OLC Collaborate Chicago Conference Reflections

By Christine Scherer

On November 19, the SPS Distance Learning team attended the Online Learning Consortium (OLC) Collaborate Chicago Conference, hosted at Rush University. The conference included several panels on subjects like regulation, learning analytics, and competency-based education, and breakout sessions that dug into a specific factor of each panel topic. The DL staff have shared their thoughts on some of the most thought-provoking and memorable aspects of the conference.

Jessica Mansbach, Learning Designer

The most interesting idea I took away from the OLC conference was the level of curiosity about competency-based education (CBE). Faculty and administrators from different types of institutions generated some compelling discussion about how to implement CBE, how to prepare faculty to deliver CBE, and how to help students succeed in CBE programs. I was struck by the levels of both excitement and skepticism about CBE across different disciplines (nursing, business, liberal arts) and at the graduate and undergraduate level. The conversations about CBE seemed to raise more questions than answers, which suggests to me that this is a topic that will continue to be discussed at OLC events.

Jackie Wickham, Instructional Technologist

I volunteered as a scribe at the OLC Collaborate Conference. It was an interesting experience to attempt to capture a lively breakout discussion following John Whitmer’s talk on learning analytics! The discussion focused on using learning analytics to support and inform strategic institutional efforts. Three main themes emerged in the breakout discussion:

  • Using learning analytics to capture faculty behavior: This data could be used to follow up on student complaints, correlate faculty activity with student success, or design training for faculty.
  • The use of self-report data in conjunction with LMS analytics: Students can self-report effective domain information such as confidence in their ability, confusion, or inspiration.
  • Ethical and legal implications of using learning analytics: At an institutional level, who has access to what data?

Overall, I enjoyed volunteering at the conference and think that all three themes are worthy of follow-up discussion as learning analytics are used more widely in online education.

Krissy Wilson, Learning Designer

John Whitmer discussed the results of his doctoral research, among them that frequent and consistent LMS use is more strongly correlated with student performance than demographics, such as prior success in high school or Federal Pell Grant status. He noted that “LMS use is a proxy for effort” and could be equated with on-ground “time on task” but cautioned against making consistent predictions of success based on analysis of login volume and reading time.

His findings have real implications for instructional designers, as developers of courses that students are eager to return to, and provided insight for online instructors as they work to identify and engage struggling students.

Christine Scherer, Content Specialist

Marshall Hill, executive director of NC-SARA, talked about the importance of balancing regulation and innovation in higher education. While many of the policies Hill discussed related more to interstate education regulation, the conversation in the breakout session brought up a number of other regulations that learning designers, instructional technologists, and faculty need to keep in mind. For example, regulations surrounding students with disabilities and accessibility greatly influence the course design process. Regulation is often seen as opposing or stifling innovation, but if implemented well, regulation can actually be a tool to support innovative developments in education.

Elizabeth Lemke, Learning Designer

Competency-based education (CBE) could be the educational cure-all for dissatisfied college graduates struggling to align their degree with a lucrative professional career. CBE is rooted in self-paced learning paths where students take as much or as little time as they need to demonstrate mastery of established competencies. The self-paced nature of CBE informs one of the biggest roadblocks to mainstream acceptance of this educational model in higher education: How do you measure “seat time” or credit hours in the CBE model? How will credit hours and direct assessment be reconciled in the eyes of federal government regulation and the Department of Education? Traditionally, a program of study requires the completion of X number of courses or credits, so how does CBE affect the definition of degree-seeking programs of study? How does CBE affect what it means for a student to “take a course”? While many students can and will benefit from this kind of education, there are myriad questions to be answered before it’s accepted in the mainstream of higher education and available to all who wish to participate and benefit from CBE. The federal government isn’t known for quickly implementing sweeping changes in policy, so it seems for the time being, CBE is reserved for students who know what skills they need to master and for those who can afford it without government assistance.

Patricia Chrastka, Multimedia Coordinator

My biggest takeaway from the conference was Dr. John Whitmer’s presentation on learning analytics at the course level. Using the analytic tools available through his LMS, he was able to conclude that demographics generally don’t matter in relation to the student’s performance. He also found an interesting correlation between the number of clicks per student and their grades: higher number of clicks equals better grades. There are also a few dangers that we must be aware of in the field of learning analytics. Dr. Whitmer mentioned despite having powerful data mining tools embedded into our LMS, the faculty’s intuition and student’s experience is still a top priority in course design.

William Guth, Instructional Technologist

The session/topic that most interested me was the learning analytics presentation, led by Dr. Whitmer. Items that really stood out for me where the finding that time spent in the LMS during the duration of a course is a better predictor of success for students, rather than indicators from a student’s past academic performance. And that students who clicked on the announcements performed better than students who did not click on or check the course announcements. Apparently, what students do in a course is more important than who they were or are as students.

Aaron Bannasch, Instructional Technologist

My most memorable takeaway from the OLC Collaborate Chicago 2015 conference is a theme that I recognized across multiple sessions: communicating expectations and orienting participants to a platform or a way of interacting. It means realizing that in this new territory, students are not the only learners here; it also means realizing that decades into the Information Age, this territory is no longer quite as new. It isn’t just the students who are learning and interacting on the platforms we provide; everyone, from staff to faculty, are learning alongside them and all come to it with different expectations.

This makes both initial and ongoing digital literacy support important to the success of all participants. It isn’t a singular competency that is checked off of a list, but rather a structure of interdependencies that recur over and over in different situations and at more complex levels. It means moving as a whole into an interconnected and analytic mindset, bringing our institution along at the same rate of adaptation that is expected of our students. Doing this will demonstrate Northwestern’s commitment to this style of education and prevent disproportionate advances in selective areas while the rest of our systems and practices lag behind. I look forward to discovering what we all were able to take away from the conference, and more importantly where we intend to bring it.

To learn more about the OLC Collaborate Chicago conference, visit the conference Resource Center, which includes notes from the presentations and breakout sessions, links to additional material, and presentation slides. Let us know what you think in the comments below or via e-mail.


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