Online Delivery

This post originally appeared on the Software Carpentry website.

As the announcement of Version 4 said, Software Carpentry is being redesigned so that it can be delivered in several ways. I want to support:

  1. traditional classroom lectures, with someone at the front of the room talking over a series of slides and/or coding sessions to a captive audience;
  2. students reading/viewing material on their own time, at their own pace, when and as they need it; and
  3. hybrid models, in which students work through as much as they can on their own, then get help (face-to-face or over the web) when they hit roadblocks.

#1 isn't easy to do well, but the challenges involved are well understood. #2 and #3 are going to be a lot harder: it's new ground for me, and despite the fact that the Internet is older than many of my students, most of the educational establishment still thinks of it as "new" as well.

There are hundreds of books and web sites devoted to e-learning, but the majority just recycle the same handful of inactionable truisms. ("When designing online material, try to make it as engaging as possible." Well, duh.) Most of the high-quality material focuses on research about e-learning, rather than instructional design itself. For example, Richard Mayer's Multimedia Learning says a lot of interesting things about whether people learn more deeply when ideas are expressed in words and pictures rather than in words alone, and the principles he derives from his research are good general guidelines, but again, there's little help offered in translating the general into the specific.

If there isn't much explicit guidance available, what about prior art? MIT's Open Courseware got a lot of attention when it was launched, but its "talking heads" approach reminds me of early automobiles that looked like horse-drawn carriages with motors bolted on. Carnegie-Mellon's Open Learning Initiative (which advertises itself as "open courses backed by learning research") is more interesting, but what has really caught my eye is Saleem Khan's Khan Academy, which I first encountered through one of Jon Udell's interviews. Khan has created hundreds of short videos on topics ranging from basic addition to mitosis and Laplace transforms by recording himself sketching on a tablet. The results are just as digestible as Hollywood-quality material I've viewed elsewhere, and with 25 lectures to do in less than 50 weeks, his low-ceremony approach appeals to me for practical reasons as well.

Of course, any believer in agile development would tell me that there's only one right way to tackle this problem (and in fact, one did just an hour ago). By the end of May, I plan to put one lecture—probably the intro to relational databases and SQL—up on the web in two or three formats, and then ask for feedback. Is one 50-minute video better or worse than five 10-minute vignettes? Do people prefer PowerPoint slides with voiceover, live sketching/coding sessions (complete with erasures and typos), or some mix of the two? How important is it to close-caption the videos? If classroom-style slides are available as well as the video, how many people look at each? I know how to do these kinds of usability studies, and hopefully enough people will volunteer opinions to help me choose the right path.

Dialogue & Discussion

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