Having created online courses with Udacity, Udemy, NovoEd, and OpenEdX, I’ve been compiling thoughts on components of an online education platform. Frustratingly, the features I describe below are not all available for any one platform, but alas, we see time and again that we are both advanced and restrained by technology. Whether we like it or not, the quality of an educational experience largely depends on how the content is delivered. Current options are limited and far from ideal, but are evolving alongside our visions. We must envision education delivery twenty years from now. I won’t pretend I have all the answers, but here are a few ideas.
Ideally, students would have one portal with which they can access all online classes, no matter the course provider (e.g., Udacity, Coursera, edX, or a university). Here I’ve designed a Student Portal, where my fake student Mireya can see all the courses she’s taking, and upcoming due dates as indicated by bolded numbers on the calendar. Today, let’s say it’s May 29, 2013, she can see three activities she needs to do for her Human Rights and Global Health course, and the reading she must finish for her Shakespeare Through the Ages course. She should be able to click on these assignments to visit them directly.
From her portal, she can also start a hangout or chat with peers she has “added” or “favorited” (much like social networking sites like Facebook or LinkedIn), edit her bio, browse new courses, search for contacts, or look for keywords in her course forums.
She can click a course to go to that course site, but if she hovers over them, she can see the basic info and go directly to the syllabus. (Looks like her Human Rights and Global Health course is an in-person class with some online components.) Let’s say she clicks on Shakespeare Through the Ages.
The landing page for a course should be friendly, engaging, and intuitive to use. In this mock-up of the Shakespeare Through the Ages course, the student can easily see and access lessons, assignments, due dates, and course info. There are also many options to easily collaborate with peers: forums, private messages, chat, and hangout. These latter three would only be available options if students on the receiving end choose to allow access.
Now let’s say students click on the reading assignment, “Shakespearean Comedies,” for Lesson 3.
Just because courses are going online doesn’t mean reading isn’t important anymore. But just because reading is still important doesn’t mean students should carry around textbooks. Students should be able to access their readings directly from the course site and navigate from there to any other relevant page, e.g. a source linked in “Instructor Notes”. In this mock-up, students are able to discuss the readings in comments below, similar to online news articles, and communicate at a deeper level if they choose.
Let’s say a student clicks on Mireya’s profile.
This is something like what I would envision students would see when they click on their peers’ profile. They can then interact with Mireya via any method she chooses to have available (in this case, hangout, chat, and in-mail). How else might students interact?
Interaction with a computer is fundamental to a 21st-century education in that this is a scaleable mechanism to provide students with instant feedback. This is easy to do for subjects that require calculations or programming that can utilize multiple-choice quizzes, short-text fields, or automated scripts that can run students’ code. Math courses should allow MathType text fields so students can format their submissions (e.g., if they need to submit a fraction or something with exponents).
But discussion with peers is also an important way to learn, and this is unfortunately rare in most math classes in the United States. Students attempting the same challenge should be able to work together to find a solution, using multiple methods of communication. Which leads to my belief that well-rounded education must contain some live elements, like webinars.
A webinar is a scaleable method of delivering content in real time. These can often be superior to in-person panel discussions since, as you can see in this mock-up (pretend each photo is a real-time video stream), viewers will never forget who is speaking, they can discuss the content with each other without disturbing others or the panelists, and they can easily pose questions to the panelists. Someone can even filter questions behind the scenes and post the best ones.
After all this talk, you’re probably wondering why I haven’t addressed the most commonly-used instructional feature: videos.
As is the case now, the main instructional feature comes in the form of videos. Students should be able to download these, view subtitles, and download the transcripts. When appropriate, inline quizzes can increase engagement and keep students on track in their learning. The best existing method that I’ve seen is Udacity’s, where the quiz widget buttons are overlaid on top of the video rather than in a pop-up window that covers the video screen. I say “when appropriate” because inline quizzes are only necessary if they guide the learning or peak the learner’s interest, keeping them engaged.
Finally, I will outline some additional features necessary for 21st-century learning.
Additional Platform Features
In the image above, I took Google Forms and added rich text and html capabilities, the options to insert media and create links, and the ability to select the radio button that corresponds to the correct answer. This would be similar to a multiple-choice/multiple answer question, except instructors would check one or multiple correct responses. In the case of short-text questions, instructors should be able to write the correct answer in the answer field, or a range of accepted values if the question asks for a number.
I also added customizable feedback fields that instructors have the option to use, but they should also be able to choose from a generic list of feedback (e.g., “Incorrect, try again!” and “Correct!”) that can automatically appear in these fields for all questions. Then instructors may add any additional feedback to select questions.
Google Forms would be ideal for online education if they had these features, because they also allow for respondents to be led to specific questions based on their answers. For example, if a student answers “4” in the above example, they could be led to another question on the meaning of “polygon”. But if a student answers correctly, they could automatically advance to a different topic.
I briefly talked about forums. But I’ll add that students should be able to easily find forum threads that can answer their questions rather than needing to create a new post. For that reason, forums should be organized into defined categories (Craigslist-style) and allow viewers to search by keywords. I like the way OpenEdX has organized its forums; students may post directly in a forum field specific to the page/lesson it’s on, or visit the main forum page and select an appropriate category from a drop-down menu into which their post will appear.
This feature is essential for subjects such as those in the humanities, where students need to write, analyze, and critique their own and others’ work. NovoEd and Coursera are currently the leading platforms for this feature.
NovoEd has a feature where students can organically form teams, and supposedly this has worked like a charm in previous courses. At Stanford GSB we’re going to implement this feature for The Finance of Retirement and Pensions MOOC, so I’ll let you know how well it works.
Okay, now that we know the basic features needed for an online platform, what should the course-building process look like for instructors?
What do instructors really need?
Creating an online course should be something instructors can do on their own without needing to work through or with platform providers. They should be able to build, upload, and embed videos, quizzes, assignments, etc. themselves where they see fit, rather than in areas predesignated for them by the platform providers. We need a Dreamweaver-type site where instructors sign into their account, choose a template for their course, and start building. It’s also crucial that instructors are able to see real-time analytics for their course (e.g., the number of students enrolled, the number who attempted each exercise and who got them correct both in aggregate and over time, the number of minutes each student watched of each video and what percent of each video this equates to, etc.).
Well, I heard that Google has partnered with EdX to begin developing an open-source platform. Let’s see what they come up with!