that emphasizes the connection between course design and group effectiveness.

Why a Group Activity?
Before I get to the practical applications I want to examine why creating collaborative assignments is worth the effort. First, there is considerable research that identifies a relationship between participation in collaborative group experiences and deeper learning. There is also a strong relationship between students’ acquisition of communication and collaboration skills (Brindley et al, 2009). Second, creating active learning experiences, and opportunities where “learning is more like a team effort than a solo race” meets two of the seven principles outlined by Chickering and Gamson in their seminal paper “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” (1987).

Five Course Design Strategies that Support Effective Group Collaboration
Effective course design not only leads to more meaningful learning, but also makes facilitating group work easier for instructors; where more time can be spent supporting students’ learning concepts and developing critical thinking skills than on administrative-type logistics. Below are five strategies to consider:

1. Make the Assignment Meaningful, Relevant and Challenging
Students taking online courses are typically juggling multiple responsibilities, work, school and/or family. Their time is valuable, therefore it’s critical that a group assignment is worthwhile, where students see its value and purpose, that it clearly links to the learning objectives, is relevant to real world scenarios and their own experience. The assignment should be complex and encourage students to work together to build knowledge and gain a perspective that they wouldn’t gain by working alone. The definition (below) is by far the best description of the principles of and reasons for group work:

“…collaborative learning situations, students are working in groups of two or more, mutually searching for understanding, solutions, or meanings, or creating a product. There is wide variability in collaborative learning activities, but most center on the students’ exploration or application of the course material, not simply the teacher’s presentation or explication of it. Questions, problems, or the challenge to create something [should] drive the group activity” (Davidson & Major, 2014)

2. Clear Instructions and Transparency of Expectations
Detailed instructions are essential for effective group work, as is a description of the activity’s purpose. If the instructor senses any degree of reluctance on the students’ part, he of she can encourage (via a news post, email, or recorded message) participation and emphasize the purpose of the exercise and the group process. By doing so, students are more likely to see the benefit of the process, and approach the assignment with a higher level of motivation. Clear instructions require details relevant to the assignment, and should include a description of behaviours associated with a contributing team member.

3. Balance Between Structure and Flexibility of Task

Performance expectations of each group member is necessary. As is structuring the assignment so that it is achievable, challenging with enough time for completion. Yet giving learners’ some control over the assignment encourages ownership, responsibility, and increases motivation. Giving control may take the form of students forming their own groups, or allowing students to have a choice of how the groups are formed. Another strategy is including flexibility in the assignment where students can choose the topic, case study or problem scenario. A well-designed course provides parameters for the project, emphasizes its purpose, yet still gives learners an element of control through choice.

4. Timing of Group Activity
Timing of the group activity—how much time the group has to work on the activity as well as the due date plays a significant role in quality of the outcomes.  Sufficient time for classmates to build rapport and establish a ‘presence’ in the class is also needed before group work can begin. Building rapport leads to developing relationships and trust, essential to a group’s effectiveness. Group’s also need adequate time to work on the project; asynchronous group work is challenging due to students’ differing schedules.  It’s also helpful if students submit the project in phases over a period of weeks, e.g. first phase the choice of topic with description, second an initial draft before the final project submission. This provides benchmarks for the group and an opportunity for the instructor to provide feedback.

5.  Provide Suggestions for Technology that Supports Collaboration

How groups communicate in an online course is another determining factor to the groups’ success. Learning and development of critical thinking is less likely to occur when technology is a barrier to communication. Guiding students to the best platforms for communicating synchronously and asynchronously is necessary, as is providing resources on how-to use the technology. Dedicating one section within the group instructions to “How to Communicate” that includes recommendations of platforms and tools is ideal. There are several good (and free) collaborative platforms: Google Docs, Mind42, and Wiggio, as well as brainstorming platforms for sharing ideas, TwiddlaPadlet for example, and synchronous tools for real-time meetings—Google HangoutsSkype or Facetime.

Conclusion
There is a strong connection between effective course design and successful group collaboration. Outcomes of a well-designed group activity result in students acquiring new knowledge, gaining different perspectives, and developing critical thinking and collaboration skills.  In a future post about I’ll write about how to handle the non-contributing group member, which is a challenge for students and the instructor.

Image courtesy of pakorn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

References

  • Brindley, J. E., Walti, C., & Blaschke, L. M. (2009, June). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning,10(3).  Retrieved from http://www.irrodl.org/index.php/irrodl/article/view/675/1271
  • Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987). Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education (pp. 3-7, Issue brief). Washington, D.C.: American Association for Higher Education. Retrieved from http://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED282491.pdf
  • Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting students’ satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22(2), 306-331. Retrieved http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/0158791010220208#.VQSo3BDF9so.

Five Alternatives to the Talking Head Video for MOOCs & Online Courses

VideoCameraCircleMost xMOOCs, and some for-credit online courses rely heavily upon what many refer to as the ‘talking head’ video format. The ‘talking head’ is usually the subject-matter expert delivering a lecture in his or her area of expertise. There’s great value in this format when used strategically and sparingly. Yet the effectiveness of lecture videos as a primary content source for online courses and MOOCs is difficult to determine. Thanks to a comprehensive study done via edX  we have data on student engagement patterns with videos specific to MOOCs to draw upon (Guo, Kim & Rubin, 2014). Key findings include:

  • The optimal video length is six minutes or shorter
  • Videos produced with a more personal feel could be more engaging than high-fidelity studio recordings
  • Khan-style tablet drawing tutorials (screencasts) are more engaging than PowerPoint slides

Video Viewing Patterns: A Non-MOOC Perspective
There is also data on student video engagement in non-MOOC courses to consider. The School of Continuing Education at Columbia University examined video viewing patterns of students using analytics from their video hosting platform and qualitative data from student interviews (Hibbert, 2014). Results were similar to Guo’s.  A significant takeaway from this study—videos are an excellent format in online courses to establish instructor presence; supporting a sense of connectedness for students.

One of the benefits video can offer is creating faculty presence in an online environment. In the interviews, students cited faculty presence as a key factor related to their engagement and perceived learning from videos”

Alternatives to Talking Heads
The focus of this post is on alternatives to the talking head. I chose this topic because the majority of xMOOCs I’ve experienced over the last two years do not reflect good practices for educational videos described in the latest research. Most xMOOCs rely upon the lecture video format, and though they have their place, there are several unique and creative format options that I want to share with readers.

1. Podcasts. Podcasts are an excellent option for several reasons: 1) smaller file size for easier download, 2) the format uses less bandwidth when streaming and, 3) is a portable file format—allowing students to listen on the go.

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Screenshot of podcast from “Globalizing Higher Education Research for the Knowledge Economy” on Coursera

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Screen shot of collection of podcast links to interviews  with various experts sharing their definition of global competency. From “Globalizing Higher Education”.   This approach provides multiple perspectives on a topic, prompting students to analyze the topic from different viewpoints.

2.  Interviews This format is a variation of the traditional video lecture, except an interviewer poses questions to the subject-matter expert. The interviewer can be a non-expert as was the case in the “Saving our Schools” MOOC I completed recently on edX. In this MOOC graduate students interviewed the expert (the faculty member). Alternatively, the interviewer can be the MOOC instructor interviewing an expert or guest with a unique perspective on the topic.

 Another variation I’ve seen used frequently is a live interview conducted via a video conferencing platform, e.g. Google Hangout, with an interviewer and one or more experts. Students are encouraged to use Twitter as a back channel for questions and discussion.

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Screenshot of lecture video using interview-format in “Saving our Schools”.  A graduate student interviews the faculty member.  I prefer the format when the instructor interviews a guest or other subject-matter expert on a topic; it’s more interesting.

3. Simulations. Simulations, when done well are an effective method for illustrating course concepts and engaging students. A simulation can serve not only as content, but also provide an excellent topic for a discussion forum, or problem solving exercise via a structured assignment.  According to the study at Columbia University, videos that link to an assignment or learning activity receive more views than those that don’t.

The simulation presented here, “A Day in the Life of a Rural Homemaker” from the MOOC “Subsistence Marketplaces” illustrates a typical day of a homemaker in rural India and includes an interactive component.

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Screen shot from simulation from “Subsistence Marketplace” MOOC on Coursera.

4. ScreencastsA screen cast is a digital recording of the user’s screen with voice-over narration. This format allows the instructor to include power point slides, images, or motion— hand drawing on white board for instance (similar to Khan academy videos). This format requires little technical expertise, and is frequently used by instructors who prefer to record their own video content. The outcome is more informal.  The research suggests students respond well to an informal approach.  

“The most engaging videos for me [are] when the professors use wit and humor.” student(Hibbert, 2014)

A professor at UBC records all of her own content videos (screencasts and lectures) for her MOOC “Useful Genetics” even through she has access to a recording studio. She outlines her reasons in her YouTube video “How I record MOOC lecture videos“. She also describes how she films the MOOC content.

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Screenshot of a screencast created by the instructor for the MOOC, “Drugs and the Brain” on Coursera. The professor incorporates motion in his screencast. The red arrow highlights areas of focus during the narration.

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Screencasts are useful for showing a selection of images. In this screencast the professor shares images of vintage maps, from “Configuring the World: A Critical Political Economy Approach”

5.  Informal end-of-week Recorded Discussions:  In this format the instructor(s) delivers an informal end-of-week recap of the previous week’s student interactions and feedback within the MOOC or online course. I’ve experienced instructor’s using this format in three or four MOOCs; I find it effective in demonstrating the instructor’s presence, commitment and interest in the course. He or she will typically share highlights from the discussion forums, address frequently asked student questions, and encourage participation for the upcoming week.

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Screenshot features instructor in a weekly response video from “Configuring the World” MOOC on Coursera

There are other formats to the five presented here. One is not using any video content produced by the institution or instructor. Instead, content sources might include YouTube, TedTalks or even students. This approach was used in a Coursera MOOC “E-Learning and Digital Cultures”. The approach was quite controversial as described by one of the course creators in eLearn Magazine.  However, any format can be effective with a carefully planned instructional strategy that aligns with the learning outcomes and expectations for the course.

References: