CTL Blog

Results from Winter 2010 Course Tools Survey

February 17, 2010 | 8 Minute Read

At the start of the academic term, students in online courses received an email message asking them to participate in a survey about possible new tools and changes to existing tools in online courses. We received excellent feedback from this survey, and I wanted to share some of that feedback with you.

Let me first thank everyone who participated in this survey for their time and feedback. Without direct feedback from the students who use our online course system each and every day, we can't be sure that we're building tools that make sense to you. Doing surveys like this is quite eye opening, not only because of the honesty of the respondents, but because of the great ideas that the respondents share with us.

The majority of the survey focused on a potential new tool for online courses. Here was the description presented in the survey:

We are considering adding a Facebook-style "news feed" box to each course home page. This box would list the activities of students within the course Web site and would update in real time. Students wouldn't have to manually add posts -- it would all be done automatically by the system. Example posts could include:

- Bill Bridges is watching "Summary Measures."
- Janet Marsden logged in to the course.
- Lilly Taylor posted to the course BBS in the topic "Questions for LiveTalk."
- Amit Ghan is watching the archive of "LiveTalk 2."

Where possible, links to the referenced lectures, BBS postings, LiveTalk archives, etc, would be automatically generated inside of each news feed item.

Certain activities, such as taking a quiz/online exam, or submitting a file to a Drop Box, would not be listed in this news feed.

Students would be able to opt out of having their activity reported in this box.

A key reason for considering adding a tool like this to online courses was to enhance the sense of community in the course and allow students to get an overview of the student activity in the course in a style with which they were already familiar: the Facebook news feed. The reason we received, however, was mostly negative.

A majority of respondents felt that this tool would not enhance the sense of community in the course (57/139) or weren't sure if it would enhance the sense of community in the course (29/139). Most students didn't want themselves or others to be able to add their own messages to the course feed (76/139), and when asked "How useful would this tool be to you?," the majority of students felt that the tool would have little to no use for them in their online courses, as seen in the chart below:

As usual, the really interesting feedback about this tool came in the open-ended comments. Quite a few students felt that the tool would be too intrusive, almost Orwellian, and a distraction while they were trying to get work done on the course Web sites. A number of students also suggested that it would do little other than to foster competitiveness between students as to who was "furthest along" in the course and make those who may be lagging slightly in the viewing of course content feel like even bigger laggards. That said, quite a few of those who objected to this particular tool also wanted to see the sense of community in online courses protected and enhanced. 

Given the mostly negative feedback we received for this tool, it's not something we'll implement in online courses at this time. A number of students saw value in this, however, so we'll keep our options open, but the majority of students made it clear that we had other issues and ideas to address first.

The survey then proposed a list of possible changes to course Web sites and asked respondents to pick the one item from the list that was most important or useful to them. Here are the results:

The choice that garnered the most votes was "Provide continual access to the courses that I've taken in the last two years." This is an issue which we are actively working on, so it's good to see our work validated by student feedback. This issue probably won't be resolved in the current year, as it's one of significant complexity behind the scenes, but we understand that it's a strong student need and one we need to address.

The next two vote getters would bring small, but highly useful, new features to online courses: the ability to play video versions of course lectures on a smartphone, iPod, or iPod Touch, and the ability to synchronize all items in the course calendar with Outlook. In order to implement the first request, a special version of each and every lecture would need to be created so that they would be playable on a smartphone, iPod, or iPod Touch. Additionally, the content of each slide in a lecture would have to be examined and perhaps reworked because what looks fine on a big desktop screen may not be legible at all on an iPod. Implementation of the second request would likely be less work and time intensive, although creating true synchronization between a tool like Outlook and online courses may be difficult to achieve because of the limitations of the iCal format which is used by tools like Outlook, Google Calendar, and Apple's iCal. Creating iCal entries for each item in the course schedule for import in to Outlook, Google Calendar, or Apple's iCal is definitely something we'll be looking in to.

Next, respondents were asked to pick a single tool currently in online courses and suggest one change for making that tool better. Again, as this was an open-ended question, the results were varied and very useful. Some common themes emerged:

  • Quite a few students had suggestions for improving the BBS, particularly the area of showing new posts, responses to your posts, editing old posts, and overall organization and navigation. This is something we'll definitely be working on, and something for which you'll probably see another survey in the next few months.
  • Improve the editing capabilities of the wiki.
  • Improve lecture playback by always providing MP3 audio, making the lectures downloadable, showing video of the faculty speaking while lecturing, and providing a single PDF file with all the slides rather than one for each lecture section.

I need to interject here and state that while it's certainly possible for MP3 audio to be made available for every lecture, the decision to do so is up to the faculty in each course. Some of the lecture content in online courses from the School is highly valuable, proprietary content which faculty feel should not be freely downloadable and redistributable. That's a legitimate intellectual property concern which is simply not going to go away. However, the more faculty hear from students that it would be beneficial to have lecture audio in MP3 format, the more likely they are to reconsider their position on the topic.

I also want to respond to the many students who commented about the LiveTalk archive playback problems that you have had to suffer through in the last term. We here in the Center really do understand how frustrating this problem has been. We don't like to play the blame game, and we really do want the archives to just work, but sometimes the problems with a system as complex as LiveTalk are not simple to diagnose nor resolve. In this particular case, the problem wound up not being with the LiveTalk software, but with a typical system maintenance task on the LiveTalk server which, unbeknownst to the person who set it up, caused the mayhem through which you had to suffer. Now that we know what the source of the problem is, we can ensure that it does not happen again.

Back to the survey.

The final question of the survey was "is there something missing from online course Web sites that would make your academic life easier or help you connect more easily with other students and faculty?" Common themes from responses to this question were as follows:

  • Mobile versions of the course Web sites and the content in the Web sites.
  • Video of faculty in LiveTalks and lectures.
  • Provide a calendar of all activities in all online courses in which you are currently enrolled.
  • The ability to send instant messages to friends and group collaborators who are currently online.
  • Elimination of the eReserves site as a place for readings, journal articles, etc., and put all of those documents in the course online library.
  • Merging of the CoursePlus and online courses Web sites.

These are all great ideas worth exploring. While there may be issues of copyright (eReserves), bandwidth (video during LiveTalks), and privacy (instant messaging), the ideas that you provide to us really are a source of inspiration and help to direct the projects we'll tackle next.

Again, I want to thank everyone who took the time to respond to this survey. I may not have mentioned a specific suggestion that you made, but please rest assured that we take every comment and suggestion seriously. If you have follow-up questions, comments, or suggestions, feel free to post below!