E-Literate’s Michael Feldstein Weighs in on Digital Content in Higher Education Today

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Over 17 years ago, Michael Feldstein set out to understand what was important to him about EdTech and how he wanted to embark in the field. Despite his initial skepticism, blogging his thoughts about the industry seemed like a natural step, when the practice of online journaling was in its infancy. E-Literate was born and has become an authoritative space with the mission to help higher education institutions and the education companies that serve them to help students succeed in a 21st-century world.

Other initiatives such as the Empirical Educator Project (EEP) have also sprung up as a result of Feldstein’s work with E-Literate. EEP’s mission is to get educators and EdTech companies together to discuss challenges and opportunities in the field, based on the proposition that higher education must and can transform to meet the challenges of education today.

E-Learn spoke with Feldstein to gather insights on how he sees the evolution of digital content in higher education today and how EdTech companies can effectively support them. The goal? To provide high-quality online learning experiences.

What comes to mind with the statement ‘No one has learned from the LMS alone’?

The LMS was created based on the physical metaphor of the classroom. Now, over time, the LMS has accrued various layers. Slowly, the LMSs began to get capabilities like conditional release, being able to tag pieces of a course in an LMS with learning objectives, and even psychometric tools on their assessment platforms. So the capabilities are there, but many faculty don’t think about the LMS in that way. They think about it as a virtual classroom. Now, with so much asynchronous learning taking place, they probably don’t think about the LMS as their virtual classroom, but more of a file distribution method for the class. 

We’ve made significant progress over the years in getting a higher percentage of faculty who use the LMS in very significant and creative ways. Ways that impact learning. However, I still think there’s a high proportion of faculty that don’t necessarily see or understand some of the design functions of the LMS because the original design and metaphor of the LMS wasn’t built around those capabilities. So, it can be difficult for faculty to wrap their heads around it.

Also, many faculty don’t know about learning design. They don’t know why it would be desirable to tag all of their LMS activities and content with learning objectives. So, if they don’t understand that, it will be difficult for them to realize what they could be doing within the platform. 

What types of digital content are higher education institutions looking to develop and how can EdTech companies support them?

The pandemic accelerated the need for capacity expansion on campuses. Some universities had more capacity than others when it came to digital content. Many colleges and universities in the United States actually have significant capability around digital content, thanks in part to the MOOC movement. In fact, many build MOOCs now, and a larger footprint of higher education institutions are bulking up on their EdTech support and have been for the last couple of years. 

However, many of these internal support teams were not providing their full range of skills, mainly because faculty weren’t asking for it. So the shift is that many faculties are now asking more from the individuals that can support them with online course delivery.

What are some key elements of effective instructional design to improve student outcomes in eLearning?

There are two points that I believe are essential and are connected.

     1) Backward design. Always start with your teaching goals. What are you trying to accomplish? Work back to understand how you would measure teaching outcomes. Consider: What are your assessments going to be? And then work back from that. Given the assessments and experiences you decide upon, what do students need to do in order to learn the course objectives? Having that mindset is the first step, which is a simple idea but can be difficult in practice. 

     2) Learn about analytics. When learning analytics are well-conceived, they give you a lens to see patterns of behavior in your class that you’re not used to seeing. 

These two points are connected because if you practice backward design, your lens is more focused. If your students are having trouble with an assessment that is tied to an assigned reading or content that is then connected to a learning objective, that provides you with a diagnostic chain where you can understand whether the content is being effective at conveying the knowledge that students need for the learning objective. Also, evaluate if your assessment methodology is correctly assessing what students need to know. These are universal concepts that can be applied in teaching in any discipline.

Do you think there are any roadblocks to institutions using analytics effectively to inform their digital content strategy?

When higher education institutions go through the process of tagging everything in their LMS and tracking that, they can only track the student data and performance inside their LMS. If they get a courseware product from a vendor, the data lives inside the courseware product. Even if the vendor provides the institution with good analytics, then those analytics about activities are completely separate from what you can see in the LMS, and so opportunities to help faculty get a holistic view of what is happening across these platforms are missed. That’s the biggest roadblock. 

Also, professionally-designed courseware comes with a number of learning activities that are already tagged to learning goals, so if it’s well-designed, and therefore well-instrumented courseware, faculty are going to get a number of learning objectives already coded into the product that they’re using explicitly tied to activities. 

Often, one of the challenges in getting faculty to use those capabilities inside the LMS is that they don’t see the value in it. It may represent a lot of work on their end, it may take a while for them to get the value, and they don’t envision it. But if we had the data and those analytics flowing in from the courseware, faculty would start to get curious about seeing data points tied to activities they have in the LMS and the student’s performance.

How do you see online learning in terms of content practices going forward in academia? Do you see institutions adopting innovative tech solutions such as AI?

The advances in AI are astonishing. What we’ve seen in natural language processing algorithms will blow you away. I think that the focus on algorithms on personalized learning and adaptive learning has some value and is very useful in a certain range of domains and practices that are aligned with it. We are seeing the biggest gains in math, for example. I think the most interesting applications in AI are in helping educators navigate the tools that they’re using and to help them really work on the craft that we were talking about. Do they have good learning objectives? Do they need suggestions on learning objectives based on the content that they have? 

I think an exciting opportunity for AI would be to place AI tutors in front of faculty. It would help them to better understand and learn the kind of pedagogy that enables them to improve their teaching practices using these new tools.

Are there any digital content trends that you would like to highlight?

I think that there will be more colleges and universities that are going to be motivated to encourage faculty to create content and digital curricular experiences that differentiate from the textbook/known-publisher experiences that students are having everywhere. I think there’s going to be more creation of university-specific content, and in those cases, being able to understand their tech toolkit will be key. 

It’s about getting faculty to understand what tools can do for them in terms of design, and getting the LMS to integrate with pre-purchased products in ways that allow them to do more original work and content. This is going to be an important and almost inevitable trend.

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