What if We Put Best Practices into Practice?: A Report on Course Design Beyond Quality Matters

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1 1 What if We Put Best Practices into Practice?: A Report on Course Design Beyond Quality Matters Dr. Tamara Powell and Dr. Solomon Negash Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA, USA Introduction: The Education Situation in the US Higher education requires a student to pay $24,466 per year for tuition, room, and board (Fast Facts). Often, students borrow student loans to cover some or all of this cost. Therefore, the average student graduates with $27,000 in student loans (Ellis). Also, to supplement the rising cost of education, many students work one or more jobs during their time at the university, leading to distraction from classes and possible delays in graduation. Therefore, an American might leave the university with no degree, but with student loan debt that must be paid off. Simply attending university classes for a few years does not grant a student much advantage in the job market. To compound the problem, in the past, students were expected to graduate within four years. Now, with students working jobs and changing majors more than once, 60% of full time students take seven years to earn a Bachelor s degree (Complete College America). Even pushing students to graduate in five years seems ambitious. Complete College America is a non profit initiative that spurs colleges and universities to develop strategies and programs that assist students in completing courses and programs, earning certificates and degrees that lead to increased employability. But for us, moving students successfully from their first course to graduation day and then to their first job in a timely and efficient manner is about more than just fulfilling a national mandate. We are concerned about at risk populations for personal reasons. We are personally motivated to finding strategies to increase student retention, completion of courses, completion of programs, and completion of college/university study. Furthermore, we want to do so while increasing employability and employment AND increasing critical thinking skills in students. We are not ambitious at all. Background: Quality Matters We call our presentation beyond Quality Matters because at our university, Kennesaw State University outside Atlanta, Georgia, in the US, all of the courses offered online must meet Quality Matters, or QM, standards. QM is the best known and most widely used and researched system to measure quality of online and hybrid courses in the US. It is based on a collection of evidence regarding best practices in teaching. And

2 2 it contains 21 essential standards that must be met. For example, to meet standards, a course must have measurable course goals and a clear syllabus. The grading information must be logical and clearly presented, and the content included must relate clearly to course goals. It s a very common sense set of standards. You can learn more at the QM website at Research Summary: The Research Points to Directions for Solutions College retention, progression, and graduation (RPG) rates are alarming. According to Michael Herbert, ʺStudies show that the failed retention rate for online college and university undergraduates range from 20 to 50%ʺ (Herbert). Many at risk groups fall short of achieving a college degree (Arum and Roksa). In this study we identify several strategies supported by prior research that have proven to achieve increased retention, progression, and graduation. We implement these strategies using online classes, a more challenging environment due to its virtual nature. Also, we have developed our strategies for online class implementation, although we also theorize that if they work in online courses, they will work in face to face courses. According to recent research, several strategies have been proven to increase retention, completion, and graduations. From prior research we identified the following five best practices with successful improvement in retention, progression, and graduation: 1. Goal setting. 2. Clear paths through course and program goals. 3. Student professor communication regarding course and program goals. 4. Rigorous course work to achieve goals. 5. Clear identification of learned and applied skills that advance career path. In the next two sections we discuss how we used the above best practice strategies in a two part solution we called pedagogical and technical. Pedagogical application of best practice strategies: 1) Goal setting. Studies show that by encouraging students to set goals, we increase their chances of reaching them. Research shows a high correlation between intention to do something and follow through. The Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA) says there is a causal relationship between behavioral intention and actual behavior (Davis, Bargozzi, and Warshaw 984).

3 3 2) Clear paths through course and program goals. Students should be given clear, measurable goals for each course and each online module. Also, students should be given clear directions regarding how to achieve the goals for each online module and for the course (Kamenetz). Many believe the EduPunk movement will save American education if universities will only relent and embrace its advocacy of Do It Yourself learning principles. DIY education has been available in America almost since its founding in the form of public libraries and for at least 50 years through the Public Broadcasting System, public access, and other television channels, which offer entire courses for free to interested viewers. New arrivals such as Udacity and Coursera have reinvigorated these approaches promising to render the traditional delivery models obsolete, but the long history of these developments has proven otherwise. However, across the centuries, the mere availability of education has not equated with greater levels of attainment. Citizens, and students, need help. 3) Student professor communication regarding course and program goals. Studies show that students who communicate with their professors do better than those who do not (Arum and Roksa). Students should be encouraged to communicate with their online professors via , telephone, Skype, or other methods that are agreeable to the professor. That means that professors who limit student faculty conversation to classtime or face to face meetings or otherwise discourage conversation can actually stand in the way of student progress through a course. Of course, faculty should set reasonable rules for faculty student interaction. But faculty who have policies such as, ʺI will respond to one spontaneous from you during the semesterʺ may very well be standing in the way of student graduation. 4) Rigorous course work to achieve goals. Studies show that students will do more and be more satisfied about a course when more is expected of them if those expectations are clear and reasonable. Studies also show that 20 pages of writing during a semester and 40 pages of assigned reading will increase critical thinking abilities in students, which will lead to increased employability. As one example of what faculty could do, research shows that When students are asked to read and write in their courses, when academic coursework is challenging, and when higher order thinking is included in the coursework, students perform better on tests measuring skills such as critical thinking and writing (Arum and Roksa). This finding is echoed in Means 2010 metastudy on distance education. Many believe that online elements that instructors can add, such as quizzes and videos, improve the online experience for students. But Means concluded that The [online] practice with the strongest evidence of effectiveness is inclusion of mechanisms to prompt students to reflect on their level of understanding as they are learning online, such as one minute reflection writing assignments or shorter writing

4 4 assignments that ask students to address what they have learned in a particular context (Means 52). 5) Clear identification of learned and applied skills that advance career path. We teach our students so many important things, but how many of us stop and tell students, ʺThis assignment was a research proposal. When you look at job ads and they ask for proposal writing experience, or when you are in an interview and you are asked about your experience with proposal formats, you can say that you have written a research proposal for a research assignment in a college course, and that you learned about proposal components and submission processes.ʺ While to us as faculty it is very obvious why we are teaching our students what we are teaching them, it is a good idea to take that extra step and translate the classroom experience into a marketable skill (Kamenetz). Technical application of best practice strategies: 1. Goal setting. The technical application of best practice strategies uses the ubiquitous mobile device to set three areas of goals: academic, professional, and personal. The purpose of the complementary technical solution is to give a complementary tool that advances the pedagogy and career path of the student. Students can set their desired goal and track goal attainment through performance and assessment feedback using the technical solution. At the beginning of the semester students are prompted to indicate the course grade they desire to attain. Student desired grade (goal) will be mapped to course grading scale. Course grade scale is pulled from the syllabus, for example, A>90, B>80, C>70, etc. 2. Clear paths through course and program goals. Clear goals in each of the three areas (academic, professional, and personal) are set and tracked. a. Tracking academic goals: assessment grades for each assignment is shall be pulled from the instructor grade book. Assignment grades are tracked against set goals and displayed to students. Goal attainment levels will be calculated and feedback provided to the student about his/her current standing vis à vis the set goals. The technical solution will also include planned schedule of courses, academic advising, and academic career path. b. Tracking professional goals: professional goals including resume writing, internship activities, and professional career path will be tracked. Students define and update their professional goals. Student

5 5 professional goal updates will be tracked against set goals to provide feedback. c. Tracking personal goals: personal goals including fitness schedule, dietary plans, and target body mass index will be tracked. Students desiring to improve language skills can track progress using ubiquitous language learning apps that track progress through modules. Students define and update their personal goals. Student personal goal updates are tracked against set goals to provide feedback. 3. Student professor communication regarding course and program goals. In setting the goals a typical sixteen week semester is used as an example, use appropriate weekly segmentation for academic periods different from sixteen week. The professor designs sixteen modules, one for each week. Each module will have assignments that will assess student learning. Each week students learn one module and complete the associated assessment. Students receive assessment results from the instructor in the form of notification. Module grades will be compiled and cumulative status for the course will be displayed to the student throughout the semester. 4. Rigorous course work to achieve goals. Students set their ideal course grade and desired overall GPA at the beginning of the semester. The technical solution tool provides feedback from actual assignment grades and tracks it against desired course grade and overall GPA. A feedback mechanism that encourages academic rigor will be provided to the student. 5. Clear identification of learned and applied skills that the advance career path. The technical solution incorporates advising and career planning. Based on the student s major, potential career paths will be provided as defaults, and students will be able to add their own user defined professional goals. Students will have a configurable menu to enter specific skills for their desired professional goals. The desired professional goals will be tracked based on skills reflected in the course learning outcomes. In addition to professional goals, the technical solution provides a mechanism to track personal goals. Personal goals including fitness schedule, dietary plans, and target body mass index will be available. The design will also have mechanisms for students to add custom goals such as learning new languages.

6 6 Best practice strategies Pedagogical applications Technical applications 1 Goal setting. Increase success by encouraging goal setting. Set desired academic, professional, and personal goals. 2 Clear paths through course and program goals. 3 Student professor communication regarding course and program goals. Measurable goals for each module. , telephone, and Skype communication. Track actual vs. desired goals. Weekly professor feedback on assessements. 4 Rigorous course work to achieve goals. More expectations with clear and reasonable goals. Feedback look on performance to encourage rigor. 5 Clear identification of learned and applied skills that advance career path. Relate classroom learned skills to career path. Track career path against course learning outcomes. All of these factors have been identified by research as being important to creating courses and programs that foster retention, progression, and graduation that advances the student s career path. We wanted to share all of these factors with you, but today we will be talking about our foray into creating course components that encourage goal setting to increase retention and completion. Our Results: Our Approach, Methods, and Preliminary Findings As you can see, the project plan is ambitious. However, we wanted to share with you a lower tech version of one segment of this plan, something that we have already implemented and that you can, as well. While our faculty at KSU have many options for scheduling their online courses during the semester, we encourage them to present one module per week, with a constant due date, such as midnight each Tuesday. Our first test course was just such a course. Therefore, after examining all the components in an online course, we present students with several schedules that they could adopt in order to complete the course successfully. We usually create one schedule that involves a unit of time each day in the week. Next, we create one schedule that focuses only on

7 7 the weekend. Last, we create one schedule that involves a unit of time for three weekdays. We are mindful of due dates. As you can see, the sample schedules must be created individually for each course participating in the strategy. The third step is to present these sample schedules to the students during the first week of class and then present students with a blank schedule in a word processing program. Students are given the assignment to fill in the schedule with a plan regarding how they will successfully complete the course. They are also asked to share two personal goals and two professional goals, and they are graded with a rubric that they are given along with the assignment (clear expectations). The current assignment template in use at KSU is created in SoftChalk. You can view that version here or download and adjust the current template here, if you have SoftChalk. I have also created an html version, if you would like to adapt the template to serve your needs, using a variety of formats. This research based strategy was piloted this summer in an abnormally large online technical writing course. This course had 44 students. Normally, the average section size is 27, and the average retention rate for this online course is 88% with an average of 80% active participation. The drop date for the summer course was June 27. The course is still being taught, and it ends July 29. But as of today, the course has 43 students remaining in the course (97% retention) with 42 students actively participating (95%). Our second strategy, described in detail above, is still in the incubation stage, with planned roll out in summer of Conclusion: Results and Future Research We plan to implement our schedule activity on a wide scale in fall and continue with the research on retention and completion using this simple tool. We will also add the second strategy by next summer to see if it improves retention and completion as well. Future strategies for research include phenomeongraphic strategies to increase student retention and completion by changing their perceptions of course goals, and using online career portfolios to prompt students to connect courses and course activities with marketable skills. We also hope to use surveys to measure student intention and relate that to course completion, and we hope to track program completion and employment after graduation. Ultimately, we want to find the perfect formula for moving students from entering college to graduation and employment. And that formula will also increase the students abilities to think critically.

8 8 Works Cited Aldrich, Clark. Learning Online with Games, Simulations, and Virtual Worlds: Strategies for Online Instruction. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, Arum, Richard and Josipa Roksa. Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, Electronic book. Complete College America. Accessed June 27, Davis, Fred D. Richard P. Bagozzi and Paul R. Warshaw. User Acceptance of Computer Technology: A Comparison of Two Theoretical Models. Management Science (1989: Ellis, Blake. Average Student Loan Debt Nears $27,000. CNNMoney. October 18, Accessed June 27, loan debt/index.html Fast Facts. National Center for Education Statistics. Institute of Education Sciences. US Department of Education. Accessed June 27, Herbert, Michael. ʺStaying the Course: A Study in Online Student Satisfaction and Retention.ʺ Online Journal of Distance Learning Administration. 9.4 (2006). Kamenetz, Anya. DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education. Chelsea Green Publishing Company: White Junction, VT, Markelein, Mary Beth. 4 Year Colleges Graduate 53% of Students in 6 Years. USA Today. June 3, Accessed June 27, diplomagraduation rate_n.htm Means, Barbara et al. Evaluation of Evidence Based Practices in Online Learning: a Meta Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies. U.S. Department of Education: Washington, D.C., 2010.

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