Having created online courses with Udacity, Udemy, NovoEd, and edX, I’ve been compiling thoughts on features that would contribute to a dynamic online education platform. Whether we like it or not, the quality of an educational experience largely depends on how the content is delivered. Current options are limited but constantly evolving, allowing us to educate in new ways. Below I’ve written some thoughts on what an ideal online education experience might look like.

Student portal

student portal

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 fictional student Mireya can see all the courses she’s taking and upcoming due dates as indicated by bolded numbers on the calendar. She can see all the assignments due today for Human Rights and Global Health and Shakespeare Through the Ages. She should be able to click 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 the course title to go to the course homepage (described below), but if she hovers over the course title, she can see the basic info and go directly to the syllabus. (Looks like Human Rights and Global Health is an in-person class with online components.)

Student profile

profile

Students can also click on each others’ profiles to interact via any method students choose to have available (in this case, Mireya is accessible via hangout, chat, and in-mail) and see what courses they’re taking.

Course homepage

Course Homepage

If students click one of the course titles from their student portal, they’ll arrive at the course homepage. This should be friendly, engaging, and intuitive to use. In this mock-up of Shakespeare Through the Ages, the student can easily see and access lessons, assignments, due dates, and course info. There is also the option to collaborate with other students in the course via forums, private messages, chat, and hangout. (These latter three methods of contact would only be available with students who allow contact via these methods.) On their course homepage, students should be able to upload their assignments for grading.

It would be great if individual instructors could choose from a list of templates for their course homepage (similar to Gmail templates). Course organization should be consistent, but templates could provide options such as color scheme and supplementary components that fill out the page (such as the Shakespeare quote above).

Let’s say the student clicks the video in Lesson 3, “Stage production of Taming of the Shrew.”

Videos

Video

Online education is primarily video-based. Students should be able to download videos, 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 (e.g., by provoking certain thoughts or questions) and keep them engaged.

Let’s say from the course homepage of Shakespeare Through the Ages, Mireya clicks the reading assignment in Lesson 3, “Shakespearean Comedies.”

Readings

Readings

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.

Exercises & Interactions

exercises

Digital exercises are fundamental to a 21st-century education in that they allow instantaneous feedback. These can be multiple-choice or multiple-response questions, reflection prompts that save your thoughts, numeric or text fields that require a specific number or set of characters, fields to input and run codes, polls/surveys, “drag and drop” activities, “click and reveal” images…the list goes on.

Math courses should allow MathType text fields so students can format their submissions. Students should also be able to discuss these exercises with others, both in real time (if other students are currently working on the same exercise) and via a discussion forum for others to view and respond to later.

Google Forms would be ideal for online education if they had a few additional features. Currently, they allow respondents to be led to specific questions based on their answers to the previous questions (useful for adaptive learning). What Google Forms lacks is the ability to indicate correct and incorrect answers, write customizable feedback for each answer choice, and rich-text capabilities.

AssignmentsIn 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 (checkboxes in the case of multiple-response questions). For questions that require a specific string of characters input into a short text field, instructors should be able to write the correct answer in the answer field. For questions requiring a calculation, instructors should be able to enter a range of accepted values.

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. Even more ideal would be the ability to write correct and incorrect feedback for each individual answer choice.

Webinars

panel

Panel questionsWebinars are exciting features that allow students to engage with the presenter(s) in real time. These can even 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 ideas 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.

Additional platform features

Forums / discussion boards: Students should easily be able to find forum threads that answer their questions before creating a new post. 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.

Peer Evaluation: 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.

Team Formation: NovoEd has a feature where students can organically form teams. This was extremely successful at Stanford GSB for The Finance of Retirement and Pensions MOOC I designed. Some teams even required an application to join!

Final thoughts

Creating an online course should be a seamless process for instructors. They should be able to build, upload, and embed videos, quizzes, assignments, etc. themselves where they see fit. Platforms should also provide instant analytics for each course (e.g., the number of students enrolled, absolute and relative numbers of students who completed various components of course and their names, text analysis of forum comments).

For students, being part of an online course should be an exciting, engaging, enlightening, and technologically seamless experience with plenty of opportunities for interaction, both digital and human. We have a long way to go, but already I’m witnessing the amount of progress we’ve made over the last several years. I’m excited to see how online education technology evolves.

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