Brainstorming a Learner Flexibility Rubric

I’m hoping I can get all the smart people in my network to add to this little (asynchronous) brainstorm. For some time now I’ve been wanting to develop a rubric for measuring the amount of flexibility in online courses. I’m particularly interested in how the course design and student requirements relate to providing students with a reasonable amount of time flexibility for their online course work.

Flexibility quote by Everett Dirksen

All the data that I have collected over the years from online students indicate that time flexibility is the number one reason that they enroll in online courses. Not cost, not distance, not even preferred learning methodology; but clearly they place a premium on having time flexibility that allows them to fit higher education into their otherwise busy lives.

UPDATE (4/23): This will probably not result in an actual rubric. I’m having a hard time figuring out the lousy-good-better-best type of hierarchy that you typically need for a rubric. Instead, I’m thinking that the output will be a list of effective (or maybe “promising”) practices for ensuring time flexibility in an online course. Please keep the comments coming.

The purpose of the rubric is to come up with a way of measuring the flexibility in various online courses, and to encourage more flexibility rather than less by those who are using the rubric. I have no doubt that some online students are frustrated when they enroll in an online course with certain personal expectations about flexibility, only to find that the course offers them very little of it. These are some of the factors that come to mind for me.

Time flexibility, measured by the size of the “window of opportunity” for:

  • Quizzes and exams (how long are they open to students?)
  • Dropbox assignments (how long between start and end of assignment availability)
  • Making the required number of discussion postings per module/topic (how many days to do it, etc.)

Other factors affecting time flexibility:

  • Timeliness of quiz/exam grading (is quiz feedback received before next one is required?)
  • Stated expectations (syllabus/outline) for instructor responses to student inquiries
  • Required synchronous activities – how many, how long, and when (& are there alternatives?)
  • Required group work projects/assignments
  • Days of the week when due dates are scheduled (e.g. weekends and/or holidays)
  • Online office hours: timing of availability
  • Online office hours: modes of availability (might affect timeliness for students)
  • Added 5/3/12 from comment received: Online courses should have a rhythm or consistency to them as to when things open, when they close, how large the windows of opportunity are, etc.
  • Added 5/3/12: Appropriate amount of content
    • Too little content provided means students have to spend time hunting down relevant content that allows them to achieve the required outcomes.
    • Too much content provided typically includes content that might be on-topic, but not relevant or useful in achieving the required outcomes,; causing students to spend time filtering through the information (a case where the instructor throws everything but the kitchen sink at them).

One of the keys to this type of rubric will be to walk the fine line between enough flexibility and too much flexibility. An extreme example of “too much” flexibility would be those cases where there are no deadlines at all in the course except for the course ending date. This might work for an electronic independent study course, but not for online courses where learner interaction is expected and/or required. Based on my past online teaching experience, I find that I am in agreement with many faculty members I know who state that you must keep students engaged with the course every week (and probably 2 or more times per week) in order to not have them fall off the face of the earth (fall behind and drop out or just quit).

I’ve thought about including other types of flexibility rather than those focused on the students’ time availability. I’ve decided not to tackle those right now. For example, it might be interesting to include things related to the nature of assignments – do they allow students to choose different assignments or different methods of completing the assignment (write a paper, make a movie, make an oral presentation, etc.). I think that’s interesting, but I don’t think it captures the reason that students take online courses – which is clearly time flexibility.

Determining the specific parameters for each rubric item is yet to come. Right now I would love to have your input on other factors that could be included in a rubric to measure time flexibility for online learners. Please leave your thoughts in the comments or email me at barrydahl at gmail.

Thanks in advance, and yes, I realize this could be a colossal failure. I’m okay with that.

Desire2Work @ Desire2Learn

Let’s say you’ve been dating someone for 8 or 9 years. After all that time, you still get along really well. Maybe it’s time to tie the knot and make your relationship more permanent – or at least as “permanent” as those things can be.

Figuratively speaking, that’s what’s happening with my career in education. I recently signed a job offer sheet and all the other necessary paperwork to tie the knot with a company where I hope to spend the rest of my working years.

I’ve known some of the people in this company for nine years now. They are talented and driven and inspired. There are many other newer employees that I’ve haven’t yet met. I’m looking forward to meeting many of the newer folks during the next couple of months.

It will probably not come as a surprise to many people in the e-learning world that I’ve taken a job with Desire2Learn. I’ve told many people over the years that there was only one company that I’d dealt with while CIO of a college in Minnesota that I would be willing, even anxious, to work for. That company is D2L. Even after a nine year relationship, nothing has happened to change that point of view for me.

Almost every interaction with them has been pleasant, engaging, and positive. I consider many of the D2Lers to be friends of mine. The company is doing great and I look forward to being part of the team that continues to execute on their mission and vision.

John Baker and Barry Dahl at FUSION 2007

My connection with D2L started in the spring of 2003 when I was the chair of the the MnSCU IMS of the Future task force. Desire2Learn submitted a response to our RFP and was selected to be one of the four finalists for the process. In May 2003, I met John Baker and Jeremy Auger for the first time at St. Cloud State University for the day-long demonstration of the D2L platform. Their presentation that day, along with a superior written response to the RFP, elevated D2L to the top of the list of the platforms being considered. Other milestones:

  • My former college started using D2L in place of WebCT in 2004.logo for 2007 FUSION conference in Duluth, Minnesota
  • In 2006, I started Desire2Blog (which I shuttered last month – no new posts).
  • In 2007, we hosted the D2L FUSION Conference in Duluth.
  • In 2011, my job was eliminated at the college. John Baker told me “If you ever need a job …”
  • In April 2012, I signed an offer sheet to become a D2L employee.
  • May 9, 2012 will be my first day on the job as Senior Community Manager for D2L, Ltd.

Just a few quickies.

  • I am able to work as a remote employee so my family will not need to relocate. Major kudos to D2L for making these opportunities available. Most of my time will be spent in “the hole” (my basement (dungeon) office) and traveling. I will spend a few weeks each year at D2L headquarters in Kitchener.
  • Although I don’t start until 5/9, I’m already working on some ideas to create a whole new User Community experience for D2L clients and employees.
  • I will no longer be conducting business as Excellence in e-Education. I loved it, but I’m going to love this even more.

    Dinner with D2L friends in Denver for FUSION 2011

    CC-By photo: Terri-Lynn Brown

  • I’ve made so many friends over the years who are in the D2L user community, like those in the photo on the right from FUSION 2011. I’m thrilled that I’ll still have the opportunity to interact with all those friends and with the new friends that I’ll get to meet along the way. Yay!!

The Next Chapter – Sneak Preview

Fake magazine cover for Entrepreneur MagazineAfter leaving a job at a college in Minnesota, I’ve spent the past 16 months working as an independent contractor doing consulting, speaking engagements, webinars, and the like. It has been exhilarating, as long as that term equally applies to the highs and the lows that life sends our way.

Yep, lots of good things have happened. My network of educators around the country (and beyond) has really paid off as far as getting contracts from friends and from friends of friends. I’ve been able to do some really fun and fascinating work for a variety of clients. Much to my delight, I never was faced with the same project or task twice. Always something new, always more to learn, always the next challenge.

At the same time, it’s been a real roller coaster ride from a financial perspective. Overall, it was a definite reduction of the income with which we had grown accustomed. However, less income wasn’t the problem. Uncertainty about future income was a significant problem. I often talked about how I had a long list of “maybes” and how I needed a fair number of those maybes to turn into “yeses.” Sometimes a maybe turned into an actual contract for work to be done, but often times they didn’t. With three kids to put through college, the maybes really start to take a toll on you. “Maybe I’ll get that contract with XYZ College” quickly turns into “maybe I’ll be able to pay for my kids to go to college.”

When I told people about my adventure as a self-employed person working on the fringes of higher education, my standard line was something like this: “Being self-employed is a whole lot like being unemployed – just different paperwork.”

I’ve know for about the past year that I really wasn’t interested in trying to get another job at a college or university. I pretty much have a been-there, done-that feeling along those lines. 27 years working inside higher ed seems like enough, especially considering the uncertainty of those jobs going forward (I’m living proof of that). I was pretty sure that I wanted to always work in some way connected to higher ed, just not necessarily in the middle of it. That’s why the consulting gig was a good thing, but not perfect. That’s also why I think my next adventure will be totally awesome. I get to continue working in the education sector, I get to have a regular paycheck and other benefits, and I get to engage in totally new and exciting work with people that I genuinely like and admire.

Next week I’ll be ready to spill the beans about where this next chapter will be written and with whom. Until then, just know that this feels 100% right.

Thanks very much to my clients over the past 16 months; including Roane State CC, Minnesota State College – Southeast Technical, Broward College, MnSCU System Office, MnSCU 360 Program, Rowan-Cabarrus CC, TBR-ROCC, MCCVLC, all my webinar subscribers, and the many speaking engagements such as ELCC, Montana XLi, MODLA, WITC, SHOT, SC4, Gogebic CC, UW-Eau Claire, Davenport U, UW-Oshkosh, and many others.

Thanks very much to my mentors and references along the way: John, Kathy, Gary, Jowell, Myk, James, Lisa, and many more.

Thanks to my special colleagues, too numerous to mention, and too easy to leave some out. You know who you are (I hope!!).

This is starting to sound like an obit, which it most definitely is not. Just turning the page and moving on to the next chapter. Over the next month I’ll be wrapping up work on a couple of consulting projects  and a few speaking engagements, and then I’ll be starting a new adventure. Next week I’ll be ready to tell you about that adventure.