Thursday, September 17, 2009

Online Discussion about Obama's CC Initiative

Yesterday I served as moderator for two hours for an online discussion forum about President Obama’s American Graduation Initiative The "Jam" was organized by the Knowledge in the Public Interest, the Brookings Institution, the Education Commission of the States, and Jobs for the Future. Community college educators from all around the country joined in the conversation. My topic was one of six different discussions and was titled "Accessing Online Education: Funding to Create Free, Web-based Courses."

  • Plan is for $500 Million ($50M each year for 10 years)
  • H.R. Bill 3221 should be voted on this week. Senate bill in earlier stages. UPDATE: 3221 passed right before I posted this. Senate bill still coming.)
  • Here's the text from Obama’s speech in July about the proposal to
    • “…build a new virtual infrastructure to complement the education and training community colleges can offer. So we're going to support the creation of a new online, open-source clearinghouse of courses so that community colleges across the country can offer more classes without building more classrooms. And this will make a big difference especially for rural campuses that a lot of times have struggled -- attract -- have to struggle to attract students and faculty. And this will make it possible for a professor to complement his lecture with an online exercise, or for a student who can't be away from her family to still keep up with her coursework. We don't know where this kind of experiment will lead, but that's exactly why we ought to try it because I think there's a possibility that online education can provide especially for people who are already in the workforce and want to retrain the chance to upgrade their skills without having to quit their job." (see video in previous post)
So, what were people saying in the Jam? Here are a few excerpts:

1. How would this open-source clearinghouse of courses fit into the massive development of online courses that has already occurred at community colleges? In other words, would it fill in gaps in online course content that haven't been effectively filled at this point, or would it be duplicative of the many efforts already underway? Some suggestions were for a concentration on developmental (remedial) courses. Another suggestion was to focus on emerging academic programs that don't already exist (or at least not much of an existence).

2. Another major area of conversation centered around the words "free" and "open." The first term (free) doesn't actually appear in Obama's remarks, but it does appear in the White House Briefing Room (in the phrase "freely available courses"). J.S. from Honolulu asked the following: "Does 'open' mean:
  • Free to use as you will with absolutely no cost?
  • Free to use without citing or acknowledging sources?
  • Freedom from any and all constraints in transporting the content -- as is or in modified form -- to different sites?
  • Complete freedom to alter the content?
  • Freely and easily accessible with no site subscription fees or complex registration and log-in procedures?
  • Stable or "permanent" URLs?
  • Options for different levels of privacy in terms of tracking or "footprints"?
All good questions, but no answers at this time.

Lastly, I'll paste the text from the Briefing Room linked above:
"Create a New Online Skills Laboratory: Online educational software has the potential to help students learn more in less time than they would with traditional classroom instruction alone. Interactive software can tailor instruction to individual students like human tutors do, while simulations and multimedia software offer experiential learning. Online instruction can also be a powerful tool for extending learning opportunities to rural areas or working adults who need to fit their coursework around families and jobs. New open online courses will create new routes for students to gain knowledge, skills and credentials. They will be developed by teams of experts in content knowledge, pedagogy, and technology and made available for modification, adaptation and sharing. The Departments of Defense, Education, and Labor will work together to make the courses freely available through one or more community colleges and the Defense Department’s distributed learning network, explore ways to award academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours, and rigorously evaluate the results." (my emphases added)

From that, John S. made the following recommendations for how it could be crafted:
  • - Provide funds for grant projects which develop new online degree programs in emerging fields. (I could name several for which I've heard reports of demand.) This would help focus the project on workforce development and degree completion, which is the stated goal of the overall initiative.
  • - The interactive individualized open courseware is fine, but projects should show how the courseware will lead to higher graduation rates as a criterion for funding. If they could actually do that, it would be tremendous.
  • - Outline a framework by which open, free course materials will be disseminated. (SCORM is not a dissemination mechanism; it is an interoperability mechanism.)
  • - Fund a project or two which explores how successful inter-institutional collaborations currently work and how they could be scaled to promote easier 'swirling'.
  • - Fund a project or two which explores offering "academic credit based upon achievement rather than class hours." But let's use the experience of existing institutions and see if a project can help expand the acceptance of those approaches. For example, how 'bout a project which supports the creation of a national online course catalog with inter-institutional articulation a la SOC/SOCAD? Or what could be done to expand the capacity of the existing institutions (Empire State, Thomas Edison et al.)?
  • - Allow for the use of broader evaluation methods which measure outcomes more richly. Why should we individualize inputs (as in individualizing courseware) but continue to standardize outputs? (And reliance on experimental or quasi-experimental methods, randomized controlled trials, bias toward standardized tests, does not constitute "rigorous evaluation.")
  • - Fund a project which changes how graduation rates are currently calculated. According to a recent AACSU report, the current methodology is highly flawed. (I was shocked to learn that I would not count as a successful graduate because I was a transfer student.) This is not just mere window dressing; it would help IHEs and the general public have a better sense of the actual success rate.
All in all, it was a productive and very long discussion thread about the initiative. I'll probably pull out a few more things for future postings.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Obama's Free Online Course Initiative

Looking for your thoughts about the $500 Million ($50M per year for 10 years) that President Obama announced for the "creation of a new online open-source clearing house of courses" during his appearance at Macomb Community College on July 14, 2009. The relevant part of his speech is snipped and shown below.

There seem to be very few details about this project at this time. It seems like a reasonable strategy for experienced distance educators to try to provide some guidance for how this initiative is developed.

Please share your thoughts about how this should be crafted.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

5 Reasons Microsoft Won't Buy Blackboard

Inside Higher Ed's BlogU recently posted the following article: 5 Reasons Microsoft Will Buy Blackboard. While reading the story I couldn't help but think how different the article might have been if I'd written it. A little something like this ...

The top 5 reasons why we WON'T see Microsoft buying Blackboard by the end of 2010:

  • 1. Because they suck! (they = Bb of course)
  • 2. Because Microsoft is trying harder not to suck so much.
  • 3. Because buying Blackboard would only prove that Microsoft is more evil rather than less.
  • 4. Because most of the people in the education space (including lots of Blackboard users) think that Blackborg is a terrible partner for education. Not exactly the best way for Microsoft to become more relevant in the education sector.
  • 5. Because they suck!

Please let me know if I've missed anything.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Setting Online Expectations - Academic Freedom

In previous posts, I highlighted part A and part B of the information from St. Petersburg College about their expectations of and for online students. Today I'll take a look at their part C - Academic Civility and Freedom of Expression.

This is what St. Pete has to say about this:

Expectations: Students may expect that:
  • They will be able to pursue their studies in a stimulating, open environment where the pursuit of truth, free expression of ideas, responsible criticism, and reasonable dissent are recognized as basic to the educational process.
  • Students have the right to exercise their academic freedom within the responsible confines of the course material.
  • A process exists for students to express and document concerns they may have about specific action, inaction or behavior by any member of the College faculty or staff.
Responsibilities: Students have the responsibility to:
  • Act in accordance with standards of reasonable behavior, respect and civility. This standard would prohibit behavior that is disruptive or interferes with the teaching/learning process, including:
    • the posting of inappropriate materials in chat rooms, emails, bulletin boards, or Web pages;
    • use of obscenities;
    • personal attacks on fellow students or faculty;
    • sexual harassment; or
    • comments that are demeaning or disrespectful to another's ideas and opinions.
That seems to be pretty well stated. I think the bigger (err, harder) question has to do with Academic Freedom on behalf of the faculty when it comes to e-Learning. Don't get me wrong, I think that academic freedom is extremely important and needs to be protected - however, I think that it is often misunderstood. In fact, what I really believe is that academic freedom is tossed on the table in many situations where it is not a question of academic freedom in the first place. Or, to state it another way, academic freedom does not equal freedom - you are not free to do whatever you want just because you work in academe.

With regard to e-Learning, I have been waiting for quite some time for a battle to ensue regarding the intersection of academic freedom and access to technology. Several years ago I heard a negotiator for the state (employer) side of the negotiated contract language (union contract) state unequivocally that the choice of using or not using the state-supported IMS (D2L in our case, but no matter) is NOT a question of academic freedom. In other words, faculty cannot (according to him, at least) just claim academic freedom as the reason why they are choosing NOT to use the state/school-supported IMS, and instead choose to use a different IMS. Because of the licensing, support costs, and several other tech-related factors, and because the IMS is simply the vessel through which they teach, the question of academic freedom does NOT apply in this situation. Part of his rationale was that there is nothing "academic" about the choice of whether you use the supported IMS or not.

I think this is a fascinating argument. I also don't pretend to know the answer. IANAL, but I sure like to pretend as if I am from time to time. I would love to hear your opinions about this question. Please submit a comment (I moderate them due to high levels of spam, but try to approve them quickly) and share your thoughts.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Setting Online Expectations - Academic Honesty

In a previous post I highlighted part A of the information from St. Petersburg College about their expectations of and for online students. Today I'll take a look at their part B. Part C is coming soon.

Expectations. Students may expect to:
  • Pursue academic studies in a positive and ethical context, where academic standards are upheld.
  • Have their academic work assessed fully and equitably in a learning community where competition is fair, integrity is required, and cheating is punished.
  • Understand and agree with recognizable standards on plagiarism.
  • Have access to a stated procedure for filing academic grievances and appeals. (See Board of Trustees rule 6Hx23-4.36.)

Responsibilities. Students are expected to:
  • Be honest and forthright in their academic endeavors.
  • Familiarize themselves with the College's academic honesty policy and standards as specified in the online Academic Honesty Policy, Board of Trustees rule 6Hx23-4.461.
  • Adhere to these standards of academic honesty and integrity as a condition of enrollment at SPC.
  • Understand that failure to comply with these standards may result in academic and/or disciplinary action, up to and including expulsion from the College.
  • Recognize their ethical obligation, as members of the College community, to report any violation of the SPC Academic Honesty Policy.
OK, I'm not just trying to be picky here, but look at that statement again: "Students may expect to understand and agree with recognizable standards on plagiarism." Does that make sense? Umm, no. That should be filed under the next category, more like "Students are expected to understand and agree with recognizable standards on plagiarism." (Although that also strikes me a little bit like "students are expected to agree with everything that I tell them." What if they don't agree with the "recognizable standards?")

Possibly in the first category there should be something like this:
  • "Students may expect to receive information and/or instruction from their faculty as to what constitutes cheating and plagiarism."
Everyone seems to want to punish students for academic dishonesty, but they seem to assume that students already know the same things that the faculty know about what is and what isn't cheating. That's a very poor assumption. Somewhere we need to spend the time teaching students about this or else the students will always be at a disadvantage. (P.S. I doubt that any Academic Honesty Policy really does a very good job of "teaching" student about these important issues.)

Anyone who has read my postings before is probably waiting for something like the following:
  • Students may expect to have their intellectual property (original writings or other creations) protected from low-life companies that seek to make a profit from them without compensation.
  • Students are expected to never give up their intellectual property to low-life companies that seek to make a profit from them without compensation.
  • The college administration and faculty are expected to honor the intellectual property of all students. Any attempt to force students to submit their intellectual property to low-life companies that seek to make a profit from students' work without compensation to the students is to be avoided, thwarted, or denied with extreme prejudice.
Overall, I think this section from SPC is very good. I just have to take my shots at the abomination that is Turnitin dot bomb every chance I get, and this was a chance to do so.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Setting Expectations - Jeannette Campos #2

Continuing from the previous guest post by Jeannette Campos, here are five more suggestions that she gives for shaping expectations about online learning.

6. Make No Assumptions: Establish a baseline of what your faculty do, and do not, know about instructional design. Faculty need to understand the relationship between instructional objectives, instructional strategies, instructional tools and evaluation methods. Be prepared to do a lot of intensive coaching around how to design and develop online, prior to how we deliver online. Take time for the basics. The learning will be so much more solid if it is supported by good ISD.

7. Professional Development: Schedule weekly learning lunches and support them with an online resource center for faculty. In my experience, this predictable and consistent support really made a difference. I also had great success facilitating a week long intensive seminar for all faculty developing online courses for the first time. Prior to that workshop, I standardized the folder structure, naming conventions and branding pieces (images, fonts and colors) to be used in all classrooms. Although the faculty were responsible for developing with these tools, the tools were really about setting and stabilizing expectations for the student: courses follow conventions, logical structure, predictable navigation and message design standards. Wow, learning is so much easier now that we aren’t confused and distracted!

8. Support: Break it down. Often times there isn't enough systematic support for online learning initiatives. To help you achieve a lot with a little, consider shaping expectations by breaking support questions down into four types: student support, BlackBoard functionality, faculty non-instructional support and faculty instructional support. Use your resources! Consider hiring a Federal Work Study student to handle the first three types of requests, and dedicate a capable and competent staff member for the instructional support issues. I think you'll find that both students and faculty alike are calmed knowing how to frame their request and seek help.

9. Engage: Involve them and make it fun. In my experience, online learning is really misunderstood and somewhat feared. Engaging the faculty, staff and leadership is very important. Shape the expectation that instructional technology is possible (for everyone!) and not so hard, so crazy, so radical, and so different from orthodox classroom instruction. It’s evolutionary, not revolutionary. Also, the more engaged the approach (student services, academic advising, library, etc), the greater the chance for student success.

10. Spell it out: Look to the abundant research out there to help you determine "what makes good online course design.” Consider using the research to determine what competencies you want the online learning on your campus to achieve. Then, use a research-based, competency approach to support your faculty development. Faculty like that they have a target that doesn't prescribe the methods they must use. They like it because it tells them “what right looks like” without removing their creative license to satisfy the standards. You can also use the competencies to certify courses. Faculty like this because the competencies provide a blueprint for the architecture of their online classroom. Last, it helps shape and manage the expectation of the students because they know, if they see the “certified logo” that this class passes muster.

There you have it. That's the end of Jeanette's thoughtful response to my question about shaping expectations for online teaching and learning. I really appreciate her taking the time to provide this feedback. Many of the things she mentions are similar to efforts we have made at Lake Superior College over the years, but a few of the things are either things we haven't gotten around to or things we decided not to do (such as "certify" a course for meeting design standards). Thanks very much Jeannette.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Expectations for Online Students - What does St. Pete Say?

One of the better resources that I have discovered about identifying and communicating a college's expectations about online learning comes from a place where I have lots of friends. St. Petersburg College in Florida is rightfully considered to be a leader in the field of online teaching and learning. They have a very large online enrollment, a skilled support staff and administration, an engaged online faculty group, and plenty of awards to prove it.

This is the first installment where I take a look at their list of expectations and opine about how a similar list might look when we are finished (if it's ever really "finished") with this project at Lake Superior College.

From St. Petersburg College:
Part I. Guidelines/Expectations for Students
A. Academic Participation

Expectations. Students may expect:
  • The opportunity to be active participants in a stimulating and challenging education that is international in scope, interactive in process and diverse in content and approach.
  • A course outline or syllabus that provides information regarding course content, teaching methods, course objectives, grading, attendance/participation policies, and student assessment guidelines.
  • Instructors who are responsive and available to discuss students' progress, course content, assignments, etc. at mutually convenient times from the first day of the term through the last day of the term. Individual instructors' schedules, availability, and procedural details will appear in the course syllabi. (See Instructional Performance Targets that follow.)
  • To have access to instructor feedback and grading on projects, exams, papers, quizzes, etc., so they are able to determine where they have made errors or need additional work.

Responsibilities. Students are expected to:
  • Have baseline computer and information skills. Since computer literacy is a general education requirement, students are encouraged to either take a face-to-face or online literacy course or take the literacy test prior to taking online courses.
  • Log into their courses during the first week (for the traditional semester) or within 48 hours (for non-traditional classes like modmesters, express, or "dynamically dated" classes) of the beginning of the session to confirm their participation. (Students who register after the session has begun will be responsible for any assignments or material already covered.)
  • Take an active role in each class, participating fully in class discussions, assignments and other activities throughout the entire session. If some event interferes with that participation, the student is responsible for notifying the instructor in advance.
  • Review the course syllabus and other preliminary course materials thoroughly as early as possible during the first week of class.
  • Be responsible for raising any questions or seeking clarification about these materials, if necessary, within the first week of the session.
  • Submit assignments and papers on time, and take tests by the posted dates. Acceptance of late work and any penalties for late submissions are up to the discretion of the instructor, based on the expectations outlined in the course syllabus.
  • Complete the "Student Survey of Instruction" for each class to evaluate the instructor and the course.
That's a pretty good list. A few questions come to mind.
1. Are any of the included items either unclear or confusing to a typical student?
2. Should any of the included items be removed from the list?
3. Is there is anything missing that should be included in the list?
4. How will these expectations be communicated to potential and current students?

Before trying to tackle some of those questions, permit me to make one (possibly obvious) observation. The first section about what students may expect seems to be as much about shaping the college's expectations about faculty and online teaching as it does about shaping students' expectations. Clearly the only way that students may expect learning that isinternational in scope is if the faculty member provides the opportunity for that happen. Similarly, the only way that students can expect certain things to appear in the syllabus is if the college expects the faculty to include those items. Etc., etc. Clearly this is not rocket science.

So what's missing? Let's start with a somewhat snarky (but sensible) answer:
  • If students are expected to have baseline computer and information skills, doesn't it follow that:
  • Students may expect that their instructor has baseline computer and information skills
  • and by the way, where exactly is that baseline? and is "baseline" good enough, or is that minimally acceptable, or what?
What else is missing? How about a less snarky answer?
  • What can students expect as far as having access to course information? In other words, when will their login enable them to get to "their stuff" in the course?
  • How about this? Students may expect to be able to access the course shell and review the course requirements for 5 working days (Mon-Fri) prior to the first day of class.
  • And how about this? Students may expect to be able to access the course shell, review their work and the assigned grades for a minimum of 5 working days (Mon-Fri) after the last scheduled day of the course.
Something else that is missing is an item that always seems to catch students by surprise when taking an online course (although maybe this belongs in the next section (next post) about academic honesty and integrity):
  • Students may expect that an online course instructor could require them to take one or more proctored examinations or other assignments. Students at a distance from the campus will need to make arrangements to have an approved proctor available.
  • Ideally, there would be information available to students prior to enrolling in each online course about these requirements. It may be very difficult for some students to comply with these requirements depending on their circumstances.
There are other possibilities for this section, but I think I'll stop there. Any comments regarding this section of the SPC list of expectations will be appreciated.

Coming soon: SPC's Part B: Academic Honesty and Integrity and Part C: Academic Civility and Freedom of Expression