University of Maryland University College has created a practice to build online learning material that is completely customized to the course. The advantage of the practice reduces the time and cost to build such material. The practice outlines how to develop material in small atomic parts, called Learning Nodes. Often these parts are reusable and can be used for multiple courses. Complete course material can be constructed from these Learning Nodes. Since Learning Nodes can be part of multiple courses, the time and cost to build course material is reduced.
Developing high quality learning material for online courses can be difficult. Some faculty and institutions use traditional textbooks. While this is convenient it seldom is the best material for the online platform and student body taking online classes. Another approach is to develop more custom learning materials using Creative Commons and custom developed material. While this produces a better quality of material, finding, customizing and compiling the material is time consuming and expensive.
Creative Commons is a copyright designation that some authors give to their work. Creative Commons makes the work freely available and gives others the right to modified it. This makes excellent material for courses. There is a growing body of Creative Commons material for all subjects.
Also, many online schools are moving to a competency–based approach. Currently there are few if any textbooks for this educational model. Institutions are forced to develop custom material to implement this approach.
The University of Maryland University College has developed a technique to reduce the cost of developing custom material by eliminating redundancies in learning material. Our findings show that often as much as 25% of course material is redundant within the institution. Because most classes are developed without considering other classes, this redundancy is seldom identified.
Here is one example. The quadratic equation is a^2 + b^2 = c^2. Certainly, the learning material for the quadratic equation would include a description, the equation itself and some examples. It often is covered in a few pages of material. But the quadratic equation may be part of many courses. The obvious example is in a Geometry course. But the quadratic equation can also be used to find the distance between two points on a plane or grid. So, it is important in Physics classes and Video Game Theory classes. Many video games have two players on a grid and need to determine their distance apart. It very well might be used in other classes.
Typically course material is organized and developed according to classes, books and chapters. When this is done we fail to see the redundancies. This new practice develops course material differently allowing for material to be developed that eliminates redundancies.
This new technique, Dynamic Hierarchical Learning Material (or DHLM), creates material in discrete units that we call Learning Nodes. A Learning Node is much smaller than a book or even a chapter. In the example above the few pages on the quadratic equation would be a Learning Node. Learning Nodes are then placed in a repository. This allows them to eventually be used in multiple courses. And when the Learning Node is updated, the update spans all of the courses that use the material.
Material for online courses can be generated statically or dynamically depending upon the technology used. These methods will be explained in the Equipment Necessary section below. But the general concept is that a course’s material is constructed as a series of Learning Nodes.
UMUC has created numerous classes using the DHLM practice. These include introduction to programming courses. Our findings show that as much as 25% of course material is redundant. But we fail to see these redundancies because we focus on material one class at a time and not across the institution.
We believe that this practice supports the OLC pillars.
Learn Effective: This practice allows students to use highly specialize material that are customized to meet the course instead of using traditional textbooks.
Scale: One reason schools do not create custom learning material is because of the cost. This approach reduces the cost through removing redundancies.
Access: Cost effective custom learning material give students a better chance of completing classes and degrees.
Faculty Satisfaction: One common complaint that faculty have is a dislike of the textbook. Choosing a textbook to many faculty is difficult because no single book captures the topics or sequence that the faculty wants. This practice allows for the creation of totally customized material.
Student Satisfaction: Students what to learn the material in the most efficient way. Customized material is part of this and better than a textbook.
DHLM can be implemented using many different technologies. Generally, there are three categories of technologies that can be used: Learning Management Systems, Content Management Systems, and Word Processors. Selection of the appropriate technology depends upon size of the institution and budget.
Learning Management Systems: Classroom software commonly called Learning Management Systems provide basic classroom features like gradebook, discussions and delivery of content. All of the major ones have triggers that can be set to control visibility of content. This can be used to show the appropriate content in the appropriate order for the course and student.
Content Management Systems: Content Management Systems store, organize and deliver content. These are ideal platforms for DHLM. For example, WikiMedia, the software that runs Wikipedia, is a free CMS. Each Learning Node can be a page in WikiMedia. The classroom can use hyperlinks to build the order of the content or the WikiMedia plugin PDFBook will create a PDF book by selecting a series of WikiMedia pages.
Word Processors: For institutions with limited budgets DHLM can be implemented with most Word Processors. Using Microsoft Word each Learning Node can be a Word document. The repository can be a simple shared folder or series of subfolders. Another Word document can be the material for the course. Using Word’s Insert File feature this Word document can be made up of a series of Learning Node documents. If the Link to File feature is used, when Learning Node files change the document with the links will change also. Instructors can simply make a PDF of the material or use other formats.
If the school currently builds course material through Creative Commons and custom developed material, they will actually save money. If they use textbooks, there is a cost to this practice.
This approach has been published in a peer review conference.
Brown, M. S., Williams, L. & Pelosi, M. J. (2018). Dynamic Hierarchical Learning Material for Educational Institutions. Proceedings of the 2018 IEEE Integrated STEM Education Conference. Princeton, NJ, March 10, 2018.