Few people would publish a book or paper without having it first reviewed by an editor, or even simply someone they trust to have a good handle on the language. Yet, most colleges and universities publish online courses without a once over by an editor. I realize that some of this is due to an incorrect interpretation of academic freedom, but I’m not going to discuss that in this article. The consequence of errors in a public publication falls primarily on the author (or journal), however the consequence of errors in an online course primarily falls on the recipient (the student).
My experience, in the field of course design and development, is that while schools build teams of instructional designers, and invest in multimedia programs to enhance their online courses, few have course editors on their teams. And, while I would never claim to be capable of being an editor myself, my experience as a student in online courses, and as a course reviewer, is that many courses have significant errors in grammar, spelling, and syntax. In one of my graduate courses, the language was so bad it became a huge distraction. While I had a genuine respect for this individual’s knowledge of the subject matter, it was clear the individual had great difficulty in communicating clearly in writing. The large number of errors made some parts of the content almost unreadable, and the descriptions of various assignments extremely unclear. This problem existed throughout the entire semester. A course editor could’ve made all of this better for everyone concerned: the professor and the students. This is by far not the only course I’ve seen with these issues, though this was probably the worst.
Recently, I experienced this same problem in a MOOC offered by Stanford. The course had probably spent months in development. It was nicely designed, with high-end and entertaining video. But, there were numerous blatant grammatical errors in the audio, and text. A large portion of the forum posts complained of the language errors–some quite strongly. What made this particularly problematic, was that many of the students were not native English speakers.
What are the negative consequences of poorly written courses? Well, the first is that credibility can be negatively impacted. Cognitively, it increases the effort a student needs to process the information–sometimes significantly. In terms of Cognitive Load Theory, it increases extraneous load–which means it is more difficult for the student to learn the material–it negatively impacts learning. But, it can also give students the incorrect information, and it can create problems with assessment of student learning. For example, if a student misunderstands a poorly written question, or misunderstands what the assessment is asking the student to produce, then the student’s answer is an inaccurate measurement of what the student knows or is capable of doing. The assessment is invalid.
Often, we can use the context of a sentence to help us correctly interpret a poorly written sentence. For example, if we read a note: “Let’s eat Mom”, we would know the sentence is not suggesting we eat Mom, but rather “Let’s eat, Mom”. However, grammatically incorrect content, with which we have little familiarity or limited understanding, may not be easily interpreted correctly.
It is important for institutions to think of online courses as published materials, and insure they are reviewed by editors to the same degree that the school would like all of their public facing materials reviewed.
Ask someone, who was an elementary student in the 60s and 70s, if they remember SRA Reading and you may hear fond memories about various colored folders and the desire to reach the next color. My experience is that many of them can even remember particular readings. SRA was a program for Mastery Level Reading–a form of CBL. SRA Reading Kits were first published in 1957. They were the creation of Don H. Parker, and were created to solve a very real classroom problem–the need for individualized reading instruction. In his book, A History of the Reading Laboratory, he wrote “I tried to formulate my goal: to let each student start where he is and move ahead as fast and as far as his learning rate and capacity would let him. (Nowadays I’d say ‘him or her’)”
The concept behind SRA Reading was simple: based on pretests, students began their reading program at their current reading and then progressed at their own rate. They could not go to the next color, until they could show mastery in the current level. The color coded charts and folders provided students with tangible evidence of progress. The most significant downside to the program was that students sometimes measured their progress against others, rather than against their own progress. Achievement became competitive. Some thrived in this environment, and others became discouraged. Studies have shown, regardless, that the programs was (and still is) an effective educational program.
Yes, the SRA program still exists (http://www.srareadinglabs.com/) and now even comes in an electronic version. But can we ever eliminate students comparing themselves to each other? Should we? Or, should we, can we, develop programs where it won’t matter? That is just one of the challenges education has always faced. Personalize Learning Plans may be the best method for achieving CBL, while eliminating the comparisons that often create discouragement, dropouts, and failures.