Thursday 9 January 2014

The UX of large-scale online education.

Written in response to:

The number of students that complete the course may not be the right metric to look at. However, there are a number of steps that you could take that I think might improve completion rates.

Human beings are a pretty undisciplined bunch, as a rule. We dislike rigour and crave immediate gratification. Our Puritan work-ethic may predispose us to look down upon such human foibles, but there is no shame in exploiting them in the pursuit of the expansion of learning and the spread of knowledge.

Most of the following suggestions are oriented around giving students more fine-grained control over the timing and sequencing of their studies, as well as increasing the frequency and substance of the feedback. To complement this, some innovation may be required to come up with mechanisms that encourage and support the development of discipline without penalising those who simply cannot fit regular study around their other life commitments.

1. Recognise that study is a secondary or tertiary activity for many students: Study may be able to trump entertainment or leisure, but work and family will always come first.

2. Break the course materials up into tiny workshop-sized modules that can be completed in less than two weeks of part-time study. About 1 weekends' worth should be about right, allowing "sprints" of study to be interspersed and balanced with a healthy and proper commitment to family life.

3. Each module does not have to stand alone. It can build on prerequisites taught in other modules, but those prerequisites should be documented and suggested rather than enforced programmatically.

4. Assessments within and at the end of each of these micro-modules should be for the benefit of the student, and should not count towards any sort of award or certification.

5. The scheduling of study over the calendar year should be optional. One or more group schedules may be suggested, so collections of students can progress through the materiel together and interact online and in meet-ups, but others should be allowed to take a more economical pace, each according to their budget of time and attention.

6. Final exams can still be scheduled once or twice per year, coincident with the end of one or more suggested schedules. Students pacing their own study may need to wait a while before exam-time comes around, but the flexibility in study more than compensates for any disadvantage that they may have in the exam.

These suggestions should help lower barriers for students with otherwise packed calendars. In addition, it may be worthwhile experimenting with various techniques to grab students attention and re-focus it back on their learning objectives: Ideas from gamification point to frequent feedback and frequent small rewards to encourage attention and deep concentration. Also from the gaming world, sophisticated algorithms exist that are designed to match players of similar ability in online matches. The same algorithms can be used to match students of similar ability for competitive assessments and quizzes. In addition to gamification techniques, it should be possible to explore different schedules for "pushing" reminders and messages to students, or other prompts for further study. For example, you could send out emails with a few quiz questions that require just one more video to be watched. Finally, you can get people to pledge / commit to a short-term goal, for example, to reach a certain point in the module by a certain point in time (e.g. the end of the weekend).