Monday, December 28, 2009

MnSCU Online Course Definitions - Part Two

Part one examined the confusion about what is and what isn't a traditional classroom course. Part two will take a look at what is a hybrid or blended course. Part three (coming soon) will look at the new ideas about what is an online course.

Within MnSCU, media code 09 has been used for many years to represent those courses that fall into the following description:

  • 1. Course blends online and face-to-face delivery.
  • 2. Some of the content is delivered online.
  • 3. More than two class sessions face-to-face.
  • 4. Reduced classroom seat time.
  • 5. Also know as "web-enhanced."
One reason for differentiating between an online course and a blended course is the special $5 per credit Minnesota Online fee. If a course is coded as an online course it will include a $5 per credit surcharge that is used to partially fund the budget for Minnesota Online. This budget is used to pay for the IMS (D2L) licensing and support costs, a state-wide D2L help desk (which we don't use at my school), and several other services and personnel costs related to the 32-school consortium that makes up MnOnline.

The Minnesota Online website is designed to serve distance learners and others interested in learning through the online offerings from the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. The website does not provide information about the blended course offerings. I believe that the main reason for this is to not confuse the issue about which courses and programs can be completed by a true distance student and those that require a significant amount of time on site.

MnSCU allows institutions to separately determine their tuition rates for online courses. This is known in the system as a "market-rate" tuition. The idea of market-rate tuition does not extend to blended courses. Blended courses will be charged the base tuition rate for each institution rather than the campus-determined market rate for online tuition, although campus exceptions are possible if a course falls into an expensive (to offer) program that has a higher tuition rate than the base.

One thing that MnSCU has never dealt with is the question of how much reduced seat time is appropriate for a blended course. Doing some simple math, here is what I come up with given that there are no other restrictions:

-- 1) a course must meet a minimum of three times to be considered a blended course. Consider the minimum to be 3 hours of meeting time out of the normal 48 hours for a 3-credit course. Therefore, a course could be 6% classroom (3/48) and 94% online and fit the MnSCU definition.

-- 2) To be blended, it has to have reduced seat-time, but apparently that could be as little as one fewer course meeting than normal. So, a course could meet 98% in the classroom and 2% (1/48) online and be considered a blended course.

-- 3) In other words, in lieu of other guidance (there isn't any), a blended course could be anywhere from 2% to 94% online with the rest of the instruction delivered on-ground in the classroom.

I really thought that since MnSCU is going through the exercise (again) of trying to define all of these delivery methods (media codes for the MnSCU-ers out there), that they would also try to build a little definition into the possible range for blended courses. For example, the University of Illinois Chicago defines blended as being between 25% - 74% online. It appears as though Central New Mexico CC stipulates a 50-50% breakdown between classroom and online for blended courses. The Florida Distance Learning task force recommends that a blended course be conducted at least 50% and not more than 79% online.

To sum up, blended courses in MnSCU:
  • don't get charged the $5 per credit fee.
  • don't appear in course search results at MnOnline website.
  • are charged the base tuition rate.
  • receive no guidance about how much or how little instruction must occur in the classroom.
Basically, there will be no more clarity here than there was before. Looks to me like a missed opportunity.
CC photo by

Monday, December 21, 2009

MnSCU Online Course Definitions - Part One

Apparently we've had a communication problem within Minnesota Online. We're a couple 13, 14 years (copyright the Common Man, Dan Cole) into this thing called online learning, and now we are being told that we need to be much more specific about what we mean when we say that we are offering online courses, and also hybrid and traditional face-to-face courses for that matter as well.

The big question right now appears to be: "Just what exactly is an online course?"

Along with that question, you also get to decide what is an on-ground class and what is a hybrid/blended course. Let the fun begin.

This will be the first post of 2 or 3 in which I will try to explain my position regarding the proposed changes to the ways that we define the delivery method of various types of courses. In MnSCU, we attach something known as a media code to every class that is entered into the student records/registration system. I have previously posted about some of the confusion that surrounds the media codes, but I need to take a different angle with this post. This first post will only look at what is a traditional classroom course - and what isn't. Online and blended courses are coming soon.

Currently, media code 00 is used for the traditional classroom or face-to-face learning arrangement. The following are some of the typical components of this delivery method:

  • 1. The course meets in a traditional classroom (or facsimile thereof) on our campus or in another college facility.
  • 2. The course typically meets on a regular schedule such as Mon-Wed-Fri mornings from 10 to 11; although it is possible to have a one-day course or any other date/time schedule that is conducive to a successful course.
  • 3. There is no reduced seat time as measured by the traditional method of 1 classroom hour (50 minutes, of course) per week for the typical semester of 15-16 weeks. For example, a 3-credit course would typically meet for 48 (50 minute) hours during the semester, or the equivalent.
That all seems rather basic and shouldn't be controversial. However, the proposal would call for one more requirement:
  • 4. "All instruction is delivered face-to-face in a classroom setting."
In other words, media code 00 (traditional F2F or "on-ground" instruction) CANNOT use the IMS or even use the Internet in any basic sense. AND APPARENTLY THAT'S OKAY!!

If a faculty member wants to use any kind of Internet resource then we will need to use a separate code for that. Media Code 10 (classroom-based with web facilitation) includes the following features:
  • 1. The course meets in a traditional classroom (or facsimile thereof) on our campus or in another college facility.
  • 2. The course typically meets on a regular schedule throughout the term and DOES NOT have reduced seat time.
  • 3. "May use the Internet"
  • 4. "May use the IMS (currently D2L)"
Apparently, an instructor's decision to include Internet resources into a course requires a completely different coding in the course registration system. When I asked about this, I was told that they WEREN'T going to specify that the Internet CANNOT be used in a face-to-face (code 01) course, but that is how the end result appears to me.

This bothers me on several levels - but I'll only mention three at this time:
  • 1. This appears to restrict an instructor's ability to add new content on the fly if the mood so strikes her. "Gee class, I just found a great new resource on the Internet, but we can't use it in this class because this is a 'NO INTERNET' class."
  • 2. Coding every class this way will be a nightmare. Just trying to get the information about each class about whether it uses the Internet or not will be quite a chore, not to mention the need to explain why you're asking for this information in the first place without sounding like an idiot.
  • 3. It also bothers me that on some level we are making the use of the Internet to be some sort of a special thing - at least that's the way it looks to me. If we are doing that, why don't we also do some of the following? A) indicate which classes are mostly lecture and which are not, B) indicate which classes require students to engage in active learning and which don't, C) indicate which faculty members take most of their test questions from the textbook and which take most from their lectures or other resources, D) which classes use PowerPoint all the time and which don't, E) and what about clickers - shouldn't those be specified too? Etc, etc., etc.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

My Top 5 Questions about "The Settlement"

News broke on Tuesday afternoon (12/15) that Desire2Learn and Blackbored (Blackborg, Blackbeard, BlackAngel, Dr. Evil, etc. - a.k.a. Blackboard) have reached an agreement to end their 3+ year patent dispute. Very little info has been released about the deal that was reached, and it appears as if there won't be a great deal of additional info coming any time soon.

The whole "we're ready to move on" thing doesn't strike me quite right. These are the top 5 questions (or so) that I have (for today, anyway).

  • Doesn't this move by D2L signal the possibility that there is some validity in Blackboard's lousy "Alcorn" patent? By walking away from this fight aren't we currently left with a patent that is no longer being vigorously challenged? I assume that the USPTO re-examination will proceed with or without this settlement, but they move as slow as molasses and you never know what their final ruling might be. At the current time, doesn't Blackborg still have this Alcorn patent that they can wield against other small competitors? But, the main question in this first group of related questions is "Doesn't cross licensing the patent portfolios indicate that there is something there to license?" Granted, Bb has more patents (rats) than just the Alcorn patent, but still we don't know what they are licensing and what that means for the future of product development for either vendor. It strikes me as a little too cozy, "Gee, we really like your stuff, can we use it?"
  • What happened to the whole "we're in it to win it" attitude on behalf of D2L? Sure, I know that business decisions have to be made that sometimes represent a change in course, but this one strikes me as especially hollow. John Baker has personally told me on more than one occasion that D2L was carrying the fight forward for all of the other companies out there, not just for themselves. This settlement without reaching a resolution about the patent validity still leaves a whole lot of unanswered questions about the LMS market and patents that can have a very negative effect on the educational community.
  • Why would D2L be taking down their patent blog (sometime today, or so it says)? This is a good record of all the filings and maneuvers (albeit from a D2L slant - still, much of it is factual) and this is widely viewed as a rather historic fight in realm of LMS geeks. Why is it necessary for this public record to go away? One of the main reasons for having a blog in the first place is to have an archive of events. postings, etc. There's a lot of useful information in that blog site, why turn out the lights? (Update: during the time that I was writing this post, most of the material was removed from the site. Another update: now everything but the final post is gone.)
  • As a client who is concerned about financial stability of the vendor and future price increases (and all that other stuff), is D2L getting their 3.1 million dollar judgment back from Blackbeard? This will clearly be one of those details that both sides choose not to talk about but I think it is an important piece of the puzzle. I understand that lawyers and litigation are expensive so they may have wanted to end the money drain right now, but if D2L is forfeiting the 3.1 million by abandoning the fight, then again it raises questions for me as to why.
  • Has this whole ordeal made D2L more like Blackboard? Has the ongoing litigation turned them into a corporate culture similar to the evil empire? For example, D2L has been very vocal and public about this whole mess while Blackboard has been mostly silent. Now at the end, both are silent - which looks like D2L is more like Bb than they used to be. If they are going to cross-license software (or whatever), aren't we looking at less differentiation between products rather than more? Just by lying down with the enemy, don't you give the enemy more credence and begin to look more like them rather than less like them? If D2L begins behaving more like Blackboard, then Blackboard has won and all of us in education have lost.
  • There is wide speculation that this settlement is the first step toward an acquisition of D2L by Bb. I highly doubt that, but at this point I find predicting what these two companies will do to be an exercise in futility.
  • The Alcorn patent is also known as the '138 patent and in most of the actions was reduced to claims 36-38.
  • Regardless of my question about whether D2L is becoming more like Bb, I have many friends who work at D2L and I wish them all the best. I'm just a bit worried about what their futures may hold, both as a company and as individuals.
  • I felt more confident about D2L's future before this settlement than after. Call me crazy.
I smell a rat!