The MOOC just got better!

I’ve just finished Stanford University’s HCI (Human-Computer Interaction) MOOC (see my previous post MOOC is not a dirty word… at least for the student). Personally, I’ve found it a very enjoyable, but challenging experience (due to my lack of skills, but isn’t that the whole point of learning?).

The course tutor rounded off the course with a short video of his reflections. For those of you who like facts and figures:

  • 29,568 students watched at least some of the video lectures
  • 20,443 students did at least one of the automatically marked multiple choice quizzes
  • 3,203 students completed at least one of the assignments
  • 765 students completed all 5 assignments
  • students came from all around the world, with at least 130 countries being represented.

As students, we’ve had ample opportunity to provide feedback to the teaching team about the Coursera platform and the course as a whole. That feedback has been acted on quickly with tweaks being made to class materials or assignments, while students are still working on them. MOOCs therefore offer an agile solution that takes the student’s needs into account.

It hasn’t just been a one-way transaction. As a student, I’ve learned a tremendous amount from both the teaching team and my peers. The teaching team has also learnt from the students, who have shared resources, reading lists, articles, etc and helped other students. Taking an online course doesn’t mean that the student is isolated. Many students have held their own meet-ups, either face-to-face or virtually. You could say, using the classic cybernetics term, that they were part of a self-organising system, building up communities to support and help each other long after the course has finished.

Just one year ago, there was no Coursera. So everything I’ve used on the course has been created over a very short period of time. But you wouldn’t know. Aside from a few bugs and minor niggles, the whole thing ran very smoothly. One thing to note is that Stanford doesn’t need to run this course. It already has a great reputation, but that hasn’t stopped the teaching team from working hard to pull together the content and make it freely available to everyone.

And now the MOOC has just got better. I’ve just had an email from Coursera to tell me that it now has a Career Service to help Coursera students find jobs. Should I wish to take part (and I may need to shortly), they will share my details with selected partner companies (likely to be US based). This could be good for me as a student, although it’s not without concerns. In the (probably very near) future, a company could cherry pick the best students from online courses, because they’ll be able to follow students with potential as they submit their coursework. They may even influence the course itself. Coursera will no doubt get its revenue from acting as a matchmaking service. However, this needs to be handled carefully. Issues could include companies bombarding students with advertising, a limited pool of companies being able to select students (but who wouldn’t be flattered to be offered a job by the likes of Google or Apple?), US only companies, companies that only support (financially?) Stanford (or other Coursera universities), etc. It’s not without its potential difficulties. However, from a student point of view, it seems like a great idea.

So did I finish the course? I certainly did and can now quite legitimately say that I have a Distinction from Stanford University!

Using Video to Provide Feedback on Students’ Work

Russell Stannard, a lecturer at the University of Westminster, has just been been given the JISC/Times Higher Outstanding ICT Initiative of the Year award for using video to provide training in multimedia and Web 2.0 applications.  As well as using video to produce online training videos, he has also been using video to provide feedback on students’ work.  His website on multimedia videos includes an example of using video to mark a student’s work.

The THES (Times Higher Education Supplement) wrote about Stannard’s use of video for providing feedback on students’ work in 2006 and described the process involved.  Using video (or rather screen recording software with an audio track) to provide feedback means that a tutor can explain both verbally and visually any corrections that a student needs to make.  Instead of handwritten notes in margins or a page of comments attached to a student’s work, the video feedback approach can be used to give more lengthy feedback. 

Of course, this approach means that both the tutor and the student have to go through the whole video sequence each time they want to review their feedback rather than quickly glancing through a static set of pages.  However, this approach might be of value to some students with disabilites.  We often tend to concentrate on making online resources accessible, but perhaps we do not always think about how the feedback itself can be made accessible or value added, particularly for those students with learning disabilities or particular learning styles.  The video feedback approach will not be appropriate for all students, tutors or assignments, however, it is an alternative way of presenting information, which some students may find beneficial.

Jumping Through Hoops – Reasonable Adjustments for Exams

The DRC (Disability Rights Commission) are currently supporting a legal case brought about by a student, who claims that she was discriminated against when taking an online exam for a professional qualification.  The complaints include one about unreasonable demands for evidence of disability, and one about requests for reasonable accommodations.

Hoop 1: Prove Your Disability

The SENDA (Special Educational Needs and Disability Act) states that educational institutions must make reasonable adjustments for disabled students in order to avoid substantial disadvantage.  However, in order for those reasonable adjustments to be made in the exam room, many institutions need actual evidence of disability. For those students who are known to their educational institution, evidence may not necessarily mean a medical certificate, as a tutor’s or other adviser’s statement may be enough. 

However, in the legal case mentioned above, the professional body running the assessment had not actually met the student as most of her studies were completed electronically.  So in this case, actual medical proof was their only recourse to evidence of disability, before any special accommodations could be made.  Including a suite of preferences as part of the test software could have helped with some of the accommodations the student required and may even have avoided the need for the provision of evidence of her disability.

Hoop 2: Take the Test the Hard Way

In the legal case mentioned above, the student was not allowed to take her own laptop into the exam room nor was she allowed to use a screen reader to access the test, because the professional body felt that installation of software from outside their test suite could put the security of their test at risk.

In this case, both parties’ requests could be considered as reasonable – the student’s request for additional software in order to take the test and the testing body’s refusal on the grounds of security.  Security issues around assessment are a common fear.  If an exam body wants to keep the quality of its qualifications high, then security will be paramount.  But where does this leave the student who needs additional software in order to access the test?  In this case, the student was offered the services of a reader and extra time – it was not an ideal solution for her, but was one with which the testing body was happy.  This is probably not an isolated incident – there are no doubt many conflicts between what the student really needs to take an online test and with what the testing body feels comfortable about allowing the student to use.  Compromises are made, but perhaps it is the student who always ends up with the worst deal.

Levelling the Playing Field

So would it be worthwhile for test centres (and maybe other online test providers) to provide generic accommodations?  Offering a text reader or screen magnification software as part of the test software suite could remove the need for some students to provide evidence of their disability and could reduce the worry for exam bodies about compromising security. 

Screen readers, for example, are a common type of assistive technology and come in various shapes and sizes.  Although it would be impossible to provide screen readers to suit everyone’s needs, it might be possible to provide one cut-down or authoritative version simply to allow students to access online assessments, as long as the student was allowed to practise using the technology well in advance.  This could keep costs down and possibly improve a student’s interaction with the test software, if practice runs have been made available.

Availability of such technology would also depend on the type of test being undertaken but for online exams, where reading the questions aloud did not defeat the actual purpose of the question, providing access to even one type of assistive technology could go a long way to including rather than excluding people.  Of course, the questions would also need to be screen reader-friendly and alternatives to questions containing graphs or images may need to be offered, but providing accessible and/or alternative questions may benefit all students.

I’m not saying that one size should fit all.  Many disabled students will still need to use their own particular type of technology but including some common types of assistive technology in a test software suite could help level the playing field.  In an ideal world, students would be able to set their own preferences, use their own software and even have assessments based on their particular learning styles. 

Above all, it is imperative that exam bodies and educational institutions who provide online tests are clear about what is actually being tested (is it the student’s ability to interact with the test software or their knowledge and understanding of a particular subject?) and to ensure that any assessment clearly reflects that goal in a user-friendly and supportive manner.  After all, assessment in any form is usually stressful enough without having to jump through extra hoops.