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This is my third post in a series for my graduate course on distance learning. This week, we are tasked with understanding the planning and design decisions required to build quality distance learning  (usually synonymous with “online learning” these days) experiences. A few highlights from our learning this week are the following:

  • Planning carefully and systematically is essential for any instruction. Although some believe online learning to merely be an alternative delivery mode, it requires special considerations, additional training, and often more attention to the planning stage than traditional face-to-face (F2F) classroom courses.
  • When planning distance learning, choose technology carefully. Only choose technology tools that (1) meet the instructional goals, (2) are accessible by all learners, and (3) enhance the learning directly. Some instructional designers or online courses fail to consider potential bandwidth and technology access issues that will arise for some learners. Our professor this week cited an article by Wayne (2010) that highlights this digital divide: “In both their access to and use of the Internet and a suite of other technological devices and applications, households earning more than $75,000 a year significantly outpace lower-earning households, particularly those making less than $30,000 a year” (as cited in Dawson, 2011).
  • Engage the learner in active participation with both an instructor and peers. Our textbook lists states this idea as “Interaction is essential” (Simonson, Smaldino, Albright, & Zvacek, 2009, p.147), and expounds citing another source of distance learning criteria that states “Quality distance learning programs…emphasize the involvement of the learner in all facets of program development and delivery…[and] allow frequent opportunities for participants to engage in a dialogue with subject-matter experts [SMEs] and other learners” (Simonson et al., 2009, p.148). Courses that do not require interaction among learners and between instructors and learners are likely to not be respected as quality learning environments because best practice suggests that interaction is essential for quality learning.

With these essential ideas in mind (along with a plethora of other guidelines for best practice) I am to choose an open course site to review. I have had previous encounters with Open Courseware before–but as sometimes happens, I have not revisited it for lack of time and a plethora of other distractions. I recognize it as a valuable tool for both my learning and possibly as a powerful resource for my classroom, but sometimes the availability of cool tools and amazing information becomes overwhelming. With this realization rattling around my brain, I was excited to have our assignment this week force me to return to an exploration of free university lectures, materials and classes.

After reviewing both  Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Open Culture, I choose MIT to be the focus. According to their own “About OCW” page, MIT describes their OpenCourseWare (OCW) as

…A web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. MIT OpenCourseWare is a free publication of MIT course materials that reflects almost all the undergraduate and graduate subjects taught at MIT. OCW is open and available to the world…

Generally, all Open Course sites provide learning through lectures (via video or podcast), presentations, and materials for free online. Anyone can access this knowledge as long as they are motivated to learn independently. Individuals do not receive official college credit or degrees, but this hasn’t stopped the genre from growing, according to this graph provided by Gregory Gomer in his article about MIT’s Open Courseware.

Does the course appear to be carefully pre-planned and designed for a distance learning environment? How so?

MIT OCW does appear to be carefully planned for the distance learner. From their easy-to-use interface with clear navigation and FAQ, even a novice internet user could find his/her way through the site with ease. The home page offers an immediate Table of Contents for courses organized by discipline, so the user can quickly find the course he/she is looking for.

I chose “Reading Fiction” as my course to explore. Finding a the course was easy, and again, intuitive navigation bars appeared both on the left-hand side of the window and at the top of the course homepage. Those looking to access materials via the internet did not have a difficult time finding the essential information. The permanent tool bar at the top provides quick links to the site’s “Help” page for learners who may need more  assistance navigating the technology tools or requirements.

Does the course follow the recommendations for online instruction as listed in your course textbook?

On the course homepage, important information appears clearly at the top of the page (i.e. the instructor’s name and when the course was originally taught). Beneath this, a brief description of the course  appears with a hyperlink to sample assignments completed by students in the course as well as the instructor’s requirements for the assignments. On the left navigation panel, the course syllabus intuitively appear below the link for the homepage and provides further detailed information about the course goals, the expectations of time, the course readings, the breakdown of percentages for graded assignments, and a calendar for the course content and deadlines. This detailed information follows the advice given by this week’s distance learning expert, Dr. Piskurich, who states that quality instruction provides the learner right away with a detailed syllabus to clearly outline the learning goals, expectations (both time and academic), and resources (n.d.). Additionally, our course textbook highlights the need for the course organization, activities and expectations to be as clear as possible because “students need this kind of structure and detail to help them stay organized and on task”(Simonson et al., 2009, p.249).

Our course text also highlights the need for the assignment instructions to be detailed and include the following:

  • purpose of assignment
  • target audience
  • grading criteria
  • point value
  • examples of acceptable and unacceptable work (Simonson et al., 2009).

The link to list of assignments does follow all of these criteria which would prepare a learner with clear expectations. Additionally, the assignments require higher-level thinking and analysis rather than “rote memory” demonstrating that the students are completing task using more than simply the lower levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy (Simonson et al, 2009).

Another benefit of MIT’s OCW offering of this course is the hyperlinked list of resources available for purchase through Amazon.com or available through a free download through other websites. This easy-to-access list demonstrates a thoughtfulness about the potential learners as it considers the learner who may be restricted financially, by providing him/her with access to the course text for free. Often, texts are also offered in an audio version which is linked on the “Readings” page as well. This considers diverse learners with varied learning styles and physical abilities, and demonstrates a particular thoughtfulness in planning.

A few ways a learner could be disadvantaged by the course are the following:

  • language–the course materials and navigation are completely in English. However, on their “FAQ: Using OCW Materials” page, information is provided that allows the site and materials to be translated as long as the provided disclaimer is used. Additionally, the MIT OCW homepage offers a link to “Translated Courses” which provides links to materials offered in a few different languages.
  • technology–learner needs to have the capability to download and unzip the course material documents. This requires proper software and access to a relatively fast bandwidth. However, to mitigate this problem, the materials are in one download which allows learners with infrequent access to internet to still participate. Additionally, a link to a help page appears beneath the download “button” which begins the process of accessing the course materials.

Did the course designer implement course activities that maximize active learning for the students?

Because this course is posted after the date of its initial offering, it is not an active course with an available instructor. In fact, this is the one huge drawback of all MIT OCW courses–learners do not have access to faculty members (About OCW, 2011). This disclaimer is posted on their FAQ page:

MIT OpenCourseWare is intended as a publication of MIT course materials, not as an interactive experience with MIT faculty. MIT OpenCourseWare does not offer users the opportunity for direct contact with MIT faculty. It provides the content of – but is not a substitute for – an MIT education. Inquiries related to specific course materials will be forwarded to the MIT faculty member associated with that course for their consideration. However due to the tremendous volume of email inquiries received it is unlikely he or she will be able to respond personally.

Additionally, learners do not have direct access to other learners choosing to take the same course. However, if a learner takes enough initiative, he/she may find other learners using the social media buttons provided on the home page of each course. Posting this course to Facebook, Twitter or Google + may allow isolated learners to connect with others who are interested in the same course. Because of its open and free nature, a learner could organize his/her own learning cohort to gain the valuable learning of discussion and interaction with other learners.

References

MITOpenCourseWare. (2011) Accessed through http://ocw.mit.edu/index.htm

Pizkurich, G. (n.d.). Planning and designing online courses. [Video Program]. Laureate Education Inc.

Simonson, M., Smaldino, S., Albright, M., & Zvacek, S. (2009). Teaching and learning at a distance: Foundations of distance education (4th ed.) Boston, MA: Pearson.

Vaeth, Kimberly. 21L.003 Reading Fiction, Fall 2008. (Massachusetts Institute of  Technology: MIT OpenCourseWare), http://ocw.mit.edu (Accessed 04 Dec, 2011). License: Creative Commons BY-NC-SA

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