Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Benchmarks for Courseware Authoring Programmes

I was recently asked "In your opinion, should researchers compare courseware authoring programs to traditional education techniques?"

This is a slippery question! I believe that in the early stages of any technology, or innovation, human beings naturally compare it to existing technologies because that is the most convenient reference point. However, as a technology matures and people obtain more and more experience with how it works, the benchmark used to evaluate the technology starts to change. No longer do we compare it to the old fashion technology, we more typically compare its utility and functionality to earlier generations of the same product. By doing this comparison to an earlier generation of the same product we begin to develop criteria for evaluating a technology which are unique to the technology itself instead of being related to the traditional method of doing things prior to the innovation in question.

For example, when personal computers first came out, people evaluated them by saying things like “computers allow you to use Word-processing programmes so that when you type your manuscripts you can move words around and spell-check sentences; a marked enhancement over the typewriter!” In this case, people are comparing the new technological innovation (computers) with the traditional technology (typewriters). However, today when Intel announced its most recent production-ready microprocessor, the Intel Pentium Processor Extreme Edition, no one reviewing this microprocessor writes words like “this microprocessor gives computers a marked improvement over typewriters!” (Well, at least I hope no one does! *grin*) Instead they use expression that compare this chip to existing technologies in the same family, like a previously released Intel’s chip such as the Pentium 4 Processor. For example, today they might say something like “Boy the clock speed on the new Intel Pentium Processor Extreme is faster than the first Pentium 4’s that were released by Intel.” However, they would have never exclaimed similar words in 1983: “Boy the clock speed on my new IBM PC 8088 is way faster than my IBM Typewriter!” The point I am trying to make here is that the benchmark for how to describe a computer’s performance has clearly changed as the technology has matured, over 20 years.

In keeping with this idea, I believe it is natural for educators to evaluate courseware while using traditional education techniques as a benchmark until such time as the technology matures. In my opinion, we are on the cusp of the courseware maturation phase. The best practices in courseware design are not yet set in stone but we are seeing them gel slowly with the passing of each courseware development project. I believe in the near future the literature will show more and more exploration by the field into defining models for the evaluation of courseware materials. Once practitioners gain experience using these unique evaluation models, the practice of using traditional education techniques as a benchmark when evaluating courseware will become archaic, just like the typewriter (*grin*).

What do you think? Click the "comments" word below to leave a comment.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Factors when designing good intructional strategies

I was recently asked the question "In your opinion, what factors need to be considered when designing good instructional strategies in a courseware program?"

Four things came off the top of my head that need to be considered when designing good instructional strategies for courseware.

  1. Never lose sight of your target market. It sounds obvious, but I’ve seen it happen. Here’s one example, a short self-paced open-access voluntary training course was designed for the Canadian Forces their spouses and civilian members of the Canadian Dept. of National Defence. Subject matter experts, designers and developers jumped right in and created some wonderful HTML-based courseware. However, they lost sight of their target market a little bit because they intended to deploy this HTML on the Internet but created it in such a way that it does not meet the Common Look and Feel Guidelines of the Treasury Board of Canada, so now it cannot be posted on any publicly available Government of Canada server. They now have a significant hurdle to overcome. How will their target market access this web material? So a tiny bit of lack of upfront planning with respect to the target market has now put them in a position where they may have to deploy the training using alternative means instead of on a publicly available Government of Canada web server.

  2. Ensure learning activities can be completed in a manageable time. At my university students are given a benchmark of 9 hours per week of work for an undergraduate course. When designing courseware learning activities the tendency by some instructors is to take the normal classroom assignments and learning activities and just augment them with additional web-based activities. This can result in courses with very heavy workloads (i.e. well above 9 hours per week). So, I try to keep the time in mind when I am designing courseware-enabled courses.

  3. Use stable courseware/technology with supporting documentation for novices. Two years ago I fell into this trap where I designed a first year computer course that needed to have an associated bit of technology: a Java programme compiler. The professor recommended one. It was free. I was happy. However, in the inaugural offering of the course, the technology proved very hard to master by novice students. The instructor spent a lot of time on the phone helping students install and work the compiler in the first few weeks. What the instructor had neglected to tell me, and what I had neglected to consider, was that he was successfully using this compiler on-site in classroom-based computer labs where he was continuously available to help students with software issues. As a dedicated tutor he effectively served as a support mechanism to classroom students. In the distance course that we were now delivering we had not planned for this "dedicated tutor" function. So the questions, which arose from students around the intricacies of the Java-compiler, where now being fielded at a distance by the instructor and it consumed his time and resulted in some frustrated students. In the second offering of the course, we beefed up the documentation around how to install the compiler and how to use it. So it went much better the second time around.

  4. Focus on Interactivity. Whether it’s student-to-student, student-to-instructor or student-to-content, consider trying to infuse as much interactivity as possible into a course. Some courseware-enabled courses that we offer at my University that were designed 5+ years ago lack interactivity on all fronts. They are basically electronic “page turners”. Students hate it. Their expectations are much higher today for courseware than they were in the past, so plan carefully for a significant level of interactivity in your course.

           What do you think? Post a comment by clicking the word "comment" below.