Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Designing for Digital Delivery


Designing classes for online delivery opens many options for both the faculty members and the students. We will look at the underpinnings of successful online class design, some specific technologies, and where learner needs and evolving technologies are leading us in the days ahead.

I am hopeful this blog will provide a continuing resource for you as together we explore designing for digital delivery!

Ray and University of Illinois at Springfield

Student Context

The first rule in media, and I believe it should be among the first in education, is to know your audience.

The Introduction to Cultural Anthropology class at Kansas State University (taught by Prof. Michael Wesch) put together a very brief video as a final project in their class last spring. This video describes priorities and realities in lives of youth. While the average age of the online student tends to be somewhat older than the on campus student, there are many similarities in the very busy and internet-digital lives we find among our more than 1,000 online majors at UIS who reside in 49 states and nine foreign countries.

Five Pillars of Quality Online Education

The Sloan Consortium with 1,200 institutional members dedicated to quality in online learning promote five aspects to consider in developing online classes:

  1. Learning Effectiveness
  2. Student Satisfaction
  3. Faculty Satisfaction
  4. Cost Effectiveness and Institutional Commitment
  5. Access

As one begins to design a program or a course, it is important to consider these aspects and how you will assess each of these as you move forward.

Constructing Knowledge

Pedagogical foundations of designing learning in a constructivist way:
  1. Knowledge involves active cognizing by the individual.
  2. Knowledge is adaptive, facilitating individual and social efficacy.
  3. Knowledge is subjective and self-organized, not objective.
  4. Knowledge acquisition involves both sociocultural and individual processes.

Key is to engage students in building knowledge that is relevant to them. This an active process that often is done best by creating a social network or community.

Seven Principles of Good Practice

Chickering and Gamson published an important monograph in 1985 putting forth seven principles of good practice in undergraduate education.
  1. encourages contact between students and faculty,
  2. develops reciprocity and cooperation among students,
  3. encourages active learning,
  4. gives prompt feedback,
  5. emphasizes time on task,
  6. communicates high expectations,
  7. respects diverse talents and ways of learning.

As they point out, these practices promote:

  • activity,
  • expectations,
  • cooperation,
  • interaction,
  • diversity,
  • responsibility.

These are especially important in designing for digital delivery.

Digital Context

Let's visit another brief video from Professor Michael Wesch at Kansas State University. Actually, more than a year prior to the video we viewed, he put together this video that helps to describe the nature of Web 2.0 and how it is changing our lives. Delivery online best uses these technologies that are:
  • Engaging (active learning)
  • Building (drawing upon the collective wisdom of the class and beyond)
  • Interacting (enabling two-way communication)
  • Sustaining (through RSS or other technologies, these exist beyond the end of the term)

Semester without end is possible using Web technologies. Students who have completed the class can engage students in the class and can learn from new materials and discussions.

Web 2.0 in Online Learning

The Web 2.0 revolution is providing a broad array of ever-changing technologies that enable and enhance online learning. Such technologies as Wikis, Podcasts, and Blogs utilize RSS to instantly update students with new information (such as the blog postings that are aggregated and updated each day in the right column of this blog). Google Documents and Zoho provide comprehensive, shared office suites of applications that rival those from Microsoft, but of course these are free and online.

Beginning Digital Design

Jakob Nielsen - the leading expert on Web usability - publishes a weekly article on the topic - Usability Alertbox. Through all of the many hundreds of weekly issues and the books he has published, one theme rings loud and clear:

Keep your design simple! Keep your design clean! Don't muddle what you are doing with extraneous technologies or content.

Never, ever use technology for technology's sake alone. Every time you begin to design a class or a module, start with content. Then, ask what technology will enable me to make this content as clear as possible - and deliver it as efficiently as possible - to the student.

Digital Strategies

There are a number of technologies and strategies that facilitate active learning and the building of a learning community. Some of these include:

  • Small group projects - online anytime/anywhere facilitates students working together
  • Case studies - engaging students in applying the knowledge they have constructed
  • Collaborations - linking students from different classes (even universities) together
  • Journals - facilitate reflected and deep learning
  • Blogs - sharing creative work with larger groups (even the Web) for comments
  • Wikis - collaboratively building reports
  • Podcasts and SlideShare/SlideCast - adding audio and video to projects
  • Virtual guest speakers - live or recorded and responding to discussion board comments

The applications are many, but the principles are few - engage the student, facilitate knowledge building, tap the collective wisdom of the Web, encourage diversity, and enable discovery.

Discussion Boards

At the core of most Learning Management Systems is the discussion board. It is not uncommon to average 100 posts per student in a semester class (20 students = 2,500 posts including instructor). The DB is where the rubber hits the road.

Remarkably, when we asked a sampling of our online students what made their online classes special, most responded "everyone is heard" - it is not just the students in the front row, or the ones with the quick answer, or the teacher's pet. Every student posting in response to the common weekly discussion question is read and responded to by the instructor.

This link includes a rubric matrix for grading discussion posts.

Embedded Librarian

No online class is complete without a reference librarian. With students spread across the country and beyond, there is no assurance they have access to a quality library. A partnership is best built between the faculty member and the librarian. Embedding the librarian into the class is an effective practice. So many synergies come from having an information specialist in the online classroom.

Discouraging Dishonesty

Many who have not taught online wonder how one can discourage dishonesty. There are many strategies that are easy to implement and not costly. A few of the more popular ones are:

  1. Use unique case studies each semester
  2. Require distant students to take exams using a proctor
  3. Phone students (or use VoIP) for an oral exam
  4. Try Turnitin or another anti-plagiarism software tool
  5. Create an honor code for the class
  6. Require annotated bibliographies for final papers

These and many other strategies can help you achieve a greater certainty of integrety than in on campus classes.

UIS has an online test proctoring policy:

There are several online anti-plagiarism tools, including:

Online Peer Mentors

It's hard to replicate online the campus environment where students are able to ask more senior students what the faculty member really meant when s/he said..... Or instances when the students turn to others who mentor them in responding appropriately in class. Thus the concept of the online peer mentor arose. These are normally students who have previously taken the class and are able to model ideal responses for students in the class. The linked blog gives details, interviews, and examples.

Changing Course - Formative Evaluations

An excellent strategy is to build in formative student feedback. At midterm - or thereabout - it is a good practice to conduct an evaluation to see if you are on target with the class.

A great tool is Fast, the free assessment tool.

One of the great features of this system is the long list of suggested questions:

You can use these or build your own question list.

What Does a Quality Course Look Like?

Cal State Chico posed this question. They came up with some good answers that comprise a qualitative rubric for assessing online courses in six areas:

  • Learner Support and Resources
  • Instructional Design and Delivery
  • Innovative Teaching with Technology
  • Online Organization and Design
  • Assessment and Evaluation
  • Faculty use of Student Feedback

Comprehensive Rubric - Quality Matters '06

The award-winning Quality Matters program now keeps their rubric as a proprietary tool available only to members. But, up until 2006, it was available to the public at large. In eight key areas, the rubric sets best practices standards for the design of online classes.

  1. Course Introduction/Overview
  2. Learning Objectives
  3. Assessment and Measurement
  4. Resources and Materials
  5. Learner Interaction
  6. Course Technology
  7. Learner Support
  8. Accessibility

One additional area I encourage users to consider is the less-quantitative aspects of the class. How does the class promote affective learning and changes? Are attitudes and opinions cultivated?

Synchronous Online Learning

Real time communication afforded by synchronous online learning can provide many advantages in enhancing interaction and engagement. But, there are the challenges of finding times at which all of the students can meet. These are further complicated when students reside on multiple continents crossing many time zones. Many of the Web conference software programs provide for recording sessions to be viewed at a later time by those seeking to review or who could not make the original session.

However, we find that faculty members often times will weave a number of synchronous sessions into the semester. Particularly popular are sessions held prior to midterm and final exams. Also popular are "virtual office hours" in which faculty members make themselves available for one-on-one or small group meetings via such technologies as the linked Elluminate V-room.

Virtually There - Second Life

The future is emerging in the development of virtual environments. These facilitate the development of simulations, social networking, wholly new creative environments. More and more classes are moving into any of the 30-some virtual worlds that are fully operational.

There is much anticipation over the release of "My World" - a Google venture to merge Google Earth with avatars to create a virtual environment based on the real world.

Virtual Eve - Avatar-Teacher Senses Emotional Reaction of Students

The near-human performance of a virtual teacher called Eve created by Massey researchers has drawn the attention of scientists across the computing world. Eve is what is known in the information sciences as an intelligent or affective tutoring system that can adapt its response to the emotional state of people by interaction through a computer system. The system “Easy with Eve” is thought to be the first of its type. It may be a glimpse of the future with avatar-teachers interacting with students. Ever-patient; never-tired; always-responsive; 24x7.


The iPhone has added impetus to the M-Learning movement. More and more applications are in development to enable students to access learning materials through proliferating mobile devices: iTouch, iPhone, Treo, Zune, and many more. Look for development of delivery systems to the ubiquitous mobile cellular and WiFi devices.