Monday, July 31, 2006

D2L Users Conference

Once again this year I chose not to attend the D2L Users Conference. I attend 6-8 conferences per year and this one just has too many conflicts or near-conflicts for me. Scheduled July 30 - August 2 this year it is just too close (again) to the Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning in Madison which this year is August 2-4. This year I also chose not to go to Madison and will for the first time attend the MERLOT Conference in Ottawa, Canada on August 8-11. I've attended the Madison conference several times and just decided to try something different this year.

I'm hoping to get a report for the blog from the D2L conference soon since a couple of LSC employees are attending.

I wish I had seen the RFI from D2L a little earlier and I might have submitted a proposal for them to hold the next D2L Users Conference in Duluth at the DECC. Maybe in 2008.

D2L Checklists

The latest version of the D2L Community Newsletter included an article about D2L Checklists by Barb Brown of the Calgary Catholic Schools. While reading the article it occurred to me that our faculty have largely eschewed this tool in D2L. Many of the points mentioned in the article are geared toward a K-12 environment, but I'm wondering if we shouldn't take another look at the usefulness of this tool.

In the article she mentions using dynamic (not static) checklists for a) organizing content, b) differentiating instruction within a course, and c) differentiating courses from one another. A couple of quotes:

  • Teachers releasing dynamic checklists, customized and sensitive to the needs of the student, have noted an increase in student engagement in their courses.
  • As courses become saturated with content files, it becomes difficult for students to locate the correct files needed for particular assignments. Teachers use the checklist to organize the learning activities and due dates, to simplify navigation for the student and to provide a means of tracking completion of items.
  • The Checklist tool can be used to divide course work into smaller components for the student that becomes overwhelmed by seeing too many activities or content at once.
Good article. Check it out.

Spam Vacation

No, I didn't go to the Spam Hall of Fame or whatever it is called in Austin, MN for my vacation. Just before I left for an 8-day hiatus from work (and blogs), this blog got hit by about 100 comment spam messages. Therefore, I have changed the setting so that all comments have to be approved before they will be posted. Sorry about that, but until I find a better way to block comment spam, I'll probably have to moderate the comments. BD
Photo courtesy of kunstler45

Thursday, July 20, 2006

MnOnline Tutoring

Minnesota Online announced today that they are completing contract negotiations with SMARTHINKING to provide online tutoring support to the students taking classes through MnOnline. They have a new tutoring website with information about the deal-ee-oh.

LSC Online has used SMARTHINKING for the past three years with good success and satisfaction. The best thing about this deal is that we will now need to buy fewer hours out of our budget to supplement the hours that will now be paid by MnOnline. As a college, we will continue to offer the online tutoring service to all of our students as we have done for the past three years. The MnOnline hours are expected to be used only by students enrolled in online courses. I have no doubt that approximately 80-90% of the hours used at LSC in the past three years were used by online students. However, it is still an important service to provide to all students.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

PSOL Strengths

PSOL Strengths for Lake Superior College

Our 2006 Institutional report for the Noel-Levitz PSOL identified the following strengths for LSC Online (listed in rank order beginning with the strongest item).

  • 11. Student assignments are clearly defined in the syllabus.
  • 18. Registration for online courses is convenient.
  • 33. Logging-in (managing usernames and passwords) for various services across the campus is easy and consistent. (Campus item 7)
  • 6. Tuition paid is a worthwhile investment.
  • 25. Faculty are responsive to student needs.
  • 7. Program requirements are clear and reasonable.
  • 3. Instructional materials are appropriate for program content. **
  • 23. Billing and payment procedures are convenient for me.
  • 13. The frequency of student and instructor interactions is adequate.
** Note: I am not willing to consider this a strength since our satisfaction score is slightly below (-.03) the national average for this item.

Strengths are defined as those items above the mid-point in importance and in the top quartile of satisfaction, for your institution only. In other words, it is possible to have something identified as a strength when it is not a very favorable score, such as falling below the national average. I have a hard time seeing that as a strength.

To really consider something as a strength, I believe that it must be both an internal strength (as defined by Noel-Levitz) and an external strength which means that it exceeds the performance level of the national group or preferably it exceeds the performance of a peer group (as defined by me).

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2006 PSOL

I'm attending the annual Noel-Levitz conference in Denver this week. Tuesday was the first day of a client workshop on the various N-L surveys of student satisfaction and importance, such as the SSI (Student Satisfaction Inventory) and the PSOL (Priorities Survey for Online Learners).

They have just updated the overall results for the PSOL. There are now just over 34,000 student survey submissions from 78 institutions. This is approximately a doubling in the number of records since the 2005 data was released.

Here are a few of the demographics of this group of online learners:

  • Female: 68%, Male: 32%
  • Age 24 & under: 19%, 25-34 years: 30%, 35-44 years: 27%, 45 & older: 24%
  • Enrolled primarily online: 82%, primarily on-ground: 18%
  • Full-time class load: 57%, part-time: 43%
  • Employed full-time: 71%, part-time: 16%, not employed: 13%
  • Educational goal associate degree: 14%, bachelor: 34%, master: 26%, doctorate: 22%
  • Current online enrollment: 1-3 credits: 27%, 4-6 credits: 34%, 7-9 credits: 16%, 10-12 credits: 12%, 13 or more credits: 11%
  • Previous online enrollment: no classes: 25%, 1-3 classes: 37%, 4-6 classes: 15%, 7-9 classes: 8%, 10 or more: 15%
Those numbers include a little less than 3,000 students from MnOnline who completed the survey during Feb-Mar of 2006. More about that coming up soon.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Not a Hater

Because I can be critical of things that need improvement, many people get the impression that I am a hater. For example..."you must hate D2L since you criticize them all the time." Not true: a) I don't criticize them ALL the time, and 2) I still think that they have the best IMS/LMS/CMS platform out there.

However, that doesn't mean that they don't need to continually get better. They do. And telling them that they are great when they aren't is no way to encourage them to get better.

If we were using Blackboard I would hate critcize them five times more than D2L. They deserve it. BlackCT has a huge market share and has been at the game longer and still their product sucks, I mean their products suck. Big time.

If I were a Moodle user I wouldn't be happy. Not yet anyway. To their credit they have made an incredible amount of progress in the past 2-3 years. If they duplicate that in the next couple of years then they might be ready for prime time. By "prime time," I mean that they might be ready to handle a 32 institution system (where each school wants a customizable interface but we all need to be able to share content and students) with over 200,000 student accounts and some of the most demanding users you'll find anywhere. However, they are not ready for that today.

If we were Angel users......well I don't know for sure what the outcome would be. Maybe good, maybe bad. I haven't heard that they have pulled off a huge installation flawlessly, although I think the system works pretty well for smaller installations.

Sakai? My impression as an outsider is that this effort is starting to look like what you would expect to emerge from an LMS built by a committee. I'm not optimistic.

All the others you can just throw into a hat and then throw the hat into the river. None of them are very good and don't seem to be improving very rapidly.

The biggest problem with this whole thing is us. We expect these systems to be all things to all people all the time. They aren't and they can't...at least not yet. The LMS industry is still very much an emerging market...in fact they are in the early stages of being an emerging market. We want them to be a mature market and we expect them to be perfect and do everything that we want even before we know that we want them to do it. Every week another new idea comes along and another potential use comes along and another new technology or app comes along that we MUST HAVE....and all the while they are trying to catch up to what we wanted two years ago.

Yes, I want them to do more. Yes, I think they need to try harder. Yes, i think that's an unrealistic expectation. But that's the way I feel dammit, so deal with it.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

D2L Pessimism

We've had an online faculty lounge for several years now and occasionally the conversation gets revved up in there. The past couple of days there were a few posts from faculty members who are still unhappy with the D2L quiz feature. They have been waiting for a long time for the ability to export quiz questions out of D2L, and their frustration levels are once again reaching a peak. Here is part of that exchange that took place in the "D2L Suggestions" forum (quoted with permission, but without names).

Initial post: "There is a feature sorely lacking from D2L that is paramount to criminal on the part of D2L imho. I can see no way to export a set of quiz database questions to csv file format. Since D2L can import a D2L formatted csv file, there is no rational reason that the developers of D2L can not add an export feature; the only reason I can think of that they have not added such a feature is that they want to hold D2L users "hostage" to continued use of D2L; call me a pessimist, but that is my opinion."

Follow-up post by same faculty member: "Let me ask anybody who uses Respondus (I do not)-- can respondus access and then export D2L quizzes in a generic format such as text or csv? That would be a solution workaround to what I seek."

Some of the replies: "Well at one time when we were using WebCT I used it (Respondus) often. With Respondus you get some choices on the way you wish to publish your test, meaning send it to WebCT, Blackboard, QTI and others. D2L uses QTI (which I think is quiz testing interoperability, but honestly it may inoperability) and it is supposed to be on some kind of standard."

"See IMS Question & Test Interoperability Specification:"

"Back when we first converted (from WebCT to D2L) I was able to load up QTI tests. There were issues with images and some of the uploading images to a folder was manual. Also WebCT liked to use the "div" html tags, and D2L does not like them at all. So there was a process of finding and replacing those in the resulting file, as well as finding and replacing the scr locations."

"I used to send in questions to support asking when or how we could do things such as test imports and exports. For a while there was a rumor of a external test utility from D2L much like Respondus. But that was long ago and I don't know what to make of it. Anyway once the test got loaded there was a way to copy it to the question library. So I was able to get my questions and related images into D2L."

"Over the last few semesters I have off and on tried to load up a sample QTI test from Respondus, with not much success. And as it is a bit of work figuring out the location of the images I pretty much have been waiting for support to figure it out. So I don't really work at it any more. It might be nice to try again after the last upgrade as the testing in general seems to be better. But having said that I think it may be a bit of work to figure out test imports. As for exports, I guess we just have to wait.... I do think this is the one area that really needs attention."

That's the end of their posts. Here's mine. About 9 months ago we were told that there was a contract/agreement on the D2L desk from Respondus to develop a D2L personality. Still nothing. I was told at the Minnesota e-learning Summit in May that integration with Respondus was right around the corner.....looks like a big sweeping corner. I'm pretty sure that I did see an export tool in the quiz tool for D2L version 8, but I no longer trust my own eyes on these things...besides, for those of us in Minnesota we have no idea when we might ever see version 8.

Regarding QTI (IMS Question & Test Interoperability Specification), I have always found it doubly ironic that D2L has touted itself as standards compliant regarding IMS Content, SCORM, QTI, and probably others. One of the purposes/advantages of being standards-based is the whole "interoperability" piece, or the "sharable" part of the SCORM name. How the hell can anything be interopeable, portable, or sharable if you can't get it out of the container once it goes in? Sure, it's good practice to build things outside of the IMS (D2L) and always keep archival copies of what you build, but why then are you able to build and/or edit some of these things in D2L since you can't get them out?

One more thing that has always irked me about the D2L "question library" is that it is not a library at all. If I have a test question in a "library" (think repository) then I should be able to use that question in a quiz just by pointing at it, not by copying it and saving it again for every quiz that uses it. That's just stupid.

Now on the bright side: most, if not all of these things should be addressed and improved in version 8.X. Now for the dark side: will we see version 8 before our D2L contract expires or even before we expire?

Friday, July 07, 2006

Moodle NECC2006

Moodle Hands-on Lab (2:30-3:30)

Michelle Moore was the presenter and did a great job.
She works for Remote-Learner dot net and appears to be a Moodle evangelist.

Remote-learner.net provides training and hosting for Moodle, among other things.

Moodle is based on social constructionist pedagogy.
FOSS (free and open source software): large community of developers and Moodle can be modified for your purposes.
Over 13,000 sites using Moodle in 158 countries (plus plenty of unregistered users).
Used in 73 languages (via language packs).

You can create your own free demo account at: http://moodle.remote-learner.net

Homepage is similar to D2L with things that are similar to D2L widgets, but appears to be a little easier to customize. The html editor works well with Firefox but occasionally has problems with IE on a Mac and a few other possible variations of OS and browser.

Forum Module (called Discussions in D2L)

  • Provides area for group discussions
  • Can be restricted in various ways, such as (a) Only teacher can post, (b) Student can post only once, (c) Postings may only be allowed in a specific time frame, etc.
  • Posts can be rated by teacher and/or students (either quantitatively or qualitatively)
After you post a discussion message, you receive this message:
Your post was successfully added.
You have 30 mins to edit it if you want to make any changes.
( Continue )

Quiz tool is very similar to D2l in functionality and question types. (quiz screenshot)

Something unique: Choice Module (screenshot)
  • Basically an informal survey tool
  • Create questions and provide choices for participants
  • Display the results anonymously or with names and faces
  • Results can be exported into Excel
  • Similar to a polling tool....i.e....who thinks this a good idea?...what kind of pizza should we order for the party?....how many of you are visit Wikipedia regularly?...etc.
They have both an assignments module and a lessons module. At first blush, this might be confusing...what's the difference? This is how Moodle defines the two:
  • Assignments: Teachers can use the "Assignment" area to give students tasks. The types of assignments are: offline, online text, and online file upload. Students can use Moodle to turn in assignments electronically. When teachers create online assignments they have the option to allow students to submit an assignment more than once. Furthermore teachers can set due dates, give grades, and feedback in this area of Moodle.
  • Lessons: Lessons provide teachers with the ability to present content and assess learning all in one activity. In a standard lesson, a teacher can create a set of linked "pages" with each page presenting content and a question. A student's progress through the lesson is based on how he answers these questions. For example, for a correct answer a learner may go to the next page. With an incorrect answer the learner may find himself back at the same page or at a new review page. In more complex lessons, teachers can create a lesson with several distinct branches. The lesson module may also be used to create electronic flash cards.
An important part of any online course is the content. In Moodle this is called "resources" rather than "content."
  • Resources: The Resource module is the primary tool for bringing content into a course. Resources may be as simple as plain text typed directly into Moodle or as complicated as a program that makes use of "external web applications." Teachers can also upload files, provide links to the web, or create resources using HTML with the Resource tool. Types of content include:
    • Text files
    • HTML files
    • Links to webpages
    • Video and audio clips
  • A directory feature is available for the resources.
This was a a good session, primarily because remote-learing.net lets you get in and kick the tires with Moodle. To contact the trainer, email her at michelle@remote-learner.net

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Agenda Item #2

This item is related to, but not exactly the same as item #1 (see post below). The Minnesota Online website pulls all courses from the record system and calls them online courses if they are coded as such (media code 03 in ISRS) by the host campus.

The problem comes in the fact that a single course code does not cover all the possible variations on the theme of an online course. Most troubling to me is the difference bewteen (A) an engaging course with a great deal of interaction among students and between student and instructor, and (B) an EIS/ECC (either electronic independent study or electronic correspondence course, take your pick of the terminology).

I have no doubt that it makes a difference to the student which type of course they are enrolling in. Part of this is related to the students' needs for full disclosure about what to expect in an online course. However, I didn't want to lump it in with agenda item #1 since this one needs to be dealt with regardless of whether the first one is.

Another distinction that should be important to students is whether the class is actually taught by faculty members of the institution or system. I'm not sure if this is still going on, but a couple of years ago some schools were listing courses as media code 03 that were offered by Ed-2-Go. These are canned courses that are not actually taught by the faculty members. They probably also fall into the first concern of being EIS/ECC, but I'm separating it just in case there is something else going on here that I am not aware of.

Let me make one thing clear. I think there is a market demand for the EIS/ECC types of courses. I'm not saying that there shouldn't be any, but I think they need to be coded differently and the information about them needs to be clearly explained to potential students so that they will know what they are getting into. Students complain loudly (and legitimately) when they take a class and don't hear from the instructor more than once or twice. Could be that the instructor considered the class to be  of the correspondence variety, but the student had different expectations.

One size does not fit all.

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MnOnline Agenda Item #1

So far I have a list of probably ten items that I want to work on next year with the MnOnline Council. Clearly that is more than can possibly be done, especially with a group that meets only five times a year. Some things will need to sent to the Council Workgroups for their attention. I'm not going to post them all right here right now. That would be information overload and some of the ideas need a little more time to ferment before I express them. But here's one of them.

Major issue: I think students have far too little information about the online courses and programs for which we are enticing them to enroll.

If I told you I had a car for sale, would you buy it on that info alone? Is there a chance that you would want more information? For the most part we tell students that we have an accounting degree program available or a Cultural Anthropology course available online, tell them the price, tell them when it starts and ends, and assume that they don't really need to know any more info.

Providing much of the course info should probably be handled at the campus level, although I'm beginning to think that some systemwide guidelines wouldn't be a bad idea since we have students taking classes from several instiututions simultaneously. For example, does the course have any synchronous time requirements or any specific place requirements? Are there proctored exams or other assessments, and if so, how many? Does the course require group work? How many textbooks or other resources are required and at what cost? Are there special hardware or software requirements and what will they cost? How long are the windows of opportunity for submitting quizzes, papers, or other assignments? Are things typically due on a particular day and time (every Sunday at 11:59 PM, I always love that one), and if so, when? Controversial: how have previous students done in this class...are there available outcomes assessment data to review? How long has this instructor been teaching online? How many times has the instructor taught this particular course online?

It is of little wonder to me that so many students drop classes during the drop/add period when they first encounter course requirements that they don't like or can't handle. Had they known this information in the first place they likely would have chosen a course that is more to their liking, learning style, or time availability. Remember they are not a captive audience, they can walk (run) away very quickly with their little mouses or PDAs. Also, know that they talk to each other about this information, and they probably wonder right out loud why we don't tell them these things and what we're trying to hide.

Of course, I may be the only person concerned about these kinds of things.

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