Need-to-Know-News: GradSkills Program, Competency-Based Education Gets its Own LMS, & College Rankings

MP900405500This ‘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.

1)  Skill Development for Grad and Post-Doc Students including Entrepreneurship
A group of universities in Ontario, Canada released a platform earlier this month, mygradskills.ca . The Moodle-based platform features online modules to support professional skill development for graduate and post-doctoral students. The tag line for the program is “Find your Future“.  Students can choose between 20 mini-courses, in five topic areas. And though you wouldn’t normally associate post-doc students with entrepreneurship, that is one of the categories.

According to program founders, the aim of mygradskills is to give graduate students the opportunity to develop the skills they’ll need to succeed “both in their graduate programs and beyond” (Samson, 2014). One of the goals of the program is to expose students to career options available, over and above research opportunities. Apparently it’s needed as one of the founders of the platform shared in an interview, “I can’t tell you how many graduate students have told me that they were afraid to tell their faculty advisers that they didn’t want to go on in academia.” 

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Screen shot from mygradskills.ca “Courses” page. Currently there are 20 self-paced courses available to enrolled students.

The courses are free to graduate and post-doctoral students from Ontario Universities, and there are plans to extend the program to other Canadian Universities (the Ontario Ministry of Training funded the program).

Insight: This type of initiative has great potential for all students, including undergraduates. We read statistics of many students with undergraduate degrees either unemployed or under employed soon after graduation, yet at the same time we read of employers claiming a skills gap. This type of program could address some of the shortfalls. If available to undergraduate students in their senior year—it could get students moving towards a career or post-grad study pathway. I see it augmenting the career center services.

2) LMS for Competency Based Education
Readers may not be too interested in reading about Learning Management System news; often LMSs are considered a necessary evil to faculty and teachers of education institutions. However, news last week shared by Phil Hill over at e-literate  is worthy of attention—the launch of a LMS platform geared to  competency based education (CBE) programs. The new LMS launched by Helix has a different approach than traditional LMS providers.  It’s not catering to an institution, but to a method of teaching and learning—CBE.  Interesting.

Insight: There is, and continues to be an emphasis and support ($$$) for creation of CBE programs by the Department of Education (Fain, 2014). This new LMS approach by Helix is another indicator. I predict that we’ll be hearing a lot more about CBE in the next few months with more institutions offering CBE options for students.  Why it’s significant, is because CBE is a radical departure from traditional education; it does not rely upon the credit-hour or ‘seat time’ as its often referred to, but upon mastery of units of instruction.

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Competency Based Education (CBE) is an approach that allows students to advance based on their ability to master a skill or competency at their own pace. Credit is granted when the skill is mastered regardless of learning time. (image: Capella University)

Several institutions are already basing their model on CBE, College for America, an offshoot of Southern New Hampshire University and Capella University for instance. Purdue University is planning on offering a competency-based degree in the near future. Other universities that incorporate CBE principles—Western Governors University and Kentucky Community and Technical College System for its 2-year degree program.

3) College Rankings News
US News released its 30th edition of Best College Rankings earlier this September. It’s given fodder for many articles and blog posts. The rankings are clearly aimed at parents and students, “U.S. News provides nearly 50 different types of numerical rankings and lists to help students narrow their college search“, yet the rankings are based solely upon a “peer assessment survey”, where the peers are deans and senior faculty at peer institutions. I give much value to faculty and deans opinions, however the fact that it is the only metric for such surveys, and that the rankings are given so much weight by parents and students is disconcerting.

Insight: There is a college that is the right fit for every student that wants to go to either a two or four-year institution. Yet there is an emphasis and pressure for students to get into one of the ‘best’ colleges—often unrealistic, wasting students energy, time and (parents) money. The focus should be on finding the right college for him or her which would yield far better educational results in the long run. The ‘best’ college rankings isn’t helping students.

Are You Ready to Learn Online? Five Need-to-Have Skills for Online Students

This post outlines five of the most essential skills students need to be successful with online course work, 1) basic computer skills, 2) digital communication, 3) Web search, 4) time management, and 5) collaboration skills, AND includes excellent resources for learning more about each. 

Success ahead sign

1) Computer Skills—The Basics
Why you need it:  At the very least you’ll need basic set of computer skills to function effectively in an online course. You’ll be communicating with the instructor and classmates either through discussion forums, email and video conference or chat platforms. You’ll also be uploading assignments, converting documents to PDF files, navigating within the course site, conducting searches, installing and updating software.

Applications/tools you’ll need: Access to a computer or laptop equipped with a webcam and microphone, an email address, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed internet connection (more so if accessing streamed lecture videos). If access to high-speed internet is a barrier, alternatives to view video content include: viewing in low definition setting, downloading video file to computer for later viewing, or reading lecture transcripts.

Access to word processing software such as Microsoft’s Word or Apple’s Pages. Some courses require use of Excel and/or presentation software such as PowerPoint. You’ll need to be able to convert a document to a PDF file format, and have up-to-date plug-ins, such as Flash, to engage with web content. The main gateway into an online course is through the course management system, also known as the learning management system (LMS)—you’ll need to be familiar with the features of the LMS specific to your course.

Resources:

2) Digital Communication
Why you need it:  As an online student you’ll be communicating and collaborating with your instructors and classmates in a variety of ways, most frequently through writing. Communication is either delayed, (asynchronous) where students post messages on discussion board for instance (similar to Facebook), or in real-time, (synchronous) during a video conferencing session, interactive classroom within the LMS, or a chat session.

What you’ll need to do:  To engage within discussion forums, which is a typical method to interact with your classmates and apply course concepts through dialogue. You’ll need to use netiquette skills when communicating online. Netiquette skills include for example, using full sentences, avoiding sarcasm, and using emoticons. These skills also apply to email communication, where you’ll want to be clear and succinct. Your instructor or institution may provide a list of netiquette skills for your class.

Tip: To make the most of learning with discussion forums, you’ll want to provide thoughtful responses that include deeper insights and/or resources (e.g. links to external content sources) that build on course concepts. Students can add value to online discussions by encouraging fellow classmates to expand on their ideas by posing thoughtful ideas and questions that will challenge classmates (and yourself) to think and reflect further about concepts.

Resources:

globe_mouse3) Web Search
Why you need it:  Knowing how to conduct searches on the Web is a skill set needed in today’s digital culture, yet students learning online need advanced Web search skills that go beyond ‘Googling it’.  We live in an age of information abundance, yet information is not knowledge. You’ll be sourcing relevant information for your studies—finding resources to share within discussion forums, references for papers and projects. Also searching for sources to learn background information within the course subject area you aren’t familiar with.

What you’ll need to do:  Use a variety of search tools to find scholarly articles, search databases, discern credible sources, locate primary and secondary sources.

Resources:  If you are studying with an institution, check with library services for online tutorials in using library databases, search skills, etc. Often local public libraries have instructional resources for conducting scholarly research—all you require is a library card.

4) Time Management
Why you need it:  Life can get in the way of studying online, more so for students taking online courses that have full-time or part-time jobs, are juggling family responsibilities, or already have a full course load at a traditional institution, all of which suggest that time management skills are critical to student success. 

What you’ll need to do: Take charge of your learning from the beginning of the course; allow no time for procrastination to set in. Research suggests that habits of successful online students include consistent and specific times set aside each week for their online studies. Other recommendations:

  • Log on to your course at least three or four times per week. For discussion forum activities, you’ll need to post an initial response to a discussion question early in the week, then log onto the course site throughout the week to read and respond to classmates’ comments and elaborate on your own.
  • Read the syllabus on the first day of the course; print off a hard copy or keep a digital copy on your mobile device to refer to throughout the course.
  • Record all dates for assignments, exams, tests for the entire course in your calendar, and add reminders.

Resources:

5)  Collaboration
Why you need it: You’ll be collaborating with your classmates for group projects and assignments. Numerous online courses require some form of interaction among students, and frequently students question the value of group work, especially in online courses. Yet it is beneficial for students. Working in small teams, in face-to-face and online classwork is a method that promotes application of core concepts, builds knowledge and provides learners with skills that allow them to view problems and situations from different perspectives.

Developing good collaboration skills will be an asset beyond the online classroom. Employers regardless of sector, seek people who are team players, can communicate across digital platforms with co-workers or clients on projects and/or research. Given the global and digital nature of current culture, digital collaboration is a competency considered an essential skill for all.

What you’ll need to do: There are three key aspects to collaborating successfully with other students online: 1) familiarity with the platforms and applications the group will use for communication, 2) effective communication skills, and 3) an understanding of factors that influence positive outcomes for team work in online settings. Below are suggestions for each aspect, with additional resources below.

  1. Determine which applications your group will use to collaborate and communicate— become familiar with how to use each. There may be more than one, e.g. a virtual meeting place specific to your group within the LMS, a real-time meeting platform, such as Google Hangouts or Appear.in.  Groups usually use a collaboration platform to work on the project, such as Google Docs, WeVideo for creating videos, or other sharing platforms. If you are not familiar with a tool or application, seek out tutorial videos to learn it, or ask for help.
  2. Communicate with group members—be present, be involved, be vocal. Don’t be that group member that doesn’t respond to group communication, shows up at the last-minute, or doesn’t pull his of her weight.  
  3. Know the dynamics of team work in an online environment  • Different time zones can pose a challenge but are workable when acknowledged up-front • Set up a schedule with deadlines  • Getting the project started is the most challenging—brainstorming sessions work well to share ideas—synchronously or asynchronously • A team leader is critical to group effectiveness—suggest early that a group member assume the role • Get to know each other as people; being social builds relationships and trust  • If a group member is not contributing, team lead should contact him or her; if non-participation persists, notify instructor asap.

Resources

Other Resources for Online Students: