Saturday, January 02, 2010

MnSCU Online Course Definitions - Part Three

Part one looked at the proposed changes to definitions of on-ground courses. Part two looks at the state of affairs regarding blended/hybrid courses in MnSCU. Part three will now parse some of the information related to the new proposals to further define what is and what isn't an online course.

The main reason for this effort appears to be a response to complaints/feedback indicating that students find information in the course registration system to be confusing regarding the
delivery method that they should expect when they sign up for a class. Therefore, MnSCU is attempting to create additional class codes so that students will have better advance notice as to whether the course will use the Internet in any way, whether they will have any required seat time, and even what types of online activities they should expect to engage in. That might not sound too bad on the surface, but the devil is in the details - as usual. (synchronized swimming photo (CC) courtesy by Eric Bégin)

Currently, MnSCU/MnOnline defines an online course something like this:
  • All courses where the delivery method is entirely or predominately online, are to be setup with the media code set to 03 – Internet Delivered Course.
  • Predominately = where all, or nearly all, course activity occurs in an online environment. One to two activities may occur face-to-face in a classroom, with the maximum being two activities.
Therefore, online courses in MnSCU have traditionally allowed up to two classroom sessions to be scheduled. Obviously this can be a significant issue for true distance students who are unable to come to a campus for the one or two required sessions. Many schools, such as my own, have strongly discouraged these types of required classroom sessions since it severely decreases the attractiveness of the courses to distance students.

IMO, the real confusion in the current set of definitions comes in the area of test proctoring. (No surprise, but I have previously posted about test proctoring in MnSCU here and also here.) At LSC, we have always treated proctored exams as fitting the definition of the "one or two activities that may occur face-to-face." In other words, we treated it more as a maximum of two times that you can require a distance student to have a specific time-and-place requirement. That might be a classroom activity, but it also might be the requirement of finding an acceptable proctor in the area where you live.

In the past we had one or two faculty members who assigned more than two proctored exams. After working with those faculty members, we were able to reduce the number of proctored requirements by changing assessment methods and consolidating small quizzes and tests into more significant exams (like a mid-term and final) that would still be proctored. Our goal was not to eliminate proctoring, but to reduce the angst that is caused on many different fronts by having a large number of proctored requirements.

So, let's get to the proposed changes. There are three proposed categories:
  • 1. Online - Completely Online
  • 2. Online - Completely Online with "synchronous" components
  • 3. Online - Predominantly Online

Category #1 "Completely Online" has the following features:
  • All instruction is delivered online
  • No face-to-face meetings
  • No proctored exams
  • May not have required synchronous class meetings

Category #2 "Completely Online with synchronous requirements" has the following features:
  • All instruction is delivered online
  • No face-to-face meetings
  • No proctored exams
  • Has required synchronous online meetings or activities

Category #3 "Predominantly Online" has the following features:
  • Nearly all course activity occurs in the online environment
  • One or two activities may occur face-to-face in a classroom, with the maximum being two activities
  • No more than two face to face meetings -- as a cohort in the same physical location
  • May have proctored exams
  • May have synchronous components
  • NOTE: this is very similar to the current MnSCU definition of online

This brings several questions to mind:
  • 1. Why do we want to allow an unlimited number of required proctored assessments as we have in the current definition and one of the proposed definitions? Isn't this absurd? At LSC we had the pleasure of providing proctoring services for one students from another MnSCU school for more than 20 different quizzes - FOR ONE COURSE!! Indeed, this is absurd.
  • 2. What exactly do we mean when we say that there are "required" synchronous components? Does that mean that if you don't do them that you will fail the course, or does it mean you will miss out on a few of the available points? Big difference. Students often blow off a requirement that doesn't keep them from achieving their goals. What if the synchronous work comprises 5% of the total grade in a course? What if it comprises 75% of the total grade? Aren't those very different - and how will the students know in advance which one is the case for the courses they just signed up for? Oh yeah, they won't.
  • 3. Will students understand what the heck we mean when we say "synchronous components?" Aren't we just creating a much more confusing situation rather than less?
  • 4. Will students want to know which synchronous components will be used? Maybe they're totally down with using a web conferencing solution, but totally against using UStream or Skype. Should we care whether they object to one technology or another? Is that their choice to make?
  • 5. Is a "synchronous group meeting" the same thing as a synchronous class meeting? If three students need to get together online at the same time in order to successfully complete their group project, is that a "required" synchronous meeting, or was it optional since they could have chosen to fail instead, or could have done a lousy job, or could have let one person do all the work?
  • 6. Due to completely normal course scheduling issues, it won't always be possible to know months in advance whether a faculty member will require proctored exams or synchronous components. Many time we don't even know for certain who will be teaching a class until after it is already full of registered students. Perfect example would be late in the registration window when we end up canceling a class for a tenured faculty member and then re-assign a fully registered class to that person to keep them at a full teaching load (this happens all the time, BTW). Is the newly assigned faculty member required to live up to the proctoring/synchronous plan that the previous instructor had laid out, or are they free to change it even though 30 students signed up expecting no proctored exams (or whatever)?
  • 7. Isn't the course registration coding a perfectly ridiculous place to try to tell students about all the nuances of how a course will be "delivered" to them? Students signing up for online courses will be confused by all the extra flags and codes - if they read them at all. Our system-wide course registration system is a highly inflexible beast - with very little chance to provide clarifying information. I can't see this working well in any way, shape, or form.
  • 8. Determining the proper coding for thousands of courses is going to be a nightmare on campuses. The amount of information needed from each instructor will expand exponentially. The opportunities for coding errors or misunderstandings will also skyrocket. I can see it now: Student: "Hey, I signed up for a fully online course and now they say that I need to be connected every Tuesday night at 7 PM. What gives?" School official: "I'm very sorry, but I think our faculty member was confused about the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communications. Sorry about that."
  • 9. This one is a big one for me - how do these new guidelines position us for the future uses of web technologies? IMO, it positions us perfectly for dealing with the online world in about 2002. The whole distinction between synchronous and asynchronous is becoming more and more blurred. Although a traditional LMS discussion board is pretty clearly asynchronous and a Skype Internet phone call is pretty clearly synchronous - most of the newer technologies fall somewhere in the middle and are not easily classified. Is Google Wave a synchronous tool or asynchronous? It's both, of course. What about a webinar using WebEx or DimDim or something similar? Since they can easily be recorded and archived, they are both also. Is the D2L pager synchronous or asynchronous? Both, of course. And on and on and on.
  • 10. Is this a solution in search of a problem? Sure feels like it. Or, alternately stated, I believe this will create an even bigger problem than whatever problem has been currently identified.
That's enough for one post. I guess there will be a part four as I attempt to clarify what I think should be done with this mess. Coming soon.

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