No More Best Practices

Those of us engaged in e-Education have a difficult time using various terms and words consistently and accurately. Therefore, we have a Best Practices Highway Sign - Next Exithard time communicating with others and they have a hard time understanding what the heck we’re talking about.

My term for today is “best practices.” It sort of makes me crazy every time I hear this because the practices are not always very good, let alone the BEST!! “Best practices” seems to be very egotistical and most likely just dead wrong. During many of my presentations I’ve made a remark something like this: “Every time I hear the phrase ‘best practices,’ I flip a little switch in my brain that converts the phrase into ‘practices that don’t totally suck out loud.’” That’s very different from “best,” and certainly more accurate.

Unfortunately, some people don’t like it when I use my favorite word (suck), so I’ve been trying to curb that urge.  For a while I found myself saying “good practices,” but that also bugs me, although a bit less than “best.” I always feel as though I’m comparing appliances at Sears – Good, Better, Best (I have no idea if they still do that, but they did about 40 years ago).

From this point forward, I am going to try to use the term “effective practices.” Unless, of course, the practices haven’t been effective and Best Practices Road Sign - Turn Around, you missed them completely.then I’ll call them something else. Effective practices sends me the message that these practices or methods have been tried and been found to be useful or worthwhile. Doesn’t say they’re the most effective; just that they have been at least somewhat effective. Also indicates that there can be several different practices that are effective, but there should only be ONE best – and I doubt that anyone has discovered that one just yet. Especially in an emerging field such as e-Education. But just in case you are the best, and you’ve discovered the best practice: More Power to Ya!!

Now let’s continue to document, to share, and to celebrate our effective practices.

(Graphics are my own. Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.)

Higher Ed – Role Models for Plagiarism?

Plagiarism brand Dog Food

I’ve been doing some contract work for a college by building them a 5-module orientation for new online students. One module is an introduction to online learning which includes a section on the characteristics of a successful online learner. Another module is on academic honesty, which includes a great deal of information about plagiarism.

While scouring websites for resources that might be helpful when forming the list of characteristics of successful students, I saw a disturbing trend. Maybe more of a tsunami and less of a trend.

One of the characteristics that I’ve seen before but never totally accepted goes a little something like this: “Be open-minded about sharing life, work, and educational experiences as part of the learning process.” Personally I think that this should not be a one-size-fits-all sort of suggestion. In fact, sharing too much about your life and especially your work can sometimes put you in a tough spot.

However, the purpose of this post is not to debate whether this is good advice, but whether colleges and universities are eating their own dog food when it comes to academic integrity. To that point, I am simply amazed at how many college websites have used this 16-word phrase, word-for-word, without any attribution to where they got it.

Not all colleges that use the phrase are offenders. A good example of how it should be done can be found from  my friends at VCU where they have a page that references different collections of characteristics of successful online students, with full attribution to sources ECAR and ION. Kudos to them.

The goofy little graphic below comes from one of the offending schools. Let’s just say that their initials are CCC. Funny (to me), but this little “Don’t Plagiarize!!!” admonition is placed on the same page where they plagiarize a great deal of information from other sites. “You must give credit where credit is due.” Unless you’re us, of course.

This community college says don't plagiarize, while they do just that.

I’m kinda pretty sure (or a little less) that the original source for this 16-word phrase about being open-minded is the Illinois Online Network (ION). Unless, of course, it isn’t. Most of the websites that use the 16-word phrase in question also use much of the rest of the ION language from “What Makes a Successful Online Student?”

You will get over 1,200 hits in the Google search results if you use the quotation marks with the phrase “Be open-minded about sharing life, work, and educational experiences as part of the learning process.” Of those 1,200+ hits – most of the top 100 are from educational institutions of some sort – mostly higher ed. As best I can tell – about 20% of them cite the source of this phrase. The other 80% provide no citation – and of course, they claim their own copyright to these pages.

I was going to provide a list of some of those schools where you can (easily) find this exact same sentence (and usually much more than just the one lifted sentence) and where no attribution is given. However, I decided against that. Anyone who has an interest can easily do the same thing. Along with a couple of Big12 schools, you’ll find lots of community colleges, some for-profit proprietary colleges, some K-12 virtual schools, and lots of other varieties of educational institutions. You’ll also find a few individual faculty syllabi where you would think they would know better.

In closing – let me draw attention to a few of the schools that DO give some sort of attribution.

  1. Isothermal Community College – attribution given to UW-Stevens Point
  2. UW-Stevens Point – attribution given to ION
  3. Iowa State University – permission given and attribution to ION
  4. Bloomfield College – attribution given to ION
  5. Walters State CC Math Division – attribution given to ION
  6. Brescia University – attribution given to ION

The other 80% could learn a lot from these schools listed above who are giving credit where credit is due.

2010 Sloan report: Say What?

It started out as an innocuous tweet from #DTL2011 by @Quinnovator, as shown below:

I have no doubt that Clark Quinn heard this directly from the presenter’s mouth in a session at the conference. Everyone else in the room heard it too. Because it was retweeted many times (more times than the 6 shown above), many other people around the Twitterverse saw this stat as well. It was even retweeted by the U.S. Dept. of Ed.

Only one problem. It’s not accurate. Don’t blame Clark Quinn for spreading misinformation. Don’t even blame the session presenter, whoever that was. The blame for the misinformation goes directly to the Sloan Consortium, and the way they chose to represent and describe some of the data from their 2010 report – Class Differences: Online Education in the United States.

I’m guessing that the conference presenter got his information from page 12 of the report which includes the table shown below (except for the red graphics that I added).

This table has VERY misleading captions for the last 2 columns. The column in the middle contains the crucial data for this table. The number of students taking at least one online course. The numbers in the next two columns are based on that center column – a) the growth rate from year-to-year in the number of students taking at least ONE online course, and b) the percentage of enrolled students who are taking at least ONE online course.

The caption says: “Online Enrollment as a Percent of Total Enrollment” and for Fall 2009 that would be 29.3%.

NO!! That is totally wrong. If an educator says that online enrollments make up 30% (or even 29.3%) of the total enrollments, then they DON’T mean that 30% of the enrolled students are taking at least one online course.

It doesn’t mean that at all – but now there are hundreds of people out there who think that online learning somehow comprises about 30% of the total course enrollments in the U.S.

Great data table – NOT!!

A Note about the Madison Conference

As I write this, the 27th Annual Conference on Distance Teaching and Learning (#DTL2011) is kicking off with the first day of pre-conference workshops. For several years I was a regular attendee of this fine conference, and I usually was a presenter for these same pre-conf workshops. Many people I know simply refer to DTL as “the Madison conference.”

I stopped attending altogether a few years ago. As the distance learning administrator for a 2-year school in Minnesota (no longer true), I couldn’t justify the cost of the conference given that there is almost nothing there for someone trying to learn new things that apply at 2-year colleges. The conference is very much focused on input from very learned people who hail from research universities (not that there’s anything wrong with that). If you want to sit through sessions with several dozen newly minted (or nearly-minted) PhD’s telling you about their research topic – then this is the place to be. I actually find that stuff to be interesting, but rarely applicable when I would return to the 2-yr campus.

During my last year of attendance, I realized that I was having a hard time finding sessions that were being led by people from community colleges (or other forms of 2-yr schools). So I went through the entire program and took a census. As memory serves, there were 135 different sessions to choose from and SIX (yes, 6) of them had presenters from two-year schools. I’ve done similar checks of the online schedules during each of the past few years and found almost identical results.

I just did it again. Here are the results with total number of sessions followed by 2-yr sessions in paren):

  • Keynotes:  3  (0)
  • Workshops:  20  (0)
  • Demonstrations:  24  (2)
  • Discussions:  32  (1)
  • E-Poster Sessions:  12  (0)
  • Lightning Sessions:  22  (4*)
  • Information Sessions:  64  (3*)
  • VideoShare Sessions:  9  (1)

In total, there are 186 different sessions scheduled at the conference (wow, that’s a lot), and 11 of them (or 9, if I don’t include the generous scoring as mentioned below) come from people at 2-year colleges.

* The asterisks indicate that I included one session that comes from one of the Florida state colleges that are no longer 2-year schools. I included them as 2-year schools since their tradition and experience still mainly lies in that arena.

With other conference choices that are much more relevant to community college people – why would they choose to spend their shrinking budget dollars on attending DTL? 

Don’t get me wrong, someone like keynoter Clark Quinn  will have valuable information and ideas for all attendees, no matter where they’re from. But still, if you want to learn about what’s happening at 2-year campuses (clearly a great source of information about DL), you need to hear from people who work in those schools.

Before I get accused of railing against this conference, let me tell you a couple of things. 1) The people who organize and coordinate DTL each year are absolutely fabulous – I love ’em. I got to know them fairly well during the years that I attended and they are totally first-rate. 2) The DTL conference is a very well-run conference. Good production value (like for keynotes, etc.), great location, friendly people, etc. etc.

In closing, let me suggest a couple of possibilities:

1) DTL should consider a separate track for people from 2-year schools and actively recruit presenters and attendees for these sessions. There needs to be more than 11 sessions sprinkled throughout 186 offerings. I know someone who could help with that task.

2) Failing #1 above, someone should organize an early August e-Learning conference specifically focused on innovations and best practices in the 2-year schools. Again, I know someone who could make this happen (so should I?)

(NOTE: your comments are welcome. I’ll turn off moderation for a day or two to allow immediate throughput.)

Resources for Webinar: Setting Expectations

On Monday, April 4, I hosted a free webinar titled Setting Expectations for e-Education. This webinar is one of the many services that I am providing through my new business called Excellence in e-Education, LLC (now shuttered). Here are the slides for this presentation.

During the webinar I referenced several different websites where you can find some examples of published expectations for online learners and online faculty. I highlighted sections of each of the following, although none of them represents a truly comprehensive list of expectations (in my opinion).

This first list shows a few examples of clarifying what is expected of online faculty members.

Penn State: Online Instructor Performance Best Practices and Expectations

UMUC: Expectations for Faculty Teaching at UMUC – see PDF for Online Teaching.

Lawrence Tech: LTU Online Faculty Expectations

St. Petersburg: Online Student, Faculty and Staff Expectations and Performance Targets

CCC Online: Policies & Procedures – Faculty Handbook – Evaluation – Faculty Gold

CUNY: Standards for Teaching and Learning in an Online Course

When it comes to shaping student expectations, many schools go no further than the basic online orientations or some sort of readiness quiz (“Is online learning right for you!?!”)  Here are a few examples of colleges and universities where they outline some expectations for online students:

Lawrence Tech:  Taking Responsibility for Online Learning

St. Petersburg: Online Student, Faculty and Staff Expectations and Performance Targets

Univ. of South Carolina:  Expectations for Online Students

Goodwin College:  Student Expectations

One of the services provided by Excellence in e-Education is helping a college draft a comprehensive set of online teaching and learning expectations, including:

  • What the college expects from online students.
  • What online students should expect from your college.
  • What the college expects from online faculty members.
  • What the online faculty should expect from the college.

Free Webinar – Setting Expectations for e-Education

In case you haven’t heard, I’ve launched a small business in an effort to make a living in my post-LSC days. It’s called excellence in e-Education and it resides on the web at (where XLENTS is sort of like Excellence, but different).

What are your expectations, Pip?

Your can learn much more about what I have to offer by visiting that website, but I’d like to especially draw your attention to a free webinar that is scheduled for April 4, 2011, titled: Setting Expectations for e-Education. The webinar will focus on the questions of why and how you should have a set of clearly developed and easily found expectations for your online learners, online faculty, and for the online administrators.

You expectations may be great ones, but does everyone know what they are? Register here.

8-Week Online Courses

My (almost former) college started offering several 8-week online courses in the fall of 2009 that would allow a student to work on 2 courses at a time, for 8 weeks at a time, and still complete the Associate of Arts degree in 2 years. This was one of the outcomes of our Flexible Learning Options action project. The slideshow below contains data about completion rates, grades earned, and student feedback about the 8-week offerings.

Highlights include:

  • During the 2010 academic year, there were 2,477 enrollments in 8-week online courses and 7,470 enrollments in all other online courses (mostly of the 16-week, full-term variety).
  • Students in the 8-week sections completed the courses with a grade of C or better 82.2% of the time, compared to 78.1% for the full-term courses.
  • Students in the 8-week sections earned a GPA of 2.93 compared to 2.75 in the full-term courses (looking at GPA in those courses only).
  • Students enrolled in summer school and the first 8-weeks of the regular semesters had better completion rates (about 85%) than those registered in either full-term courses (78%) or courses during the second 8 weeks of the regular semesters (75%).
  • In year 2 of the offerings, two-thirds of the students said they were aware that they were registering for a shorter course at the time of their registration. This was an increase from 56% in the first year.

One of the main reasons that we implemented the 2-by-8 offerings was to make it more likely that students would complete the course. That appears to be true for those sections offered during the first 8 weeks of a 16-week semester, however it appears to be slightly less likely that they will complete the course if it scheduled for the second 8 weeks of the semester. Someone should be paying attention to this going forward. Just saying.

Online Developmental Courses

I recently attended a MnSCU conference where the keynote speaker was Dr. Hunter Boylan from the Center for Developmental Education. The title was “Best Practices in Developmental Education.” During the question and answer session at the end of the presentation, an audience member asked him to share information related to examples of good practice in offering developmental courses via online delivery.

His quick retort was basically to the effect of “there aren’t any.” I actually don’t know whether there are any examples that I would consider to be best practices, but I think that many people in the audience translated his response to mean something like this: “I don’t have any examples because there can’t possibly be any.” I repeat, he didn’t actually say that, but I believe that is what many people heard.

He went on to say that the completion rates (or success rates) in online developmental courses are abysmal. Way below the rates for on-ground courses. That may be true in many places, but it’s not true at my college. I’m not here to say that my college has a best practice in online developmental courses, but I am here to share some info about our online courses.

First, a little history.

  • Fall 2002 was the 1st term that we offered the three developmental math courses online
    • MATH 0450: Pre-Algebra (23 online sections in total have now been taught)
    • MATH 0460: Algebra I (38 total online sections taught)
    • MATH 0480: Algebra II (30 total online sections taught)
  • Spring 2004 was the 1st time we taught online ENGL 0460: Fundamentals of Writing II
    • Writing II has been taught online a total 19 times
    • ENGL 0450: Writing I has been taught online 4 times, starting in Spring 2006
  • Spring 2005 was the 1st time we offered online READ 0460: Reading Strategies II.
    • Has been taught online a total of 17 times
  • All of the instructors for these courses also teach sections of these classes on-ground, or have many times in the past. One ENGL instructor is now 100% online, but she previously taught the same courses on campus.

I decided to pull the most recent data about course completions, grades, and GPA in these developmental courses. During the 2009-2010 academic year, 510 students registered (past the drop/add period) for the online courses and 2,226 students registered for the on-ground courses. Here’s a few of the data points:

  • Course withdrawal rates were identical at 15.7% for both groups.
  • More A’s were given in online courses: 25.1% to 21.3%.
  • More F’s were given in on-ground courses: 17.5% to 16.8%.
  • GPA in these courses was 2.37 for online and 2.31 for on-ground.
  • Measuring success as all passing grades (A-D), 67.5% online to 66.8% on-ground.
  • Measuring success as C or better: 62.3% for on-ground to 60.4% for online.

Here are a couple of charts based on breaking down each developmental course during the year into two buckets: online and on-ground.


I realize that this begs for answers to many more questions, such as:

  • How did these students perform in subsequent courses in that discipline?
  • What were the term-to-term or year-over-year persistence rates for the two groups?
  • How would these students have performed on identical assessments if given to both groups?
  • Could the online students have attended on-ground if online wasn’t available?
  • For how many online students was this entry into college their only opportunity for access?
  • How many online students would have done better in an on-ground course, and vice-versa?
  • etc. etc. etc.

I am planning to look into some of the data related to persistence and future success rates in follow-up courses. I’ll report back on what I find. Don’t hold your breath, it might take me a while to get around to it.

Enrollment Growth – All Online

Here’s an interesting chart that depicts the enrollment growth over an 8 year period at Lake Superior College. It is based on the the number of FYE, or full-year equivalent enrollment which is based on a full-time (very full-time) student taking 30 credits per year.

Looking at the green columns and arrows, you’ll see that the total enrollment increased from 2,923 to 3,675 FYE, or an increase of 25.7%. That’s a rather modest increase over an 8-year period, compared to gains by many community colleges, both inside and outside of Minnesota.

You’ve probably noticed the red columns by now, which represent the increase of on-ground and hybrid enrollment from 2,699 to 2,700. I guess you can say that the on-ground enrollment has been flat – as in, completely flat from the beginning to the end of that 8-year period..

The increase of 752 FYE has come as a result of the online enrollments at the college. This data indicates several things to me, including:

  • Our traditional classrooms were basically full during prime time (daytime, not too early and not too late) back in FY02 and they are still full today. We actually have a few more classrooms on campus today than in 2002, but only a few.
  • In other words, we weren’t going to get this enrollment growth on campus due to a lack of classroom space at time when people want to or are able to attend.
  • All this enrollment growth has been achieved without making our parking shortage any shorter. Basically.
  • Online enrollments at LSC have not taken away from face-to-face enrollments, which has always been one of the biggest fears of those faculty and administrators who were slow to buy into the value of online learning.
  • Without this enrollment growth, the college would have been in much more dire financial straights. The whole college has benefited from the growth of online learning.

Comments from Student Evals

Just received my stack of reports from the student evaluations of online courses for the summer term. Just thought I’d share a few of the comments. My emphases added below.

The more happy campers:

  • I really enjoyed this course! LSC Online courses are very impressive! They are so well organized and easy to use! I get better feedback than in my University on campus courses!! You are all great and thank you [name deleted] for a wonderful semester!
  • This course was more interesting than I thought.
  • This was probably the best and most addicting online class I have taken.
  • [Name deleted] has been one of the best online instructors I’ve ever had! I have completed a few from another institution, and this has been the best experience with online learning thus far!
  • I really enjoyed this course and it has really stretched my mind and made me realize there is so much more to the universe than anyone can fathom. Thanks!!
  • I have taken most of my science classes online with [name deleted] and without exception they have been good experiences and I’ve felt that I learned A LOT!  The labs and learning objectives that must be completed really a great teaching tools.  I always recommend his classes.  Again even though his class is online, I felt I have learned more than in regular classes!
  • I really enjoyed this class.  I took the same class at Lake Superior College in class and didn’t pass.  I felt like this class was easier for me to learn the material than it was in class.
  • [Name deleted] is one of those very rare teachers who really loves his students and his work.  He’s kind, fair, but isn’t a pushover, either.  Most online instructors (I’ve taken 15 online classes) don’t put forth a fraction of the effort [as he] does into teaching an online course.  I walk away having learned so much.  Thank you.
  • I’ve taken all my post high school education online.  I’m going into my senior year, and this class was great.  I learned a great deal about the subject and was treated with respect.  He was very organized and responded to any concern or question without making me feel like I was bothering him.  I was very pleased with this class, and I do not usually give this high of scores.
  • I dreaded taking this course!  By the end of this course, I fell in love with it and am toying with making it my minor!  It was so practical and real and applicable in comparison with the University’s similar course! LSC Online courses are A-M-A-Z-I-N-G!!!! Thanks for a fabulous semester!!!

The less happy:

  • The only thing that I found frustrating is that when the material had become available for the week, I would print it out and then find out that there were some changes that were made to the material without notifying thestudents about the changes.  Also, I think the material should have been available on Wednesday instead of Thursday.
  • There was no clear rubric for the class.  Feedback on assignments was unheard of.
  • For being a course titled “Fundamentals,” he graded harder than my AP1 instructor, it shouldn’t have been so strict as it was a general course for the majority of the student body, until this semester I had a 4.0 and getting a B in this class is something baffling to me and irritating.  The advance courses to courses taken at a university out of state, I found my experience with this course frustrating in the grading department.
  • This course was nothing more than reading the text book and taking a test, then writing 4 short papers.  There was no point in logging on more than once a week to take the test or turn in the paper.  I learned a boring, repetitive history of [deleted] that I could’ve learned reading the book at home and not paying for credits.
  • I work full time and take other classes.  This class was very time consuming for a three credit lecture course, which, even in an eight week summer term, should only be 6 hours of work each week. That’s 2 hours, three times a week.  Not 3 hours every day.  That said, I enjoyed her teaching style and would definitely take more classes with her.  Though, I won’t be taking any more online or summer classes.
  • I found this class hard to follow along with, it seemed like a jumbled mess, but it was still good.
  • Too much time elapsed between completion of an assignment and receiving grades and feedback, way too much time.

As you might have guessed, sometimes the same instructor has a comment in the happy list as well as the sad list. Don’t you just love these evals?