As mentioned in a previous post a few months ago and discussed in our recent Hangout on Air, we have been working on updating various components of our site and courses. Phase I of this (or at least the first part to be public facing) was the redesign of our website in September. We announced then that, moving forward, we would focus more attention on featuring and improving a subset of our 300+ courses. Those 93 courses are listed on our various Featured Pathways pages.
We are happy to announce that beginning today, students can enroll in these updated courses. To do so, go to learn.saylor.org.
The single largest change for these 93 courses is that they will now be delivered through the open source learning management system (LMS) Moodle rather than our WordPress site. Any of our students who have taken a Saylor Academy final exam are already familiar with Moodle, which is the system that has administered our exams and issued certificates (we use a different, newer version at learn.saylor.org).
What does a “soft launch” mean?
Functionally, these courses are fully ready for students and we encourage students to jump in and make the switch now. The content and structure of courses mirrors the previous versions that are still accessible at saylor.org (though future updates will only be made in Moodle). You can use your existing Saylor Academy account to log in and the courses are fully linked to your ePortfolio account.
There are, however, some things still in transition. For instance, enrolling in a course via ePortfolio (i.e., having that course displayed on your “In Progress” tab) will not automatically enroll a student in the course in Moodle. In order to access the new versions of quizzes, a student will need to enroll in the course specifically on our Moodle site. This is similar to the current need to enroll in a course at our testing center just before taking the final exam, even if you have previously added the course to your eportfolio course list.
We will continue to fine-tune our various platforms, making further integrations and perhaps scaling back redundant and confusing aspects of the ePortfolio system to account for increased functionality in our improved Moodle course platform.
Soon, all access to the 93 featured courses will be routed through the Moodle site rather than the WordPress site. During this soft launch, however, as we test the strain on the system and address unanticipated issues, we will continue to host both versions of courses at their respective URLs. When the switch fully occurs, URLs will redirect to the Moodle version of the course, so there will be no need for students to update bookmarks or for us to change links in ePortfolio and our course listings, to ensure students are accessing the most up-to-date versions of the courses.
The road to a new course delivery platform was long…like really, really long. Switching systems is something that had been on the horizon for over a year. This was in part based on specific student feedback and requests for course features, as well as our own organizational desires to have our courses be more effective at educating our learners and allowing them to achieve their goals. We looked at numerous systems, hit many roadblocks, and ultimately landed close to home.
From an organizational standpoint, a couple of factors were key to deciding upon Moodle. First, as with WordPress, there is no fee for us to use Moodle, which is important given that we are a non-profit organization whose aim is to be open to an unlimited number of learners. Second, as a provider of openly-licensed courses, we think it is important to be connected to other open source projects. Not only is Saylor Academy fundamentally aligned to some of the core principles of open source, but Moodle’s large and active community of developers continually add new features, meaning that there will be a lot of room to grow and improve our site at a sustainable cost (we may perhaps be able to contribute some open source plugins of our own). Other platforms such as Canvas, Sakai, and Open edX meet these previous criteria as well, but the fact that we had already done development work linking our custom ePortfolio system to Moodle ultimately made the porting of course content into Moodle the most viable option.
What to expect?
The changes that you will encounter while engaging with these courses are a bit more substantive than the previous website updates. Initially, the main areas of change will fall in three categories: course progress tracking, embedded assessment, and more dynamic course completion certificates.
Perhaps the most asked for course feature from Saylor Academy students has been a progress bar. In these updated Moodle-based courses, users will have various ways to track their progress. Overall progress bars — broken down by individual course units, quizzes/activities, and final exams — will provide students with both a visual reminder of what they have completed/what remains, as well as an additional method for navigating directly to various parts of a Saylor course. Additionally, because each portion of a course in Moodle has its own unique ID, we can use the built-in activity completion settings to allow students to see a running checklist of the portions of a course which have already been viewed and completed.
The ability to assess knowledge and receive feedback are crucial components to any student-centered course, particularly Saylor Academy courses that otherwise do not have direct student-teacher interactions built in. In the past couple of years we’ve worked to add more Saylor-developed assessment materials into our previous iteration of Moodle, mostly in the form of multiple-choice end-of-unit assessments. In addition to those embedded assessments we had also curated openly-licensed assessments created by others, and developed written assessments that could be useful despite our not having the capacity to read and grade each student’s work. Often, however, these sorts of assessments were made available only as PDFs or by linking to third-party sites, which made it difficult for students to maintain coherent records of work completed in a Saylor Academy course (it is also difficult to avoid the temptation of looking ahead to the answer, which the PDF versions of assessments more easily allowed). A noticeable difference in many of our Moodle-based courses is that we have converted numerous activities into resources that live inside the learning environment and allow students to complete, save, and review their work directly within the course. We will strive to continue to take advantage of Moodle’s assessment capabilities by developing and adapting more assessment materials.
Finally, via our recently-announced partnership with Accredible, our course completion certificates will have a new level of functionality and portability. With the move to a more current version of Moodle, we have also put ourselves in a better position to work with leading EdTech providers who are designing cutting-edge products for popular learning management systems. One such technology is Accredible’s dynamic web-based completion certificates, which come equipped to automatically pull together a picture of students’ participation and engagement in courses that are more complete than the static PDF certificates issued from Moodle. These “Evidence of Learning” artifacts include (or will include*) students’ scores on formative quizzes and unit-summative assessments, as well as the final exam; student responses to open-ended text-based course activities; relevant work samples and résumés, if any, that the student has stored in ePortfolio; the date the student enrolled in the course and the date the student passed the final exam; and participation in study groups.
In addition to the data points that the certificates retrieve automatically, students may choose to upload additional documentation of their success in the course. From the certificate dashboard, students may choose which pieces of supplementary information to share and display for others, and can additionally send a request for a personal reference related to their achievement from a mentor or advisor. Accredible certificates may be published on social media and LinkedIn, and each certificate has a unique URL that students may pass along to potential employers or schools. Of course, students will still have the option to save and/or print their certificates from a PDF file.
The switch to an proper Learning Management System for our course delivery will have some additional behind-the-scenes benefits as well. On our WordPress site, gathering useful data about which courses students were actively taking and how far along students proceeded prior to dropping out was very difficult. This was due to the combination of the backend structure of our courses and the fact that courses did not require a log in. Courses in our new Moodle environment will still allow for limited access as a guest, but by requiring users to be logged in for the full course experience, we hope to be able to help students better succeed. For instance, if we can see how long it has been since a student has accessed a course, know how long students are spending in each unit, or can monitor bottleneck areas that are routinely difficult for learners to progress past, then we can improve course content accordingly or create intervention schemes to reach out to students and help them along the way.
It will now also be easier for us to be a true steward of open educational resources (OER). While our courses have always been openly licensed and free for anyone to reuse and adapt to their needs, they have never been very easy to download and edit. We are still working on the public facing download option, and direct LTI integrations, but in the meantime we can at least easily export our courses in common cartridge specification, making them more readily available to institutions that also use a system that supports this standard.
What you won’t see…yet
Phase II of this site update is not the end of the line. While we have spent many hours moving content from one place to another and organizing it (our previous site did not allow for easy exporting of course content and subsequent import into Moodle), the truth of the matter is that as of this moment, the courses themselves, for better or worse, have not really changed.
We are in the process of improving and upgrading course content, however. Now that we have our courses in the environment where we want them, we can once again begin to address issues such as broken links, swapping in more OER, and creating more assessments. Part of the reason for scaling back our focus to a set of featured courses — aside from the fact that these have predominately been the most popular courses — is that we are better able to make targeted improvements when doing so on a smaller scale. As a first step we’ve already engaged faculty to examine each of the featured courses and identify places where individual pieces of content need updating. Based on these findings we are now curating OER in a more systematic and efficient way, in an effort to provide courses that are forever free to use by individual learners, but are also easier to adopt by teachers and institutions, which will indirectly help students who are enrolled in schools elsewhere save money.
The future of “Legacy” courses was addressed during our recent Office Hours. The legacy courses are accessible only through the WordPress site at the moment. Stay tuned, however, for a detailed description of where these courses will be hosted in the near future and how users will be able to engage with that course content in a new and interesting way.
For now, we hope you will join us as we move forward in our new course delivery environment, and welcome your thoughts and feedback.
*Some of the Accredible features listed are still in development, and will be implemented in the coming weeks.