Diary of an eLearner
The Personal Blog of Randy Matusky
In the paper Factors Influencing Interaction in an Online Course, which was published in The American Journal of Distance Education, Vrasidas and McIsaac explore the key components that instructors must include in their online classes in order to ensure strong student engagement. The paper was published back in 1999, and obviously the field of distance learning has changed since then, but I believe that their findings are still essential and beneficial for online instructors today. The four most influential factors affecting student interaction and engagement in an online class are:
- Structure of the course
- Class size
- Prior experience with computer-mediated communication
There’s a reason why Vrasidas and McIsaac placed structure as the first factor for student engagement, and that’s because without it there is no hope of having a successful online class. My alma mater, George Washington University, has created a helpful list of design tips that designers must keep in mind when creating an online course. The list can be found at Online Course Layout: Navigation, Structure, Look and Feel. It’s important to note that this list was developed with Blackboard in mind, because that is the LMS that GWU chooses to use, but I argue that the majority if not all of these tips can easily be applied to any of the popular learning management systems your school or organization is using. Here’s a basic rundown of the list:
- Consider how students will get ready for your course
- Create a clear starting point for your course
- Create an “introduce yourself” discussion board, blog or wiki
- Organize the course menu with meaningful names and clear, logical order
- Have all links open in a new page
- Name course parts and sections consistently throughout the course
- Provide a visual calendar of course work and assignments
- Provide clear information on how students can find help
- Tie assignments, activities and discussions together with clear instructions
- Establish a clean visual style for your course pages
When in doubt, you should always seek the opinion of others. I would turn to another instructional designer, an instructional technologist, a professor, a subject matter expert (SME) or a neutral/outside body. I recommend to also look into Quality Matters. The Quality Matters Program (QM) is a nationally recognized, faculty-centered, peer-review program that ranks the quality of online and hybrid courses. If your course meets their standards, QM will provide their certification to your course, and in an age where many people are still doubting the effectiveness of distance or online learning, no potential certification should be overlooked. There are 8 categories of general standards, and within these are a total of 41 individual standards. The categories include: Course Overview and Introduction, Learning Objectives (Competencies), Assessment and Measurement, Instructional Materials, Learner Interaction and Engagement, Course Technology, Learner Support and Accessibility. The individual standards vary between 1 to 3 points. In order to meet the expectations of Quality Matters, your online course must meet:
- All 3-point standards (essential standards)
- Reach a total score of at least 81 out of 95 points
The 3-point standards are considered ‘essential standards’ to Quality Matters, meaning that the proficiencies that they highlight are those that all academically-sound online courses must have. Twenty-one out of the total forty-one individual standards are considered essential, and are given a 3-point rating. If you are currently designing an online course, or you are considering transferring your curriculum to an online medium, then I recommend that you start by reviewing these twenty-one standards. I’ve attached a PDF of this rubric, titled Quality Matters Rubric Standards 2011-2013 edition with Assigned Point Values:
Class size is the next factor that has a major influence on student engagement and their willingness to interact with the material. Anymir Orellana, professor of instructional technology and distance education at Nova Southeastern University, conducted an extensive study in 2006 on this very same topic, which she titled Class Size and Interaction in Online Courses. Orellana sampled 131 online instructors, working in a variety of levels; 30% teaching at the bachelor’s level, 20% teaching at the master’s and doctoral levels, and the rest working in the K12 or professional training domains. The average size was 23 students per online class, and an average of 15 for the doctoral level. Numbers were higher for public institutions than for private: 23 as compared to 18. Instructors noted that the desired number of students was 19, and the ideal 16. Not shockingly, the total amount of teacher-to-student interaction time would drop if the number of students in the class increased.
It’s important to note that this study was done prior to the boom in MOOCs. Supporters of MOOCs believe that an online class can consist of thousands of students, while opponents just view it as a passing phase. I believe that MOOCs have a specific role in education: more as a tool for informal learning. I would advocate for a maximum of 22-23 students for a formal online class and not more.
Giving timely feedback from your students is another important factor for student engagement, and this is no different for the online classroom. The feedback should come very soon after the submission of an assignment, it should be consistent throughout the semester, and it must be personal and constructive. Creating a personal connection can be tough if you never get to interact with the student in person, but it can certainly be accomplished. A great tip to help make it personal is by showing the student how the work connects to their lives. Dedicate a section of the discussion forum to ‘personal reflections’, sort of like a reflective journal. Weekly responses to readings is a formative assessment, so the student won’t necessarily discuss their personal lives or their unique perspectives on the material. Giving them an outlet to freely chat with the instructor and their peers allows for more of a personal touch to the course.
Student engagement is one of the most important factors that affect teaching and student motivation to learn. When students are apathetic toward learning, a barrier to learning is created – William D. Beeland, Jr [link]
Don’t just limit yourself to one form of feedback. Too often online instructors only give written feedback, such as through the discussion forums or email. Some students see this as a distant and cold way to interact with their professors. I believe that you should schedule at least one video conference with all of your online students. It doesn’t have to be long, it can be 10-15 minutes at most, but it allows you to really connect with each of your students. This will go a long way to motivate them to work harder.
Finally, you must ensure that all your students are comfortable with the required technology for the course. Never assume that just because they have enrolled in an online class that they must be technologically savvy. This sort of assumption can jeopardize the overall academic success of a student. Most colleges and universities provide training for students wishing to pursue online studies, but I would still emphasize the importance of knowing the technology prior to starting the course. On week one, you should email the class letting them know you are available to help them with any tech questions they might have. Also, you should create a discussion column solely devoted to tech issues that might come up during the semester.
Sierra College has put together a simple 3-page PDF titled Are You Ready for an Online Class? This will allow the students to review all the requirements and competencies that are required for success in online learning. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has also created an Online Learning Readiness Questionnaire, consisting of 30 questions. These types of resources should always be used in order to ensure that the student is really ready for and fully understands the demands that go into online learning.
On Wednesday, October 8th, 2014, I had the pleasure of attending the Vermont State Colleges annual IT Summit, located at the VSCs chancellor’s office. Besides being located in the beautiful city of Montpelier (which I have just recently moved to), it was a great opportunity to meet and greet with some other EdTech professionals, be it IT workers, CIOs, CTOs and instructional designers. For the purpose of the VSC, this annual summit gives us the opportunity to place a face-to-a-name. In our daily duties, we often interact with the other colleges from the other colleges, but it’s always refreshing to speak with them in person and not through a screen or a text.
I attended four sessions: VDI: Discussion/Show & Tell, Moodle Mind Meld, Classroom AV Setups and the TLT Breakdown of Educause Student IT Survey. All four sessions were both entertaining and educational, but the one I want to focus on in this post was the first one, and that’s because it covered a really cool piece of technology that has the potential to radically change the IT departments throughout many organizations, and not just in higher ed. What I’m talking about is VMware Horizon View. Here’s a great intro video on it:
According to the a promotional PDF released by VMware, titled VMware Horizon View: Deliver Desktop Services from Your Cloud, Horizon View is:
VMware Horizon View delivers desktop services from your cloud to enable end-user freedom and IT management and control. With Horizon View, IT can simplify and automate the management of thousands of desktops and securely deliver desktop as a service to users from a central location at levels of availability and reliability unmatched by traditional PCs. By delivering secure access to applications and data to any device – when and where users need it – Horizon View gives end users maximum mobility and flexibility. (Link)
I can see many within the higher education system being very intrigued by the possibilities that this Horizon View could provide. CIOs will be interested because it will reduce the amount of time/resources that they currently are spending on repairs and upgrades, and financially it will free up more money which could be invested into new projects. Deans and Presidents will be intrigued because they will be able to move their institutions into new directions, such as having a campus that is spread over a larger territory. The person presented the VMware discussion works for the Community College of Vermont (CCV), whose campus has 12 physical buildings, located throughout the state. This software allows schools and other businesses the ability to have a longer IT reach.
Some of the benefits that VMware Horizon provides include:
- The inclusion of Hypervisor, which allows multiple operating systems to share a single hardware host.
- It frees up storage space by trimming storage requirements for VDI desktops (reports are up to 90%)
- Strengthens security through VMware vShield Endpoint, which is a built-in endpoint security solution that has antivirus protection
- Less human error because the overall OS is simple to understand and very user friendly
- Has the benefit of reducing the operating cost for the IT department, mainly through the reduction in repairs and service time
Not sold on the benefits of Horizon, no problem. Another option you could try is XenDesktop by Citrix. XenDesktop provides you with a cloud platform that allows your individual workers to select the needed apps and desktops for their specific roles. The platform is different to that of Horizon, but I would argue it’s equally as user-friendly. Some top universities that are using XenDesktop include Arizona State University, Indiana University, the University of Illinois, Chicago, University of Maryland, University of New Hampshire, and the University of North Carolina. Outside of education, you’re looking at Cirque du Soleil, Disney Interactive, LeapFrog Enterprises and Logicworks. These are very large businesses, so that alone tells you that XenDesktop is a worthy competitor to VMware Horizon. However, you should plan on investing more money into this platform, since it comes with a heftier price tag.
What will be interesting, and worth watching out for, is to see if more businesses jump into the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) game, and if that will bring down the price of these platforms. I believe that it eventually will come down, and be at a level where all businesses, including the very small ones, have access to it. This means that the current IT infrastructure will need to change, or should we say ‘need an upgrade.’ But that shouldn’t come as any surprise since technology is constantly in a state of flux.
Here is the promo video for Citrix XenDesktop 7:
I have just finished reading a paper written by Z. Zayapragassarazan and Dr. E. Ramagenesh titled ICT Competencies of Higher Education Teachers in Puducherry Region. Puducherry (which means ‘New Town’) can be found on the south-east coast of India, formally part of French India. Some refer to it now as the “The French Riviera of the East.” The goal of the study was to uncover the level of comfort instructors at the Higher Education level have with instructional technology. India has been greatly improving its education system over the last decade, and some site it as the number one reason behind it’s economic growth and financial success. This paper examines how instructors feel about educational technology in Puducherry.
Information and Communications Technology (ICT) is simply another way to say Information Technology (IT). For the use of this post, I will use ICT, just because it’s the synonym chosen by the authors. Just as in the western world, Indian instructors at the college and university levels are being forced to adapt their teaching styles to the modern day. Schools in India are trying to catch-up with western schools, and with this comes a great push and investment in instructional technology. But having these resources and tools is only half the step, with it must come proper ICT support, such as in the form of online and face-to-face training. Are Indian instructors and professors receiving adequate ICT training, well that’s the driving goal behind this study.
The study focused on the following three factors:
- The extent and frequency of the faculty’s use of computer software and applications for the process of both teaching and learning
- The faculty’s major concerns regarding using technology in the classroom
- Preferences of technology training methods for professional development
A total of 130 teachers were approached, but only 105 finally agreed to participant in the study. They were asked to complete a short 5 table questionnaire, consisting of a simple 5 point Likert scale, where 1 represented “not competent” and 5 represented “very competent.” It’s important to note that the numbers provided below represent the mean score. Some of the more interesting observations I noticed when going through the data include:
- Transparencies and internet (WWW) use in class scored highest (3.25 and 2.91) according to the computer competency statistics while database software and specialized programs scored the lowest (1.14 and 1.05)
- Transparencies, e-mail and internet scored the highest for frequency of use (4.43, 3.95 and 3.80), while web design scored the lowest (1.09)
- The two greatest areas of concern for faculty are the lack of technical support (80%) and the lack of proper equipment and software (75.5%)
- The area of lowest concern for faculty was the fear that students will not learn this way (19.1%)
- Preferred choice of technical training was that of a instructor-led workshop (58.5%), with second and third going to 1-on-1 support and peer training (12.7% and 14.9%)
When reflecting on these findings, three key points come to mind:
- Instructional designers must provide different forms of training
- Academic success does not guarantee tech mastery
- Students will be better than you at tech – embrace it!
Table 5 in the study shows the analysis of the preferred choice of training for the faculty. The participants were given a list of training, and asked to sort them by preference. The results were:
- Workshop (58.5%)
- Peer (12.7%)
- One to One (14.9%)
- Manual (13.9%)
The clear winner was the workshop format. Surprised, well I’m not. You can create a fancy website and fill it with interactive training modules, even have educational games, but people still want to learn in small groups. When I’m designing training, I make sure to tackle it from different angles, such as creating a PDF manual, a interactive Power Point and finally through workshops or one-on-one support. There are many different ways to learn, and we all have our preferences. Don’t expect your preferred way to be the preferred way for others. Multiple forms of training means more work, so take this into account during the initial planning stages, or else you risk running out of time during the production stage.
Every now and again I need a reminder that even though someone may have successfully navigated through the academic system, even reaching as high as earning a doctorate degree, it doesn’t guarantee that they have mastered technology. This report is another reminder of that. Under table 4, Main Concerns of Faculty Members in Using Technology, just under half of the participants (41.8%) cited that they often have difficulties in using technology. An astonishing 58.1% reported that they do not know how to use the internet. Never assume that a person doesn’t need technical training just because someone is academically successful. This form of stereotyping just places an added expectation on the person, and might make them fearful or too shy to ask for help.
Lastly, we should not fear working with someone that is technologically stronger than we are, instead we should embrace it. Nearly half of the participants (43.6%) believe that their students are more adept with technology, and cited this as a reason not to use tech in the classroom. When I started to play guitar, I insisted on playing with people who were more skillful and had more playing experience than I had. It motivated me to practice harder, and it pushed me to excel. This is the attitude we need to develop within our organizations. If you are always the best or smartest person in your group, then you’ll just get lazy and not grow. That’s a loosing formula. Embrace the notion that there are people that know more than you do, and seek them out. Work with them, and by doing so you’ll be gaining irreplaceable skills.
One of the key components to my position as Coordinator of Instructional Technology at LSC is to create training material for the proper use of Moodle. In case you don’t already know, Moodle is an open-source learning platform, or in layman’s terms a free LMS. Many colleges and universities that don’t want to pay in order to access the larger LMSs, such as Blackboard or Canvas, are turning to Moodle as a cost-effective solution.
Now, creating online training or running face-to-face seminars isn’t the problem. There are lots of great resources already out on the Web, and after playing with Moodle for a little time, it’s easy to get the hang of things. But that’s where the biggest problem lies: getting the faculty members to actually start using the software on their own. It can make you feel like trying to get a squirrel to come and take a nut from you. You can’t come in too loud or exciting or else you risk just scaring them away. Well there are two great ways to introduce Moodle to faculty, and both ways allow them to do it on their pace. I like to consider these two resources “training wheels” for Moodle.
1. Moodle Sandbox (http://demo.moodle.net)
The name is pretty self-explanatory. Moodle sandbox is a site where users can play with the LMS, and really get to see what it can do. Sandbox is an empty site that providers you with a Moodle shell in which you can explore the software. There is absolutely no worry that anyone will ever see what you’re doing, since every hour the site is refreshed and it starts all over again from scratch. It’s a blank Moodle canvas! Just head over to the site and enter the username and password, and begin exploring Moodle. Just remember that your Moodle layout will change depending on what username you use to log in. So if you will plan on using Moodle to teach a class, then use teacher, and if you want to see what the layout will look like to your students, then use student.
2. Mount Orange School (http://school.demo.moodle.net/)
Moodle Sandbox is a great way to ease a person into trying the LMS for the first time, but it’s still a very basic glimp at what the tool really offers. Once that the faculty member feels a little more comfortable with Moodle, I would then recommend to them this second resource, which is called Mount Orange School. This is a great way to show them what a “real”, up-and-running Moodle course should look like. Like sandbox, it allows you to view Moodle from the perspective of both a student and a teacher. Just like Sandbox, the site is reset every hour. So any changes you might make to it will not be permanent.
I put the word real in quotation marks because all the data and information that was used to create the site is all made-up. So none of the student’s names, grades or conversations are real, but that doesn’t matter because it’s only meant to be a model of what a Moodle course should look like. Think of it as an Ikea model room…but for Moodle!
This past summer was full of big life-changing moments for me, and on many different levels. The first and most exciting was the birth of my second daughter, Nadia. Now I’m the proud father of two great girls! The second was the start of my new position at Lyndon State College. I’m currently working as the Coordinator of Instructional Technology. I already touched on these two topics in a previous post I titled Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes, which I published this past July 28th, so I won’t rehash those topics. Instead, I want to talk about my final semester in the ETL program at George Washington University. This past summer semester I took my final two courses, which were EDUC 6421: Critical Issues in Distance Education & EDUC 6426: Computer Interface Design for Learning. Following the successful completion of those two remaining classes, I wrote the final comprehensive exam, which is meant to test your overall understanding and competency in the field of educational technology and instructional design. I can only think of one word to describe it, and that’s Intense! My only advice for all my fellow ETLers is to make sure to plan ahead and give yourself ample time to review all the material that you covered throughout the degree. I know it sounds like an impossible task, but I assure you that it’s not. I know how tough all my fellow classmates work, so really the information has already been properly absorbed. Just don’t forget to go in confident about your eLearning skills, and make sure to show them what you know!
EDUC 6421: Critical Issues in Distance Education is a course designed around the major concepts affecting the field of distance education. Most ETL graduates will find themselves in a position where they will be dealing with distance education to some degree, be it an eLearning support specialist, a instructional technologist or even a school librarian. Distance education has proven to be a major player in the educational landscape, and as educational technologist, it’s our role to properly understand the current issues affecting it’s practitioners. Besides weekly articles and journals provided by the professor, the required textbook was Teaching and Learning at a Distance: Foundations of Distance Education (5th Edition), written by Michael Simonson, Sharon E. Smaldino, Michael Albright and Susan Zvacek. The book is a great resource for anyone interested in exploring the topic of distance education. It’s divided into three section:
- Part 1 – Covers the theory behind the distance education movement
- Part 2 – Addresses the practical skills needed to function in the distance education environment
- Part 3 – Focuses on managerial issues that often arise when running a distance education class/program
EDUC 6426: Computer Interface Design for Learning is focused around the concept of Human-Computer Interaction or HCI. For anyone new to the idea of HCI, I highly recommend that you watch this short introductory video:
For those of you that already know a little bit about HCI, but are looking to learn more, then I really recommend taking the time to listen to the next video, which is a lecture by Björn Hartmann at UC Berkley:
EDUC 6426 was a great way to explore the exciting and very important topic of HCI. Up until this point in my studies, I had felt rather comfortable with the theory behind ID and I had already been able to start managing and creating some eLearning projects that were actually being used by several different institutes of higher learning, such as the University of Maryland and Williams College. But nobody wants a “theory guy” designing their software or training, it’s the same as nobody wants a programmer designing their OS. Well, this class provided the balance and helped remind me that there are many different aspects behind ID, including a simple to understand interface. One creative way to do this was through the use of the book The Design of Everyday Things, by Don Norman, who has years of experience consulting companies to design human-centered products and services. I thought that this was an interesting way to teach us the importance of designing for the user. Take it away from the tech world, and put it in the real-world. I highly recommend the book as a fun summer-read for all you instructional designers.
The major text for the course was Designing the User Interface: Strategies for Effective Human-Computer Interaction (5th Edition), by Ben Shneiderman, Catherine Plaisant, Maxine Cohen and Steven Jacobs. Like the textbook for the above mentioned course, this one is a must-read for anyone looking to expand their knowledge of HCI. Lots of theory is given but also practical tips for designing a computer interface on desktop platforms, mobile devices or on the Web. The book will ensure that your interface will be easily accessible to all users, be it young, old or disabled.
Well that’s it, my final semester reflection for my studies at GW. I hope these semester recaps have helped all you current and prospective ETL students. I can’t say enough good things about this program. If you have any interest in learning about educational technology, eLearning development or instructional design, then you must consider apply to this program. I want to give a big thanks to all my professors at GW, mainly Dr. Natalie Milman, Dr. Ryan Watkins and Dr. Bill Robie. Without your guidance I wouldn’t be launching into this exciting career, thank you!
Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions concerning the ETL program, or what it’s like being an online grad student. I’d be glad to help!
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