Assessing self-paced, online courses for use with your students using an evidence-based checklist

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The issue 

The proliferation of self-paced, online learning platforms in recent years has provided a wealth of options for adult learners looking for quick upskilling and refresher courses and for teachers and trainers looking for support resources for students. These options range from popular curated services like LinkedIn Learning by Microsoft, used by an estimated 27 million adults (Trent-Gurbuz, 2020), to platforms that are little more than eBay for online courses such as Udemy (Viktor, 2021).  

The problem with these offerings is the variability of the quality of the course design and whether or not these courses result in the sort of authentic engagement that fosters long-term learning. 

Authentic engagement means that students are focused, interested and motivated in such a way that they can apply what they’ve learned to new contexts. (University of Waterloo, 2021) 

Even courses offered by providers who curate their content and thus have some sort of quality control, there are many courses that  consist of little more than well-produced videos with multiple choice and true/false quizzes that test short term knowledge recall. This may be fit for purpose when it comes to lower-order recall and simple procedural work as described in the unistructional stage of Bigg’s SOLO taxonomy (Biggs, N/A). However, for more complex topics and concepts, as the learning in these courses is self-paced with no direct facilitator or peer to peer interactions, the burden of creating authentic engagement even over a short time needs to be driven by the design of the user interface, content and activities. 

Checklist for assessing resources 

Given the wealth and variability of content and their desire to provide quality, fit for purpose resources for their students, how can education professionals effectively evaluate the quality of these resources using an evidence-based approach? (Hannafin, 1997) 

As with all learning resources, we start with our students and the context. Who needs to learn what? What is being taught? What are the relevant student demographics, available technologies for access and creation, the estimated time investment/commitment and the desired learning outcomes? (University of New England, 2021). 

In this context, we are talking about self-paced learning for adult learners. Adult learners are thought to be largely self-directed, intrinsically motivated learners who are problem-centred and interested in the immediate application of knowledge (Merriam, 2001).  However, they are also notoriously time-poor, juggling multiple priorities at work and home, so need learning solutions that will satisfy their learning goals efficiently. Knowing who your learners are and what their context is will help you apply the evaluation points that follow more effectively. 

 Learning objectives stated and met 

Even if all a teacher is after is a video resource to demonstrate a specific software skill, they need to ensure either they or the resource explicitly sets out what learners will be able to do at the end of undertaking learning. This allows the learner as well the teacher to evaluate whether the resource is fit for purpose. 

Educators can support this by writing learning objectives for the third-party course resources they wish to cur and then using the learning objectives as criteria to judge the resource. 

If they do not, educators risk providing irrelevant content that will lead to student frustration and disengagement. If the resource itself does not provide learning objectives, teachers can dig further into the resource itself, seek out another resource or provide a sufficient introduction so that students understand what they will gain from their time investment. 

 A user interface design that reduces cognitive load 

To reduce cognitive load and facilitate access to the relevant content, the user interface should be designed so that it is easy to navigate, access and use with minimal learning and instruction necessary so as not to distract from the content (Centre for Extended Learning – University of Waterloo, 2021). [I think you’re using Harvard style, in which case, the full stop comes after the citation) 

 Content and activity design that is accessible, flexible and culturally appropriate 

When it comes to content and activities, Universal Design for Learning principles that provide multiple ways into content and activities allows for learners to connect with what is comfortable for them.  Elements such as text alternatives for visuals that convey meaning, closed captions for videos and transcripts for audio support a diverse range of abilities and accessibility may be a requirement of your institution. Consideration of language proficiency and cultural diversity will ensure that the design of content and activities supports rather than bars learners from what they need to achieve (CAST, 2018). 

 Sufficient feedback points for self-assessment and self-correction 

In the absence of student-instructor and student-peer interactions, teachers must if and how feedback is provided to help learners assess whether they’ve achieved the learning objectives (Hattie & Timperley, 2007) of the resource or short course made available to them. 

A focused research study focusing on the experiences of adult learners in a self-paced online learning environment bears this out. In the study, learners were in a corporate learning setting undertaking self-paced, online training. The findings were that self-paced, online learning was effective when learners were provided with ample opportunity to self-assess and self-correct. The mechanisms used were quizzes, practice exercise and/or simulations (Dobrovolny, 2006). 

 Resources to enable the application of learning to the student context

Adult learners must be provided with the opportunity to apply their learning and connect it to their context in order for the learning to take hold (Horton, 2011). 

Providing them with the tools and resources to do so outside the course will allow them to leverage their time investment and experiment with implementing elements of what they’ve learned in their work or learning. 

The aforementioned study of adult learners in a corporate setting (Dobrovolny, 2006) found that in the absence of take-away resources, learners naturally returned to the course and created their own job aids to refresh their learning. 

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