September 23, 2014

The strengths and weaknesses of competency-based learning in a digital age

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Online student 2

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’ In my last two posts I discussed respectively the appropriateness of the classroom model and the ADDIE model for a digital age. In this post, I explore the same issue for competency-based learning model. (Some of this material has been published earlier by Contact North in its Gamechangers series.)

Competency-based learning

Competency-based learning attempts to break away from the regularly scheduled classroom model, where students study the same subject matter at the same speed in a cohort of fellow students.

What is competency-based learning?

Competency-based learning begins by identifying specific competencies or skills, and enables learners to develop mastery of each competency or skill at their own pace, usually working with a mentor. Learners can develop just the competencies or skills they feel they need (for which increasingly they may receive a ‘badge’ or some form of validated recognition), or can combine a whole set of competencies into a full qualification, such as a certificate, diploma or increasingly a full degree. Learners work individually, rather than in cohorts. If learners can demonstrate that they are already have mastery of a particular competency or skill, through a test or some form of prior learning assessment, they may be allowed to move to the next level of competency without having to repeat a prescribed course of study for the prior competency.

Its value for developing practical or vocational skills or competencies is more obvious, but increasingly competency-based learning is being used for education requiring more abstract or academic skills development, sometimes combined with other cohort-based courses or programs. The Western Governors University, with nearly 40,000 students, has pioneered competency-based learning, but with the more recent support of the Federal Department of Education it is expanding rapidly in the USA.

Competency-based learning is particularly appropriate for adult learners with life experience who may have developed competencies or skills without formal education or training, for those who started school or college and dropped out and wish to return to formal study, but want their earlier learning to be recognized, or for those learners wanting to develop specific skills but not wanting a full program of studies. Competency-based learning can be delivered through a campus program, but it is increasingly delivered fully online, because many students taking such programs are already working or seeking work.

Designing competency-based learning

There are various approaches, but the Western Governors model illustrates many of the key steps.

Defining competencies

A feature of most competency-based programs is a partnership between employers and educators in identifying the competencies required, at least at a high level. Some of the skills outlined in Chapter 1, such as problem-solving or critical thinking, may be considered high-level, but competency-based learning tries to break down abstract or vague goals into specific, measurable competencies.

For instance, at Western Governors University (WGU), for each degree, a high-level set of competencies is defined by the University Council, and then a working team of contracted subject matter experts takes the ten or so high level competencies for a particular qualification and breaks them down into about 30 more specific competencies, around which are built online courses to develop mastery of each competency. Competencies are based upon what graduates are supposed to know in the workplace and as professionals in a chosen career. Assessments are designed specifically to assess the mastery of each competency; thus students receive either a pass/no pass following assessment. A degree is awarded when all 30 specified competencies are successfully achieved.

Defining competencies that meet the needs of students and employers in ways that are progressive (i.e. one competency builds on earlier competencies and leads to more advanced competencies) and coherent (in that the sum of all the competencies produces a graduate with all the knowledge and skills required within a business or profession) is perhaps the most important and most difficult part of competency-based learning.

Course and program design

At WGU, courses are created by in-house subject matter experts selecting existing online curriculum from third parties and/or resources such as e-textbooks through contracts with publishers. Increasingly open educational resources are used. WGU does not use an LMS but a specially designed portal for each course. E-textbooks are offered to students without extra cost to the student, through contracts between WGU and the publishers. Courses are pre-determined for the student with no electives. Students are admitted on a monthly basis and work their way through each competency at their own pace.

Students who already possess competencies may accelerate through their program in two ways: transferring in credits from a previous associate degree in appropriate areas (e.g. general education, writing); or by taking exams when they feel they are ready.

Learner support

Again this varies from institution to institution. WGU currently employs approximately 750 faculty who act as mentors. There are two kinds of mentors: ‘student’ mentors and ‘course’ mentors. Student mentors, who have qualifications within the subject domain, usually at a masters level, are in at least bi-weekly telephone contact with their students, depending on the needs of the student in working through their courses, and are the main contact for students. A student mentor is responsible for roughly 85 students. Students start with a mentor from their first day and stay with their mentor until graduation. Student mentors assist students in determining and maintaining an appropriate pace of study and step in with help when students are struggling.

Course mentors are more highly qualified, usually with a doctorate, and provide extra support for students when needed. Course mentors will be available to between 200-400 students at a time, depending on the subject requirement.

Students may contact either student or course mentors at any time (unlimited access) and mentors are expected to deal with student calls within one business day. Student mentors are pro-active, calling students regularly (at least once every two weeks, more if necessary) to maintain contact. Mentors are full-time but work flexible hours, usually from home. Mentors are reasonably well paid, and receive extensive training in mentoring.

Remote proctoring of exams

Remote proctoring of exams

Assessment

WGU uses written papers, portfolios, projects, observed student performance and computer-marked assignments as appropriate, with detailed rubrics. Assessments are submitted online and if they require human evaluation, qualified graders (subject matter experts trained by WGU in assessment) are randomly assigned to mark work on a pass/fail basis. If students fail, the graders provide feedback on the areas where competency was not demonstrated. Students may resubmit if necessary.

Students will take both formative (pre-assessment) and summative (proctored) exams. WGU is increasingly using online proctoring, enabling students to take an exam at home under video supervision, using facial recognition technology to ensure that the registered student is taking the exam. In areas such as teaching and health, student performance or practice is  assessed in situ by professionals (teachers, nurses).

Strengths of a competency-based approach to design

Proponents have identified a number of strengths in the competency-based learning approach:

  • it meets the immediate needs of businesses and professions; students are either already working, and receive advancement within the company, or if unemployed, are more likely to be employed once qualified
  • it enables learners with work or family commitments to study at their own pace
  • for some students, it speeds up time to completion of a qualification by enabling prior learning to be recognized
  • students get individual support and help from their mentors
  • tuition fees are affordable ($6,000 per annum at WGU) and programs can be self-funding from tuition fees alone, since WGU uses already existing study materials and increasingly open educational resources
  • increasingly, competency-based education is being recognized as eligible for Federal loans and student aid in the USA.

Consequently, institutions such as WGU, the University of Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Arizona University, using a competency-based approach, at least as part of their operations, have seen annual enrolment growth in the range of 30-40 per cent per annum.

Weaknesses of a competency-based approach to design

Its main weakness is that it works well with some learning environments and less well with others. In particular:

  • it focuses on immediate employer needs and is less focused on preparing learners with the flexibility needed for a more uncertain future
  • it does not suit subject areas where it is difficult to prescribe specific competencies or where new skills and new knowledge need to be rapidly accommodated
  • it takes an objectivist approach to learning
  • it ignores the importance of social learning
  • it will not fit the preferred learning styles of many students.

In conclusion

Competency-based learning is a relatively new approach to learning design which is proving increasingly popular with employers and suits certain kinds of learners such as adult learners seeking to re-skill or searching for mid-level jobs requiring relatively easily identifiable skills. It does not suit though all kinds of learners and may be limited in developing the higher level, more abstract knowledge and skills requiring creativity, high-level problem-solving and decision-making and critical thinking.

Over to you

I have been very gratified by the feedback and open-ness of many of the readers of this blog on my earlier drafts for this book. I do not feel I am an expert on competency-based learning, never having designed a course this way, so feedback and advice from more experienced practitioners will be particularly welcome. In particular:

1. I have focused mainly on the Western Governors design model for competency-based learning, which is entirely online. Do you know other models of designing competency-based learning that I should have included?

2. What are your views on the competency-based model? Is it a useful model for designing teaching in a digital age? Do you agree with my criticisms of the model?

3. What is the difference between a competency and a skill? Or is there no difference?

4. What key articles, videos or books on competency-based learning would you recommend?

What’s next

So far I have done drafts of the following (as blogs)

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • ADDIE
  • competency-based learning

Still to come:

  • Connectivist models, including communities of practice and cMOOCs
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches
  • Flexible design models
  • Conclusion

My next post in this series then will be on the appropriateness of connectivist design models for teaching in a digital age.

Is the ADDIE model appropriate for teaching in a digital age?

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© Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

Click on the graphic for the interactive version © Flexible Learning Australia, 2014

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age‘, is now published. In Chapter 5, I developed the concept of a learning environment.

I am now working on Chapter 6, ‘Models for Designing Teaching and Learning.’ In my last post I discussed the appropriateness of the classroom design model for a digital age. In this post, I explore the same issue for the ADDIE model.

What is ADDIE?

ADDIE stands for:

Analyse

  • identify all the variables that need to be considered when designing the course, such as learner characteristics, learners’ prior knowledge, resources available, etc.  This stage is similar to describing the learning environment outlined in Chapter 5.

Design

  • this stage focuses on identifying the learning objectives for the course and how materials will be created and designed (for instance, it may include describing what content areas are to be covered and a storyboard outlining what will be covered in text, audio and video and in what order), and deciding on the selection and use of technology, such as an LMS, video or social media

Develop

  • the creation of content, including whether to develop in-house or outsource, copyright clearance for third party materials, recording videos or audio, loading of content into a web site or LMS, etc.

Implement

  • this is the actual delivery of the course, including any prior training or briefing of learner support staff, and student assessment

Evaluate

  • feedback and data is collected in order to identify areas that require improvement and this feeds into the design, development and implementation of the next iteration of the course.

The interactive infographic above provides an in-depth, step-by-step approach to the design of learning, with lots of online resources to draw on. There have been many books written about the ADDIE model (see for instance, Morrison, 2010; Dick and Carey, 2004).

Where is ADDIE used?

This is a design model used by many professional instructional designers for technology-based teaching. ADDIE has been almost a standard for professionally developed, high quality distance education programs, whether print-based or online. It is also heavily used in corporate e-learning and training. There are many variations on this model (my favourite is ‘PADDIE’, where planning and/or preparation are added at the start). The model is mainly applied on an iterative basis, with evaluation leading to re-analysis and further design and development modifications.

One reason for the widespread use of the ADDIE model is that it is extremely valuable for large and complex teaching designs. ADDIE ‘s roots go back to the Second World War and derive from system design, which was developed to manage the hugely complex Normandy landings.

The Open University in the United Kingdom heavily uses ADDIE to manage the design of complex multi-media distance education courses. When the OU opened in 1971 with an initial intake of 20,000, it used radio, television, specially designed printed modules, text books, reproduced research articles in the form of selected readings that were mailed to students, and regional study groups, with teams of often 20 academics, media producers and technology support staff developing courses, and with delivery and learner support provided by an army of regional tutors and senior counsellors. Creating and delivering its first courses without systematic instructional design model would have been impossible, and in 2014, with over 200,000 students, the OU still employs a strong instructional design model based on ADDIE.

Although ADDIE and instructional design in general originated in the USA, the Open University’s success in developing high quality learning materials influenced many more institutions that were offering distance education on a much smaller scale to adopt the ADDIE model, if on a more modest scale. As distance education courses became increasingly developed as online courses, the ADDIE model continued, and is now being used by instructional designers in many institutions for the re-design of large lecture classes, hybrid learning, and for fully online courses.

What are the benefits of ADDIE?

One reason it has been so successful is that it is heavily associated with good quality design, with clear learning objectives, carefully structured content, controlled workloads for faculty and students, integrated media, relevant student activities, and assessment strongly tied to desired learning outcomes. Although these good design principles can be applied with or without the ADDIE model, it is a model that allows these design principles to be identified and implemented on a systematic and thorough basis. It is also a very useful management tool, allowing for the design and development of large numbers of courses to a standard high quality.

What are the limitations of ADDIE?

The ADDIE approach can be used with any size of teaching project, but works best with large and complex projects. Applied to courses with small student numbers and a deliberately simple or traditional classroom design, it becomes expensive and possibly redundant, although there is nothing to stop an individual teacher following this strategy when designing and delivering a course.

A second criticism is that the ADDIE model is what might be called ‘front-end loaded’ in that it focuses heavily on content design and development, but does not pay as much attention to the interaction between instructors and students during course delivery. It has been criticised by constructivists for not paying enough attention to learner-instructor interaction, and for privileging more behaviourist approaches to teaching.

Another criticism is that while the five stages are reasonably well described in most descriptions of the model, it does not provide guidance on how to make decisions within that framework. For instance, it does not provide guidelines or procedures for deciding how to choose between different technologies, or what assessment strategies to use. Instructors have to go beyond the ADDIE framework to make these decisions.

The over-enthusiastic application of the ADDIE model can and has resulted in overly complex design stages, with many different categories of workers (faculty, instructional designers, editors, web designers) and consequently a strong division of labour, resulting in courses taking up to two years from initial approval to actual delivery. The more complex the design and management infrastructure, the more opportunities there are for cost over-runs and very expensive programming.

My main criticism though is that the model is too inflexible for the digital age. Adamson (2012) states:

The systems under which the world operates and the ways that individual businesses operate are vast and complex – interconnected to the point of confusion and uncertainty. The linear process of cause and effect becomes increasingly irrelevant, and it is necessary for knowledge workers to begin thinking in new ways and exploring new solutions.

In particular knowledge workers must deal with situations and contexts that are volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (what Adamson calls a VUCA environment). This certainly applies to teachers working with ever changing technologies, very diverse students, a rapidly changing external world that puts pressure on institutions to change.

If we look at course design, how does a teacher respond to rapidly developing new content, new technologies or apps being launched on a daily basis, to a constantly changing student base? For instance, even setting prior learning outcomes is fraught in a VUCA environment, unless you set them at an abstract ‘skill’ level such as thinking flexibly, networking, and information retrieval and analysis. Students need to develop the key knowledge management skills of knowing where to find relevant information, how to assess, evaluate and appropriately apply such information. This means exposing them to less than certain knowledge and providing them with the skills, practice and feedback to assess and evaluate such knowledge then apply that to solving real world problems.

This means designing learning environments that are rich and constantly changing, but enable students to develop and practice the skills and acquire the knowledge they will need in a VUCA world. I would argue that while the ADDIE model has served us well in the past, it is too pre-determined, linear and inflexible to handle this type of learning. I will discuss more flexible models later in this chapter.

Over to you

1. Have I given enough information about what ADDIE is, by using the infographic, or do I need to cover this more fully in the text? Do I need to say something about rapid course development here?

2. What are your views on the ADDIE model? Is it a useful model for designing teaching in a digital age? Do you agree with my criticisms of the model?

3. Any suggestions about other, more flexible models that could be used?

What’s next

So far I have done drafts of the following (as blogs)

  • What is a design model?
  • The classroom model
  • Classroom models in online learning
    • LMSs
    • lecture capture
  • ADDIE

Still to come:

  • Competency-based learning,
  • Connectivist models, including Communities of practice and cMOOCs
  • Flexible design models
  • PLEs
  • AI approaches.
  • Conclusion

My next post in this series then will be on the appropriateness of competency-based learning for teaching in a digital age.

References

Adamson, C. (2012) Learning in a VUCA world, Online Educa Berlin News Portal, November 13

Dick, W., and Carey, L. (2004). The Systematic Design of Instruction. Allyn & Bacon; 6 edition Allyn & Bacon

Morrison, Gary R. (2010) Designing Effective Instruction, 6th Edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons 

Is there a Canadian market for American online programs?

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© Wikipedia, 2014

Image: © Wikipedia, 2014

Identifying the market

I got a phone call last week from an international consultancy company contracted on behalf of a major U.S. state university, wanting to know if I thought there was a Canadian market for U.S. online degrees. Since I didn’t get paid for my advice, I’m willing to share it with anyone who’s interested. (I do find it annoying that universities will pay large sums to general business consultants such as Price Waterhouse, KPMG, Accenture, etc., who then expect professionals in the field to do their work for them for free.)

So I will share with you the short answer I gave to the consultants, then the long one which only you have access to!

The short answer is yes, but only in niche markets. This means doing careful market research (not just ringing up a few experts), developing a strong business plan, keeping tuition fees relatively low compared with those at the top end of the market in the USA, and being nimble, in that the market will not last long if they are successful, because Canadian institutions will eventually try to take that market back.

Now for the long answer.

Why Canada is not an easy market for foreign online programs

I don’t have any figures, but there are certainly some Canadian students already taking online degrees from U.S. institutions (if you are one of them, I’d be interested in your experience.) Why would they do that, you might ask? Well,

  • if they want to get a job in the USA or work for an American company in Canada
  • if there is no Canadian university offering the program either face-to-face locally or online
  • because they think a big name U.S. university will do a better job than their local Canadian universities.

I’m not saying they are right to think that, but the whole question of comparative quality in post-secondary educations, either in Canada or the USA, is so fraught and subjective that potential students still have a very hard job making those kinds of decisions.

However, for that very reason, better the devil you know. In general, I would argue that most potential students in Canada will look to one of their local universities as their first choice, for several reasons:

  • Cost. Tuition fees are generally lower in Canada in absolute terms, but also Canadians may be eligible for grants and scholarships for study, which probably will not apply to online programs offered by a program from the USA (although again there are exceptions.)
  • Quality. Nearly all Canadian universities are publicly funded and accredited by the provincial government. There are of course differences in status, but the system is simple enough for most Canadians to be aware of these differences, and the variation between institutions in Canada is nowhere near as great as in the much larger and much more diverse US higher education system. In particular, distance and online education in the USA has been tarnished much more than in Canada by private, for profit diploma mills, making many Canadians suspicious then of any online programs offered from the USA
  • Access. In general, most Canadians can get access to the programs they need from one or more of their local universities. 51% of Canadians go on from high school to university, and 60% to some form of publicly-funded post-secondary education. There are already roughly one million course enrollments a year in online courses from Canadian post-secondary institutions, or roughly about 20-25 per cent of all course enrollments

So the Canadian market for post-secondary education in general is what marketers call ‘mature’ and even online learning, while not mature, is certainly not in its infancy in Canada. Many Canadian universities already offer a range of online programs, both for credit and for non-credit.

For instance, there are several online/distance MBAs (Athabasca University, Queen’s/Cornell, Laurentian, for instance) and UBC has been running several very successful online masters programs in education, creative writing and health sciences. This is a market where institutions can more than cover their costs within the current range of government-regulated tuition fees; indeed UBC has been able to add new research faculty as a result of some their online masters programs.

The Canadian Virtual University (CVU), which is a consortium of 11 universities from across Canada, lists over 2,000 online courses from its members, including a total of 57 online masters programs. There are 16 online masters programs in Ontario, Canada’s largest province (with 20 universities). Of the online masters currently available from Ontario institutions, one third are in education, one third in business or leadership, and one third in health or social work (see Ontario Online Learning Portal for Students). There are a few other universities in Canada that are not members of the CVU or in Ontario that also offer online programs, and the number grows each year. Thus there is already a significant Canadian university (and college) ‘presence’ in the online learning area.

Furthermore once a U.S. program starts attracting large numbers of Canadian students, this is likely to draw a response from the Canadian institutions. This happened in British Columbia in the 1990s, when a large number of teachers started taking distance education masters’ programs from Washington State institutions such as Gonzaga University, because there was little available in British Columbia. It took a few years but the B.C. institutions eventually responded and the number of teachers taking out of province online programs is now very much reduced.

Lastly there are more subtle cultural barriers. Canada is not so different from the USA as Canadians like to believe, but there are differences, and they are important. Our laws and government regulations for instance are different. We have different iconic references, different national symbols, a different racial mix. This means content does not always transfer as seamlessly as you would think for countries sharing a similar language and continent. This is not an insurmountable obstacle, but it does require a certain sensitivity to ‘Canadian-ness’ that is not always there in the USA. However, it is probably too costly to adapt existing materials for a specifically Canadian market.

So there are several reasons why some caution would be needed in marketing online programs from the USA for a Canadian market (or anywhere else, such as the U.K. or Australia).

Why there is still a market for foreign online programs in Canada

But Canadian universities should not be complacent. Canadian institutions have been slower than their counterparts in the USA in entering the online professional masters’ market. There are many gaps in the availability of post-graduate online programs in Canada, especially in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) areas.

For instance, in Ontario there are no online masters’ programs in food and agriculture, humanities (except Design from OCAD), social sciences, math, science, law or engineering. The situation would be similar or worse in the other provinces. In particular, despite the CVA, which covers only 11 of the 80 or so universities in Canada, there is no national portal for Canadian online courses, so potential students have a hard time looking for online programs offered out of province.

Secondly, should Harvard, Stanford or MIT start offering for-credit online programs, there would certainly be a large take-up in Canada of such programs. For the still prestigious, Tier 1 research state universities, such as the University of California, Arizona State University or Penn State, brand recognition in Canada would be less compelling if there are suitable Canadian alternatives, although for graduate programs, many Canadian students might still be interested.

Lastly, good marketing is likely to attract potential students in Canada who may well not be aware that similar programs are already available in Canada where they do exist. Even as a so-called expert in Canadian online learning, I was unaware of most of the programs listed in the CVA and Contact North portals. Canadian universities are still remarkably provincially focused when it comes to marketing online programming. Which brings me to my next point.

Why don’t Canadian institutions market online programs in the USA?

Well, some do, but not many, and there are good reasons for this.

First the U.S. accreditation system is byzantine and bizarre, and totally ill-adapted to the move to online, distance education, but without accreditation from one of the regional accreditation agencies in the U.S., any Canadian online program would not be recognized for financial assistance, credit transfer or by many employers. Indeed (although the federal regulations are currently under discussion) it may be illegal to offer programs to students within a state without approval from that state (and to get approval you may need a ‘physical presence.’) Despite the very large cost in getting regional accreditation, some specialist Canadian institutions, such as Athabasca University, have done so. I’d be interested to know though if they feel it was worth it, in terms of the numbers of U.S. students it has attracted. (Yes, you are correct: the U.S.A and Canada are partners in a free trade association called NAFTA, but it doesn’t apply to education – or forestry, for that matter.)

Second, the reverse is true regarding brand recognition and local preferences. Many U.S. citizens don’t even know where Canada is, let alone know whether the University of Waterloo is a bona fide institution and not a diploma mill. (I once shared an airport shuttle bus in Los Angeles with two American businessmen complaining they needed a passport to go to Toronto. ‘Anyone would think it was in another country,’ one said. I’m not making it up, and for British Columbian’s it may well be.)

So Canada, and Canadian institutions, do not have a strong enough brand image for most Americans, although some institutions, such as the University of Windsor, have done an excellent job in building partnership with institutions just across the border in Michigan and Detroit – but not, so far, in online learning.

Why these are the wrong questions

The real question should be (for both Canadian and U.S. online program developers): Is there an international market for online professional masters’ programs, to which the answer is a resounding ‘yes.’

It really doesn’t matter what country a student is in. If the program being offered meets a need, and the student can afford it, then they will take it, whether it comes from the USA, Canada, Australia, Spain, India or Brazil. Brand recognition helps. Canadian public institutions produce high quality, government accredited online programs. There is no distinction in the degree transcripts whether the program is offered at a distance or on campus. With its rather monolithic public higher education system, it would have an advantage if it could only market a Canadian rather than a local or provincial brand (but then it has the same problem in attracting international students to on-campus programs).

U.S. states trying to regulate whether students can take a program from out of state are like King Canute trying to stop the tide from coming in. All you can do is say ‘Caveat Emptor’ – buyer beware.

One way round the ‘not invented here’ attitude to out of state or out of country programs though is to develop a partnership with local institutions of a similar ‘status’ level. The University of British Columbia developed a very successful partnership with Tec de Monterrey in Mexico for a graduate program in educational technology. UBC developed most of the content, but the program was available in Spanish from Tec de Monterrey and in English from UBC. UBC’s offering of the program drew almost 30 per cent of its enrollments initially from English-speaking students from other countries all round the world. Similarly, Tec de Monterrey marketed its program in South America as well as in Mexico. Queen’s University in Canada has partnered with Cornell University in the USA to market a joint online MBA. These partnerships help to get round the accreditation issues.

Admission of international students to an online program can be more of a problem, as can issues of security in terms of exams and assessment, but these are not insuperable problems. If the institution already has an admission policy for on-campus international students this should apply just as well to online students from another country. Local proctoring (again using a partner institution) can help with examinations, but even better is to use authentic assessments where students have to apply their knowledge locally or within their own work or social context. This form of assessment is ideal for professional masters ‘ programs.

Furthermore, it helps when initially planning an online program to take into consideration that there is probably an international market (indeed, this helps with marketing the program even locally). This means choosing content carefully so it can work in a wide variety of international contexts, and to take advantage of the different perspectives from the international students.

Lastly, when developing a business model, the inclusion of international students can make the difference between loss and profit, because in well-designed online programs, the marginal cost of each additional student should more than cover the delivery costs. UBC found it did not need to charge a premium tuition fee for international students, because the business model depended on getting enough enrollments at the government-regulated tuition fee (for domestic students) to break even. The international students were an important contributor to breaking even without having to charge them a premium price. So pricing policy is also an important factor.

In conclusion

Yes, there is a market for international students in online programs, and there will be a market in Canada for specific professional masters offered by well-recognised and legitimate U.S. universities, provided they fill a gap not currently being met by Canadian institutions – and at the moment there are many such gaps.

However, it may be a mistake to focus on marketing to specific countries. Institutions will (even in Canada) respond relatively quickly to what they may feel as foreign incursions into their market. The world market (especially for programs in the English language) is large enough to attract more than enough high quality students to credit-based programs – just look at the response to MOOCs, which don’t offer formal qualifications. The trick is good marketing, making sure the materials take into consideration an international market and are not focused on specifically local or national issues, and having a good business plan. And partnership with foreign institutions would be a wise move. So while not easy, it is feasible, but if the reason is solely to make money, then it will, ironically, be a harder sell. Students will pick up on that remarkably quickly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adapting student assessment to the needs of a digital age

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Assessment 2

The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have been working through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I briefly described some of the key components of an effective learning environment in a series of blog posts:

In this post, I examine the assessment of students as a key component, and how assessment methods need to be adapted to meet the needs of a digital age. This is the last component I’m discussing, but it will be followed by a final post that discusses the value of designing teaching and learning through the lens of a comprehensive learning environment.

Learner assessment

‘I was struck by the way assessment always came at the end, not only in the unit of work but also in teachers’ planning….Assessment was almost an afterthought…

Teachers…are being caught between competing purposes of …assessment and are often confused and frustrated by the difficulties that they experience as they try to reconcile the demands.’

Earle, 2003

Learner assessment in a digital age

Because assessment is a huge topic, it is important to be clear that the purpose of this section is (a) to look at one of the components that constitute an effective and comprehensive learning environment, and (b) briefly to examine the extent to which assessment is or should be changing in a digital age. Assessment will be a recurring theme in this book, so in this section the treatment is deliberately cursory.

Probably nothing drives the behaviour of students more than how they will be assessed. Not all students are instrumental in their learning, but given the competing pressures on students’ time in a digital age, most ‘successful’ learners focus on what will be examined and how they can most effectively (i.e. in as little time as possible) meet the assessment requirements. Therefore decisions about methods of assessment will in most contexts be fundamental to building an effective learning environment.

The purpose of assessment

There are many different reasons for assessing learners. It is important to be clear about the purpose of the assessment, because it is unlikely that one single assessment instrument will meet all assessment needs. Here are some reasons (you can probably think of many more):

  1. to improve and extend students’ learning
  2. to assess students’ knowledge and competence in terms of desired learning goals or outcomes
  3. to provide the teacher/instructor with feedback on the effectiveness of their teaching and how it might be improved
  4. to provide information for employers about what the student knows and/or can do
  5. to filter students for further study, jobs or professional advancement
  6. for institutional accountability and/or financial purposes.

I have deliberately ordered these in importance for creating an effective learning environment. In terms of the needs of a digital age, assessment needs to focus on both developing and assessing skills. This means that continuous or formative assessment will be as important as summative or ‘end-of-course’ assessment.

A question to be considered is whether there is a need for assessment of learning in the first place. There may be contexts, such as a community of practice, where learning is informal, and the learners themselves decide what they wish to learn, and whether they are satisfied with what they have learned. In other cases, learners may not want or need to be formally evaluated or graded, but do want or need feedback on how they are doing with their learning. ‘Do I really understand this?’ or ‘How am I doing compared to other learners?’

However, even in these contexts, some informal methods of assessment by experts, specialists or more experienced participants could help other participants extend their learning by providing feedback and indicating the level of competence or understanding that a participant has achieved or has yet to accomplish. Lastly, students themselves can extend their learning by participating in both self-assessment and peer assessment, preferably with guidance and monitoring from a more knowledgeable or skilled instructor.

Methods of assessment

The form the assessment takes, as well as the purpose, will be influenced by the instructors’ or examiners’ underlying epistemology: what they believe constitutes knowledge, and therefore how students need to demonstrate their knowledge. The form of assessment should also be influenced by the knowledge and skills that students need in a digital age, which means focusing as much on assessing skills as knowledge of content.

There is a wide range of possible assessment methods. I have selected just a few to illustrate how technology can change the way we assess learners in ways that are relevant to a digital age:

  • computer-based multiple-choice tests: good for testing ‘objective’ knowledge of facts, ideas, principles, laws, and quantitative procedures in mathematics, science and engineering etc., and are cost-effective for these purposes. This form of testing though tends to be limited  in assessing high-level intellectual skills, such as complex problem-solving, creativity, and evaluation, and therefore less likely to be useful for developing or assessing many of the skills needed in a digital age.
  • written essays or short answers: good for assessing comprehension and some of the more advanced intellectual skills, such as critical thinking, but are labour intensive, open to subjectivity, and are not good for assessing practical skills. Experiments are taking place with automated essay marking, using developments in artificial intelligence, but so far automated essay marking still struggles with reliably identifying valid semantic meaning (for a balanced and more detailed account of the current state of machine grading, see Mayfield, 2013Parachuri, 2013).
  • project work: either individual but more commonly group-based, project work encourages the development of authentic skills that require understanding of content, knowledge management, problem-solving, collaborative learning, evaluation, creativity and practical outcomes. Designing valid and practical project work needs a high level of skill and imagination from the instructor.
  • e-portfolios (an online compendium of student work): enables self-assessment through reflection, knowledge management, recording and evaluation of learning activities, such as teaching or nursing practice, and recording of an individual’s contribution to project work (as an example, see  the use of e-portfolios in Visual Arts and Built Environment at the University of Windsor.); usually self-managed by the learner but can be made available or adapted for formal assessment purposes or job interviews
  • simulations, educational games (usually online) and virtual worlds: facilitate the practice of skills, such as complex and real time decision-making, operation of (simulated or remote) complex equipment, the development of safety procedures and awareness, risk taking and assessment in a safe environment, and activities that require a combination of manual and cognitive skills (see the training of Canadian Border Service officers at Loyalist College, Ontario). Currently expensive to develop, but cost-effective with multiple use, where it replaces the use of extremely expensive equipment, where operational activities cannot be halted for training purposes, or  where available as open educational resources.
Virtual world border crossing, Loyalist College, Ontario

Virtual world border crossing, Loyalist College, Ontario

It can be seen that some of these assessment methods are both formative, in helping students to develop and increase their competence and knowledge, as well as summative, in assessing knowledge and skill levels at the end of a course or program.

In conclusion

Nothing is likely to drive student learning more than the method of assessment. At the same time, assessment methods are rapidly changing and are likely to continue to change. Assessment in terms of skills development needs to be both ongoing and continuous as well as summative. There is an increasing range of digitally based tools that can enrich the quality and range of student assessment. Therefore the choice of assessment methods, and their relevance to other components, are vital elements of any effective learning environment.

Over to you

Your views, comments and criticisms are always welcome. In particular:

  • are there other methods of assessment relevant to a digital age that I should have included?
  • there is still a heavy reliance on computer-based multiple-choice tests in much teaching, mainly for cost reasons. However, although there are exceptions, in general these really don’t assess the high level conceptual skills needed in a digital age. Are there other methods that are equally as economical, particularly in terms of instructor time, that are more suitable for assessment in a digital age? For instance, do you think automated essay grading is a viable alternative?
  • would it be helpful to think about assessment right at the start of course planning, rather than at the end? Is this feasible?

Or any other comments on assessment as a critical component of a learning environment, please!

Next up

Why thinking in terms of a comprehensive learning environment is necessary but not sufficient when designing a course or program.

 

References

Earle, L. (2003) Assessment as Learning Thousand Oaks CA: Corwin Press

Mayfield, E. (2013) Six ways the edX Announcement Gets Automated Essay Grading Wrong, e-Literate, April 8

Parachuri, V. (2013) On the automated scoring of essays and the lessons learned along the way, vicparachuri.com,  July 31

 

Resources and the design of teaching and learning

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 Steelcase Node Classroom

Steelcase Node Classroom

The story so far

Chapter 5 of my open textbook, ‘Teaching in a Digital Age’ is about the design of teaching and learning, which I am currently writing and publishing as I go.

I started Chapter 5 by suggesting that instructors should think about design through the lens of constructing a comprehensive learning environment in which teaching and learning will take place. I have started to work through the various components of a learning environment, focusing particularly on how the digital age affects the way we need to look at some of these components.

I started by looking at how the characteristics of our learners are changing, and followed that by examining how our perspectives on content are being influenced by the digital age, how both intellectual and practical skills can be developed to meet the needs of a digital age, and the importance of learner support within the learning environment. In subsequent posts, I will cover resources and assessment respectively.

In this post, I examine how resources can and do influence the learning environment and ultimately the design of teaching and learning.

Resources

Resources 2Resources available to teachers/instructors and the learners are a critical component of an effective learning environment. As in the case of learner characteristics, an instructor may not have a lot of control over the resources available to him or her, but resources (or the lack of them) will impact a great deal on the design of teaching. Fighting for appropriate resources is often one of the most challenging tasks for many teachers and instructors. At the same time, of all the components, resources reflect some of the greatest changes resulting from a digital age.

Teaching assistance

I define teaching assistance as people such as adjunct or sessional instructors, teaching assistants, librarians, and technical support staff, including instructional designers, media producers and IT technical support. An institution may have policies or guidelines about how many support staff an instructor can have for a set number of students.

It is important to think about the best way to use supporting staff. In universities, the tendency is to chop a large class into sections, with each section with its own sessional instructor or teaching assistant, which then operate relatively independently, with often large differences in the quality of the teaching in different sections, depending on the experience of the instructor.

However, new technologies enable the teaching to be organised differently and more consistently. For instance, a senior professor may determine the overall curriculum and assessment strategy, and working with an instructional designer, provide the overall design of a course. Sessionals and/or teaching assistants then are hired to deliver the course either face-to-face or online or more often a mix of both, under the supervision of the senior professor (see the National Center for Academic Transformation for examples). Flipped classrooms are another way to organise resources differently (see Blended Learning in Introductory Psychology as an example.)

Furthermore, online learning may bring in more revenues through government grants for extra students and/or direct tuition revenue, so there may be economies of scale which would enable the institution to hire more sessionals from the extra revenues generated by the additional online students. Indeed, there are now examples of fully online masters programs more than covering the full cost, including the hiring of research professors to teach the program, from tuition revenues alone (the University of British Columbia’s online Master in Educational Technology is one example.) Thus design can influence resources, as well as the other way round.

Facilities

This refers primarily to physical facilities available to an instructor and students, such as classrooms, labs, and the library. These may provide constraints on the teaching, because for example the physical set-up of a lecture hall or classroom may limit opportunities for discussion or project work, or an instructor may be forced to organise the teaching around three hours of lecturing and six hours of labs per week, to ‘fit’ with broader institutional requirements for classroom allocations (see How Online Learning is Going to Affect Classroom Design regarding attempts to re-design classrooms for the digital age.)

Online learning can free instructors and students from such rigid physical constraints, but there is still a need for structure and organization of units or modules of teaching, even or especially when teaching online (see Is content still important in a digital age?).

Technology

The development of new technologies, and especially learning management systems, lecture capture, and social media,have radical implications for the design of teaching and learning. This will be discussed in much more depth in Chapter 7, but for the purpose of describing an effective learning environment, the technologies available to an instructor can contribute immensely to creating interactive and engaging learning environments for students. However, it is important to emphasise that technology is just one component within any effective learning environment, and needs to be balanced and integrated with all the other components.

The instructor’s time

The greatest and most precious resource of all! Building an effective learning environment is an iterative process, but in the end, the teaching design, and to some extent the learning environment as a whole, will be dependent on the time available from the instructor (and his or her team) for teaching. The less time available, the more restrictive the learning environment is likely to be, unless the instructor’s time is very carefully managed. Again, though, we shall see in Chapter 7 that good design takes into account the time available for teaching.

Resources, class size and control

Nothing drives an instructor to distraction more than trying to juggle with what are perceived as inadequate resources. Certainly, if a teacher or instructor is allocated a class of 200 students, with no additional teaching support, and an expectation that the class will be taught as a unit with six one hour lectures a week allocated to a large lecture hall, then the instructor is going to have difficulty creating a rich and effective learning environment, because the lack of resources limits the options. On the other hand, an instructor with 30 students, access to a wide range of technology, freedom to organise and structure the curriculum, and with support from an instructional designer and a web designer, has the luxury of exploring a range of different designs and possible learning environments.

Nevertheless it is probably when resources are most scarce that the most creativity is needed to break out of traditional teaching models. New technology, if properly used and available, does enable even large classes with otherwise few resources to be designed with a relatively rich learning environment. This will be explored in more depth in the next chapter. At the same time, expectations need to be realistic. Providing adequate learner support with an instructor:student ratio of 1:200 will always be a challenge. Improvements are possible through re-design – but not miracles. (For more on increasing productivity through online teaching, see Productivity and Online Learning Redux.)

Over to you

Your views, comments and criticisms are always welcome. In particular:

  • are there other resources that influence the design of an effective learning environment that I should have included?
  • Winston Churchill once said ‘We shape our buildings and in turn our buildings shape us.’ To what extent do you think online learning can free us of some of the constraints that buildings impose on the design of teaching and learning? What new constraints does online learning bring in terms of design?
  • how do you feel about the whole issue of teaching assistance? I have grave reservations myself about the use of students as teaching assistants in universities, in terms of the quality of the teaching. I also believe that sessionals and adjunct instructors are badly treated in terms of how they are managed. In British Columbia we have had two Supreme Court cases and a major teachers’ strike over class size and composition, and in particular how much help school teachers should receive for coping with students with learning disabilities. But by bringing in less qualified (and cheaper) support for instructors, do we strengthen or weaken the learning environment for students?

Or any other comments on resources as a critical component of a learning environment, please!

Next up

Assessment as a key component of an effective learning environment.