Online Learning Management
Your 5 Best Tips for No-Fail Production
Technologies for improved eCourse production abound but will have little impact if you don't have these best practices under your belt.
These days, with learning management system (LMS) offerings just about everywhere, online courses are almost as prevalent as classes taught in traditional classrooms with professors and students present at lecterns and desks.
Many colleges and universities turn to vendors to help them create these courses, a service that software providers such as Blackboard, eCollege, and Angel Learning offer as a supplement to standard LMS service. Other schools-especially those utilizing open source LMS solutions such as Moodle and Sakai-grab courses from repositories like the National Repository of Online Courses, the brand-new HippoCampus (see "Hungry, Hungry HippoCampus"), or they attempt to create coursework on their own.
In whatever manner schools develop online courses, professionals who have grappled with the challenge say the process is closer to science than art. With that in mind, we've asked a number of online course experts what they consider the five most critical steps to building online courses that work. (Note: For the latest in online course assessment information, not included here, see CT's March feature,"Uncharted Territory").
ONE: Create a Plan.
Faculty often believe that they can take what they've been doing for years and move it to an online template, but online courses actually are an entirely different animal requiring planning against three specific types of interactions.
TIP 1: Create a Plan
Abraham Lincoln once said, "If I had six hours to chop down a tree, I'd spend the first four hours sharpening the ax." The same strategy holds true for building no-fail online courses: The best courses require painstaking preparation and planning. And if anybody understands the need for planning, it's Michael Anderson, assistant director for course development and technology at the University of Texas System TeleCampus, based in Austin.
Anderson's organization offers roughly 400 online courses each semester, and he's seen the online offerings grow from next to nothing in 1999, to what they are today. He says that when educators express interest in starting an online class, he and his staff hold twoday professional development workshops to sit down with the teachers and go over instructional design. The seminars take place twice each year.
"Faculty sometimes have the misconception that they can take what they've been doing for years and shovel it into an online template," he says, noting that far too many online courses are still nothing more than glorified PowerPoint slide decks. "We're out to instruct them otherwise; that online courses are a completely different kind of thing."
During these workshops, Anderson and his staff tutor faculty members about the new approach, encouraging them to share and-yes-reuse and repurpose content, but imploring them to reconceptualize their syllabi around three basic types of interactions:
- Student-to-content interaction, which pertains to the ease with which students can access new concepts and interact with the learning material.
- Student-to-student interaction, such as communication via instant message, chat, and message boards.
- Student-to-instructor interaction, involving everything from ePortfolios to messaging.
Armed with this information, the educators in the workshop then have three months to go off on their own and reformat PowerPoint presentations and syllabi to reflect these new priorities. At the end of the three months, Anderson's staff evaluates the courses and applies pre-established rubrics to the results, to make sure educators have redesigned the syllabi in such a way as to tie information together coherently. Those courses meeting these criteria are moved along the queue toward eventual adoption; those coming up short are sent back to educators for further development.
Hungry, Hungry Hippocampus
IN THE WORLD OF NEUROLOGY, the hippocampus is the part of the brain that plays a role in forming, storing, and processing long-term memory. In the world of online courses, HippoCampus is a new clearinghouse of high-quality, multimedia content on general education subjects, which is available to high school and college students free of charge. In some cases, this content takes the form of online classes. The goal: Students download the classes and use the material as study guides. The site is a project of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education (MITE) in Monterey, CA.
Executive Director Gary Lopez says HippoCampus content has been developed by some of the finest colleges and universities in the world. "The whole idea is to take what's out there, mine the great minds, and create content students can use as a resource. Students who are accustomed to learning in online course environments will be that much more comfortable learning from the kind of medium they're familiar with," he adds.
As of March 1, the HippoCampus site had 33 courses in its archive-not bad, considering that the site went live in fall 2007. Currently, courses are offered in two languages, and span nine subjects: algebra, American government, biology, calculus, environmental science, physics, psychology, religion, and US history.
Despite these offerings, the HippoCampus site is not designed to compete with MITE's other project, the National Repository of Online Courses. Courses on that site are developed specifically by curriculum experts, for teachers to adopt and personalize. (Access to these courses costs anywhere from $3,000 to $25,000, depending on the number of students and the number of courses a school wants to use.) As both sites grow in popularity over the next few months, Lopez says he expects the number of courses in each to climb dramatically. Already, numbers on NROC are impressive; at last count, the site contained literally hundreds of courses for teachers to co-opt, even including some as sophisticated as a course on plate tectonics. Both HippoCampus and NROC are supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Lopez adds that the projects also were designed as part of Open Educational Resources (OER) Commons, a worldwide effort to improve access to quality education for all.
"We pride ourselves on the fact that everyone here takes preparation very seriously," says Anderson. "If educators don't take advantage of [online] media, a course can fall apart."
TWO: Embrace 'Chunking.'
In the creation of your own online courses, or even after the purchase of existing online content, think in terms of "chunks" of information, and be willing to move preordered sections of information around. Paying attention to the "chunks" is a good way to keep everyone-especially students-involved.
TIP 2: Embrace ‘Chunking'
Sometimes the easiest way to take advantage of the online course interface and help students understand complicated concepts, is to break the information up into digestible bits. This approach, colloquially referred to in pedagogical circles as "chunking," is particularly popular and efficient in online learning, where the lack of faceto- face interaction amplifies the need for simplicity.
Such was the case at Chattanooga State Technical Community College (TN), where professors rely on instructional content they obtain from the National Repository of Online Courses. In organizing her 2008 syllabi, Kathy Long, associate professor of history and geography at the college, purchased an online history course from the repository, created by educators in California. But she reorganized certain sections, or chunks, to fit her needs. As part of her modification, Long pulled out the course's original chunk about the Antebellum South and attached it to the section about the Compromise of 1850. Later in the syllabus, Long also switched around chunks about the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement.
"If one history professor prefers to teach the subject in chronological order, but another prefers to teach it on a thematic basis, they both can win with this [customized chunking] strategy," she explains. "One might look at online courses and say, ‘Why move chunks around?' but the fact remains that the educators who create courses aren't always the same people who teach them, and [embracing chunking] is a good way to keep everyone-including students-involved."
Long isn't the only higher education professional to advocate chunking. This past December, during the Campus Technology webinar, "Building Better Moodlerooms: Online Strategies and Best Practices" (see "Making Better Moodlerooms"), Moodle spokesperson Bob McDonald hailed the strategy, as well. Chunking, he pointed out, "allows students to quickly ascertain what's going on, and then move on to the next topic at hand." According to McDonald, providing students with segmented page-bypage views of large concepts actually helps them learn. "Chunking gives students very concise, defined pieces of data in which to experience a subject," he maintained.
THREE: Emphasize Quality.
The best route to quality assurance in online course production may be via independent third-party QA professionals contracted to go through course materials and review them for accuracy. Even a garden-variety proofreader or editor instructed to check all factual information will increase your chances of getting the information right and keeping the quality of the content high.
TIP 3: Emphasize Quality
Any efforts to develop content for an online course (even those above) mean nothing, if the content itself is not accurate. An online course may offer an abundance of information, but if the data are outdated or incorrect, they serve no purpose. In the world of online learning (as in the world of traditional learning), quality is just as important as quantity.
Achieving factual quality, then, comes down to the process of quality assurance (QA). Gary Lopez, executive director of the Monterey Institute for Technology and Education, insists that the best route to quality assurance in online course production is via independent, third-party QA professionals, who are contracted to go through course materials and review them for accuracy. Lopez likens this process to fact-checking-the same procedure newspapers and magazines rely on to ensure the accuracy of their coverage. He believes that even if your third-party quality assurance professional is a garden-variety proofreader or editor simply instructed to check all factual content, having someone outside the institution examine the content through a fresh set of eyes will increase your chances of getting the information right and will keep the quality of the content high.
"Just as it's a terrible experience to read something you know is wrong, it's even more frustrating to try to learn something when it's filled with errors," Lopez says. "The inaccuracy could be something as simple as turning a plus sign to a minus sign, but from the perspective of a student who is on the cusp of understanding certain concepts, that tiny error could make a huge difference."
TO KEEP ONLINE COURSE content relevant, all full-time and adjunct instructors at DePaul University are required to update their online syllabi annually.
Case in point: Long's American history class at CSTCC. The professor reports that, some time ago, she discovered an erroneous definition for the term "scalawag" in the online course materials. History buffs know scalawag as a derogatory term applied to native white Southerners who cooperated with or supported the federal Reconstruction plan, but students studying American history for the first time didn't have a clue.
"I had to go out of my way to explain to students that the definition in the course was wrong, and then provide them with the correct meaning," she says. "A lot of energy could have been saved if someone had simply proofread or copyedited the course materials from the very beginning."
FOUR: Make It Interesting!
Until they are able to deploy synchronous Web 2.0 technologies, some schools are keeping students interested with asynchronous online course options such as YouTube videos and podcasts accessible 24/7, and next-gen message boards that boast digital audio and video files.
TIP 4: Make It Interesting!
An educator can plan an online course, develop the content, and have it checked for accuracy, but what if the course simply is not interesting? Certainly there are online educators who grab their students' attention by building lessons around outlandish or eccentric anecdotes but, today, the majority of those who create online course content build interest by incorporating interactive features such as podcasts, videos, and social networking capabilities like instant messaging and message boards.
In fact, a small but growing percentage of schools operate on the cutting edge of these technologies, embracing synchronous communication as the wave of the future. Educators at Vassar College (NY), for instance, have incorporated Second Life into their online classes, requiring students to meet "in-world" every now and again.
Other schools may be slower to embrace synchronous Web 2.0 tools but, until they get up to speed, they are trying to keep students interested with other options. In most of these cases, educators opt for varied asynchronous technologies to provide accessible platforms even for students whose computers aren't up-to-the-minute. At the University of California-Berkeley, this means YouTube videos and podcasts are part of the school's online course offerings and webcasts, all of which can be downloaded or accessed on-demand 24/7, by students and other users. And educators and technologists at Seminole Community College (FL) have implemented a next-generation online message board that boasts digital audio and video files. In addition to allowing access for those students who don't own their own computers but who can access public computers, the technology also helps students who might not be able to log on during the day.
Making Better Moodlerooms
Michael Staley, dean of Seminole's Center for Economic Development at Heathrow, says the A/V message board technology enables online students to complete their assignments and interact in short bursts of time-for busy professionals especially, a realistic expectation. "It levels the playing field by giving everyone equal opportunity to access information at his or her convenience," says Staley. "As a student, if you can't keep up, you're going to get bored, and providing that access was the primary key to making the content interesting."
Of note, too, are brand-new alternatives to existing asynchronous efforts: A new vendor to this space, for instance, is Dallas-based Brainband Technology Services, which plans to build a new kind of online lesson content for higher education institutions. It incorporates a variety of recent technologies including Flash, a digital animating technology from Adobe.
FIVE: Keep It Relevant.
Vendors, too, are trying to keep content relevant. The digital media services provider Cdigix, for one, recently repositioned and formed a partnership with class capture provider Tegrity. Via this partnership, institutions can provide seamless access to recorded classes and lectures, as well as other digital media assets licensed by the institution-all integrated into their teaching and learning environments.
TIP 5: Keep It Relevant
The final step in building no-fail online courses? Keep them relevant and even ahead of the times. In some cases, this means refreshing the outmoded parts of the content every semester. At UT-TeleCampus, for example, Anderson says his team reassesses every course at the end of every semester and often requires educators to rework new components to make them just as engaging as the older "proven" stuff.
In many cases, keeping content relevant is part of an educator's job description. DePaul University (IL) administrators, for instance, require all full-time and adjunct instructors to update their online syllabi annually. At Tulane University (LA), which governs online courses through its in-house Academic Center for Learning, Research, and Technology, requirements for educators teaching online courses are the same as they are at DePaul.
Higher ed technology vendors, too, are trying to keep content relevant. The digital media services provider Cdigix, for one, recently repositioned and formed a partnership with class capture provider Tegrity. Via this partnership, institutions can provide seamless access to recorded classes and lectures, as well as other digital media assets licensed by the institution, all integrated into their teaching and learning environments. And Neulio, a provider of user-generated content to online learning, offers a new wrinkle: Quiz Builder, a proprietary technology through which educators behind online courses can create engaging web-based assessments that support four different question formats.
George Colombo, Neulio's founder and president, says components like Quiz Builder and the company's new video platform are important to the success of any online course, largely because fun and innovative technologies are the lingo of students today.
"What we're trying to do is offer different types of toolsets that can be used effectively in a variety of places," he says. "Getting students to sign up for online courses is easy; keeping them interested- and actually teaching them something while they're there-is a more formidable challenge, overall."
Case Study: Offline Management of Online Courses at Ivy Tech.
Research: Blended Versus Online Learning.