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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Faculty putting their existing courses on line is a bad idea: kind of like filming a play to make a movie

Faculty in many universities are now attempting to build on line courses. When many people want to do something, businesses rush in with ways to help them. Unfortunately, all the authoring tools being offered to faculty have the same thing in common. They are trying to take an existing university course and put it on line.

What is wrong with that?

It assumes that the courses that we offer currently in universities exist because education and learning naturally take place in one particular way: with lectures, with classrooms, with tests, with texts to read and sometimes with group discussions of material. So it is no surprise that authoring tools attempt to allow faculty to put all these elements into their on line course.

But, step back for a moment and ask four questions:

  1. is that how YOU learn on a day to day basis? Do you attend a class or a lecture every time you want to know something. Thinking back to college, what did you actually learn to do by listening to lectures vs. by applying knowledge and skills to real problems?
  2. should taking courses and passing tests be what defines a successful student? Are the most ultimately successful students those who have gone to lots of classes and passed lots of tests?
  3. wouldn't we all design education differently if we didn’t have so many students in a class and a pre-defined set of material to cover?
  4. isn’t the private mentoring model, (one where students are working on something the professor is there to help, and what the student has actually produced is what needs to be evaluated) what faculty really believe in? Isn’t this the sort of apprenticeship by which faculty train their advanced graduate students (and by which you were trained)?

On line courses should not be replicating existing courses which were meant to handle large numbers and not meant to nurture students as they actually produce something and naturally learn by doing. 

Socratic Arts has produced many on line full length masters degrees and even more short courses for various universities and corporations. These courses are always experiential in nature. They do not contain lectures or tests. However, they do require frequent deliverables from the students, and they emphasize teaching in the form of performance support provided by the course and mentoring provided, as needed, by the instructor to help a student to learn knowledge and skills as they are relevant to what he or she is doing.

So, we have begun to build a tool meant to enable subject matter experts to build on line experiential course directly or to enable a course developer to work with a subject matter expert to produce such a course. 

The idea behind our Story-Centered Curriculum approach to course developmnet is that any good curriculum should tell a story. That story should be one in which the student plays one or more roles. Those roles should be roles that normally come up in such a story. The curriculum is intended to teach the student how to do something. The roles should be ones that the graduate of such a program might actually do in real life.

Stories have been at the center of human consciousness for a long time. People tell stories, and the stories they tell shape who they are. People hear stories and remember those that resonate deeply with them. And, people live stories. The stories they live become part of them in a deep way. While we may easily forget everything about a course we took in college, we can hardly forget the roles we have played in real life experiences, especially when those roles went on for a long time and had emotional impact on us. The central argument here is that good education requires good stories but not solely stories that one has been told, however. A good education relies upon the creation of stories in the mind of the student. This means that there must be an experience to tell a story about, that that experience must take a significant amount of time and effort, and that that experience must include others. 

Students do not work alone in an SCC. They work with others who are playing roles the student will have to deal with in later life, and that the roles the student plays in the stories must relate to the future roles that the student might play in real life.

An SCC is made up of a set of simulated activities that compose the bulk of the work done by the student, and a series of events that occasionally interrupt or augment those activities.

Our new learning by doing authoring tool encompasses a set of steps that allow a course author to create an SCC. The first question is what a student should be able to do at the end of the course. The end goal might be the production of a computer program to do something specific, the design of an airplane, a financial analysis, a marketing plan, a contract with a business, a treatment plan for a patient, etc. The author knows what constitutes success, in terms of the project of achieving that goal, and builds the SCC such that it will help the students complete that project successfully. Success is defined as the teacher seeing students doing something from a realistic starting point with no more help than they'd get in real life. That means repetition (because the first time or two they might get a lot of help), critiquing (to see what's happening), and reflection on the problem-solving experience. An SCC is not about one-shot exposure to problems. 

For some fields this idea of a final work product is easy enough to imagine and sometimes even common. In others it is unusual and creative. (For example, we developed a course in art history in which the students’ work product was an analysis of whether a painting attributed to Rembrandt is authentic or a forgery.)

The design of a story-centered curriculum starts with the determination of what the story will be. Then, within the context of that story, faculty decide upon the sequence of tasks necessary to achieve the overarching goal and the deliverables corresponding to each task. The faculty must decide what must be learned just-in-time, when to provide support via performance support materials, and when to provide it via live mentoring.  The faculty must  also insert obstacles that are likely to cause the student to fail and, thus, to learn from the failure.  Finally, the faculty author must determine not only the storyline, but also the denouement: that moment when the student knows he has won.

In a classroom teaching means information transfer. In a mentored SCC, teaching means just in time help, either by the on line course itself by students helping each other, or by the faculty meeting with students (on line) to re-direct them when they are lost.

The tool itself therefore:  

  1. helps the author define a module structure with scenarios, tasks, deliverables, and learning resources, but not lectures, quizzes, and papers 
  2. helps the author build  an interview-based guide with examples that helps authors think about what those pieces should look like
  3. helps the author determine the deliverables to be produced by the student
  4. helps determine the story that provides the context for those deliverables
  5. helps determine sub tasks on the way to producing deliverable
  6. helps the author create fictional documents that start the work
  7. helps the author provide just in time help in the form of video experts
  8. helps the author provide just in time help from existing web sites
  9. helps the author provide just in time help in the form of a general plan of attack

Embedded in the tool are examples of all of these kinds of things, so that the author can use them as a guide as to what to create in the new course.

The tool itself helps the author to define an appropriate story of professional practice, including
  1. a set of top-level goals and problems
  2. a sequence of tasks necessary to achieve the goals and solve the problems
  3. a set of prioritized performance objectives for each task. 
With the story defined, the tool then helps the author create the many detailed components of the course, including
  1. fictional documents for the course as a whole and for individual tasks
  2. fictional messages assigning tasks, in the form of emails or video scripts
  3. step-by-step guides for each task, with just enough detail to keep students on track
  4. links and references to appropriate learning resources, both online and physical
  5. embedded expert tips to address likely student mistakes at each step, in the form of texts or video scripts
  6. checklists to enable students to self-check their task deliverables before submission
  7. reflection questions for students to consider at the end of each task and of the course as a whole.

The tool itself provides a step-by-step guide for creating a Story-Centered Curriculum, expert tips for each step, a range of examples of all course components, and checklists for self-checking the completeness and quality of course components. Course content is created via “what you see is what you get” editing. The tool is built on top of a modern content management system that provides version control for multi-author teams and also manages the workflow of course development, quality assurance review, and deployment.

(I had help writing this outrage -- ray bareiss, chris riesbeck and hana schank all contributed(

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