Monday, February 23, 2009

Quality and Engagement in Online Courses

In today's discussion, I want to focus on quality and engagement in online courses. I want to do into some detail on one particular challenge for faculty - and that is to engage students through active learning - and thereby improve student learning (and student success).

This is a so-called presentation blog, and each blog posting deals with a separate topic that I would like to cover. Note that anyone can post a comment on any of the individual blog postings.

My goal is to have the workshop participants get a good sense of how to use a few Internet tools to improve student learning by making it more active - in courses ranging from face-to-face to blended to fully online.

The Sloan-C Quality Pillars

In 1997, Dr. Frank Mayadas (of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation) first spoke about the "Five Pillars" that support quality online education.

The quality pillars are:
  • Access
  • Learning Effectiveness
  • Cost Effectiveness (now Scale)
  • Student Satisfaction
  • Faculty Satisfaction
Dr. Mayadas proposed that institutions develop quantitative metrics to track their progress in each of the quality areas.

In 2008, the Sloan Consortium awarded the Inaugural Ralph E. Gomory Awards for Quality Online Education, to two institutions (UIS, UCF) that best demonstrated, in a quantitative manner, their commitment to continuous improvement of the quality of their online programs using the Sloan-C Pillars.

The Online Program at UIS

UIS has received national recognition for the quality, scale, and breath of its online program.

2007 Sloan-C Award for Excellence in Institution-Wide Online Programming

2007 Two-Part Feature Story about the UIS Online Program on NPR's Morning Edition Show

2008 Sloan-C Gomory Award for Quality Online Education

2008 Society for New Communications Research - Excellence in New Communications Award

The title of this posting is a link to a PowerPoint presentation about the online program at UIS.

Passive Learning/Active Learning

Despite overwhelming research (and common sense) that passive learning is less effective than active learning, many classes emphasize passive approaches.

Passive approaches emphasize:
  • Lectures
  • Readings
  • Watching video
  • Listening to audio
  • Observing demonstrations

Active approaches emphasize:

  • Interaction through discussion
  • Student-to-student interactions & faculty-to-student interactions
  • Student presentations
  • Group projects
  • Simulations
  • Problem solving

Passive Learning

Perhaps for us to discuss active learning, it is best to consider the common forms of passive learning. For centuries passive learning has been a favored approach of teaching at the unversity level. Faculty members would teach large groups of students in lecture halls. There would be essentially no interaction, no engagement, no active learning. Take a moment to view this video produced by Michael Wesch's cultural anthropology class last spring at Kansas State University. It explains well that passive approaches do not succeed with the 21st century student. More on the study here:

Constructivism Online

The constructivist approach also strongly supports active learning. Based in social constructivism of the early and mid 20th century, this approach to teaching and learning suggests that we, as instructors, do not impart knowledge, rather we help our learners to build thier own personal knowledge. We can best do that through active learning.
  1. Knowledge involves active cognizing by the individual.
  2. Knowledge is adaptive, facilitating individual and social efficacy.
  3. Knowledge is subjective and self-organized, not objective.
  4. Knowledge acquisition involves both sociocultural and individual processes.

There are some great examples linked above.

Alternatives to Face-to-Face Lecture in a Physical Classroom

In an online class, there are numerous alternatives to lecture - the title of this posting is a hyperlink to a web page listed FIFTY alternatives to lecture. Many faculty find that they can move away from lecturing and toward constructivism - with an emphasis on reading and threaded discussions.

However, faculty may feel that some content still may be best delivered as a presentation. For such content, one can use:

Narrated PowerPoint Lectures - Impatica, Slideshare-Slidecast

Screen Capture - Jing

Audio - Podcast

Video - Flip video posted to YouTube, Logitech webcam

Students can also produce audio and video content - Examples of student-generated content - Max (video), Yuri (audio)

Live Sessions - Elluminate Live, Centra (Prof. Sarah Cordell example)

Prof. Lanny Arvan's thoughts on online presentations.

While discussing tools for synchronous audio and video - these tools also can be used for synchronous office hours - Elluminate VRoom (three for free), Skype, ooVoo

Bloom's Taxonomy Revised - Actively!

The American Psychological Association has a great resource (linked above) with some revisions that are tailored to our active learning pursuits. You will see that the highest order is now CREATE rather than evaluate and the term knowledge has been more aptly re-named REMEMBER.

The taxonomy circle is a most useful tool. Note that it combines the non-active roles of remember and understand - and separates out each of the active roles of:
  • Apply
  • Analyze
  • Evaluate
  • Create

It is in the higher orders of the taxonomy that we achieve active learning - and in which we can implement some of the new and evolving Web 2.0 tools to actively engage students.

At the end of the Fall 2004 semester, I asked students to reflect back on their postings in Blackboard, and to categorize them as to their level on Bloom's Taxonomy. One of the better student's response is at:

Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Teaching

The now famous seven principles for good practice in undergraduate teaching published by Chickering and Gamson in the mid 1980s recognized the importance of engaging students through what we now call active learning approaches.
  1. encourages contact between students and faculty
  2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students
  3. encourages active learning
  4. gives prompt feedback
  5. emphasizes time on task
  6. communicates high expectations
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning

There are some fine examples in the original article (linked above).

Discussion Boards

At the core of most Learning Management Systems is the discussion board. It is not uncommon to average 100 posts per student in a semester class (20 students = 2,500 posts including instructor). The discussion board is where "the rubber hits the road".

Remarkably, when we asked a sampling of our online students what made their online classes special, most responded "everyone is heard" - it is not just the students in the front row, or the ones with the quick answer, or the teacher's pet. Every student posting in response to the common weekly discussion question is read and responded to by the instructor.

Interaction is the Key to Success in Online Courses

Over and over again, research has shown that interaction is the key to success in online classes. Here are some important research papers:

Swan, K. (2002). Building communities in online courses: the importance of interaction. Education, Communication and Information, 2 (1), 23-49.

Swan, K. (2001). Virtual interactivity: design factors affecting student satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22, (2), 306-331.

Excerpts from Sloan Studies of Online Communities - Linking Student/Faculty Satisfaction and Perceived Learning to Interaction, Proceedings of the Workshop 2000 on Asynchronous Learning Networks

The Sloan Consortium

The Sloan Consortium ( ) is an association of 1,500 colleges, universities, and other organizations committed to quality online teach and learning. The founder of the consortium, Dr. Frank Mayadas, is a good friend and colleague who has had an enormous impact on the development of online learning nationwide over the past 15 years. He is the program director for the online and blended learning initiatives at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation; the Sloan Foundation has provided nearly $100 million to foster quality online teaching and learning.

Sloan-C publishes a peer-reviewed journal, holds national conferences, conducts online faculty development workshops, and promotes quality online education.

Rubrics for Quality

The award-winning Quality Matters program now keeps their rubric as a proprietary tool available only to members. But, up until 2006, it was available to the public at large. In eight key areas, the rubric sets best practices standards for the design of online classes.
  1. Course Introduction/Overview
  2. Learning Objectives
  3. Assessment and Measurement
  4. Resources and Materials
  5. Learner Interaction
  6. Course Technology
  7. Learner Support
  8. Accessibility

One additional area I encourage users to consider is the less-quantitative aspects of the class. How does the class promote affective learning and changes? Are attitudes and opinions cultivated?

An excellent, less-quantitative, rubric that addresses some of these areas is one developed by Chico State University:

Keeping Current

For daily updates on online learning, educational technology and emerging technologies, I invite you to visit the blogs aggregated in the right column:

Online Learning Update

Educational Technology Blog

Techno-News Blog

New Realities in Higher Education

These blogs are published daily (365 days each year) by my colleague, Prof. Ray Schroeder, at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Oakley's Online Class at UIS

I teach a fully online course at the University of Illinois at Springfield - CS442 - "Internet and American Life". This course explores the impact that the Internet is having on our society. It promotes critical thinking and uses a constructivist pedagogy.

All undergraduate students are required to take a minimum of 13 hours in the Engaged Citizenship Common Experience (ECCE), a set of courses tied to UIS' heritage, mission, vision, and values. Most of the coursework in this category is interdisciplinary, and these courses provide a distinctive element to the baccalaureate education at UIS.

CS442 is in the ECCE category of U.S. Communities. Courses in this category aim to broaden students' knowledge about substantial, distinctive, and complex aspects of the history, society, politics, and culture of United States communities.