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Friday, March 09, 2007

Repost from the AECT BlogTrack - Virtual Schooling Evaluations

Well, I had hoped to get this out earlier in the week, but oh well... This entry from the AECT BlogTrack is the first entry for the month of August and the eighteenth overall in the re-posts from this series.

One of the more commons ways that research has been conducted on virtual schooling has been through the process of conducting evaluations. In May and June I posted a series that outlined the research studies that I have conducted with virtual schools, specifically the Centre for Distance Learning and Innovation. In that discussion I failed to mention one of the more recent evaluations that I conducted. While it was two years ago now that it began and about a year ago that it concluded, it is worth mentioning here and discussing what I found.

Evaluation of the Illinois Virtual High School Course Development Process

The purpose of this evaluation was primarily formative, i.e., to provide the client with the reliable information needed to improve the course development process utilized by the IVHS. When the IVHS was first established, it relied heavily on packaged courses from external vendors to quickly populate their course offerings. Over the past five years, the IVHS has continued to rely on external vendors but has also developed courses, using teachers as subject matter experts and course authors, and external design and production staff (eCollege) to support their efforts.

Unfortunately, there was great variability between each of IVHS’ offerings. The productized nature of vendor-based courses led to uniform navigation, interface, and instruction but only within a single vendor’s offerings; IVHS’ multiple vendors deployed different models. Also, despite the shared experience of the design tutorial and the support of a core team, IVHS course authors’ development was executed with more of a course-by-course approach, introducing even greater variability. Over time, IVHS has worked to alter the course development process and deliverables and provide greater design support to course authors. As the IVHS begins to develop more of its courses internally, particularly using this new tool, and its total number of course offerings continue to grow, consistency within and between courses will become more important.
Overall, course developers are pleased with their experience in developing courses for the IVHS. The IVHS has had fourteen of their thirty-three developers design more than one course. A majority of those developers who were surveyed would develop yet another course if asked and would also recommend course development to a friend or colleague. This is indicative of the fact that the developers are generally pleased with their course development experience.

The IVHS course development process is fairly open-ended with a lot of room for developers to create the kind of course that they want to create. Compared to the course development process of other virtual schools, the IVHS is very open-ended. Developers with the IVHS are given pretty much a carte blanche for the structure and style of their courses, whereas developers with other virtual schools are typically expected to work within a structured template. This reality has resulted in many different “looks” and “feels” to the IVHS courses, to the point where there is so little consistency between courses that it is entirely possible for a student to feel like they are actually taking courses from two separate entities. In addition, the IVHS appear to provide their developers with guidance from both the IVHS and eCollege on an ad hoc or as needed basis and payment is made upon completion of the course, whereas the contracts for development utilized by other virtual schools spell out specific deliverables by specific dates for a specific portion of the overall payment (which is actually two to three times the amount offered by the IVHS).

Also, the vast majority, if not all of the course developers for the IVHS are former or practicing teachers with little experience in the design and development of structured learning activities outside of their own classroom. While this has been a positive aspect of the course development process, as these individuals bring a wealth of classroom experience into the development of their virtual courses, it is also provide many challenges for these developers. Many of the developers expressed concern about the lack of guidance provided by both the IVHS and eCollege in terms of how to go about creating their courses to what to include in their courses to formatting issues. However, many of the developers also commented on the helpfulness of the people at the IVHS and eCollege in their course development process.

Approximately half of the IVHS courses were developed by a team of two or more developers and this has worked well in some instances and not so well in others. From 2001-02 to 2003-04, the IVHS has fifteen of their thirty-seven courses developed by a team of developers. In instances where the two or more developers got along, the partnership appeared to work well and even some of the individual developers commented on the usefulness of having more than one developer. However, there were instances where a team of developers simply did not get along or they had differences of opinion in terms of what the course should include. In these instances, the two parts of the final course were very different in their style and substance, and even in the nature of the content of the course. In addition, these teams did not benefit from the act of two professionals coming together to develop a shared product.

The course developers for the IVHS were trained as teachers and unable to utilize the technology of the web to its fullest capacity. It was state earlier that the vast majority, if not all of the course developers for the IVHS are former or practicing teachers with little experience in the design and development of structured learning activities outside of their own classroom. Many of these individuals also possessed few of the technical skills that could be used to really enhance their courses by taking full advantage of the medium of the World Wide Web. In other course development processes technical experts were hired in addition to subject matter experts to develop the courses. In these course development systems, a course developer who had shown themselves as capable with the technology could be offered a full contract, while others who were only able to handle the content were offered two thirds of a contract with the remaining third going to someone to specifically design the multimedia content of the course.

Overall, the course developers reported to having a relatively positive experience in designing their courses for the IVHS, however, there were also a number of suggestions for improvement in the system. There were five main recommendations that came from the data generated as a part of this evaluation.
  1. Create a structure for the course development process so that the IVHS, eCollege, and the developer are under the same impressions when it comes to the nature of the assistance that can be provided and the expectations of all parties within the specific deadlines of the course development process.
  2. Divide the course development process into timed segments that describe the nature of the deliverable due at the end of each period, with partial payment for the successful delivery of each of the segments.
  3. If the IVHS continues to use a team of developers for a single course, determine a method of select team members that will work well together.
  4. Provide training in multimedia software for course developers or split the course development process so that technical developers can add multimedia components to courses after the content has been developed.
  5. Any tool used to guide the development of course developers needs to be open enough to allow for the creativity of the developer.
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