Online Education: Tailoring, Measuring and 'Bridging'

As information technology leaders convened for the Educause meetings Thursday in Seattle, they talked about some of the same issues that are attracting attention in higher ed outside of technology circles: links to K-12, making courses more engaging and measuring what students learn.

October 26, 2007

As information technology leaders convened for the Educause meetings Thursday in Seattle, they talked about some of the same issues that are attracting attention in higher ed outside of technology circles: links to K-12, making courses more engaging and measuring what students learn.

Looming over the proceedings was the stepped-up pressure from state governments, accreditors and the Department of Education that has led in recent years to a greater focus on assessment and learning outcomes. The implication of the accountability movement on information technology is clear in an example offered by Blackboard's Peter Segall, the company's president for higher education in North America: The two-year public colleges in Mississippi have adopted the company's outcome system to track student progress against specific goals, he said. The reason? To "demonstrate accountability" to the citizens of the state.

Taking that several steps further, Blackboard on Thursday announced the "K-20 Connection", which seeks to bridge public schools from kindergarten through the 12th grade, community colleges as well as four-year institutions. The idea is to cultivate "successful life-long learners," as the presentation put it, and allow educators from all points on the pipeline to share best practices and resources to ensure that students are more likely to succeed in high school and translate that success to a college degree. That could mean white papers, joint panels and of course, using Blackboard technology to connect the various stakeholders.

The problem of access is becoming more acute, as a wealth of data can attest. Forty percent of students entering college have to take at least one remedial course, according to Department of Education numbers, and 50 percent don't meet the placement requirements to begin with. With its initiative, Blackboard is seeking to deploy its tools -- already in use in some 1,200 school districts -- to bring the college classroom into high school, and vice versa.

"We would be willing to provide financial consideration for statewide approaches to learning infrastructure," Segall said at the announcement.

The company sees the effort as the "tip of the iceberg," as a way to shape a dialogue that is just getting started. Individual districts and college systems are in a "maverick stage," said Jessie Woolley-Wilson, the company's president for K-12. But more and more, states are seeing K-12 as critical to their children's success in college, and that makes a trend toward more across-the-board collaboration more likely.

As an example of this kind of thinking in action, the presentation featured David J. Ernst, the chief information officer and assistant vice chancellor at California State University, who outlined the efforts of the Corporation for Educational Network Initiatives in California. The network has members at every level of public education in the state, from primary to postsecondary, and provides high-bandwidth connectivity to link them together for any number of educational goals.

"Technology is the conduit for the learning opportunities in less-well-off school districts that can avail themselves of the same access as other districts with rich media for teaching and learning," he stated in Blackboard's announcement materials.

Getting Through to Students

But if expanding the reach of education resources and fostering connections was the theme of Blackboard's initiative, another session focused on how to make sure that students who are plugged in are also tuned in.

Ginny Sconiers, project coordinator for academic outreach at East Carolina University, discussed a study of "social presence" in online education -- that is, how courses delivered over the Internet foster a sense of belonging. That's not just a fuzzy notion to help students feel good: research has found that the more comfortable students are interacting with each other online, the better they tend to do in the course.

In the study Sconiers presented, East Carolina faculty who teach online courses and who tend to experiment with new technologies participated in surveys and agreed to apply various strategies to one of their courses. The methods included:

  • Self-presentation strategies, such as allowing students to "reveal" themselves to their classmates in online profiles, or posting an instructor bio;
  • Boosting interaction in discussion boards, by requiring it if necessary;
  • Icebreakers, such as online "coffee shops" where anything but course material may be discussed.

The top strategies, as decided by what the instructors chose to use in their courses for the duration of the study, included sending out an initial contact before the course begins -- either by e-mail or snail mail -- which served to familiarize students with the course. They also found that upfront course declarations were helpful for fostering social presence, so that students know, for example, how long it will take the instructor, on average, to respond to e-mail.

Once students are enrolled and participating online, however, they're leaving a wealth of data to be mined -- whether they know it or not. An afternoon session investigated how to use data available to any instructor, on Blackboard or other course management systems, to predict student success in the course -- and, if possible, to intervene and help students who appear to be heading down the wrong path.

John P. Campbell, the associate vice president of teaching and learning technologies at Purdue University, explained how he approached the problem. The challenge is to find workable metrics in objective data observable through students' online activity. For example, an instructor could look at how much time they spend on the course management system and try to correlate that with learning outcomes -- a metric, he said, that was ultimately unusable because students rarely go to their course Web sites to work in a single, enclosed session.

Ultimately, Campbell found some success by e-mailing students who appeared to be "at risk" according to his model. One student wrote: "Your message was a 'kick in the butt' that woke me up."

Similar efforts to predict student outcomes by analyzing analytics continue, but their success will require navigating potentially thorny privacy issues.


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