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Volume 14, Number 17

September 1, 2010

Is There Too Much Interaction in Your Courses?

LMS: What you should know about LMS alternatives. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .4 Leadership: Moving from management to leadership in distance learning . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .5 In the News: Western Governor’s U a model for higher ed . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .6


Some of the key findings from the authors include: 1.[The authors] found that learnerlearner interaction was significantly, but negatively, associated with


Monthly Metric: Are you on Facebook? Should you be? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .3

To gain more insight into the value of interaction in online courses, the authors conducted a study using data gathered from a course management system that measured time spent in specific interaction activities, such as viewing the home page, logging into the grade book, sending email, or reading and participating in discussions. Success was measured by course completion. The study population was the student population of online business courses at a state education system.


in this issue

Findings suggest a new view


fied by Chickering and Gamson relate to interaction in learning. (These include “between students and faculty, reciprocity and cooperation among students, prompt feedback, emphasis on time on task, and communication of high expectations.”) However, as time has passed, some research has begun to question the value of interaction, suggesting that there could be too much interaction required in a course. Summarizing 2007 findings by Arbaugh and Rau, the authors report, “learner-instructor


It may not be a valuable approach to continually push opportunities for interaction as the gold standard measure of course quality.

w. To m o ag rd 180 or na er v 0- c a p u i s i 43 l b t 3- l s . c 04 om 99

The value placed on interaction in a course is second nature to anyone familiar with student development and pedagogical theory. The authors note that five of the seven principles identi-

interaction had the strongest correlation with perceived learning; learnerlearner interaction actually had a negative correlation with delivery medium satisfaction. The more participants a learner had to pay attention to, the less satisfaction they had with the learning environment.” It is possible, in other words, that requiring students to read and respond to posts and conversations from many different classmates may actually cause a good deal of frustration and dissatisfaction with the course experience. This study, which looked at online MBA courses, suggests that there may be an optimum level of interaction for graduate-level courses, and that more is not always better.

continued on page 2



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nteraction has always been seen as a key component of an online course. Whether it is student-student or student-teacher interaction, the ability to discuss and exchange ideas has long been considered to be the piece that adds value to an online course, keeping it from becoming simply the posting of written course material on a web page, the digital equivalent of a correspondence course. In fact, many programs promote the highly interactive nature of their curriculum as evidence of its educational value. But what if this assumption were wrong, or at least questionable? This is the finding of recent research by Christian J. Grandzol, PhD, and John R. Grandzol, PhD, both of Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. In a recently published paper entitled “Interaction in Online Courses: More is NOT Always Better,” the authors report that “our key findings indicate that increased levels of interaction, as measured by time spent, actually decrease course completion rates. This result is counter to prevailing curriculum design theory and suggests increased interaction may actually diminish desired program reputation and growth.”


The research: Questioning the value of interaction


Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti

cover Cover...from page 1 President: William Haight ( Publisher: David Burns ( Managing Editor: Christopher Hill ( Creative Services Manager: Mark Manghera Art Director: Debra Lovelien Customer Service Manager: Mark Beyer Editorial Advisory Board: Stephen Donahue, M.S., GLearner Corp.; Stephen Ehrmann, Vice President, TLT Group; Donald P. Ely, Associate Director, ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology; Jeffrey Feldberg, Chairman, CEO, Embanet Corporation; Gordon Freedman, Director, Strategies & Alliances, Prometheus; Christine Geith, Director, Program and Business Development, MSU Global, Michigan State University; Chere Gibson, Ph.D., Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Darcy W. Hardy, Ph.D., Assistant Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs/Director, UT Telecampus, The University of Texas System; Joseph Holland, Chair, Department of Hospitality & Tourism, University of Wisconsin-Stout; Marge Jeffers, WTCN Distance Education Network, Fox Valley Technical College; Marina Stock McIssac, Educational Media and Computers, Arizona State University; Karen L. Murphy, Ed.D., Associate Professor, Texas A&M University; Don Olcott, Jr., Ed.D., Executive Director, Division of Extended Programs, Western Oregon University; Christine Olgren, Ph.D., Chair, Distance Teaching and Learning Conference, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Rick Shearer, MA, MBA, Instructional Designer, World Campus, Pennsylvania State University; Karen Vignare, Director of Business Strategy & Development, Rochester Institute of Technology; Linda L. Wolcott, Ph.D., Department of Instructional Technology, Utah State University. Distance Education Report (ISSN 1094-320X) is published semi-monthly by Magna Publications Inc., 2718 Dryden Drive, Madison, WI 53704. Phone 800-433-0499 or 608-246-3590. Email: Fax: 608-246-3597. Website: One-year subscription: $419 (Multiple print subscriptions and Group Online Subscriptions are available.) Photocopying or other reproduction in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited. POSTMASTER: Send change of address to Distance Education Report, 2718 Dryden Drive, Madison, WI 53704. Copyright Š2010, Magna Publications Inc. To order back issues ($25 each) or for more information about multiple print subscription discounts and Group Online Subscriptions, call Customer Service at 800-4330499. Submissions to Distance Education Report are welcome. Please review article submission guidelines located at Authorization to photocopy items for internal or personal use of specific clients is granted by Distance Education Report for users registered with the Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) Transactional Reporting Service, provided that $1.00 per page is paid directly to CCC, 222 Rosewood Drive, Danvers, MA 01923; Phone 978-7508400; For those organizations that have been granted a photocopy license by CCC, a separate system of payment has been arranged.

course completion rates. Learnerfaculty interaction and enrollment size were not significantly related to course completion. 2.Neither student nor faculty time spent in threaded discussions made significant contributions to their respective constructs. This is contrary to what [the authors] expected as discussions are often viewed as one of the most effective practices for online courses. 3.This finding does not indicate that discussions are not important to the learning process. As Arbaugh concluded, the interactions of students in areas such as discussions are a necessary, but probably not sufficient condition, for student learning in the online environment. 4.[The authors] did not find a significant correlation between enrollment size and online course completion rates. This finding indicates that calls for enrollment caps may be more arbitrary than fact-based. Very large sections were removed from analysis after having been identified as outliers, with the result being a majority of classes in this study had between 14 and 30 students. Perhaps significant results would be found with the inclusion of larger classes. 5.Enrollment had a negative association with faculty participation, suggesting that as section size increased, faculty actually spent less time accessing course activities. This is counterintuitive, but may indicate that the time intensiveness of managing courses with larger class sizes leads faculty to seek efficiencies through standardized content presentations. 6.No significant relationships were found between faculty participation and course completion rates. This finding contradicts those that found the role of the instructor in course

interactions was among the most critical for success in online courses. For example, the amount of time professors spend in a gradebook feature would seemingly contribute to the development of individualized feedback for students, but the finding was not significant in terms of adding to completion rates. Efforts to include extensive faculty feedback and interaction in online courses may actually be counterproductive. 7.[The] study found a significant, negative relationship between student participation and course completion. The relationship was weak and surprising. How could more student participation be associated with lower course completion rates? [The authors] offer three possible explanations. o Arbaugh and Rau (2007) found that increased learner-learner interaction had a negative correlation with delivery medium satisfaction. The more discussions students had to pay attention to, the less satisfied they were with the learning environment. Students who invested a lot of time in certain course website areas may have been frustrated with the medium, or perhaps the courses were more difficult. Either way, courses where students had to spend more time were associated with lower completion rates. o Second, Rungtusanatham and colleagues proposed that higher level courses (e.g. MBA level) require more interaction levels; introductory courses need little interaction. [The] sample consisted of community college courses. Do they require higher levels of interaction when the content may not need interpretation or further analysis? Arbaugh and Rau posited that even graduate course continued on page 8

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monthly metric What Are Your Plans for Advertising Your Distance Education Program on Facebook?

Source: The Survey of Distance Learning Programs in Higher Education, 2010 Edition, Primary Research Group (2010)

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LMS 7 Things You Should Know About LMS Alternatives 1.What is an LMS alternative? A learning management system (LMS) is an application that provides a comprehensive set of tools for educators to manage learning resources, administrative functions, assessments, and grading. Some educators argue that because of evolving Web 2.0 applications, students can be better served by an LMS alternative, a toolbox of web resources that might include social bookmarking tools, document sharing applications, social networking sites, timeline tools, and media options available in the cloud. Underlying this approach is the belief that students should become more familiar with today’s technology tools because these skills will be useful in the workplace. As a result, some institutions have begun to offer LMS alternatives, and some instructors are using these options to support their students’ learning. The framework of an LMS alternative may offer the user a coordinating hub with a dashboard or other interface that gives easy access to selected web-based tools. Applications joined in this way provide a “cafeteria” approach that allows students and instructors to select tools according to course and project requirements.

2. How do they work? LMS alternatives span a wide range of tools and functions. One option might be a complex system built inhouse at a college or university, designed to perform many of the functions of a traditional LMS while giving access to outside applications. Another might be a mashup of web applications assembled by an individual instructor and hosted from a blog platform or a social networking site. The tools that faculty members select

as LMS alternatives are typically free or low cost, easy to learn and use, and robust enough to support students and faculty without suffering from service outages or other glitches. Ideally, the

The tools that faculty members select as LMS alternatives are typically free or low cost, easy to learn and use, and robust enough to support students and faculty without suffering from service outages or other glitches. LMS alternative might integrate with applications already in use on campus, via APIs or existing standards. In such a design, students could select from among the proffered applications to complete their assignments.

3.Who’s using them? Institutions or individual instructors pursue LMS alternatives when a traditional LMS does not meet their teaching and learning needs. In this sense, any college or university that supports blogging or uses a collaboration tool like Google Docs might be said to be employing an LMS alternative. In fact, LMS alternatives frequently use existing applications as a hub. The GLEAN application at Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management, for example, is a secure framework that integrates the university’s traditional LMS with Web 2.0 applications,

allowing students and faculty to access a collection of online media and social networking tools. A program at the University of British Columbia illustrates just how an LMS alternative can fill a gap for the standard LMS. Students in the Global Resource Systems program, who spend a term overseas in a developing country, often find themselves living without sufficiently sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure to accommodate UBC’s standard LMS. Instead, a WordPress MultiUser (MU) blog site functions as an online learning center for these students. Instructors submit course content, and students discuss class topics and submit assignments—all within the blog structure, with all student and faculty work on the blogs open to public view. Class presentations, podcasts, and other resources are linked to and from this space, and presentations are posted to SlideShare. The site aggregates resources and serves as a directory for the student work posted in individual blogs while the blog structure allows participation and comments from registered and nonregistered contributors, including alumni and students in other countries. This setup allows the participation of those not currently enrolled, something the traditional LMS typically does not easily accommodate.

4. Why are LMS alternatives significant? The tools available in the cloud may offer students advantages over those in the LMS for collaboration and content creation. For instance, applications like VoiceThread and Diigo have no corresponding functionality in a traditional LMS. Moreover, because web tools are continued on page 7

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leadership Moving from Management to Leadership in Distance Learning By Mickey Slimp, PhD ffective management of a college’s distance learning program is essential. From managing student enrollment and establishing delivery modes to building a student support structure, there is enough work for a small horde - and that is how it should be. As a distance learning innovator, however, continuing an existing framework is seldom enough. Times change, technologies change. Support people come and go. The result is a need for program change – calling for the DL professional’s move from management to leadership. Although the roles of a distance learning leader are many, three are paramount.


1. Planning for the Future. To a much greater degree than many areas of academia, distance learning is both a student and a technology driven field. Distance learning leaders constantly keep one eye upon demographic and generational changes among incoming students and another upon new and improved technologies and teaching methods for the online classroom. At the risk of being labeled a mystic, it is important to point out that a leader needs a third eye, mixing creativity, insight, and experience. This is often referred to as transformational leadership, an idea that one can move organizations by moving people, i.e., leading them to a change both “in mind and heart.” 2. Seizing opportunity. A particular talent of the distance learning leader is an ability to identify and take advantage of opportunities that occur constantly. From a management perspective, change may be perceived as a

challenge to existing procedures and even a threat to stability. As a leader, however, the hostile takeover of a DL vendor may be your chance to update your services, review open source solutions, and discard poorly performing technologies or practices. New opportunities can challenge management as they cause growth beyond the current functions. Leadership, however, demands that one looks beyond immediate efficiency to perceive how the change will contribute to the institution’s mission.

Most distance learning programs have a myriad of activities which occur frequently enough and with enough consistency to allow for standardization. An ability to take advantage of opportunity requires preparation, Constant professional development and staying current with distance learning tools is a must. Developing resources which can be deployed for new opportunities is also vital for innovation. 3. Prioritizing. As one learns to identify opportunities, it seems they are everywhere. As the field of play for distance learning is infinite, setting priorities becomes an essential leadership role. Priorities are best set by understanding student and mission needs, your program’s strengths and staff skill sets, and your interests. During a matter of weeks, a distance learning department may see

Online Seminar: September 14: 7 Keys to Becoming an Effective Distance Learning Leader Dr. Mickey Slimp will present 7 Keys to Becoming an Effective Distance Learning Leader on Tuesday, September 14 at 1:00 p.m., Central Time. Go to for registration details. opportunities to investigate a new learning management system, be part of a study to improve online developmental education, and initiate a curriculum for distance learning faculty education. Each task could be seen as a distraction from the daily management of the program. Yet each could have a strong impact upon the institution’s distance education.

Where’s the time? For many leader aspirants, an ideal career would be within an academic think tank where ideas are shared without concern for responsibility or consequence. For the manager of distance learning, however, the luxury of time and inconsequential actions is beyond the realm of reality. Here is where the most successful tools allowing the move from management to leadership come into play. • Standardization. Most distance learning programs have a myriad of activities which occur frequently enough and with enough consistency to allow for standardization. For example, orientation procedures and materials can be standardized across a program. Common issues for helpdesk support can be used to generate a ready catalog of fixes. continued on page 8

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in the news Western Governors’ University Could be New Model for Education August 9th, 2010 By Jessica B. Mulholland, Government Technology Debates about the rigor of online versus traditional degrees abound, but the truth is that the recession is straining traditional public universities, tuitions are continuously rising and students are being turned away from already-overcrowded classrooms. So does online education offer a viable alternative for delivering higher education, career retraining and lifelong learning? Ray Scheppach, executive director of the National Governors Association, thinks so. “I really believe that higher education has to move online,” he said at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers midyear meeting in Baltimore. “Private universities have done it; government will have to follow along.” Read the rest at: 767122?topic=118264. Reviewing the Virtual Campus Phenomenon: The Rise of LargeScale Online Learning Initiatives Worldwide August 10th, 2010 by the International Council for Open and Distance Education This handbook aims to provide policymakers in the field of higher education with valid, in-depth information on virtual campuses in different forms. The handbook seeks to provide a glimpse into the complex world of higher education – including traditional universities, distance education providers, public and private institutions, associations and consortia – and how all these institutions are experimenting with the set-up of what are refered to as virtual campuses. In par-

ticular, the handbook gathers the outcomes and experiences of the Re.ViCa project, which aimed to undertake a systematic and extensive review of virtual campuses in higher education. Read the rest at: onlinelearning/wp-admin/post-new.php. Free Online Library Science Program Content August 10th, 2010 by the Programming Librarian Looking for free, online webinars to help with your programming? Look no further—here you will find learning opportunities from around the web. Have a free webinar to add to the list? For example: “Best Practices in Library Fundraising” Date: August 11, 2010 Library Strategies consultant and President of The Friends of the Saint Paul Public Library, Peter Pearson, will present strategies for implementing a comprehensive fundraising program to support your library. Pearson’s program will be based on the successful activities of libraries and library organizations across the nation. Topics will include: cultivating individual donors, annual campaigns, corporate sponsorships, special events, planned giving and much more. Read the rest at: online-learning.html. Google Wave, Embraced by Many on Campuses, to Get Wiped Out August 6th, 2010 By Jeff Young, Chronicle of Higher Education Google Wave may have had more fans on campuses than it did anywhere

else, but those academic enthusiasts weren’t enough to keep the free service afloat. Google announced yesterday that it will stop development of Wave, its experimental next-generation email system that blended instant messaging, video chat, document sharing, and other tools in one platform. Read the rest at: Google-Wave-Embraced-byMany/26039/. University of California Must Go Online With Care August 8th, 2010 by the Merced Sun-Star Distance online learning can increase access, but to maintain standards it has to be done right. The University of California is looking for ways to increase access to its campuses for qualified students. That’s a worthy goal, especially as budget cuts have limited enrollment. But we urge caution as university officials consider offering online courses in highdemand subjects. UC must make sure that online learning offerings are of the same quality as those taken in the classrooms of its 10 campuses. Read the rest at: 30/1512245/our-view-uc-must-goonline-with.html. (Selected from Ray Schroeder’s Online Learning Update g/blogger.html) ●

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LMS..from page 4

designed for ease of use, students can learn them rapidly, leverage them for multiple assignments, and recommend the most effective to their peers. The broad selection of Web 2.0 tools makes it possible for instructors and students to choose the tool that best fits a learning exercise. Moreover, applications available in the cloud frequently offer portability, allowing students to retain and continue to build on their work after they are no longer affiliated with the institution. Finally, when student work is published on the web, it can engage individuals from outside the university, generating a kind of informal peer review. Such exchanges can provide students with experience in how to weigh the criticism of others.

5. Are there any downsides? Using alternatives to the LMS can take time—for instructors and students. Teachers must evaluate new tools and match them with suitable assignments, and students must learn new application types. Some webbased applications charge fees for use, while many that are free include advertising. In either case, the locus of control is outside the institution, raising concerns about interruptions of service, the security of data and personal information, and the effect on an institution’s reputation that could result from a security breach. Institutions that adopt third-party applications for learning have little or no recourse if those products are poorly maintained, shut down for repairs, or cease to exist. While some applications include privacy settings, these are generally not subject to the institution’s authentication protocols.

As a result, many instructors return to the LMS for student grading to ensure compliance with applicable regulations. While some web applications use emerging web standards, they are not designed to access the student information system, course reporting, or enrollment information. In addition, any alternative LMS could raise issues about a lack of technical support, a dearth of faculty support, an increasingly fragmented student learning environment, and the absence of a common learning platform.

6. Where are things going? The practice of augmenting a standard, centralized LMS is a trend that can be expected to continue among faculty members. Often their individual compilations of Web 2.0 tools are highly specialized and allow them to design learning experiences that are more targeted than those they could present with the LMS alone. What may emerge from this environment is a new kind of institutional service that combines the best of both worlds, providing the integration of an enterprise application that addresses security and administrative control with a constantly renewing set of cloud-based media and collaboration tools to support academic work. The institutionally provided portal or container may become commonplace, allowing users to select and plug in the tools they desire, which might be internal or external. There is even the potential for LMS alternatives to return applications to the pool—that is, faculty and students may create new tools when the existing offerings do not meet their needs.

7. What are the implications for teaching and learning? The use of LMS alternatives encourages faculty and students alike to see learning as an evolutionary process where effective tools are emerging constantly. Such an environment prompts learners to become familiar with a genre of tools rather than any specific one. At the same time, faculty adoption of tools outside the LMS may induce institutions to take a fresh look at the LMS service they offer. In so doing, they may discover the advantages in providing access to a wide variety of tools that enable strong support of teaching and learning. The use of LMS alternatives may hold the promise of a more student-centric approach, one that encourages students to reach across the boundaries of academic terms and learning disciplines and to see their education as a coherent whole that they can maintain using a range of applications. By going outside the LMS to use tools that allow for more student engagement, more effective collaboration, and more active learning in general, instructors could establish new expectations for the LMS. While some of the features they seek from the Web 2.0 world might never make it into the repertoire of most instructors, they may still help push the LMS to its next iteration. © EDUCAUSE 2010. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 License: licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/. Reprinted with permission of the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative. ●

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most important of which are:

Cover..from page 2

faculty should not necessarily push high levels of learner-learner interaction. o Third, the factors that loaded on student participation may have contributed to this finding. The amount of time a student spends on a course home page may have little to do with course completion. The gradebook and email interpretations are more interesting. Perhaps the students that spent the most time in gradebook happened to be in the most rigorous courses with many graded assignments. The rigor of these courses may have contributed to the lower course completion rates, not the time spent reading a gradebook. Courses where students spent much time interacting via email may have contributed to lower completion rates. Email is a time intensive way to communicate, and may have led to less rewarding class experiences.

Implications for administrators The authors conclude with several implications for administrators, the

Leadership..from page 5

Although your students and faculty will still require a level of personal touch, standardization can free up time for planning and other leadership priorities. • Automation. Of course, once a process is standardized, automation is the next consideration - if not of the entire process, at least with components. Managerial tasks related to course scheduling, the generation web page updates and the creation of

1.Online course completions may be the best way to measure success. Although this metric does not directly measure learning, similar arguments could be made about course average and student perceptions of learning. It does, however, capture student retention and financial implications critical to program maintenance and growth. 2.Faculty teaching in larger sections actually decreased time spent in online participation. Training programs for faculty teaching online courses should emphasize this course design parameter and suggest efficient options for interaction that support individual feedback but are not overly time intensive. 3.Requiring extensive faculty feedback as a performance metric may be inappropriate. 4.Administrative decisions regarding section size must accommodate variations in types, levels, and content of courses; absolute, comprehensive standards may be counterproductive. Caps on section size may be more arbitrary than evidencebased (at least for section sizes up to 30 based on courses in our sample).

required reports are obvious targets. Common responses to students can be turned into an FAQ. And, more tools are on the way. Instance response technologies, including social media and texting, along with many shareware applications can offer assistance. • Sharing the Responsibility. Bringing others into the process is perhaps the most critical indicator of a move from management to leadership. Standardization and automation make it viable to delegate the activities

5.Requiring student interaction just for the sake of interaction may lead to diminished completion rates. Again, standards for online teaching should not contain arbitrary thresholds for required interaction. Clearly, this indicates that online programs may wish to rethink their positions on interaction. While no one would advocate going back to the “correspondence school” days of posting reading materials online and having students read and test with no discussion with other students or the instructor, it may not be a valuable approach to continually push opportunities for interaction as the gold standard measure of a quality course. In some cases, requirements to interact can take a student’s attention away from mastering material, causing frustration and ultimately leading to failure to persist. Faculty members, too, may see requirements for ever-increasing levels of interaction as another way that online courses can expand to take more time than the traditional class. With interaction, as with so many other things in life, moderation may be the best approach. ●

vying for your attention to staff, student workers, and faculty willing to play a role. Particularly with leadership activity itself, involving others becomes a key. A distance education advisory team of faculty, administrators, students, and community representatives can offer direction and set priorities. Involving and gaining the support of your instructional and administrative leadership is another strong move. Although those you report to do not want to do your job, they will recognize your leadership when included in major decisions. ●

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