A meeting with our Education faculty a few days ago, led to some new and interesting information for me as I continue the role out of Mahara. Apparently NCATE, and perhaps other accrediting bodies, don’t want to see artifacts any longer; they simply want the data. So, it would seem the impetus for implementing e-portfolios would be going away, however I see this as something that will actually allow e-portfolios to become what they should’ve been in the first place: student-centered. They now can develop more freely to be a collection of a students learning and his/her reflection on that learning.
Most of the e-portfolios that schools adopted to meet accrediting requirements were difficult to use and pushed out like text books are. There was little student buy-in, and few students who wanted to use them for anything other than meeting program requirements. An e-portfolio designed to give students a place to showcase who they are, how they think, and what they can do, is an e-portfolio system that will be adopted and used.
Our role out of Mahara has been successful beyond our wildest dreams. Starting as a pilot in January, we’ve already had several departments completely adopt it, and non-academic departments are included in this: co-curricular activities and career services to name a couple. Students use has taken off too–on their own. That to me is true success and that’s what happens when you have a product that meets people’s needs. That’s how facebook, youtube, and flickr took off–they provided a service that people wanted. It’s wonderful to have an e-portfolio system like that: one that our students, faculty and staff want to use!
I realize this is going to be quite a controversial post, but I’m going to say this nonetheless. Too often, Deans or Chairs will hire an individual to teach an online course merely because they have taught online elsewhere–as if that experience guarantees they know how to teach online. Often these individuals show their online courses to other instructors as examples of how to teach online. Too many of them, however, are not good courses. Too many online courses are simply this: read documents, post to the discussion board, do a project. I’ve taken a number of online courses and they almost always follow this format. Even in this format, though I’ve grown quite tired of it, there are some effective discussion boards and some that are not. Those that are worthwhile are those in which the topic of discussion is clear. That is that the instructor hasn’t asked the students to discuss several topics within one posting. That is that the instructor hasn’t asked several questions, but one. Effective discussion boards also have some input from the instructor other than simply a grade.
If an instructor says “10 points for your initial posting, 5 points each for responding to two other postings” and tells you at the time she scores points that you got 20 points for that discussion board (and says nothing else) you tend to wonder if the instructor really reads the postings, or simply looks at the number of postings and words. I know, because that’s how I feel about a course I’m taking this semester. This instructor teaches a large number of courses online for that University, but in my experience as an instructor, a course designer, a course evaluator and a student, this is a poorly structured course. If this instructor went to some other institution with the credentials: taught 2 courses each semester online for the past 5 years, it is my experience that the new institution will be impressed merely by the fact the individual has taught online.
This all leads me to a quote from The Little Prince: “Grown-ups like numbers. When you tell them about a new friend, they never ask questions about what really matters.”
Suppose an instructor decides to offer a statistics course online–a course that was previously taught successfully face-to-face, who approves the change of format, and what do they look at? Institutions of higher ed do not have one standard protocol for this, but I’d like to offer my own experiences. As the Director of Distance Learning at various institutions, I’ve often had to review and approve changes in the format of a course’s delivery from a face-to-face course to an online or hybrid course. And, there are times when I’ve not approved the change of format until some specific problems were addressed. I offer the scenario of a statistics course merely for the sake of illustrating some of the important questions that need to be asked when a change of format is put forward.
In general it comes down to a simple set of questions: what are the objectives; how are they assessed? These are always the first and most important questions. There are basically two types of objectives we need to be concerned with. The first set are the instructor’s objectives for the course; the second set are the program objectives for the course. In the cause of the later, the program objective for a statistics course might be that students will learn how to use SPSS, because courses that follow will be dependent on students having learned that software application. What often happens, is that the instructor for the course either forgets or is unaware that a particular program has this objective. Often, if the course has been taught face-to-face, students access SPSS on the college campus in a computer lab where the application has been installed. They don’t purchase it themselves. However, when the course is put online, students will still need access to the software application. Is it fair to require students to buy the program, or does the college have to provide access to SPSS somehow? That’s a question that needs to be asked. Sometimes instructors, without knowing the need to use SPSS, opt to have their online students use a program readily available on the web, in many cases for free or very inexpensively (like ActiveStats, MiniTab, etc). If no one asks about the software, the students who take the online course could find themselves behind in successive courses.
In regards to the instructors objectives, courses, whether taught online, in a hybrid format or face-to-face need to be equivalent in rigor, and need to match any of the program objectives that are relative to that particular course. Students in statistics courses, or math courses in general, benefit greatly from hearing an instructor work out a problem and take questions. It is often difficult for them to learn strictly from reading a textbook and doing problems. The instructor needs to find an equivalent method in the online environment for meeting these needs. There are simple remedies, but unless someone points this out, it is often overlooked. Instead instructors overuse discussion boards, post documents, and give quizzes. Interactive applets, audio recordings and video taping of an instructor solving a difficult problem, or synchronous meetings online can all help.
In the case of the question “how are they assessed” there isn’t generally much difficulty with changing the assessments to an online format: students can submit homework via the web, and take quizzes via the web, etc. Assessment concerns are greater for courses that require things like role-play, presentations, oral articulation, and hands-on construction. When those courses whose assessments include something other than text, someone needs to ask: how are you going to have students meet this assessment in the online environment. Unless it’s thought through, there could be major frustrations on the part of both faculty and students. Students, for example, who don’t have a particular application, or a microphone, etc.
As more courses are put online, I think it is vital for colleges and universities to have a standard set of procedures that require the course change in format be reviewed by an expert in the field of online education, not simply the content specialists (department chairs or curriculum committees).