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As we wait for the dawn of this new year

Every year, at about this time, I make a list of all the things I accomplished during the year. It helps me to reflect on the year, stimulates my memory, and encourages me. So, as the New Year has arrived in various parts of the world already and is moving around the globe, I wanted to add my two cents to all the other two cents on what were the big “things” in education this year. My vote goes to the continued development around open education and the particular focus on credentialing: OER University which held its first meeting of the anchor partners this year, the Badges for Learning  (Open Badges) initiative, and the announcement of the certificate program soon to be offered as MITx. I believe these will impact education in ways we’ve yet to imagine. There are some tides of change that happen regardless of those who would like to stop it. The cost of education, and the importance of it, are driving new ways of achieving what’s necessary. The future, though it is right outside our door, is yet to be seen.

Happy New Year everyone!

Student Feedback for Assessment

About a year ago I was working with an institution on its adoption of an Online Course Evaluation tool. It was a rather long process which included getting information on options and associated costs, piloting the program, responding to the concerns of the faculty about how the surveys would be used, setting up the tool so that the surveys would go out in emails to students, developing the survey tool itself (the questions) and then analyzing the results of the surveys to determine if the questions did, in fact, give us the type of information we were looking for.

Sadly, one of the greatest hurdles was the reluctance on the part of faculty to have a survey at all. I say “sadly” because such surveys can be invaluable for an instructor, a course designer, and the institution itself. If nothing else, well constructed surveys can  help in determining if a program has redundancies, have difficulty navigating the course, or if students are unclear about the learning objectives.

Course surveys should occur, at the very least, at the end of a course.  Even though information gathered at that time would be too late to make the course better for those students, the information can improve the course for the future students, and perhaps even improve the program as a whole. Too many instructors have the belief that students do not know enough to be able to determine whether there were clear objectives, whether they were met, whether there were unnecessary redundancies, or even if the work assigned was too much (or too little) for a 3 credit course.  My experience has taught me that students do know, and we should ask them.

The ideal would be to survey students at the very beginning of a course, at the midterm, and at the end.  The purpose of the beginning survey is to determine what students may already know or have experienced, and what they expect from the class. The midterm survey should be given to determine if the course is meeting its goals, and to determine if the students are struggling with a particular part of the course. The benefit of this is that necessary changes can be made before the course is done and it’s too late. We’ve already discussed the final evaluation.

If the questions are framed right, the survey can even cause students to reflect on their learning–to think about what they’ve done and learned. It can be used to develop metacognitive skills. There is a free tool available to assist with the development of these surveys. The site is called Student Assessment of  Learning Gains, and you can access it here: http://www.salgsite.org/ You can use the wizard to create your own surveys, and you can browse a library of surveys to get an idea of what other instructors are asking.

Assessing what we are doing, all along the way, is an important part of insuring we are meeting our students needs and expectations.

MITx: a game changer!

The Open CourseWare movement began in 2002 when MIT began offering its courses for free online. Since then, the Open CourseWare offerings have increased significantly, and the effects of that growth have spawned calls for credentialing of learning achieved via OCW.  This year has seen some pretty spectacular progress towards this with the founding of OERU, Badges for Learning, and the offerings of Stanford, to name a few.  But, the year is not over and so it seems fitting that in these final weeks of 2011 MIT would announce MITx.  There are two parts to this announcement: a new learning platform, and the credentialing of learning through MITx.

MITx will offer a portfolio of MIT courses through an online interactive learning platform that will:

  • organize and present course material to enable students to learn at their own pace
  • feature interactivity, online laboratories and student-to-student communication
  • allow for the individual assessment of any student’s work and allow students who demonstrate their mastery of subjects to earn a certificate of completion awarded by MITx
  • operate on an open-source, scalable software infrastructure in order to make it continuously improving and readily available to other educational institutions.”

There are two important parts to this announcement, the biggest being that MIT will be offering certificates for those who complete coursework through MITx. At at time when there is fierce competition for students, when many colleges are seeing enrollments declining, and the number of online offerings increasing, this is HUGE!  Why? Because it is quite possible that obtaining a certificate from MITx would be as valuable, or more valuable, than a degree from many other institutions.  And the cost, though it has not yet been announced, is sure to be competitive as well.  As I said in the title: a game changer.

The less noticeable point of the announcement refers to a new platform for learning. Those who’ve followed the world of LMS (Learning Management Systems) will remember that MIT was one of the institutions involved in the development of SAKAI–an Open Source LMS that, while picking up some market share, never was a big competitor for Moodle.  The announcement today talks about a new platform stating:

“MIT will make the MITx open learning software available free of cost, so that others — whether other universities or different educational institutions, such as K-12 school systems — can leverage the same software for their online education offerings.”

The question is, will this go beyond the LMS and even ePortfolios to a new Personal Learning Environment, an idea that has risen to the forefront of many discussions on what learning platforms need to look like? What MITx and its platform will look like and do is yet to be seen, but there is no doubt it will change a great deal in regards to education in the future.

The Musical Staircase

At a recent meeting, one of the faculty members reported on a research article she had read regarding a musical staircase.  What she said was that in the experiment researchers set up a system whereby a staircase played music while an escalator in close proximity did not.  They wanted to determine whether people would prefer to take the musical staircase rather than the escalator; which is what reportedly happened. What’s dangerous is the application of the results of that research to classrooms:  online courses should have music and other forms of entertainment.  It seems to be a logical conclusion, until you look at the studies on cognitive load, and you consider that the individuals on the stairs weren’t trying to learn anything.

So, without going into cognitive load theory, let me give you some other scenarios to consider:  Have you ever been shopping in a store where you are very much aware of the music playing?  Are there times when you liked the music and times when all you wanted was to get out?  Have you ever pulled up one of those web pages that plays music the minute you hit the page, and desperately wanted to turn the music off?  I know that even if I like a particular song, I would not want it to play every time I entered my course page, or any page for that matter unless I was going there to specifically hear that song.  And students don’t want to be confronted with music every time they access a course either.

Extraneous matter: images, audio, video, animation, etc, meant to simply make a course more appealing without actually providing academic content not only are unnecessary and create a poorly designed course, but they can actually make the material more difficult to learn.  At the very least, they are distracting and/or annoying. The massive amount of research on Cognitive Load confirms this, but in reality so should common sense.

I met with a student the other day who told me she spent 40 minutes looking at a particular image in a course trying to figure out what she was supposed to take from the image, only to come to the conclusion that it was simply there as a decoration.  Ah! 40 minutes!  Some of us will do the same thing, but only momentarily, trying to decode the presence of a particular photo.   The need to figure it out is intrinsic to our nature but uses essential energy and time that should be used to understand and process  the required content.

So, while a staircase with lovely music, or a restaurant with violins, or snow flakes falling in a window may attract and hold our attention, they will distract students in a course.   Context is everything.

A Challenge begins

Stanford University has begun opening up some of its courses to the world, for free.  This fall they offered three of them, and beginning in January they are offering seven more.  The enrollments for the the fall courses reached in the range of 60,000–yes, 60,000 students.  No, you don’t get credit from Stanford for the courses, but technically you could get credit from some other institution (I’ll cover this in another post).

I’ve decided to enroll in the Human Computer Interaction course that starts in January, and I will be blogging about my experience.  I do a lot of talking and writing about Open Source, Open Education, Open CourseWare and the like, and I think it’s time I actually went through the experience of a more formalized use of what’s out there.  I hope, through my reflection on the process, other individuals will come to see these resources from a new perspective.  My goal is to build a portfolio of what I learn (reflections, artifacts, etc) and then submit that to a tertiary institution for the purpose of obtaining credit.  Together we can learn about this brave new world in education, and assess it.  I hope you will join me in my journey: http://visibledreams.net/mahara/view/view.php?id=297

Link to the Stanford U class: http://www.hci-class.org/