Momenta Learning

A blog on topics related to Elearning, online education, and instructional design.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Why I think MOOCs need to have a screening method

One of the issues haunting MOOCs is how to serve their large learner population. It can get overwhelming trying to serve each and every student in one of these online courses. They will all have questions at some point, and they want the answers fast, since most of these MOOC courses run for some weeks only. So, what are they doing now? Well, pretty much putting the burden in the student’s hands. In many cases the instructor has made clear that they will not be able to answer every question students post on the course site, they instead encourage student to post those questions in discussion forums with the goal that students themselves will help one another. This can be an example of good use of social networking tools, provided the student actually gets an answer from any of his/her fellow students. Instructors will focus on questions that catch their attention, which come from more experienced students, usually. So, a novice will spend a great deal of time reading discussion posts and chasing around people to get some answers, that is not a good use of a learner’s time.
One problem with MOOCs comes from its own basic goal: it is open to everybody, which means that a student can take any class even though he/she might not have the required background to take on such course. My feeling is that some kind of screening tools is necessary in this case, just because it is available to everyone does not mean that anyone can tackle any course. I am an engineer by training and I wouldn’t dare taking on a social studies class, but I am pretty sure there are people out there that do not think like me.
If MOOCs had some kind of wall that could be climbed only by those prepared enough, the class sizes will be reduced and maybe the instructor (or instructors in many cases) will give more attention to those students in the class, and maybe will provide more instructor-student contact time. But again, it is nice to get publicity because your MOOC course has 40,000 students enrolled, but how many of them are actually prepared to take such class? We don’t know.

Friday, January 25, 2013

My take on the MOOCs

Yes, everybody is talking about the MOOCs and how a large movement is. There is talk about how an effective educational tool they really are, how they have a very poor completion rate (I recently heard that is around 10%), how they don’t have any academic value since there is no college credit attached to any of these courses, that they are actually very expensive to make, that the organizations that run these outfits are still looking for a business model, and of course, that recent events point towards a brighter future when a course in a MOOC will actually be worth something. I think I also heard some talk about how this movement will fit with the job market since nobody knows how employers are valuing this education, and so on. For all this talk, I have not heard much about how these courses are actually being made. Each MOOC has defined guidelines on how to create the courses, and I know they work closely with the instructional designers in charge of these projects, at least in academic settings. I had the opportunity to start participating in a MOOC project, but then was assigned to other projects and I did not really participate at all after that, I know the course has been released this month, but I have been following the design and development of that course all the way up to its conclusion. My first disappointment with this particular MOOC involves the LMS they have in place, which is even more limited than the one we use for our own courses. This is basically a wiki site where you insert your content, this of course limits the type of content you can offer in your course. For example, there is no way to add a very valuable tool like blogs. In our case, external tools were considered but they were quickly discarded because most of them cannot handle a load of 40,000 subscribers (Google only lets you add 100 people). You really don’t want a blog used in a running course wide open for spamming or robots posting unrelated content. Why is a blog important? Remember that in a MOOC the only contact you will probably have with the instructor is through the videos they make as lectures, there are so many people taking these classes that asking a question directly to the instructor is impractical, so they encourage you to go to the discussion forum. Even there, in all likelihood, you will end up posting your question and maybe one of your fellow participants will answer, maybe the assigned assistant will answer your question. Now, don’t get me wrong, student-student interaction is very important, it is a valuable social tool that encourages learning, but so is interacting with the instructor. A blog gives the instructor the opportunity of sharing (asynchronously) information that is not included in the course, or the chance to expanding a point in the content. From my point of view, one of the weaknesses of a MOOC course is that there is very little student-instructor interaction, besides the mass emails they send from time to time, or those lucky ones that get their question answered in the discussion forum. MOOCs need to find a way to increase the time the instructor interacts with students, besides the recorded lectures, and this can be accomplished through a blog, which this particular MOOC platform currently lacks.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Navigation Menus in Online Courses

In my previous post I talked about my LMS system, the Sakai platform. Like I said, it has advantages and disadvantages. I also mentioned that I design my courses using HTML and Javascript pages that I insert inside a Sakai site. One of the first things you see when you enter the LMS is the left-hand side menu with the tools that instructors, designers and students use. This menu is a list of links arranged in a vertical fashion and the number of links is dictated by the tools the course requires to be active.
Most of the online courses I have seen from other instructional designers use either the vertical menu or the horizontal menu. The obvious advantage of the vertical arrangement is that you can have as many links as you want, and you basically would not run out of webpage space. In contrast, the horizontal menu is limited in the amount of links you can place across the screen, although I have seen monsters with rows of horizontal menus, albeit in regular web pages.
In this case though, vertical menus are out of the question because we would have a “double column menu” (the one from Sakai and the one from my course), this would cause student disorientation and frustration because they might click on the wrong menu, since they would be very close to each other. This leaves us with the horizontal menu. But this limits us to the amount of links we can place on the page. You do not want to place more than seven links on a horizontal menu (this is just an arbitrary number, it has come up from our experience designing courses). In this age of smaller and smaller screens, a horizontal menu with lots of links is just not going to work. Our courses are designed so that they can be viewed on a tablet. A menu with more than seven links would make the font on the links smaller and smaller, making it difficult to read and adding an extra step to having to zoom so that the learner can read the text on the menu link.
If I want to know what works or what doesn’t work, then I would turn to the research in the field. I made an extensive research of the literature in the standard places (Web of Science and Google Scholar). Nothing, nada. Then I started a more thorough research in specialized databases. I found myself looking at computer interface and technology journals, where I was able to find research on navigation menus as recent as 2002 [1]. Then I found two more interesting papers referenced in the first one, but they are as recent as 2000 and 1998 [2, 3]. But curiously enough, not published materials in education journals (more explicitly, those dealing with the use of computers for instruction), if you have a reference that can help me in this area, please share it.
The 2002 study [1] found that the menu with drop-down submenus works best in reducing the amount of time it takes to search for information and it decreases the number of clicks required to reach a deep layer of the website structure. But there is a caveat: this design increases the number of links that a page contains. This is very easy to overcome by expert users, but a problem for novices. Park [2] recommends creating some kind of guide to help the novice user navigate this structure. This we do with our courses by creating a video with text bubbles that explain what each item in the menu works and how to get to all the pages and subpages in the course.
Most of the recommendations on how to add style and coloring to menus have been widely discussed in web design books and articles, but I did not find anything published in peer-reviewed journals. Most of them deal with the addition of colors to links, where to place the menu (top of page, middle, etc.), selecting a background color and an adequate font color and so on, but no concrete empirical studies as to why. I am pretty sure this has been done, but it is probably proprietary material and has not been made available to the general public. Again, if you find something, let me know.
Menus need to be, not only eye-appealing, but functional. We should not sacrifice functionality for beauty when designing our course menu. It should take the student a few amount of mouse clicks to reach an information source. It seems that menus with drop-down submenus are favored, according to web design research or computer-human interface research [1]. Unfortunately, I did not find recent published studies on the effect of menu design for online courses.
Two important characteristics of a navigation menu are,
  1. A menu has to take the learner to the right site in the course. This means the least amount of time to search for information.
  2. It needs to have structure, this means the learner needs to know at every time where he/she is located or they will get confused and disoriented, which leads to a frustrated student that quits the course.
This is a very interesting subject for research that seems to have fallen out of favor because I have not found any recent publication after 2004. If you have something you can share, let me know because I would like to increase my knowledge in this subject.
  1. Yu B, Roh S. The Effects of Menu Design on Information-Seeking Performance and User’s Attitude on the World Wide Web. J. of the Ame. Soc. for Inf. Sci. and Tech., 53 (11), pp. 923–933, 2002.
  2. Park J, Kim J. Contextual navigation aids for two World Wide Web systems. Int. J. of Human–Comp. Interaction. 12 (2), pp. 193–217, 2000.
  3. Khan K, Locatis C. Searching through cyberspace: The effects of link display and link density on information retrieval from hypertext on the World Wide Web. J. of the Ame. Soc. for Inf. Sci., 49 (2), pp. 176 –182, 1998.

Friday, January 18, 2013

How to insert activities and assessments outside the Assessments tool in Sakai...

I have been using Sakai as my LMS for close to four years now. A few years ago, Sakai replaced Blackboard as the official LMS and e-learning tool. I did not have the chance to use Blackboard that much to say anything about it. Sakai does the same thing I was able to do with the version of Blackboard we had here. Since I became an Instructional Designer in 2011, I have had the chance to dig deeper into Sakai and I have learned a lot about it. Sakai has many tools that allow you to build a decent (but not the best) online course. What makes Sakai the best is that it allows me to upload content that can work inside the LMS. You can create HTML pages with Javascript and they will work in Sakai. One drawback of using Sakai is that you are limited to the type of activities and assessments you can build. The assessment tool in Sakai (as well as the test and quizzes tool) has a limited set of types of questions you can insert (multiple choice, fill in the blank, and so on). You cannot add a new type of question in Sakai, at least not using the LMS only without altering the actual programming language in which Sakai is built. Not all is lost, though. I can insert an assessment within my course pages, but this will serve only as self-assessment and will not count towards the final grade, the grade from this activity cannot be recorded in the gradebook (another Sakai tool). But you can use this self-assessment nonetheless, because at the end of the activity you can show the student a measure of their performance and the option to repeat the activity, if needed. You might want to create your self-assessments in Flash (which limits your audience) or in pure HTML and Javascript (we use Lectora here). One big project I have is to create activities that require mastering a skill before going to the next level in the course. The big challenge here is that Sakai does not remember where a student left off. You might be able to solve this by using cookies, but that is learner-dependent. If a student leaves at any point during the activity, when the student comes back, the pages will start from the front or landing page, and then it is required to navigate to the site where the student left off and then continue, but if there is a final grade to report, the assessment will have to be started from the beginning since the accumulated grade will be lost when the student logs out. This is just one of the challenges of using Sakai, I will talk about a couple more later on. To be fair, I will also mention two advantages of using Sakai as you LMS.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

How to Convert that Boring Text Content in an Engaging Lesson

In my experience at the University of Florida as an Instructional Designer, I have come across cases when the instructor comes to the initial meeting with a stack of pages and tells me “this is my course content”. It is not bad really. Many times they send me attachments of slides or Word documents, but yes, it is mostly text.
This document contains my experience dealing with those cases. I hope you find this white paper useful, enjoy! Converting that Plain Text into an Engaging Online Lesson

The first book I ever read on E-learning.

Now that is an easy one. Ruth Clark and Richard Mayer’s E-learning book, which has a focus on multimedia. This book helped me start in the field of e-learning instructional design for online distance learning. This is one of the most important books you can ever read, if you want to become an instructional designer. I am re-reading the book already in its third edition, although it didn’t change much from the second edition. I found, the first time I read it, the book distribution very useful. The chapters are named after a principle they argue works in e-learning, each principle backed by empirical research data. When I put the book down the first time I read it, it stroked me that I was left with a somewhat empty stomach. My web programming and graphic design experience was telling me that the book was lacking exactly that: technology and innovation. Even though the new edition has many updates, it still has those dry and barebones pictures and plots from the second edition. This book does not have a single color image in it. This makes the book really hard to read, and for later consultation, it does not help that the pictures are in black-gray and white. But every picture in the book has a significant point to make and, as their multimedia principle says, each image has a relevant text attached to it. The first chapter gives a very useful account of why e-learning is so important these days. It also goes through what makes a successful e-learning course and what makes it fail. The second chapter is a condensed (given the amount of books out there on the subject) account of pedagogy, which sets the tone for what the book is going to be about. The third chapter was inserted (I believe) as a guide on how to critically select studies on e-learning, based on guidelines that they propose. By the fourth chapter, you are already in e-learning territory. There is a chapter on gaming, but more on how it works in online courses than on how to make games. This subject can be the content for one whole textbook. All in all, this book is worth reading and must be studied continuously so you can absorb the principles contained in it. I find myself consulting some pages when I run into a design problem, and this is the first book I pull out of the shelf when I want to consult a reference. There are many books on instructional design for online courses, but this one is at the forefront of basic references mainly because the principles outlined in the book still work and research keeps confirming these principles over and over.

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