Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Is Self-Paced Participatory Learning Possible?

by Suraj Uttamchandani and Daniel Hickey

In this post, we discuss current efforts to offer the flexibility of self-paced learning with the interactive social engagement of participatory learning. We describe two new features in the Big Open Online Course (BOOC) on Educational Assessment that allow current learners to interact with prior learners and let learners proceed at their own pace.

One of the great affordances of online education is its potential for self-paced learning. In self-paced courses, learners can come in and earn their credentials at their convenience, at any time. But sometimes this “individualization” comes at the cost of the interaction and collaboration that we know is vital for meaningful learning in most domains. Our Big Open Online Courses - BOOCs - are all about productive discussions with other students as well as content experts. So far we have had students complete the courses in cohorts. They post their wikifolios against a weekly deadline. This creates nice patterns that allow students to readily interact with peers around that deadline. But it also means that students who get behind drop out. Additionally, it makes it hard for students to just come in and complete the modules they need. For example, the Assessment BOOC is a regular 3-credit graduate level course and is 12 weeks long. Some of the former students are administrators who have asked if they could send their teachers into the course to simply complete the first four wikifolios (needed to earn the Assessment Practices badge). Ideally those teachers could just log in and complete them anytime they wanted to. Plus there are hundreds of students who previously started the class but did not finish it, and some have said that they wanted to.

Existing Interaction Support
It is worth noting that discussions in the BOOCs consist of threaded comments directly on each student's’ wikifolio. This anchors the discussion to the context of student work, which has proven very effective at fostering really relevant discussion and avoids much of the dreary and off topic discussions that often occur in discussion forums which are removed from actual work. This also means that we had to find ways of letting people know that there are comments so they don’t have to check back all the time. We solved this by giving students a notification whenever someone has commented on one of their wikifolios. That notification is linked directly to that comment for easy access.

So far that has seemed to work pretty well--for current students proceeding through with the cohort. Initially it seemed like we need three things to make analogous non-cohorted interaction possible:

  1. We needed to find a way to allow current students to find prior students with similar backgrounds who were interested in discussing their work with current students.
  2. We needed to give current students a way to locate like-minded peers who are working on modules at the same time as they are. Our programmer Karthik worked with us to provide both features and they are now working.
  3. We needed a way to let students quickly locate exemplary work by peers.

New Archiving Feature
The new archiving feature lets students indicate whether they are interested in continuing to interact with subsequent students after they have moved on. After learners complete their wikifolios and reflections, they are now given the option to “archive.” When learners archive their wikifolio it indicates to other students they do not intend to further edit their wikifolio. The first two settings trigger an email to the wikifolio author when somebody leaves a new comment. Because the email contains a link to the wikifolio it is simple for the author to come back and see the comment and respond to it.

Thus, learners can choose whether or not they want to receive emails when people comment on their wikifolio, and how likely they are to reply to those comments. About a dozen students in the 2014 BOOC have gone in and changed the settings to get emails when students comment. Of course, students who do not want others looking at their prior work always have the option of simply withdrawing from class and that removes their work from any displays to current students

Modified Participant Listing
The second thing we needed was a way to let new students readily find other students to interact with. For example, if someone just wants to come in and just learn about constructed-response item formats, they can log into the course, and start that module. As they get started, they are likely going to want to look at examples from other students, ideally ones with similar backgrounds. In particular we expect that such students would want to forego the text in favor of learning from their peers. Karthik created several different versions of the participant listing page to help current students find others to interact with them.

One display simply lists the 50 most recent wikifolio updates, including both active and archived wikifolios, by unit. Because people are asked to extend their user name to say something about their educational role and academic domain, this makes it simple to find current students who are still working on a particular module. We includes a simple notation ® to indicate which of those students were students in the previous course (we used ® for technical reasons).

Karthik created a second display that displays every active and archived wikifolio by unit. While it currently takes a while to load, it should be particularly helpful for self-paced students. In the example below, you can see that there are four current students who have already archived their Unit Three wikifolio. Two of them indicate they might respond to comments from new students (blue stars), while two said the would not (red stars). But you can also see that three students from 2014 indicated that they would respond to comments left on their wikifolio (green stars). (2014 students were only recently given the option of archiving; in the future, it will be very clear how long ago somebody completed the assignment.)

Finding Exemplary Work
While not crucial, it seemed like it would be helpful for all students to quickly find work that had been deemed exemplary by classmates. This was accomplished by building on the existing peer endorsement and peer promotion features. Each wikifolio instructs students to endorse at least five of their peers work for being “complete” and to promote one (and only one) for being exemplary:

You can how the endorsement is a simple click and that two students have already endorsed this wikifolio as being complete. This feature encourages students to complete their assignments and lets people know they have looked at work even if they did not comment. This also serves as an assessment when we are awarding badges to the open students for completing their work (the instructor also reviews the completed work for students who are enrolled for credit).

You can see on the right that the promotion requires you to give a warrant for what makes the wikifolio exemplary. You can see that these two peers (different than the endorsers) have already promoted it as being exemplary and given their reasons why. This was primarily intended as motivational tool; in 2014, we gave “leader” badges to the students who earned the most promotions in each networking group. While we knew that students really like getting promoted and coveted those badges, we had to drop this cohort-dependent “leader” variant of the badge as we moved to the self-paced version.

In order to still display the total number of promotions and help students find exemplary work, we added a participant list that shows the number of time current and former students had been promoted.

Right now we can see that six of the current students have already been promoted by at least one peer for Unit 2; but we can also see the number of promotions for the  2014 students, including one student (the last one) who was promoted nine times.  That might be a good place for a current student to start looking for examples!

How Will it Work?
These new features are certainly not perfect. Karthik graduated and we have to make do with this for now. We have been imagining these features ever since we launched the first BOOC in 2013. These features seem especially appropriate in the Assessment BOOC which is full of teachers and administrators who take the course over the summer but may find that concepts and conversations take on new meaning during the school year as they are increasingly connected to practice. Once we get it all optimized we think we will be able to advertise the course very widely and let an unlimited number of students simply come in and complete whichever modules they wish to complete at their own pace. This is further allotted for given the successful use of badges in this course to evidence engagement.

A few learners in our cohorted Summer 2015 course are planning to work ahead. As they do, they will test out some of the self-paced features by interacting with 2014 alumni of the course. We will post more about the efficacy of this innovation as it unfolds.

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