Using Voicethread in Education with an Eye on Accessiblity

In a previous post, Mea Culpa – Accessibility Concerns of Using External Tools in the LMS, I mentioned the This web-based tool has passed the accessibility testaccessibility concerns that come from using many of the popular external tools (Web 2.0 tools, if you will) inside the LMS. I previously posted about the accessibility issues with Slideshare and also the poor accessibility record of Prezi. This post is a bit more positive, because I’m highlighting a tool that has made major steps forward on the road to a11y.

Voicethread is increasingly being used in education at all levels. Some of their features (from  their website) include:

Creating: Upload, share and discuss documents, presentations, images, audio files and videos. Over 50 different types of media can be used in a VoiceThread.

Commenting: Comment on VoiceThread slides using one of five powerful commenting options: microphone, webcam, text, phone, and audio-file upload.

Sharing: Keep a VoiceThread private, share it with specific people, or open it up to the entire world. Learn more about sharing VoiceThreads.

Below is a link to an example Voicethread created by an educator and her students. It was easy to embed the Voicethread into Brightspace, but WordPress (this site) doesn’t play nicely with embed code. Click on the image below to view the Voicethread.

Voicethread example for education

Voicethread provides for both audio and text comments. It is one of the most accessible Web 2.0 platforms that you will find. 

More resources:

Voicethread also offers a series of higher ed webinars “to improve your pedagogical use of VoiceThread or plan a group viewing of an archive with your colleagues to stimulate an engaging professional development event on campus about teaching with VoiceThread.” The webinars are presented by Michelle Pacansky-Brock, a Voicethread evangelist and an eLearning professional educator.

How About Those School Secretaries

How about those school secretaries? Can I get a booyah!? The text below was printed in the Tuesday edition (4/21/2015) of the Superior Telegram. Here’s a link to the letter at their website, although it will probably disappear soon. This was written as an ode to my wife, who is a school secretary extraordinaire.  I’ll add more editorial comments at the bottom.

I'm the school secretary, what's your superpower?This week is Administrative Professional’s Week in the U.S. In the old days, it was known as National Secretaries Week. My particular interest lies with those who are administrative professionals at our schools, especially those within the School District of Superior.

What are some of the different jobs these people perform on a regular basis? Here’s a partial list:

• She (or it could be a he) is a public relations specialist when a parent has a complaint about a teacher or a policy or a school incident.

  • She performs triage when an ailing or injured student walks in the office and the school nurse is already occupied or otherwise unavailable.

• She is the security officer, deciding who is allowed past the locked front door and who isn’t.

  • She is the receptionist who first greets visitors after they enter the school.

• She’s the shrink who listens while students and colleagues pour out their troubles.

  • She assumes the role of the Public Information Officer when a journalist (or blogger) calls for information about an incident or for any other reason.

• She’s the social worker who keeps both eyes on the lookout for signs of a child in danger.

  • She’s the legal eagle who tries to protect students and staff by knowing who has which restraining order and who just got charged for drug possession or child neglect.

• She’s also the one who puts up with a multitude of crazy parents that think she’s not doing a good enough job raising their children for them.

  • She is the babysitter that parents take advantage of when they don’t pick their kids up from school in a timely manner. She often stays late because at least one kid is still sitting in her office waiting to be picked up, hours after school ended.

• She is the superhero who will be the human shield to protect your child from physical harm.

  • She’s the administrative support professional who doesn’t care if you call her a secretary; because if she had that kind of an ego, she never would have taken this job in the first place.

• You might have noticed that most of the items above are not typical duties of a secretary. You’d be right about, and yes, she does those normal support things as well.

She’s also the person who gets derided because she “gets the summers off, so how hard can that job be?” Then she bites her tongue rather than explaining that after going through 10 months of the activities on list above on a daily basis, that yes, a person needs some time to get her own head on straight and to fire up for the next 10 months of stress and lack of appreciation.

She’s also a mother, wife, sister, daughter, friend and neighbor. Appreciation. Respect. Love. They deserve it, and then some.

End of letter to the editor

She’s also one of the school employees with the lowest compensation, both in salary and in total. I would never argue that the teachers and others at the school should be paid less, because they shouldn’t. I can argue strenuously that the administrative support personnel should be compensated more highly. Here are a few of my thoughts about their compensation:

  • My wife is a skilled restaurant manager and server. She could make as much money waiting tables three nights a week at a decent restaurant as she makes as a school secretary.
  • Her school district benefits have been stripped to the level where they no longer matter much, so again a server position with no benefits is pretty much at the same level.
  • Because she has time off in the summer, her cost of family health insurance benefits (which we can’t afford in the first place) would be higher than what her boss (the principal) would pay for family health insurance. Since she is not on the payroll at all during July, she (and other employees in similar positions) would have to pay the full cost of the health insurance premium for that month. For family coverage, that would be approximately $1,500 for that one month. So yes, the lowly-paid school secretary would pay $1,500 more annually for her health insurance than does the much more highly-paid school principal. Maybe this is moot since the cost of health insurance is so far out of bounds in the first place.
  • My wife has the skills to be employed in more highly compensated positions. That’s a good thing, because if I died or became unable to work, there is ZERO CHANCE that she could support herself and our kids on what she makes as a school secretary. She would have to quit the job that she loves in order to support her family. In other words, the only way that our family can afford for her to work as a school secretary is for my salary to subsidize the low pay offered by the school district. I wouldn’t care about that if they deserved her loyalty – but they don’t. Their actions about employee compensation speaks much more loudly than their words of faint praise.

Accessibility Concerns of Using Prezi in Education

In a previous post, Mea Culpa – Accessibility Concerns of Using External Tools in the LMS, I mentioned the accessibility concerns that come from using many of the popular external tools (Web 2.0 tools, if you will) inside the LMS. I previously posted about the accessibility issues with Slideshare. One tool that has become a darling of the edu crowd is Prezi. For this post, I’m not concentrating on the uses of Prezi within the LMS, but more generally at the a11y concerns with using Prezi in any way in education.

Accessibility of web-based tools in education. This one failed the test.Prezi is almost completely inaccessible to students with disabilities, particularly low-vision and no-vision students (and faculty, of course). Prezi admits as much, and currently don’t seem to have any concrete plans of addressing this shortcoming. In their own words:

Regarding a request for a Voluntary Product Accessibility Template (VPAT) from Prezi; “I’m afraid we don’t currently have a VPAT for Prezi. Prezi is not ADA compliant.Prezi Community Forum, October 8, 2014

” I also did not want to be misleading and say “We’re working on a solution right now” when we clearly are not.” Prezi Community Forum, March 30, 2011

“However, we are working hard to make the Prezi website fully 508 compliant. For example we are experimenting with a nice transcript outline for presentations to let our users get a clue what is inside the presentation.” Prezi Communty Forum, March 5, 2010. Notice that this comment is almost five years old, and they have now enabled the possibility of a transcript, but have made very little progress to date to address the many other accessibility concerns with Prezi. Their actions (lack thereof) are speaking louder than words.

I haven’t used Prezi for a couple of years, until I created a new presentation (and a new account altogether) for use in this post. Similar to the Slideshare presentation from the previous post, I created a sample Prezi presentation about Jekyll Island, Georgia.

Screenshot of one of my old Prezis - you can no longer embed a Prezi  in, such as this site. Click the image to visit the Prezi site.

Screenshot of one of my old Prezis – you can no longer embed a Prezi in, such as this site. This Prezi was created before they added the transcript feature. Click the image to visit the Prezi site.

Here is a partial list of the a11y problems that will be encountered when trying to view a Prezi via assistive technologies:

  • “Text” (in appearance only, apparently) written in a Prezi is not readable by a screen reader program.
  • It’s not possible to add alternate text to any images that you include in your Prezi.
  • You cannot tab through a presentation, which is standard operating procedure for keyboard access. Tabbing through the links on the Prezi will result in completely skipping over the presentation frame.

On the plus side, there have been a few enhancements that help lessen the accessibility issues with using Prezi in education; including:

  • You can now use keyboard shortcuts (instead of only mouse movements) to create a Prezi, although you have to be able to use a mouse to turn them on (off by default).
  • The transcript feature is a minor improvement, however there is no way to edit the transcript, or export it or embed it along with an embedded presentation. You have to enter the text into the Prezi in the order that you want it to appear in the transcript. Anything that you add as an afterthought will be at the end of the transcript, even if it is at the beginning of the presentation. Prezi spokespeople say that the transcript is to “support search engines,” not users with disabilities.
    • If you look at the transcript in my Jekyll Island Prezi, you’ll see that the text is out of order. I would have to re-create the presentation from scratch to get the transcript correct.
  • You can add an audio track to a Prezi, which would enhance accessibility for students without hearing disabilities. You can add audio narration at specific points in your Prezi. The audio files will start when you reach the chosen point in the presentation and stop playing when you move away from that place in the Prezi.

So, maybe you love Prezi and have no plans to stop using it for providing course content to your students. That’s your choice, but I believe you also need to (or should) make another choice; and that choice is to always make an alternative presentation that is equivalent in content and fully accessible to students with disabilities.

Are you interested in some classic examples of things that are incongruous? How about the over 1,000 Prezis that have been created about web accessibility. Here is one particular example, where the suggestions for making web content accessible are quite good, except that you can’t do most of them when working with Prezi itself.

Barry Dahl is solely responsible for the views and opinions contained in this post. No other association with any legal entity is implied or real.

Accessibility Concerns of Using Slideshare inside the LMS

In my previous post, Mea Culpa – Accessibility Concerns of Using External Tools in the LMS, I mentioned the accessibility concerns that come from using many of the popular external tools (Web 2.0 tools, if you will) inside the LMS. One tool that I frequently have recommended over the years is Slideshare. Here’s a video that I put together back in 2007 about using SlideShare inside the LMS (D2L). That was then, this is now.

Accessibility of web-based tools in education. This one failed the test.For a long time there were inherent problems with using PowerPoint slide decks on the web. Sure there were various ways to do it, but none of them were great. That’s not quite true, because there were some great tools, but they weren’t free; which was another aspect of the tools that I shared in my presentations. They needed to be free, and easy to use. Web accessibility was not one of my criteria, but it is now.

When Slideshare came on the scene, I became an early user and started including it in my presentations about using Web-based tools inside the LMS. Here, for example, is an embed of one of my old slide decks (use your imagination and envision this embedded into an online course, instead of this blog):

You can view the Slideshare transcript (opens in new window) at their site, but these slides were not constructed to be accessible. Thus, the transcript is not very useful to the unsighted user. There is a great deal of information in the slides that they would not have access to.

The easy to find, easy to use embed code was one of the reasons why I liked Slideshare. Webbifying the otherwise bulky, clumsy PPT slides was so much better than trying to get native slides to play nicely in the browser. But what about accessibility (a11y), you ask?

You can make PPT slides that conform to most of the a11y standards (or good practices, if you prefer). Wouldn’t it be great if your accessible PPT slides could be uploaded into Slideshare and still be accessible? Sure, that would be great. Sadly, that’s not how it works. At least, it won’t work that way without you planning ahead to make it so and then jumping through a couple of extra hoops.

There are a few a11y issues with using Slideshare:

  • PPT slides are converted into images. There is no way to attach alt text to the slide images in Slideshare. Therefore, you must include all pertinent information in text format for each slide (methods described below).
  • Although a transcript is created by Slideshare, the transcript is not ported over with an embed of the slides in another site, such as in the Content section of the LMS. Students would need to navigate to the original page at the Slideshare site in order to access the transcript, and then they have a lot of other stuff to navigate through before reaching the transcript (thinking from the perspective of a student using a screen reader such as JAWS).
  • The transcript only includes those things that are in text format in the original PPT slides. In other words, if you use images in your PPT slides, there is no information at all about those images in the transcript in Slideshare, unless you describe them in your text.
  • You can embed a YouTube video (should it be captioned? Yes, but many are not) into a Slideshare presentation, however, I cannot see how a student using a screen reader would be able to operate the video controls which are now inside the Slideshare frame.
  • For a few years, Slideshare had an option to add an audio track to narrate your slides. Although I never checked it for a11y, it potentially could have been a boon to students who could listen to the narration. However, Slideshare removed this “Slidecast” feature during early 2014.

I’m cognizant of the move in recent years to more of a “Zen” approach to PPT slides – with heavy emphasis on images and minimal text. This approach is great for live presentations, but not so great if the slides are going to be shared for asynchronous viewing. Zen-type slides will only cause greater issues for sight-impaired students due to the lack of explanatory text. For my work-around examples, I’ll go with heavy imagery in the sample slides.

So, if you’re going to use Slideshare for delivering course content to your online students, how can you do so with an eye on accessibility? Here are a couple of work-arounds.

  • All important information about each slide needs to be made available to students in text form, probably in the Slideshare transcript.
  • Method one is to hide the text behind the images on the slide, with the resulting text appearing in the Slideshare transcript.
  • Method two is to use the Notes field in the PPT program to put all the info needed for full learning. Then convert the PPT into a PDF, with the Notes Pages selected as the saved format. This then puts the Notes into the Slideshare transcript.

For illustrative purposes, I’ve made a simple four-slide presentation using PowerPoint. I have then uploaded two versions of those slides to Slideshare, with the embeds shown below.

Method One. The Slide Title holder is placed on top of the image and formatted for readability for sighted students. The explanatory text is hidden behind the image which will then populate the Slideshare transcript. After embedding the slides into the LMS, I would also copy and paste the transcript from Slideshare into the LMS content page.

Transcript pasted below from Slideshare page:

  • Slide 1. Jekyll Island is off the coast of Georgia; one of the Golden Isles of Georgia
    If you’ve never been to Jekyll Island, you need to put it on your list. Beautiful beaches, wildlife, unique flora, and a great deal of history can be found throughout the island. The Jekyll Island Club was founded in 1886 and was a vacation spot for the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. It is now a luxury resort hotel, and has been beautifully restored. (This is text hidden under the image on slide one.)
  • Slide 2. Majestic “Live” Oak trees are found throughout the 9 mile long island
    The old oak trees on the Island are a sight to see, with Spanish Moss hanging down, often creating a thick canopy. Many of the tree trunks are covered with the beautiful Resurrection Fern. These trees are considered to be “live” oak because they are evergreen; remaining green throughout the winter rather than going dormant and leafless. The Southern Live Oak is the state tree of Georgia. (This is text hidden under the image on slide two.)
  • Slide 3. Driftwood Beach, North End of Jekyll Island
    A special attraction on Jekyll Island is Driftwood Beach, sometimes referred to as the Elephant Graveyard because of the unique formations of the large driftwood pieces scattered along the beach. The trees died over the past 200 years, primarily from beach erosion. There aren’t any real elephant remains there, but the driftwood formations are worth the trip. (This is text hidden under the image on slide three.)
  • Slide 4. Hungry? Try the Low Country Boil
    The shrimp on Jekyll are super fresh and locally caught. Add in potatoes, sausage, corn-on-the-cob, peppers, onions and seasonings; and you’ve got the famous Low Country Boil. Consider eating on the dock at the Rah Bar at the Historic Wharf near the Jekyll Island Club. (This is text hidden under the image on slide four.)

Also, Slideshare seems to be putting the title text AFTER the slide text, which seems weird. I edited the transcript to put the title text in the appropriate spot in the pasted transcript.

Method Two.  The descriptive text is placed into the Notes field in PPT. The Notes View is then saved as a PDF and the PDF is uploaded to Slideshare. Sighted students now have the advantage of seeing the explanatory text, and the transcript provides the same information for sight-impaired students who are using a screen reader program, but keep in mind that unsighted students using a screen reader will not hear any information from the slides & notes in the Slideshare embed. As in method one, the transcript is copied from Slideshare and pasted into the LMS content page so that students don’t have to navigate out of the LMS to the bottom of the Slideshare page.

Transcript pasted below from Slideshare (first slide only)

  • Slide 1. Jekyll Island is off the coast of Georgia; one of the Golden Isles of Georgia
    If you’ve never been to Jekyll Island, you need to put it on your list. Beautiful beaches, wildlife, unique flora, and a great deal of history can be found throughout the island. The Jekyll Island Club was founded in 1886 and was a vacation spot for the Rockefellers and Vanderbilts. It is now a luxury resort hotel, and has been beautifully restored. (This is text put into the PPT Notes field on slide one.)

Overall, this is a lot of work to make these slides accessible when using Slideshare. Although I have been a long-time fan of Slideshare, I’d be inclined to dump it altogether for a more accessible presentation program. Sadly, as we’ll see in future posts, there aren’t many choices for that.

NOTE: for this particular tool, I only looked at the perspective of a faculty member using it to provide slide content to a class of students, not looking at the issues with students using the tool themselves for uploading slide shows, which creates different concerns.

Barry Dahl is solely responsible for the views and opinions contained in this post. No other association with any legal entity is implied or real.

Mea Culpa – Accessibility Concerns of Using External Tools in the LMS

Over the past 10 years or so, my most popular conference workshops have been those involving the use of Web 2.0 tools inside the LMS. I’ve always enjoyed those workshops immensely, and it’s fun to see the light bulbs come on as they discover ways that they can engage their students in new and different ways.

Gravity is a lot like accessibility - it's the lawI gave another one of those workshops in November 2014, and it is probably the first time I’ve done so in the last year and a half. The topic has become a bit dated and I usually had different topics to explore instead. As I was making the recent presentation, it struck me how totally different it was now compared to how it used to be. My focus was completely different, and with very good reason.

There were two things that I focused on that never used to be part of the presentation:

1) Due to browser changes, I now focus on the web sites that that don’t create a mixed content issue when embedding content inside the secure (https) learning platform (learn more here), and

2) Due to a change in priorities, I now focus on the web accessibility issues of using external content inside the learning platform. It is this second point that is the focus of this post and a few additional posts to come.

When giving this presentation 5-10 years ago, questions about accessibility would occasionally come up, but not often. Although I don’t specifically remember what my responses were at the time, I do know that they were not adequate. There have always been serious issues related to accessibility for online learning content/activities, but years ago it was easier to blow them off as not being a high priority. These days I consider it to be one of the highest priorities. Yes, I guess I had a revelation about accessibility somewhere along the way.

So here’s the deal. If you are creating course content using an external tool, or if you are having students do required work using an external tool, then it is incumbent upon you to make sure that you are using creative output and/or external tools that are fully accessible to students who have disabilities.

I’m currently wrapping up facilitation of the first offering of the Web Accessibility MOOC for Online Educators (WAMOE). Throughout this MOOC, we’ve focused on creating accessible course content using HTML pages, Word Docs, PPT slideshows, and PDF docs. That’s all well and good – but if you then introduce external tools, you need to make sure that they are accessible too; and many of them are not.

In a series of undetermined length, I’ll examine the accessibility features (or lack thereof) of many of the popular external tools used in eLearning. I’ll probably say it repeatedly, but it’s okay to use a non-accessible tool as long as you make appropriate accommodations for students who are not able to use the tools. For the tools that reduce accessibility, I’ll also give one or more suggestions for a work-around that should be put in place if you really want to use the inaccessible tool.

Scott Walker has been Great for Education – in Minnesota!

This is a follow-up to my post from October 2012, Replacement Teachers Coming Soon to Wisconsin. Not surprisingly, I received lots of pushback on that article from those who “Stand with Walker,” including many who don’t live in Wisconsin and have no idea what is happening here, except for what they are told by bloggers and faux news people.We stand by while Scott Walker ruins Wisconsin

Every time I see another “We Stand with Scott Walker” yard sign, I assume that the home owner hates education and educators. I’m not sure what else to think here in Superior where Scott Walker has started the ball rolling down a hill where the result will be a severe lowering of the quality of public education.

So, what’s happening here in Superior, Wisconsin? Superior is a border town. It takes me 3-4 minutes to be on top of the “high bridge” and into Minnesota. After leaving my house, I could be pulling into the parking lot of a half dozen Minnesota schools within 15 minutes. But I’m not the one doing that. That commute belongs to the excellent teachers and other education employees who have recently taken better jobs on the Minnesota side of the border.

The migration of our best educators from Superior to schools in Minnesota has begun. From one elementary school alone, four excellent educators recently quit their jobs in Superior to take similar, but better, jobs in Minnesota. Why did these educators jump to the other side of the bridge? Because they couldn’t afford not to. They needed to have affordable health insurance for their family, and they no longer had that in the Superior School District.

Good teaching jobs in Minnesota, lousy teaching jobs in WisconsinNote to all school administrators in Duluth, Proctor, Hermantown, Esko, Cloquet, Two Harbors and others; the best Superior teachers are ripe for the plucking since you offer them much better benefits than they now receive in Wisconsin.

The stripping of decent health insurance was a two-step process. Scott Walker didn’t accomplish it completely on his own, but he took care of part one, which was stripping away the collective bargaining rights. I case you missed it, the 2011 Wisconsin Act 10 was proposed by Walker, passed by the Wisconsin Legislature, and became law, effective June 29, 2011. At that point, the School District of Superior no longer had to negotiate with their employees over anything except pay raises.

The second step in the process has to be owned by the Superior School Board. They are the ones who took the opportunity provided by Walker to decimate the affordability of the health insurance coverage offered to employees of the school district. One example of the devastating change in employee health insurance is the quadrupling of the annual deductible for family coverage from $1,500 to $6,000.

If ever there was a case study for the importance of public employee unions, Scott Walker’s actions and the resulting fallout would be it. His supporters believe, apparently, that public employees don’t need unions because their employer (the gubment) is always above board and would never screw them over. Those same people like to point to FDR’s statements about how public employees don’t need the protection of unions and collective bargaining. That was in the 30’s and 40’s, and if we still had government leaders like FDR, maybe the public employee unions wouldn’t be necessary. Instead we have politicians like Scott Walker, and there is no doubt that the public employees need protection from the actions of their government employer.

To my friends on the police force and those in the fire halls, he’ll be coming for your collective bargaining rights next. Obviously he hasn’t wanted to do this until after the election, because he’s counting on your votes to get re-elected. As soon as the Wisconsin Governor election is over, Walker will be positioning himself for a run at the White House; and that means finishing the job he started by wiping out all public employee unions in Wisconsin. Do you like your employee benefits? If so, then you’d better protect them, because Scott Walker won’t.

I Stand Against Scott Walker!

I Stand WITH Education and Educators!

Two More Things that Bug me About Quality in e-Learning

Last week I published the first post in this series of undetermined length. Here is post number two. As a recap, bug Number One was the lack of a definition for the term e-Learning Quality. Bug Number Two was the excessive focus on course design and the lack of focus on more important pieces (IMO) of e-Learning Quality. Here are the next two bugs.


This one goes hand-in-hand with the issue about defining quality. We need to look at quality as a continuum, something along the lines of the graphic below.

Online Learning Quality Continuum

When people use the term “eLearning Quality,” we usually assume they mean high quality or excellent quality, but of course there can also be low quality. In other words, the term “quality” is really not descriptive enough. Just adding the word assurance, such as in a quality assurance program, still doesn’t cut it for me. “I assure you that your quality is really crappy.” How’s that for quality assurance?

We would be better off to talk about Excellence in e-Learning, or my preferred term of Excellence in e-Education. The other thing that the chart illustrates is that most quality standards tend to aim at the large middle section – which is indicative of being good enough, rather than excellent. It’s really not that high a bar. My suggestion is that you stop talking about Quality, and start talking about Excellence.


Very often a discussion about e-Learning Excellence comes around to a comparison of course completion rates between online courses and F2F courses. That focus on completion rates is seriously misplaced. It’s a classic case of comparing peaches to pears.

Completion rates expectations.

Of course it makes perfect sense to most people when that comparison is made. Those people believe that if online learning results in fewer successful course completions, it must be due to the lower level of quality for those online courses. What other reason could there be? Well, there could be several other reasons. Here are some of those reasons:

1. Demographics differences (Learning House Report pages 27-31)

We know that there is a fair number of students who mix F2F classes with online classes. But we also know that those students who are exclusively engaged in online learning, taken as a group, have some different demographics than those who engage exclusively in F2F learning. In other words, they are not two homogenous groups. Online students work more hours (60% of them work full-time), are more likely to be parents (and especially single parents), and are more likely to be part-time students rather than full-time. In fact, those demographics differences are some of the reasons why students choose an online education path in the first place – because their plates are already pretty full. See also the demographics differences from my former college.

2. Differences in student support

All students need many support services, and the on-campus services are typically better delivered than the comparable online services. Sure, some schools are doing an exemplary job of providing online access to a full range of student services, but many others are not.

Online students expect 24/7 access to these services (L/H page 20), but see a significant performance gap (Noel/Levitz pg. 6) in those services provided by their colleges and universities:

  • Online library and research
  • Technical support
  • Academic advising
  • Career placement

3. Differences in instructor preparation/familiarity

Every term there are lots of faculty members who teach  their  very  first  online class. Sure, there are also some faculty who are teaching their very first F2F course, but not to the same level as the number of noobs for online teaching. And besides, chances are good that the first-time F2F teacher has been sitting in F2F classrooms as a student for 15-20 years before their first attempt at teaching in the same setting. It’s not unfamiliar territory.

At my former college, I tracked the student final course grades in classes that were taught by new online faculty over their first few semesters. This was not part of their evaluation, nor was it used in any significant way with, for, or against the instructor. I was simply curious. What happened to student performance as the instructors became more experienced with online teaching? I doubt that you’ll be surprised that student achievements (as measured by final grades) generally  got better as the instructor gathered experience with the modality. The chart below is based on real data collected about dozens of faculty members who started teaching online courses during my tenure at the college. These three anonymized instructors are representative of the typical data – although there were a few exceptions to this general upward trend. Loosely speaking, I think the data show that instructors see better results from their students as the instructor gains more experience in online teaching. I don’t think that’s surprising, but I do think it’s something that we need to consider about the maturity of online education. We get better at it the longer we do it. At least most of us do.

Student grades with new online instructors

NOTE:  this chart depicts the percentage of students who successfully completed (passed) an online class during the first five terms that an instructor taught that class online. In each case, this was the instructor’s first foray into online teaching.

4. Differences in student familiarity with online learning

Much like newbie faculty members, there are also a new batch of first-time online students each and every term. Every fall term at my former college, about 40% of the online students were first-time online learners. No matter how many years of schooling they had endured, this was their first taste of online learning. That 40% figure remained fairly constant from about 2005 to 2010, when I left the college. Nationally, the rate is probably below that number, and it is probably slowly going down over the years as online learning is less and less of a novelty.  I’d say that a conservative estimate of the overall rate is 25%. In other words, every time a new term starts, at least 25% of the online students are taking their first-ever online class. It’s probably a higher rate, but 25% is high enough to make the following point.

At the beginning of each term, what percentage of students sitting in a traditional F2F classroom are doing so for the very first time?

Effectively zero percent. Let’s allow for the occasional home-schooled student who has never been in a traditional classroom – not ever. It could happen. So, let’s conservatively estimate that about 0.001% of the F2F students are sitting in a F2F classroom for the first time ever.

And yet we expect those two groups to achieve the same level of success in those courses? Doesn’t that sound just a little bit insane?

Comparing completion rates between online and face-to-face

Click to enlarge

Online course completions continue to get better and better, as we figure out how to be more effective online educators and as students learn how to be better online learners. If anything, the e-Learning Atheists (naysayers) should be concerned that the difference in rates is so small, and getting smaller. More about those improving completion rates next time.


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