With online and blended learning growing at double-digit rates and sliding past the tipping point, publishers and schools are both getting into the course creation business. It’s a little bit of the Wild West out there and we expect new publishers will appear on a regular basis. Remember when there were dozens of textbook companies? Eventually, the market consolidated to the three primary textbook publishers we see today, but until that happens, we’ll be tracking eLearning’s evolution. Still, like early digital cameras just before their tipping point, some eLearning courses are primitive, two-dimensional, and, well, boring.
There. I said it. Some emperors have pretty ugly clothes.
However, as this disruptive innovation continues to mature, we strongly believe that courses will increase in complexity and sophistication. Capitalism and competition will drive publishers to increasingly raise the bar, offering more engagement, media, and assessment choices.
For now, though, through our experiences with a wide variety of online and blended courses, I’d like to share some thoughts about what a great online course should (and should not) be, whether you’re creating your own or if you’re about to go shopping for one.
1. A Textbook is not a course
What if a teacher threw a book at you and said, “Read this and take the tests at the end of each chapter. When you’re finished, you’ve passed the course”? Would you choose that teacher or curriculum for your child? Would you recommend that course to others? What are the odds that an average or struggling student would complete the course, or better, be proficient in its skills? What do you think the AYP of this class would be compared with an engaging face-to-face course? A great course should include textbook content, but if teaching and learning doesn’t extend beyond the page, and the course is primarily limited to reading, you’re better off throwing a kid a book and locking her in a room with it.
So, if a textbook isn’t a course, why do so many courses look and feel line one?
2. Your course should be better than the worst teacher in my school.
The Ferris Bueller clip below is my generation’s idea of a boring teacher.
Aim higher than this economics teacher. Much higher. Please. Because in some cases, I’d rather send my child to this f2f class.
3. There can’t be quality outputs without quality inputs.
I understand the outcomes-based performance indicators movement promoted by iNACOL, Michael Horn, and others and I look forward to an agreed-upon set of evaluation criteria that can be applied to both virtual and brick-and-mortar schools. Still, until these metrics are created and standardized, we’ll all be subject to our current criteria: course completions, graduation rates, drop-out rates, and Annual Yearly Progress (AYP).
But for me, it’s Garbage In, Garbage Out. You can’t have quality outputs unless you begin with quality inputs. As Charles Babbage was asked, “Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?”
A recent US News and World Report blog post by Ryan Lytle, Study: Online Learning Outcomes Similar to Classroom Results, analyzes research that showed little difference in student performance in online and face-to-face courses.
The report, “Interactive Learning Online at Public Universities: Evidence from Randomized Trials,” notes that students who utilize interactive online learning—or hybrid learning—produce equivalent, or better, results than students participating in face-to-face education.
Students learn more from active discussions than from traditional lectures, and they need instructors who can engage them in the material, notes Diane Johnson, assistant director of faculty services at the Center for Online Learning at Florida’s St. Leo University. “Teacher quality is still a very important part of success in an online course, but so, too, is the course design,” Johnson says.
Teacher quality & course design. Quality In. Quality Out.
4. Just what part of the “Accessible” memo didn’t you get?
Your school built wheel chair ramps even though you may not have had any students with that need because some day a parent, student, or teacher WILL have that need. You also did it because the Federal government made you, but it was the right thing to do, yes? Of course. We want all students to have equal access to a quality education.
Should that be any different with online courses? eLearning’s equivalent of a wheel chair ramp is accessible media, particularly narrated presentations and video lectures.
Accessibility requirements for electronic media was confirmed by a US Department Of Justice letter to college presidents. In it, the DOJ reviewed its lawsuit against universities that had piloted the Kindle DX, which the DOJ won because the Kindle DX did not have a text to speech function. The letter states, “It is unacceptable for universities to use emerging technology without insisting that this technology be accessible to all students.”
USDOJ/DOE Dear Colleague Letter
On May 26, 2011, the Office of Civil Rights issued a set of Frequently Asked Questions about the Dear Colleague Letter. In it, the DOJ reminds K12 education that they too must ensure technologies are accessible to all students.
USDOE, Office of Civil Rights
See page 4, question 7.
Accessibility criteria for online courses was pioneered by the Texas Virtual School Network (TxVSN) which has created a detailed site, TxVSN Accessibility, with advice, criteria, and check lists. Here are their Accessibility Guidelines.
One of CLRN’s requirements when reviewing courses is that all narrated presentations and videos include transcripts or Closed Captions.
So, yes, when you’re constructing an online course, your customers, and the Office of Civil Rights, expects that course materials are accessible. There are free resources to assist you, including Universal Subtitles, which can be used to embed captions within YouTube videos.
Make use of them.
5. Consistency between courses is key
We’ve noticed that often two online courses taught in sequence, like English I and English II or Algebra I and Geometry, have very different levels of interactivity and engagement, as if they were created by two very different teams who weren’t talking to each other. While one course may have a variety of media, narrated presentations, and video lectures, the companion course would not. The basic pedagogy of each course would be the same, as if course developers were working from a template, but one course would be significantly weaker than the other.
My advice? Hire great educators to develop your courses and make sure a separate person is in charge of quality control. Include textbook snippets, but make sure lessons are embedded with short video lectures, discussions, collaboration opportunities, and media.
6. Formative Assessments Should Inform Instruction
Too often, as in most cases, they don’t.
If a student is struggling, a formative assessment is where we first discover his difficulty in grasping a concept or idea. If, after failing a formative assessment, your course just passes the student on to the next unit without 1) reteaching or 2) informing the teacher there may be a problem, you’re competing with my worst teacher for last place.
There’s a reason teachers love “clickers”. They enable teachers to instantly assess whether students comprehend concepts and they offer “just-in-time” teachable moments if students don’t.
Formative assessments, generally short multiple-choice quizzes, don’t have to be graded. They DO need to be an opportunity to determine whether a student is grasping a concept. When students have difficulty, the course should attempt to reteach using new examples or new methods until the student is ready to move on.
Otherwise, your course isn’t much better than a book.
7. Vary Your Assessments
You do know there are other assessment types besides multiple-choice, yes? Then why do so many courses use multiple chose tests exclusively? It’s fairly common for a course to have frequent formative assessments, consisting of a few multiple-choice questions that gauge a student’s progress. That’s great, and often appropriate. However, when multiple-choice tests are used exclusively in a course, you’ll never know whether a student has synthesized course concepts.
There’s a reason principals frown when teachers park themselves at the school Scantron machine scoring quizzes. Sometimes a multiple-choice test IS the best way to test knowledge. However, it’s never appropriate to use it exclusively. A great online course should have a variety of assessments, some which provide feedback about knowledge and comprehension, while others challenge students to apply, create, analyze and evaluate. The less a test is “Googleable”, the better chance you’ll have of actually evaluating student progress.