Bio: Curriculum specialist in program development, competency based learning, assessment, and instructional technologies.
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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.
In June of 2013, the Governor of Vermont signed the Flexible Pathways Initiative calling for the creation of personalized learning plans. When I was student at Empire State College in the 1990s, that’s exactly what I had to create for myself, and it is still something that the College promotes. What personalized learning plans do, first and foremost, is put an individual’s education directly into their own hands. What greater method can there be for the buy-in and ownership of an individual’s learning, than their own learning plan. It changes the way students perceive their education, especially in the K-12 world where education is not an option and attending school is mandatory. This changes education from a top down model, to a collaborative model: a collaboration between the student and the school. But, can it succeed, and how does a school district deliver instruction to students with individualized learning plans? This is the challenge of the future, and the only solution to moving education in the direction it needs to go. As technology advances personalize learning will become less and less difficult, more and more what is expected.
This week, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled Shaking up the Classroom which discussed to move, by some schools, to a competency based model and The Journal, posted an article on evidence that competency based models are improving learning: http://thejournal.com/articles/2014/03/13/states-show-improvement-on-digital-learning-report-card.aspx
The move to personalized learning environments is gaining ground, and it will be interesting to see how schools implement these.
Standard VIII, in CAEL’s Ten Standards for for Quality Assurance, states “Fees charged for assessment should be based on the services performed in the process and not determined by the amount of credit awarded.” Anyone who has gone through the portfolio process of earning credit through PLA appreciates the work involved in articulating the learning and being assessed on it. Some PLA programs include an option that allows students to test out of a course. Usually this involves the construction of a well thought out assessment, built by the faculty and assessed under very secure circumstances. The student generally does not pay the tuition for the course, but a set fee for the exam. There are standardized exams for this process (CLEP, ACE, etc), but colleges often construct their own as well. How, then, does this compare with pretests in competency based learning?
A lot of thought needs to be put into the pretest–what is it purpose? Is the student paying for credit hours, or is there a set fee regardless? Many colleges and universities, offering CBE, have gone with alternative tuition fees. Considering Standard VIII above, this makes sense. But what if the institution hasn’t changed the way they charge tuition? If the pretest occurs before the student enrolls in the course, and provides the student with the option of testing out of the course (is given credit for the course ), then there is no conflict, especially if the student is allowed to complete any final artifact of competency that enrolled students will complete. However, if the pretest occurs within a CBE course, and allows a student to “test out”, then there is a conflict, because the student is paying by the credit hour. In this situation, my own recommendation is that students who can prove they’ve achieved the required level of competency in any given course, should be allowed to test out. Schools developing a CBE program, should consider having this option available for all students.
Pretests that occur within the context of a CBE course, should have the primary purpose of being a diagnostic tool. They can provide students (and instructors) with important information, especially because by its very nature CBL is self-paced. A well constructed pretest can and should have questions that are matched to the competencies in the given course. Additionally, the competencies themselves should have an allotment of time associated with them–the time it would take the average student to cover the content required to master the competency (what we once thought of in terms of carnegie units). When the student completes the pretest, he/she should receive a report that indicates their current level of competency in each of the related areas (so they know how much time and energy they may need to spend in a given competency), and the actual calculation of time they would need to devote to the tasks. This will allow the student, who may need more than a semester to complete the course, the opportunity to request more than a semester and/or know how many courses they can reasonably complete in a given amount of time.
In summary, test-outs and PLA should be used to give credit up front for a particular course/competency, while pretests should be considered diagnostic and not used for awarding credit. All CBE programs should offer some sort of PLA credit. This does not mean that a student, who has not tested out, can’t move through the course rapidly; they can still skip practices and content (if they choose) yet will need to complete the graded assessments associated with all the given competencies within the course.
I’ve attached a suggested template for planning your pretest, which you can download: Pretests_Maps
This is the picture of an off-ramp taken from the rear window, and cropped out of the picture is a car that has been totaled. A car in which a group of teens were killed when they got on the highway going the wrong way. If you were to get on an offramp, going the wrong way, how would you know? The clue is the yellow line on the right side and white line on the left. The white line should always be on the right-hand side, and the yellow on the left. I’ve found that most people don’t know this, and yet that piece of knowledge can be a matter of life and death.
If this piece of information is critical, then shouldn’t it be taught in driver education? And, if it is taught in driver education should we make sure it is assessed? A common method of assessment is the use of quizzes constructed of random questions selected from a larger test bank. This type of assessment does not guarantee that the student will be assessed on critical information. If the drivers test consisted of a subset of random questions selected from a test bank, students may or may not get a question on white lines. Should they? And, if so, should it matter if they get it correct?
These are the kinds of things we should consider when constructing assessment. What is it that students need to have mastered in a course in order to pass? Do we directly assess it, and do we insure students are not passed along until they actually master it? If a course does not have specific competencies that a student needs to master, as some individuals will claim about their course, then why are we asking students to take it? There must be some skill or knowledge, at some level of mastery (even if it is on the beginner level) that we want students to get from that course.
Today, I came across a wonderful document on CBE posted on the Merrimack High School web site:
I took a screenshot of one of the slides, because I think it illustrates an important point about the weights we assign to various
assessments. I’ve seen a good many rubrics, and far too many of them don’t weigh the most important items properly. I’ve seen a good many category weights that allow students to completely fail the final exam and still pass the course–sometimes with a grade as high as an B.
A good part of the problem education now faces is due to the way we assess education, the way we credential it as well, and maybe even the way we think about it. Much more thought needs to go into what we assess, how we assess it, and how much weight we put on those assessments.