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Assessing the challenges of online education to enhance the quality of digital assets

University Business, September 2018

Many have spoken positively about the next generation of learning technologies, but there is reason for apprehension. While the enthusiasm of those joining the move to digital assets is encouraging, there is a certain amount of naiveté that comes with it. As a result, when people advocate for certain digital initiatives, it causes some to question what could go wrong.

In reality, there is much that can go wrong and it is important that we are aware of potential pitfalls. This knowledge can facilitate enthusiasm that is tempered by experience, paving the way for large gains for everyone involved in education. This article examines things that can go wrong from the teaching side, with a focus on the larger effort of developing and deploying digital assets for education.

There are tremendous gains to be made using technology, but it is difficult for technology alone to create those gains when it comes to learning. Society must align technology with wisdom from cognitive science and psychology, with the social structures of schools and neighborhoods, and with reductions in economic class differences that deprive significant fractions of the population of both technology and the motivation to study. The following areas require significant attention when it comes to developing and implementing digital content.

Online education is a great idea. I am sure all of my colleagues will participate.

A tenured research faculty member has an inordinate number of demands on their time. Developing high-quality digital assets is currently a time-consuming process and does not always provide a guaranteed advantage.

Proponents of online education should not feel the need to bring everyone on board at the beginning. There will always be early adopters, and if their experience is positive, there will be a natural tendency to move towards strategies that have demonstrable, sustainable advantages. This makes it all the more important to have early success stories.

This won’t take long

The length of time the process takes is dependent on the desired production quality and the required degree of compliance with local standards and accessibility legislation. Well-developed courses, especially those with built-in interactivity, take time to produce. Developing courses in a way that is sustainable can also be time-consuming, and maintenance must be factored in as well.  

With that being said, there are always trade-offs. If the demand is high enough, then production quality can be traded off against timely production, though this is a flexible concept. The costs of complying with accessibility legislation forced the University of California at Berkeley to withdraw over 20,000 free online educational audio and video publications from their website.

At the University of Waterloo, faculty have the advantage of an in-house production team that consists of about 80 staff members. Many institutions do not have such resources. The author needs to be a subject matter specialist, a web developer, an audio and/or video editor, a copyright specialist and have sufficient distance for her or his own work to do quality assurance. It is possible and has been done, but the sustainability of this “heroic model” of development is questionable. Like textbooks, it is often more cost and time efficient for an institution to license, or to require students to license, existing assets rather than build their own.

Free is best

Free content and resources are valuable for students, but building a sustainable business model around such a complimentary approach is not a viable option. Technology companies are not charitable organizations, and relying exclusively on funding from foundations or special government grants is not viable in the long term because of the unreliability of those funds.

In building digital assets, developers need to be very conscious of their complete set of costs and of how they can meet those costs over time. At many institutions, there is a way to get seed money to experiment – a way to get money up front. The greater difficulty comes in finding ongoing financial support.

Students will learn so much more with digital assets

In order for this to happen, instructors must do much more than simply placing their notes on the web. Humans learn by doing. Mathematics is not a spectator sport so students need the ability and the opportunities to carry out experiments with mathematical objects.

Humans also rationalize. Being able to ask a mathematically sophisticated question, receive a mathematically sophisticated answer, and get real-time feedback allows the student to be honest with themselves about what they know and what they don’t know. If we can repeatedly ask questions in a low stakes environment, then students can practice and learn at their own speed. This is where tools like Möbius excel.

Students will work through all of the material

For the majority of students, this is not the case, regardless of whether or not the content is digital or physical. Content needs to be designed so students gain, and see the gain, from working through all of the content. If possible, social expectation and pressure should be used to encourage students to spend enough time with the content to become competent. Möbius can help instructors track the behavior and accomplishments of each student and intervene as necessary.

Students are so interested in learning they won’t cheat

Overseeing student discipline is a significant task. There is a huge array of illicit resources available to students who are looking for them. There is a powerful evolutionary advantage to getting something for nothing, so there must be an assumption that in all of us there is a predisposition to take moral shortcuts. It is, therefore, not a surprise that an overworked student who has always done well in the past and is desperate to do well in the present might resort to techniques they would never have previously considered.

It doesn’t take much to deter most shortcuts and simultaneously emphasize learning. First, make cheating take effort. If every student has the same questions on an electronic quiz, it is enough to have a smart person take the quiz first and distribute the questions and answers. Möbius allows for the randomization of questions, making that basic strategy far less successful. Second, be clear about expectations of academic integrity and support those expectations with invigilation and consequence. Something as simple as an automated checking of IP addresses of students taking quizzes can alert instructors to anomalies that should be investigated.

I’ll keep the digital assets up to date

Most people have a strong desire to keep assets up to date, yet they fail to do so, in large, part because of the amount of work involved. As we gain more experience with how students use digital assets, it becomes easier to identify what should be changed to support learning. Having the underlying technology support agile development and deployment of digital resources is a huge advantage. Modern digital learning tools are being designed with maintenance in mind, though there is a lot more that can be done.

Developing Effective Digital Assets

It is time to move away from the language of online courses to that of digital assets. Those digital assets may be the basis of a wholly online course, but they are more likely to serve as textbook replacements in traditional face-to-face, blended or flipped classrooms. Digital assets may be tutorial, remedial, enrichment or supplemental material shorter than or independent of the core content of a course.

The first step in building digital assets is to simply begin the process. The easiest approach is to select a small project that is valuable as a standalone project, but one that could be easily incorporated into a larger project. Having someone to work with is beneficial. The key throughout the process is patience, both with yourself and with others. Don’t rush the process, as it will take time. When deploying assets, make sure to get feedback and iterate. Tools like Möbius allow for developing and deploying in ways that are learning effective, cost effective, replicable and shareable. The focus should be on the creation of digital assets that can support and sometimes transform existing educational and social structures rather than target the elimination of those structures.

Steve Furino is assistant dean for online studies at the University of Waterloo in Ontario

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