About Debbie Morrison

Debbie Morrison is an experienced education leader and instructional designer 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.

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

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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:

On the Horizon for Education: Blended Learning, New Learning Spaces, OERs & Cross-Institutional Collaboration

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nmc.org

What’s on the horizon for education? What technologies and trends will drive changes in curriculum development and teaching in one, two or even three years? New Media Consortium’s latest Horizon Report (2015) written by an international team of educators, gives readers evidence and insights into how developments in education will (and are) influencing changes in teaching and learning. 

In last week’s post I discussed the report “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States” which presented data and analysis on participation trends in online education, MOOCs, as well as perceptions on the value and legitimacy of online learning. The news was rather dismal, quite depressing really. This report by New Media Consortium and EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative released this week, is not only more upbeat but is instructive and forward-thinking. It takes a different approach; it gives educators insights into trends and behaviour patterns in online and face-to-face education influenced by technology. The report is the result of a collaborative research effort where the panel worked in the ‘open’ via a public wiki where they shared, discussed and identified the education’s most pressing issues. The panel identified six trends, categorizing each by the level of challenge for implementation and time frame. (image below).

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Six trends identified in the 2015 NMC Horizon Report, pg. 2 via cdn,nmc.org

What the Blended Learning Trend Means for Educators and Institutions
I suggest the blended learning trend is the most significant and challenging. Blended learning has numerous definitions, though common to all is the concept of a student-focused education approach where learners access content, instruction/or and learning communities via the Web to augment or supplement education delivered in the classroom. Yet ten years from now, I predict that the concept of blended learning will fade away—not the learning approach but its description. The technology will become invisible. Learning won’t be classified as blended, or online, but just ‘learning‘. In the short-term however, there are barriers to overcome. Today the idea of using a web-enabled device and the web itself to replace or augment structured learning disrupts traditional practices of education— higher education and K-12. The NMC report suggests that in order for education institutions to adapt and respond effectively to educational tools and platforms, continuous visionary leadership is required. I agree. Integrating technology takes thoughtful planning, analyzing current practices, professional development and a supportive culture that embraces change.

Authors ranked blended learning into the ‘solvable’ category, as opposed to ‘difficult or ‘wicked‘; I rank blended learning as ‘difficult’ and though it is solvable, the challenge is the many dimensions of learning affected when integrating technological tools and methods that include: curriculum design, instructional delivery, professional development and training, IT services, policy development and infrastructure. Even the design of the physical classroom space and type of furnishings is impacted. The latter, ‘Redesigning Learning Spaces’ is another of the six trends identified in NMC’s report.

‘Advancing Cultures of Change and Innovation’ is another trend identified, yet it’s ranked long-term. I see a culture of change as necessary now—it’s essential to make the transitions and changes needed to deliver quality learning experiences.

All over the world, universities and colleges have been gradually rethinking how their organizations and infrastructures can be more agile. The thought is that if institutions are more flexible, they will be better able to support and promote entrepreneurial thinking — a long-term trend.  NMC Horizon Report, page 7

How Educators Can Prepare for Change
As our culture changes in response to technological innovations and economic shifts, institutions and educators (ideally) should adapt according. The NMC Horizon Report is a starting point for educators wanting to keep ahead of developments in education—to anticipate change, be proactive rather than reactive. This report is an essential read for educators, institution leaders, administrators, policymakers, and technologists who want to do just that.

References

Need-to-Know-News: Bad News for Online Learning in Annual Report & “Unsustainable” MOOCS are Full Steam Ahead

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Babson’s Report “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in the United States” is available at onlinelearningsurvey.com/reports/gradelevel.pdf

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.

Bad News for Online Learning in Research Report on Online Learning
This week Babson Research Group released “Grade Level: Tracking Online Education in United States” its 12th annual report on the state of online learning in higher education (Allen & Seaman, 2015). This year’s report is not bursting with good news. Most disappointing (and disturbing) is the declining perception on the value and legitimacy of online learning by faculty. There is other valuable and important insight in the report, making it a worthy read, but the issue of faculty perception needs urgent consideration.

Only 27.6% of chief academic officers reported that their faculty accepted online instruction in 2003. This proportion showed some improvement over time, reaching a high of 33.5% in 2007. The slow increase was short-lived, however. Today, the rate is nearly back to where it began; 28.0% of academic leaders say that their faculty accept the “value and legitimacy of online education.” (pg. 21).

The acceptance of online learning among faculty has declined over the past two years, “current results if anything show that the problem is getting worse“. Disturbing given the expansion and sharing of knowledge about online education, the improved technology for facilitating quality learning experiences, not to mention the millions of dollars that higher education institutions have plowed into MOOCs. Ironically, many institutions state their reason for offering MOOCs is to explore and expose faculty to innovative and new pedagogy.  When chief academic leaders were asked the primary objective for offering MOOCs at his or her institution, it’s ‘Innovative Pedagogy‘ that ranked second highest at 18.7%, behind ‘Increasing Institution Visibility’, which ranked at 26.6% (pg. 55).

Insight: It’s no coincidence that the recent decline in the acceptance of online learning among faculty coincides with expansion of MOOCs. Massive Open Online Courses put the mode of online education under the spotlight, yet the misconception that MOOCs represent all modes of online education expanded along with the MOOC phenomenon. The majority of academic leaders missed out on an opportunity to use the MOOC phenomenon as a vehicle to involve and educate faculty on new pedagogy, fundamentals of online and blended learning, and multi-modes of instruction and learning offered by technology in and out of the classroom.

Further Reading:

The “Unsustainable” MOOCs are Full-Steam Ahead
In the same Babson report, Chief Academic Officers perception that MOOCs are not financially sustainable has increased, yet the number of institutions offering a MOOC has doubled over the year from 2013 to 2014 to 5.0%.  And, the number of institutions actively planning for a MOOC has not changed (9.3%)  (pg. 33).

The portion of academic leaders saying that they do not believe MOOCs are sustainable increased from 26.2% in 2012 to 28.5% in 2013, to 50.8% in 2014.  

To recap, even though institution leaders see MOOCs as financially unsustainable (they can’t continue to pour thousands of dollars into MOOCs) the number of institutions offering MOOCs has increased. The only rationale I can see that explains this behaviour is the planning cycle, the long lead time it takes to develop and produce a MOOC. In next year’s report, in keeping with this rationale, we should see a decline in institutions offering MOOCs.

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There has been little change in the pattern of MOOC objectives from 2013 to 2014 (pg. 34)

Insight: MOOCs do offer value in many ways, enriching a learning community, expanding the reach of an institution, providing research opportunities for institutions into new pedagogical methods and student learning behaviours online. However, given that xMOOCs are expensive to produce, deliver and sustain, the trend towards turning MOOCs into money generating streams will continue— suggesting that MOOCs will no longer be open (free) and massive. Institution leaders should be re-evaluating their strategy for MOOCs —now.

Further Reading:

A New Twist to Teaching Online: Considering Learners’ Emotions

girl_thinkingThe idea of considering students’ emotions in context of online or blended learning may seem absurd. There are numerous factors instructors consider when teaching online that would seem to take priority over students’ emotional state. Yet a recently published paper “Measuring and Understanding Learner Emotions: Evidence and Prospects” reveals that feelings of learners—their emotions can impact learning in online and blended environments, specifically motivation, self-regulation and academic achievement (Rienties & Rivers, 2014).  I share with readers in this post the concept of ‘emotional presence’, what it means for instructors teaching online, and how instructors can address learners’ emotions in their online courses.

The idea of emotional presence builds on the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model. The model provides educators and course designers with a framework to address factors unique to learning online within three dimensions: 1) social presence: where students project their personal characteristics within the online community that position them as ‘real’ people, 2) teaching presence: where the instructor directs the learning process such that students’ sense he or she is ‘there’, and 3) cognitive presence where learners construct meaning through sustained dialogue and communication. Developed by Garrison, Anderson and Archer, the CoI model continues to evolve and is the subject of several empirical studies (The Community of Inquiry, n.d.) The three dimensions are the focus of the framework, but the idea of learner emotions and the role they play in the online environment is not addressed. Until now. Recent papers and articles address how learners feelings impact their learning online. 

Emotional Presence Defined
Emotional presence may still seem far-fetched. I like how Terry Anderson, one of the founders of the CoI model describes in a recent blog post how he responded when asked why emotions weren’t included in the original model: “The COI model was developed by 3 men from southern Alberta (Canada’s cowboy country) and that REAL men in our limited world didn’t do emotions! (2014).  But Anderson is supportive of emotional presence as a concept, and of his colleague Maria Cleveland-Innes who published a paper with P. Campbell “Emotional Presence, Learning and the Online Learning Environment (2012). In the paper the authors describe emotional presence as underpinning the broader online experience (pg. 8). They define emotional presence as:

Emotional Presence is the outward expression of emotion, affect, and feeling by individuals and among individuals in a community of inquiry, as they relate to and interact with the learning technology, course content, students, and the  instructor.

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Rienties and Rivers added the emotional circle to the original Venn diagram of Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000)

Why Bother with Emotions?
One might wonder why even bother considering how students are feeling. More so in online environment where it seems impossible to address. Yet after reviewing the research there is evidence from a variety of sources that suggests emotions play a powerful role in learners’ engagement and achievement, and that the role of emotions in online learning deserves special consideration (Artino, 2012; Rienties & Rivers, 2014).

How to Build Emotional Presence in an Online Course
In face-to-face (F2F) classes emotional presence happens seamlessly. Teachers detect emotional cues of students due to their physical proximity. I found several studies examining presence behaviors of teachers working with students in the classroom—a phenomenon labeled ‘instructor immediacy‘. Though it’s beyond the scope of the post to go deeper, several studies validate the importance of such cues and the role of emotions in facilitating learning (Andersen, 1979). If we apply these principles to learning environments without physical closeness, in an online course for instance, there needs to be a deliberate effort to include cues that support emotional presence. Cues visible in F2F settings include, smiling, making eye contact, knowing students by name, and demonstrating interest. In online classes, it’s easier-said-than-done. 

The technology and physical distance create a barrier that make is difficult for instructors to read and reach their students. There is no consensus in the research on best practices for addressing emotional presence in online classes effectively. But between the papers there are several suggestions which I summarized below.

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    The Vibe’ wellbeing word cloud from the University of New England, 2012, (Rienties & Alders, pg. 12)

    Synchronous discussions via chats or video conferences provide instructors opportunity to assess and read learners emotions that may impact their learning progress, such as uncertainty, confusion, even positive emotions, interest and enthusiasm.

  • Wordclouds implemented in Australian Universities display dynamic pictures of students emotions collectively (see image). It serves several purposes: gives the instructor insight into how students are feeling, and validates students feelings by sharing. Useful for certain phases within a course: the beginning when students might be apprehensive, or during a difficult module or week. (see www.wordle.net)
  • Analyzing written text and online discourse in discussion forums by looking for key words may provide insight into learners emotions. Such words as I feel “frustrated”, “overwhelmed”, “behind” are a few examples.
  • Examining learners’ online behaviour in terms of the frequency of logging on, clicks and time spent on certain pages within the LMS (caution, this method provides a one-dimensional perspective and may only be useful when considering other factors).

Conclusion
As online learning evolves and allows us to bring quality education to the learner, there are barriers to consider and overcome. Reading student cues and considering their feelings that may affect their progress is one area that we cannot ignore. It’s studies like those mentioned here that brings us closer to delivering personal, quality and meaningful learning to students.

References

How Interactive is Your Online Course? Self-Assess with this Rubric

Online instructors and course designers can enhance existing online courses and create active, engaging courses by considering five elements included in an adapted version of Robyler and Ekhamil’s “Rubric for Assessing Interactive Qualities of Distance Courses” described (and embedded) below. 

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Interactivity is a much discussed topic in online learning. It’s considered the essential ingredient for quality learning. It’s also considered the missing element in online learning—an element that critics claim make face-to-face learning superior. There is no question that interactivity is a necessary component of online, for-credit education. Three out of seven principles presented in Chickering and Gamson’s seminal paper “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education(1987) stress interaction and active learning: Principle 1. encourage contact between students and faculty, 2. develop reciprocity and cooperation among students, and 3. encourage active learning. Chickering and Gamson’s principles are just as relevant to online education as they are to face-to-face instruction. Also worth noting is that several institutions use these same principles as a foundation for their best practices in both traditional and online education today.

Few would argue that interactivity is necessary for quality online education, yet many educators are unsure how to make an online course interactive. Adding to the challenge is the fact that there are few resources outlining strategies and examples on how to go about developing a course that stresses active learning.

The Rubric
Fortunately there is an excellent, instructive tool that serves as a starting point, “How Interactive are YOUR Distance Courses? A Rubric for Assessing Interaction in Distance Learning”.  I like this resource because of the clear language it uses, the specificity of behaviours and its self-scoring capabilities. The rubric below is based on concepts of the original rubric published in Robyler and Ekhamil’s paper. The revised rubric adds a fifth element ‘Evidence of Instructor Engagement’ to the existing four, where each element defines interactive qualities of an online course. The updated version further develops each element—an improvement over the original; the elements are now worded so they are specific to interactive qualities brought about by: 

  • course design (element 1 and 2)
  • technology support function (element 3)
  • facilitation of the course (element 4 and 5).

The three-page Rubric embedded below is a PDF in Google Docs (hover your cursor over the right corner to expand the Rubric). If unable to view the embedded file, click here to go directly to the doc on Google Drive.

Are we measuring Interactivity or Interaction?
There is a critical distinction between interactivity and interaction in the context of online education. It’s important to clarify—one concept involves technology and the other human behaviors. Wagner in Interactivity: From Agents to Outcomes (1997) describes interactivity as involving attributes associated with a technological application that delivers an interactive experience to learners, e.g. an interactive timeline embedded within a course home site, or a multiple choice quiz that gives automated feedback. On the other hand interactions usually involve human behaviours of individuals or groups that influence one another (Wagner, 1997). Discussion within a forum where there is exchange between students is an example, an email exchange between student and instructor, or a live video conference chat are others. As Wagner discusses in her paper, the differences are noteworthy, and relevant today as the term interactive is often used without clarification when describing online education courses in discussions for assessment and accreditation purposes.

Conclusion
Creating and facilitating an online class that is interactive—that promotes student activity and engagement is challenging and complex. There are many variables involved; several beyond the control of the instructors and course development team. The rubric presented here does provide a good starting point for considering some of the factors that contribute to creating active and meaningful learning experiences for students. If you have or use resources or strategies that are helpful for creating active learning, consider sharing by leaving a comment so other readers may benefit. Thank you!

References

Does Class Size Matter in Online Courses? Three Perspectives: The Economist, Instructor & Student

Multiethnic Group of Business People with Speech Bubbles

What is the ideal class size in an online, for-credit course? Fifteen, twenty students? How about forty?  A group of researchers at Stanford University set out to answer this question by conducting a study with over 100,000 students across 102 undergraduate and graduate courses. They presented their findings at the American Economic Association (AEA) Conference this month (2015) in “Virtually Large: The Effects of Class Size in Online College Courses”. They also shared their research at the  (APPAM) conference in November and at the CESifo conference on the Economics of Education (Bettinger et al., 2014). This study takes a unique perspective on the topic of optimal class size for online, for-credit classes in higher education—it incorporates principles from a model in microeconomics—economies of scale. The researchers examined educational productivity by measuring class size effects on students outcomes and persistence

Why Class Size Matters
There’s a need for educators and administrators to address the size of online classes. Class size impacts course design strategies, institution policies, instructor compensation models, workload assignments and best practice guidelines. Below I share findings from (the scant) research on online class sizes. I highlight the findings from three perspectives: 1) economic perspective, 2) faculty, and 3) student perspective. Given the different approaches of the studies their limitations and varied results, it’s constructive to consider the studies collectively; consider the numerous variables that affect student outcomes in addition to class size when planning and strategizing for online education programs.

Consensus?
Conclusions about the effects of online class size vary; depend upon the perspective of researchers and the research question. But there is consensus that there are numerous variables that affect student learning (online and face-to-face) besides class size. Variables that include: peer effects, students technical skills and education level (undergraduate vs. graduate student), instructors experience with the technology, workload, and the technology itself  (Gilbert,1995; Lazear, 1999; Orellana, 2006).

Three Perspectives on Online Class Size

1) Economist Perspective of Online Class Size
There is significant literature on the economics of class size and student achievement for K-12, though research on cost-benefit analysis of class size for face-to-face and online in higher education is scant. There are a handful of studies examining effects of class size in F2F settings including “The Effects of Class Size on Student Achievement in Higher Education” (Kokkelenberg et al, 2005). Fewer papers exist on effects of class size from an economics perspective for online, for-credit courses which makes “Virtually Large: The Effects of Class Size in Online College Courses” an important study. It’s yet to be published though I found a preliminary copy on the Web (posted via CESifo conference). 

The study used data from a research partnership between DeVry Education group and Stanford University (also reported in the New York Times in 2014) over a two-year period that tracked over 100,000 students from DeVry University and focused online, for-credit college-level courses. Variables analyzed in the study: student GPA history, class size, course discipline, and student persistence.

The primary research question of the study: does increasing online class sizes affect student GPA, credits received in the next term, and persistence in the next term?

The study concluded that for online classes that range from 16 to 40 students, increasing class size as much as 25 percent does not significantly affect student grades, credits earned in the next session, or enrollment in the next session. The preliminary paper discussed the implications for the results, suggesting impact on cost savings for institutions with an online program with large numbers of students and classes. For instance, establishing class size limits of 40 students as opposed to 30 students could have positive financial implications through instructor compensation.  The researchers acknowledged limitations of the study, which was the sample of relatively small online classes.

2) Instructors Perspective of Online Class Size

Class Size and Interaction in Online Courses” by Anymir Orellana (2006) approaches the research from the perspective of higher education instructors. Purpose of the study—to determine faculty perception of optimal class to achieve high levels of interaction appropriate for a given course as measured by a rubric, RAIQ (Rubric for Assessment Interactive Qualities in Distance Courses (Orellana, 2006; Roblyer & Wiencke, 2004). The paper shares results on instructors perceptions about optimal class size needed for student interactivity and includes robust discussion about other factors that influence the instructors perceptions.

Findings indicate that even though the actual class sizes of the studied online courses were not related to their actual interactive qualities and that most respondents perceived their online courses as moderately and highly interactive, respondents still believed that they needed smaller classes to achieve higher interactive levels. (Orellana, 2006, pg. 236).

Orellana discusses instructor perceptions at length and cites research from various viewpoints. He brings up the issue of instructor workload as a factor influencing instructors perspective on the ideal class size. He cites studies that indicate online teaching requires a significant investment of time (more than F2F) and thus instructors stress the necessity of smaller classes. He quotes from one paper the idea of the “more-work myth” claimed among distance educators as a reason for small class sizes (Orellana, pg. 232).  Orellana also cites studies that state small classes aren’t always appropriate for courses that emphasize collaborative and group learning (pgs. 231-232). Valid points. Factors influencing the more-time-needed viewpoint of instructors could be due in part to extra hours required for course development and the learning time required for teaching in a new mode.

Orellana stresses the need for institutions to address the workload issue for online course instructors. I’ll add to that—I suggest that class size is not the primary issue, but that the support and professional development by their institutions that provide the skills to online instructors is. Orellana also  suggests readers regard recommendations about class size from consortia with caution (pg. 246).

3) Students Perspective of Online Class Size

student at computer

How do students perceive class size in online classes?

A thorough analysis of the effects of class size in online learning is not complete until the students perspective is considered. The study “Class Size as Related to the Use of Technology, Educational Practices, and Outcomes in Web-Based Nursing Courses” analyzed data from undergraduate (n = 265) and graduate (n = 863) students enrolled in online nursing courses (Burruss et al, 2009). Variables in this study included active participation and learning, student-to-student interaction, faculty-to-student interaction and the level of connectedness students experienced when engaging in learning activities.  The most significant finding of was the different perceptions between undergraduate and graduate students on the effect class size had on fostering social presence. For instance, undergraduate students found medium size classes promoted more social presence than did small classes, yet graduate students found less social presence in medium size classes compared to small classes.  Despite the students perceptions, undergraduate and graduate rated their online course experience as satisfactory—irrespective of class size.

The differences in perceptions between undergraduate and graduate students is worth examining further. This phenomenon indicates the learning needs of the student groups vary and instructors should adjust their teaching strategies accordingly as an alternative to adjusting class sizes.

Closing Thoughts

As the literature demonstrates, there are several factors to consider when determining guidelines for class sizes in online, for-credit courses. Doing so requires an analysis and consideration of a variety of perspectives and variables, many which are unique to an institution’s program. Online instruction and learning size is complex and significant. There is no formula; no optimal class size that will guarantee meaningful learning.

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