Our eLearning Platform

I’ve been on vacation all week and haven’t really even checked my feeds to see what is going on in the World. I was sort of surprised to see that Apple released a new iPod Shuffle that talks given how hyper-connected I typically am. The thing that prompted me to post this morning has nothing to do with music players however. I came across a post at my new colleague Matt Meyer’s blog, Blog Platform: Authoring Tool, where he exposes some thinking about how he is planning to author and deliver the Biology Wet Lab course he is the lead designer on. I really like the thinking and thought I’d share some overall thoughts.

I’ve written about my struggles with eLearning and eLearning authoring in general lots of times, but after reading Matt’s post this morning I jumped into my way back machine (this blog) and found a post from a couple years ago where I asked for some help thinking about this topic.

What I struggle with is the idea of what is a really good eLearning environment these days? In my mind, a handful of pages of content that link and embed objects that drive student and faculty to engage in conversations (on or off line) seems to be the goal. With that said, why not design those content pages in a blog so students and faculty (and maybe people from the outside) can have conversations in context? Why are we still struggling with what the right eLearning tool set looks like when we are sitting in a world with dozens of content creation tools? The model we are trying to avoid consists of tons of static text pages that prompt students to leave the content and jump into a discussion forum to interact — I’ve never liked that, but now the technology supports what I am after … the opportunity for conversation at every level of a course experience.

I’ve built a couple of examples of blog powered eLearning spaces since then and I’m pretty sure having these examples were helpful in sharing my thoughts with Matt last week. I had written about it back in October as I did a survey of some of the emerging ways our blogging platform has been being used.

HCI in a Blog

HCI in a Blog

Recently I took an old topic from an Online IST course I helped design about seven years ago and republish it via the Blogs at PSU environment. It took only a handful of minutes and produces a portable package that can be customized by an entire team in a collaborative way. And since our platform allows for easy export and import, a faculty member who wants the content can easily download an export file and import it into a new blog space to customize the look, the feel, the content, the activities, or anything else for her own instruction.

When I built the examples I wanted to explore the potential of the platform as an easy to use design and development environment as well as experiment with personalization. I ended up with two versions of the content … one to be used as a “standard” version and one as a fully customized version. The Master Course provides a baseline version of the content in a central location — perhaps in an Open Courseware model. A faculty member could browse the content and download a simple file. This file contains the entire course and structure. This is ideal because it allows that faculty member to manage and customize the content as their own. This can then be used to create a personal version of the content.

What is great to see from Matt’s post is that he gets the notion and he is thinking about how to use the built in communication tools as a way to gather feedback. I can see he and the team he is working with taking advantage of the commenting system to get an idea from students as they work screen by screen what they think of the environment. I am also excited that we are buying into the idea of embedding different kinds of content to make the experience a little more complete — we all know how easy it is to drop in media from YouTube, but imagine collecting data live via an embedded google spreadsheet form and you can imagine that is when things start to get really interesting.

All of this is important stuff and it puts a new look on some existing and (IMO) outdated and outmoded thinking in the eLearning design world. I am anxious to hear what others are thinking about this and the questions Matt is looking to explore.

A Plea for Some eLearning Help

A few years ago the design of eLearning seemed so obvious to me — align a systematic process, a team, and a technology platform to create courses to support resident or distance education. So much has happened in the online space the last couple of years that has shattered my thinking as it relates to the technology platform choice … I still think any project must be supported by the strategic alignment of factors (you know, something like people, process, and tools), but the notion of selecting a single eLearning design and development environment seems very difficult and confusing.

Friday, several colleagues and I spent close to two hours in our conference room talking about all of this. We were getting together to explore those three elements and discuss how we should move forward to support our new eLearning efforts. When I was the Director of the Solutions Institute we created a four-tier instructional design model that was supported by our Digital Design Document tool set that our team would use to manage the creation of eLearning. In the world of the web back then, it seemed OK to build courses that were page turners — really just textbooks on the web with a few interactive (Flash) activities thrown in. Today that just seems wrong and the team on Friday came to that conclusion. If we are going to really build a model for eLearning that we are proud of then we are going to have to think very differently about how we go about doing this. Over the last two years we’ve worked really hard to bring new tools to our campus to support digital expression — we came around to the notion that to do this right we should be promoting and leveraging those platforms in new ways.

What I struggle with is the idea of what is a really good eLearning environment these days? In my mind, a handful of pages of content that link and embed objects that drive student and faculty to engage in conversations (on or off line) seems to be the goal. With that said, why not design those content pages in a blog so students and faculty (and maybe people from the outside) can have conversations in context? Why are we still struggling with what the right eLearning tool set looks like when we are sitting in a world with dozens of content creation tools? The model we are trying to avoid consists of tons of static text pages that prompt students to leave the content and jump into a discussion forum to interact — I’ve never liked that, but now the technology supports what I am after … the opportunity for conversation at every level of a course experience.

So, at the start of our meeting we were exploring an eLearning design, development, and delivery tool … it is a powerful web-based environment, but it just didn’t seem to fit where our thinking was taking us. The group started by saying we should adopt and adapt it, but as the conversation grew we came around to a different conclusion — that what we needed was an environment to create and save the design information of the course (you know, a digital design document) and an easy way to connect content that is created in blogs, as podcasts, digital movies, or whatever else. We need a project management and communication environment that can be used to support a distributed team and a collection of content management tools to deliver the results from. This is all new thinking, but I am trying to piece together in my mind a path towards aligning the people, process, and the new set of technology tools we’ll need to get to the next level of eLearning design strategy.

I would love to hear from those of you out there who design courses and what works for you … what are the right tools and approaches? Think of a design environment that a team (with specific roles) is asked to create scalable eLearning materials … what are some examples of people ditching the all in one design/development environments to create courses that are made up of small pieces? Can we legitimately ask our faculty to work with us to select and deliver killer learning environments using the platforms we constantly talk about? Any thoughts for me?

23 Things and ETS Talk

A tip of the hat to Veronica Diaz from Maricopa on this little find … the 23 Things open course designed and delivered from Glendale Community College in Arizona. Not much to say here, but fantastic. It is an open, self-paced eLearning course that guides learners through 23 things they should know about Web 2.0.

It got Brad Kozlek and I talking quite a bit about it today and we think this and our follow up thoughts will be featured this week on ETS Talk. Speaking of ETS Talk, I came across a very nice post about our little podcast show from Mike Briggs at Sun. Blows my mind that people are listening!

Design in a Wiki

I have been thinking lately about how we use wikis for all sorts of document and collaborative design. Back in the day when I was regularly involved in first designing and then managing the design of eLearning courses we used our own custom solutions for storing content and managing teamwork. The big tool we used at IST to build and manage the Online IST courses was the Digital Design Document (D3) … it was a FileMaker Pro application that allowed teams of people to easily create and manage course content, team communication, work-flow, storyboards, and more in one easy to use collaborative environment. It worked well for how we used it and it saved us tons of time when it came to actually delivering a course. One of the nice things about D3 was its ability to publish a 600 screen course in seconds so that it could be coupled with ANGEL or whatever other course management system we were using.

The thing that made it perfect was the collaborative capabilities. What we never attempted to do with D3 was just open the tool to the learners and the faculty — in other words, the design team managed the tool and the content in it. What the learner and ultimately the instructor saw was the output … they only interacted with the static pages. No way to edit, no way to update, and certainly no way to contribute to the knowledge on the page. Today we have come to expect collaborative tools as part of the work flow — wikis, books in Drupal, multi user blogs, Google Docs, and so on have become the norm. What I wondering is if you could use a wiki to not only design your course, but then deliver it in that environment as well. If you have a team of people designing the instruction, would it be prudent to allow students to not only interact with the desired content on screen but also see the design team’s notes on the same pages? Would that lead to great learning opportunities?

I am designing a new course and will be attempting to do just that. I will be putting all of the readings that I create, all the assignments for the students, and everything else in the course (from the syllabus to the final assessment) into a wiki and letting my students edit, tweak, adjust, and add to the course along the way. If I ask them to respond to a reading, I will want them to do it in the wiki so that every student’s response becomes another learning opportunity for the next set of students who take the course. In the back of my head it is almost like creating an Intranet for the course that the whole world can see.

I am wondering who out there has done this and what I need to watch out for? Are there things anyone would recommend? Final question … if I do this would people outside the course contribute content? Sort of a social experiment in course design … if there is a topic in the course I am weak in, could I count on others to come in and contribute to the course design? Am I crazy (don’t answer that one)?

eLearning and the Real World

Is it just me or is the idea that the University of Phoenix Online buying the naming rights to the Arizona Cardinals’ Stadium seem almost unreal. It wasn’t too long ago that a well placed administrator told me that eLearning was dead … this seems to indicate a different opinion. It appears as though we should look at this as a sign that the masses are embracing this mode of study. I know I can appreciate at least a hybrid approach to the standard notion of teaching and learning.

Back in the day (you know, 1999) everyone was talking about the potential of online education as a major cash cow for well connected schools. I’m not sure anyone thought it would be “Universities” outside the mainstream making a real go of it. The last time I checked, it costs a ton of money to name a stadium at any level. All I am saying is that someone might be doing the eLearning thing really well — read that as making money. It makes me wonder when buildings on my campus will get a name from a competitor who happens to have big pockets? Jeez … how will it sound if a building here is named the “University of Texas Information Sciences and Technology Building?” Strange days indeed …

Long Tail & Social Music

While I was traveling last month, I spent some time reading the Berkman/Gartner report about how social activities will shape the future of online music purcahses got me thinking about how that is relevant to what is going on a couple of fronts … the first is obviously a discussion and lesson for IST 110 this semester. The second is how it could relate to the sharing of eLearning options. Let’s explore both … What follows come right out of my personal content management system I installed on my laptop — fancy words for local install of MovableType.

For class I could clearly have the teams read the report and respond … it might be interesting for them to use it as the basis for a team podcasting assignment. I think Odeo limits podcasts to 3 minutes, so it would require them to pull their ideas together. I really like the idea of having them get together, distill their thoughts, abd articualte them in a concise way.

As it relates to eLearning objects it goes back to something my wife, Kristin and I were really starting to look at when she was still with the Solutions Institute — community based reviews and recommendations of eLearning objects. I’m not going to spend a whole bunch of time reflecting on the merits of eLearning objects, but I will say that I just saw the results of the PSU FACAC survey for faculty and TAs and an overwhelming number of respondendents claimed that they would not only use objects built by other faculty (at PSU and beyond) in their own classrooms, but would be willing to share their own stuff. That is interesting to me and a major shift in the thinking here … but you would think that we as designers of these things we’d want to create environments that mimic the best of what industry is doing to really encourage this.

I have been saying for years that eLearning and eCommerce are so similar in so many ways. I used to think that it was limited to just the design, development, and storage of the objects … but, I am seeing now more than ever that the concepts of the iTunes Mix Store’s iMix and Amazon’s customer reviews (as well as the “this is what others bought” concept) are as relevenat and important to the adoption of eLearning objects as anything else.

The basics of adoption and diffusion of innovation theory talks about getting leaders of your target audience to become part of your diffusion efforts … these early adopters can do more for your cause than hours and hours of marketing. When we released Online IST we brought out our early faculty adopters — those who were respected among our target audiences and let them talk about why it was good … this lead to a huge jump in our adoption efforts. The same is true at the next level … as objects become more widely used and shared, the thought of faculty publishing “playlists” with teaching notes will create new adoption of the pieces … just my opinion, but I think as faculty figure it out and start to share their thoughts about what worked and didn’t work we’ll see more uptake of objects that are quality.

The quality part of this is the big piece. We have all sorts of repositories out there, but most of them ignore the notion of quality — obviously a few get it right … I think allowing the community to establish the quality metrics and share their thoughts about them is key. We shall see, but the notion of letting faculty share playlists of their selected objects in context could encourage uptake … just like the Berkman report discusses how community based playlists will drive 25% of online music sales by 2010, maybe community based eLeanring object playlists can help drive adoption in our space. Sorry for the stream of typing on that one.

Can you Brand Learning?

When we started the Online IST project it was just a course, a set of resources, and a vision (and a collection of courses to come). It wasn’t called Online IST, I was doing what everyone else does, “This is IST 110, but for the web.” As it started to grow and we were thinking about how to get the entire faculty in our system to use the courses I wanted a way to market the whole initiative. I had come from the commercial eTraining world; so the concept was to build each course as if it were a product within a specific line … I wanted a brand name. A brand name gave us something we could all easily use to discuss all the pieces of the puzzle that makes up our version of an eLearning course — the course pages, a communication space, a roadmap, support tools, resources, etc … without a central brand I didn’t think we could mount a marketing effort. I know that sounds strange, but that’s what was going on – marketing to build utilization and adoption.

Now if you look at learning resources/materials/objects as products, you have to think that we’ve finally arrived at this point where we have access to an almost overwhelming amount of content. Some content is free, while other stuff is locked down behind authenticated walls, and others still are available from a ton of commercial vendors. It is interesting to me that we have gotten to the point where there is actually as much choice for learning materials as there is for products that sit on the shelves at Target, Wal-Mart, and in a virtual sense Amazon.com. It seems though what we are lacking is a mechanism for powerful brand recognition … is a brand in a name or the quality … or both? And whose name matters? In my case, I chose to brand around the school in which we were building the materials for (Online IST) … or is a particular faculty member who is extremely well respected in a field a good source for a brand? Is it the University — Phoenix, PSU World Campus?

I was reading a great post over at one of my favorite blogs this morning, The Long Tail, called Brands: Think people, not products. One line that really struck me is, “the changing role of brands in an era of empowered consumers.” What got me is how savvy our students have become — savvy consumers of education if you will. What that is telling me is that we — the so called innovators in this space — really need to take the next step with our design, our environments, our ability to integrate the social components of learning, and build some seriously strong learning brands that our consumers demand

I’ve always thought that eLearning/eEducation should be powered by strong eCommerce models … it is more true now than ever. If you think of the transactional nature of learning and compare it to business it is so similar it is amazing … it really has me thinking again about how learning objects could be treated as products and take advantage of the tricks marketers use to get us to buy (in the learning world, I’ve called it adopt) — think in the e-sense what that is … ratings, people who bought this also bought this, user feedback, etc. All of this works by the way. Is it fair to say adoption of eLearning materials, methodologies, pedagogy, etc really is a matter of solid branding and marketing? Maybe, I’d like to know what you think … oh, by the way, it doesn’t hurt to have world class people behind it all.

Just some morning thoughts while listening to my favorite jazz … by the way its the people, not the products that I buy to listen to.

Solutions Based Learning Model: A Model for Online Education and Beyond

September 11, 2000
Kristin & Cole Camplese

Author’s Note: This white paper was written in 2000. The overarching model for Solutions-Based Learning is largely the same, however (as with technology and eLearning in general) it has evolved and our perceptions on some activities have changed.

The History of Solutions-Based Learning (SBL)

A unique challenge was presented to the IST Solutions Institute in the Fall of 1999: to create an online, problem-based, real-world, modular, reusable curriculum for the new School of Information Sciences and Technology. In addition, these courses could not spend years in development. There was a big need to roll them out quickly in order to prove that IST was an asset to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Another slight complication was the fact that this technology-based curriculum would be changing very rapidly—a content management strategy would be imperative. In addition, it would be very difficult to take time from our traditional, tenure-track faculty because they are so inundated with getting the resident curriculum up and running. The online courses would also have to be used in many different delivery methods: hybrid delivery (mostly online, but some face to face sessions) for resident students, asynchronous delivery for resident students and rolling enrollment, and “pre-packaged” delivery for other institutions.

The Education and Training Solutions group within the Institute would be responsible for this initiative. Just to create an online course is a challenge—few people have done it well to date. In addition, adding a problem-based layer in a distant setting would be another layer to the challenge. All of this had to be accomplished in a way that allowed us to roll out courses quickly and reuse/repurpose content in a modular fashion. Many challenges to say the least.

One of the biggest challenges has been to flesh out a problem-based, online instructional design model that meshes with all of our other unique, market-driven needs. What has evolved through our team process seemed to take some of the best elements of many approaches and combine them in a way that has allowed us to make our online curriculum a reality. It is not problem-based learning in its truest fashion. It is Solutions-Based Learning—a real world model that focuses on teaching and learning within a business-oriented, team-driven process. Solutions-Based Learning not only focuses on students finding solutions to real world problems; it is a solution to the many instructional design challenges that universities and schools face today.

Student Need

First of all, I feel it is important to state the educational mission of the School of Information Sciences and Technology. We are striving to create leaders for our new, information and technology-driven society.

Technology is no longer its “own” field; indeed it crosses the boundary of every single domain that exists today. It used to be that a computer science program was the way to educate students desiring a computer-related degree. But now, however, we see every field being impacted by technology. It is not only impacting the person at work, though. Every use of technology has a social impact on an individual’s daily life.

  • Nurses use intranet systems to manage patient care… Patients use internet systems to manage their own care.
  • Libraries maintain their collections through powerful information processing systems… Students of all ages do research for learning, or for pleasure, using those systems.
  • Large retailers maintain their storefronts on database systems accessible through the world wide web… consumers purchase goods by accessing these systems.
  • Online investing systems allow trading without a stockbroker … What do stock brokers do now?

Many of these systems have been in place for quite some time. However, accessibility to the systems because of networks has eliminated the “middle man” in many cases. Not only do students in our curriculum need to understand the fundamentals behind the systems; they need to understand the impact that the systems can have on society and in business. As in the stockbroker example above, our students need to recognize that entire fields and jobs are being redesigned to deal with technology. Now a stockbroker needs to add value to his customers’ buying process because of the ease of trading online. Our students need to see these impacts and be able to analyze them.

So, we are not only giving students the fundamentals to understand the systems, but we are giving them the problem-solving, analytical mentality to understand how these systems impact business and society. We need to train students to be able to work in diverse teams that allow them to have a taste of the real world. In addition, we need to assist them in problem solving as individuals. Most problem solving activities have both group and individual learning components.

Overview of Solutions-Based Learning

Solutions-Based Learning relies on presenting students with a real-world problem or case study at the beginning of an instructional module. Within that module, topics (and lessons that make up those topics) support both the traditional instruction, as well as the problem-solving activity.

IST 110 Course Structure

Modules = Groupings of content topics.
Topics = Groupings of related lessons.
Lessons = Groupings of related content pages.

As the students work through the traditional content, they are not only gathering information for the problem solving process, they are participating in traditional online activities such as reading, responding to discussion questions which are posted to the online bulletin board, and interacting with multimedia exercises which enhance the content.

Comparison to Traditional PBL

This is a difficult piece to write because there is much confusion around what problem-based learning (PBL) really is. Everyone has his or her own view about what it must include and how it must be included. In a review of problem-based learning literature in medical education, it was stated that:

The basic outline of the problem-based learning process is: encountering the problem first, problem-solving with clinical reasoning skills and identifying learning needs in and interactive process, self study, applying newly gained knowledge to the problem, and summarizing what has been learned. (Barrows 1985, p. 15)

Wilkerson and Feletti state that it is crucial that “the problem raise compelling issues for new learning and that students have an opportunity to become actively involved with appropriate feedback and corrective assistance from faculty members.” (Wilkerson and Feletti 1989, p. 53)

Many people have many different views about what PBL is or is not. However, the following concepts are generally held to be true. PBL:

  • Relies on a real world, authentic problem presented up front to students.
  • Is facilitated by an instructor. The instructor must “guide, probe, and support student initiatives” not just purely lecture or operate as a “sage on the stage.” (Kaufman et al 1989, p. 286)
  • Is generally considered to be collaborative in nature.
  • Is assessed in the purest form “in the context of the problem.” (Duffy and Cunningham 1996, p. 170). Rubrics are generally used to evaluate student solutions and very few, if any, multiple choice-like instruments would be used to evaluate learning.
  • Is designed to facilitate deep and meaningful learning. Content coverage cannot be as easily ensured in a true PBL curriculum (as compared to a traditional course).

How is this different from Solutions-Based Learning? In many ways, not very! Solutions-Based Learning, from the standpoint of the model, is really on a PBL continuum. It is not PBL in its purest form, but it does hold many of the same characteristics. We focus on real world problems presented up front. And the instructor definitely acts as more of a facilitator. We all probably agree that a problem-based learning model is the most authentic way to learn—it is how we learn throughout our lives. But it is not always easy to translate into traditional education.

Where SBL is different is in the fact that we feel it is practical and applicable within most traditional educational settings. Our model can be collaborative or individual, depending on instructor needs. Our model allows assessment to take place in a variety of ways. We incorporate instruments that allow for demonstration of learning from a depth and breadth perspective. Let’s face it, most educational institutions, governments, and money granting institutions want to see how an educational experience can be quantified, i.e. what the grades were. They give us curricula that need to be taught, i.e. standards. And most instructors and students alike still focus on tests as skill demonstration. While we feel that this is not necessarily correct, it is still an important component to take into consideration. By including problems, discussion activities, labs and some opportunities for traditional quizzes, we feel that we can ensure the maximum amount of learning from both a depth and breadth perspective. Individual instructors can re-weight activities that they feel are the most important.

Assessment Strategies

Assessment takes place at each level of the course. At the module level, students are assessed within the context of the problem based on their solutions. A detailed rubric is used to evaluate each problem deliverable. In addition, when a team-based component exists, a “teaming” grade is formulated based on the average of each team member’s self and team evaluations.

Also at the module level, we have designed criterion-referenced quizzes. These were formulated to assess content coverage of objectives throughout the course. While this does not necessarily fit with a true problem-based approach, it does fit with a Solutions-Based approach. Problem-based learning does a fantastic job ensuring deep, meaningful learning; however, in introductory courses, especially, we need to ensure that students take away the basic introductory knowledge that all IST students need to have (the basic lingo, definitions, procedures, etc.). For this reason, we have developed short (15-20 item) online quizzes to motivate students to interact with all content, not just the content that is covered in the problems. The quizzes are timed, but not proctored. This means that they could “cheat.” We are not as concerned with that as we are with the students just preparing themselves for such a learning opportunity. Because they are timed, they will have to move through items in a manner that does not allow for extensive use of resources.

In an online or traditional setting, it is very difficult to ensure that students read and interact with the content. Because our content has been developed exclusively for this course (meaning that it is all relevant), students need to interact with it. They need to know (independently) what the definition of an information system is; they need to be able to list the basic steps in systematic design and development; they need to know the basic differences between relational and flat file databases. Employers expect this! Many high level concepts can be covered in problems or case studies; however, many of the IST fundamentals need to be adequately covered as well. Our basic approach is that problems are used to assess high level learning objectives; however, quizzes are used to assess lower level content objectives.

At the topic level, students are assessed through applied Lab Activities. IST 110 is a 4 credit course, so this is imperative. However, other courses may or may not have this component. Lab activities are applied, “internship-ready” activities. Students are required to learn a skill such as Microsoft Excel, but then apply it to a knowledge worker task, such as creating a spreadsheet that evaluates several different hardware systems. These types of skills make our students much more ready for employment than if they were simply asked to create a random spreadsheet with little need for context.

At the lesson level, students are assessed using Discussion Activities. Discussion Activities are based around one page of content and require students to think about it in a deeper manner. For example, when the content discusses the unbundling of hardware and software, students are asked to envision what the computing world would be like if this never happened. These generative learning activities require students to read and respond to the content in a way that makes them reflect and create new knowledge.

Screen Shot 2014-08-09 at 9.01.36 PM

More details around each activity can be found below:

Description of Problem Activity

  • Can be team-based or individual-based.
  • Focus on real world questions and present multiple perspectives.
  • Must replicate the motivation factor that is present in real world problem solving.
  • Do not necessarily have a right or wrong answer.
  • Students need to utilize course content and outside research to construct their answer.
  • Require a “deliverable” and a presentation (if hybrid approach) to defend their solution.

Description of Module Quizzes

  • Individually completed.
  • Criterion-referenced.
  • Ensure more adequate content coverage by students.
  • Can be online or face to face, depending on how facilitator wants to set up the course.

Description of Lab Activities

  • Individually completed.
  • Focus on a topic of information.
  • Require students to read content, perform outside research, and respond by generating a solution.
  • Implemented in Communication Space (e.g. WebCT)

Description of Discussion Activities

  • Individually completed.
  • Thought provoking questions related to course content.
  • Require students to read content and generate a response based on prior knowledge.
  • Lead to active discussion among students and facilitator.
  • Implemented in Communication Space.