We’ve all heard by now of ChatGPT, the large language model-based chat bot that can seemingly answer most any question you present it. What if there were a way to provide this functionality to students on their learning management system, and it could answer questions they had about course content? Sure, this would not completely replace the instructor, nor would it be intended to. Instead, for quick course content questions, a chatbot with access to all course materials could provide students with speedy feedback and clarifications in far less time than the standard turnaround required through the usual channels. Of course, more involved questions about assignments and course content questions outside of the scope of course materials would be more suited to the instructor, and the exact usage of a tool like this would need to be explained, as with anything.
Such a tool could be a useful addition to an online course because not only could it potentially save a lot of time, but it could also keep students on the learning platform instead of using a 3rd-party solution to answer questions as is the suspected case right now with currently available chatbots.
To find out what this would look like, I researched a bit on potential LLM chatbot candidates, and came up with a plan to integrate one into a Canvas page.
Disclaimer! This is simply a proof of concept, and is not in production due to certain unknowns such as origin of the initial training data, CPU-bound performance, and pedagogical implications. See the Limitations and Considerations section for more details.
How it works
The main powerhouse behind this is an open source, Large Language Model (LLM) called privateGPT. privateGPT is designed to let you “ask questions to your documents” offline, with privacy as the goal. It therefore seemed like the best way to test this concept out. The owner of the privateGPT repository, Iván Martínez, notes that privacy is prioritized over accuracy. To quote the ReadMe file from GitHub:
100% private, no data leaves your execution environment at any point. You can ingest documents and ask questions without an internet connection!
privateGPT, at the time of writing, was licensed under the Apache-2.0 license, but during this test, no modifications were made to the privateGPT code. Initially, when you run privateGPT, train it on your documents, and ask it questions, you are doing all of this locally through a command line interface in a terminal window. This obviously will not do if we want to integrate it into something like Canvas, so additional tools needed to be built to bridge the gap.
I therefore set about making two additional pieces of software: a web-interface chat box that would later be embedded into a Canvas page, and a small application to connect what the student would type in the chat box to privateGPT, then strip irrelevant data from its response (such as redundant words like “answer” or listing the source documents for the answer) and push that back to the chat box.
Once created, the web interface portion, running locally, allows us to plug it into a Canvas page, like so:
Testing how it works
To begin, I let the LLM ‘ingest’ the Ecampus Essentials document provided to course developers on the Ecampus website. Then I asked some questions to test it out, one of which was: “What are the Ecampus Essentials?”
I am not sure what I expected here, as it is quite an open ended question, only that it would scan its trained model data and the ingested files looking for an answer. After a while (edited for time) the bot responded:
A successful result! It has indeed pulled text from the Ecampus Essentials document, but interestingly has also paraphrased certain parts of it as well. Perhaps this is down to the amount of text it is capable of generating, along with the model that was initially selected.
A longer text example
So what happens if you give it a longer text, such as an OpenStax textbook? Would it be able to answer questions students might have about course content inside the book?
To find out, I gave the chatbot the OpenStax textbook Calculus 1, which you can download for free at the OpenStax website. No modifications were made to this text.
Then I asked the chatbot some calculus questions to see what it came up with:
It would appear that if students had any questions about mathematical theory, they could get a nice (and potentially accurate) summary from a chatbot such as this. Though this brings up some pedagogical considerations such as: would this make students less likely to read textbooks? Would this be able to search for answers to quiz questions and/or assignment problems? It is already common to ask ChatGPT to provide summaries and discussion board replies, would this bot function in much the same way?
Asking the chatbot to calculate things, however, is where one would run into the current limitations of the program, as it is not designed for that. Simple sums such as “1 + 1” return the correct answer, as this is part of the training data or otherwise common knowledge. Asking it to do something like calculate the hypotenuse of a triangle using Pythagorus’ theorem will not be successful (even using a textbook example of 32 + 42 = c2). The bot will attempt to give an answer, but its accuracy will vary wildly based on the data given to it. I could not get it to give me the correct response, but that was expected as this was not in the ingested documentation.
Limitations and Considerations
OK, so it’s not all perfect – far from it, in fact! The version of privateGPT I was using, while impressive, had some interesting quirks in certain responses. Responses were never identical either, but perhaps that is to be expected from a generative LLM. Still, this would require further investigation and testing in a production-ready model.
How regular and substantive interaction (RSI) might be affected is an important point to consider, as a more capable chatbot could impact the student-instructor Q&A discussion board side of things without prior planning on intended usage.
A major technical issue was that I was limited to using the central processing unit (CPU) instead of the much faster graphics processing unit (GPU) used in other LLMs and generative AI tools. This meant that the time between the question being sent and the answer being generated was far higher than desired. As of writing, there appears to be a way to switch privateGPT to GPU instead, which would greatly increase performance on systems with a modern GPU. The processing power required for a chatbot that more than one user would interact with simultaneously would be substantial.
Additionally, the incorporation of a chatbot like this has some other pedagogical implications, such as how the program would respond to questions related to assignment answers, which would need to be researched.
We also need to consider the technical skill required to create and upkeep a chatbot. Despite going through all of this, I am no Artificial Intelligence or Machine Learning expert; a dedicated team would be required to maintain the chatbot’s functionality to a high-enough standard.
In the end, the purpose of this little project was to test if this could be a tool students might find useful and could help them with content questions faster than contacting the instructor. From the small number of tests I conducted, it is very promising, and perhaps a properly built version could be used as a private alternative to ChatGPT, which is already being used by students for this very purpose. A major limitation was running the program from a single computer with consumer components made 3 years ago. With modern hardware and software – perhaps a first-party integrated version built directly into a learning management system like Canvas – students could be provided with their own course- or platform-specific chatbot for course documents and texts.
If you can see any additional uses, or potential benefits or downsides to something like this, leave a comment!
ChatGPT has been featured everywhere recently, with some educators being particularly worried because of its ability to craft essays, provide answers to quiz questions, and bypass plagiarism detection software. Teachers are trying to find ways to detect AI generated content, but are we being too hasty to associate AI in education with academic misconduct? Could the tool being used to cheat on courses actually help build them? I put this to the test by asking ChatGPT some questions.
Note: The purpose of this was to see how much of the course development process could be generated by the chatbot.
How to begin?
Let’s start at the beginning: how do we design a course? Well, keeping the process brief for this post, we want to start with some course learning outcomes, align them with some assessments, and generate some activities to help practice for those assessments. I have a background in linguistics and language education, so I wanted to see how this chatbot would respond to some prompts to create a generic English language course.
The following is the chat transcript from ChatGPT verbatim. Screenshots of the conversation are available below. Anything under the “ChatGPT” was written by the AI, with my comments in the “Comments” subsection under that.
Gathering the learning outcomes
Could you generate 4-5 course learning outcomes for an intermediate English as a second language course?
Students will be able to understand and use complex grammatical structures in spoken and written English, including verb tenses, modals, and conditional sentences.
Students will be able to participate in discussions and debates on a variety of topics, using appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.
Students will be able to read and comprehend authentic English texts, such as news articles, short stories, and literary works, and be able to analyze and interpret them.
Students will be able to write clear, well-organized, and grammatically correct essays, using appropriate transitional words and phrases to develop their ideas.
Students will be able to give presentations in English, using appropriate pronunciation, intonation, and stress to convey their message effectively.
These are standard course learning outcomes for an ESL course. As I simply asked for learning outcomes with no context, the chatbot has no idea how detailed they should be, or how long it will take to achieve these outcomes. Though that was tested in the next question.
Basic weekly topics
Using those outcomes, what would the topics for a 10-week course look like?
Week 1-2: Review of basic grammatical structures, introduction to verb tenses, including present perfect and past continuous.
Week 3-4: Introduction to modals, including can, could, may, might, must, should, and will. Practice using them in context.
Week 5-6: Conditional sentences, including zero, first, second, and third conditionals. Practice using them in context.
Week 7-8: Vocabulary building and idiomatic expressions. Practice using them in discussion and debates.
Week 9-10: Reading comprehension and analysis. Practice with a variety of texts and interpreting them.
Week 11-12: Writing skills, including clear organization, development of ideas and use of transitional words and phrases.
Week 13-14: Presentation skills, including pronunciation, intonation and stress.
Note: These topics might vary depending on the level of proficiency of the students in the class and the specific course design.
Interestingly here, the chatbot gave me 14 weeks of topics rather than the 10 I asked for. I believe this is because of the structure of my question, because this is fixed in a later question. This was the only glaring mistake during our entire “conversation”.
What kinds of assessments could be used for these outcomes and topics?
Grammar and vocabulary quizzes or tests to assess students’ understanding and mastery of grammatical structures, verb tenses, modals, and idiomatic expressions.
Oral presentations, debates, or discussions to assess students’ ability to participate in spoken interactions using appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.
Written assessments such as essays, short answer questions or summary writing to assess students’ ability to understand, analyze and interpret texts and convey their ideas in writing.
Reading comprehension quizzes or tests to assess students’ ability to understand and interpret authentic English texts.
Writing assessments such as essays, reports, or research papers to evaluate students’ ability to organize their thoughts, develop their ideas and use appropriate transitional words and phrases.
Oral presentations or speeches to assess students’ ability to convey information effectively using appropriate pronunciation, intonation, and stress.
Self-reflection or peer-evaluation could be used as well to evaluate students’ progress and areas of improvement.
A fairly wide range of skills being tested here – which is also down to my extremely generic requirement of ‘intermediate english language”. I thought the assessments here contained enough that someone designing a course could pick a few of them from each set provided.
Can you map the above assessments to the previously mentioned course learning outcomes? How would they align?
Sure, here’s how the assessments could align with the previously mentioned course learning outcomes:
1. Grammar and vocabulary quizzes or tests align with the outcome of being able to understand and use complex grammatical structures in spoken and written English, including verb tenses, modals, and conditional sentences.
2. Oral presentations, debates, or discussions align with the outcome of being able to participate in discussions and debates on a variety of topics, using appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.
3. Written assessments such as essays, short answer questions or summary writing align with the outcome of being able to read and comprehend authentic English texts, such as news articles, short stories, and literary works, and be able to analyze and interpret them, and also the outcome of being able to write clear, well-organized, and grammatically correct essays, using appropriate transitional words and phrases to develop their ideas.
4. Reading comprehension quizzes or tests align with the outcome of being able to read and comprehend authentic English texts, such as news articles, short stories, and literary works, and be able to analyze and interpret them.
5. Writing assessments such as essays, reports, or research papers align with the outcome of being able to write clear, well-organized, and grammatically correct essays, using appropriate transitional words and phrases to develop their ideas.
6. Oral presentations or speeches align with the outcome of being able to give presentations in English, using appropriate pronunciation, intonation, and stress to convey their message effectively.
7. Self-reflection or peer-evaluation align with the outcome of evaluating students’ progress and areas of improvement.
It’s important to note that the assessments should be designed to be both formative and summative, in order to provide ongoing feedback to the student and help them to track their progress and identify areas for improvement.
Alignment of assessments to outcomes is one of the most important parts of designing an online course. I was impressed with the combination of outcome to assessment as explaining why an assessment is being given to students is quite common.
How could multimedia help students?
Can you think of how multimedia could be used in this course to promote effective language learning?
There are several ways that multimedia could be used in an intermediate English as a second language course to promote effective language learning:
Video and audio recordings of native English speakers can be used to expose students to authentic English, including different accents and dialects. This will help students to improve their listening comprehension and pronunciation skills.
Interactive online exercises and activities, such as quizzes, games, and simulations can be used to provide students with opportunities to practice and reinforce their grammar, vocabulary, and idiomatic expressions in a fun and engaging way.
Online discussion boards, chat rooms, and virtual meetings can be used to provide students with opportunities to interact with their classmates and teachers in real-time, thus promoting their speaking and writing skills.
Online videos, documentaries, and TED talks can be used to expose students to a variety of interesting and engaging topics, and to provide students with opportunities to practice their listening comprehension and critical thinking skills.
Online flashcards, quizzes, and other tools can be used to help students to memorize and retain new vocabulary words, and to improve their spelling and word recognition skills.
Online or offline multimedia-based learning materials, such as interactive e-books, mobile apps, and podcasts, can be used as additional resources for students to explore and practice their language skills on their own time.
Online resources such as subtitles for films, TV shows or podcasts can be used to improve students’ listening comprehension, vocabulary and grammar skills.
Overall, multimedia can be a great tool to make language learning more interactive, engaging, and personalized, and can be used to support the traditional teaching methods and assessments.
The multimedia selection here is fairly common in ESL classrooms. Selecting a combination of these would enhance the learning experience. It is also helpful that an explanation of purpose is given for each item on the list.
Diversity and inclusion
Students on this course will be from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Can you anticipate any topics that would best be avoided?
When teaching students from diverse backgrounds and cultures, it’s important to be sensitive to cultural differences and to avoid topics that may be offensive or controversial. Some potential topics that might be best avoided in an intermediate English as a second language course include:
Religion: It’s best to avoid discussing religious beliefs, practices, or controversies, as they can be deeply personal and may offend some students or create unnecessary tension among the class.
Politics: Avoid discussing or debating controversial political issues, as they may be divisive and could create tension among the class.
Cultural stereotypes: Avoid making generalizations or negative comments about any particular culture or group of people, as this can be offensive and perpetuate stereotypes.
Racism and discrimination: Avoid discussing these topics in a way that might make any student feel targeted, uncomfortable or offended.
History: Some historical events can be sensitive and can cause discomfort to some students. It is important to be aware of different perspectives and be sensitive.
It is important to remember that every student is unique and has their own personal experiences and perspectives, and topics that may be acceptable for one student may not be for another. It’s best to use common sense, and if you are unsure, it’s always good to ask your students if they are comfortable discussing a particular topic.
It’s also important to create a safe and inclusive environment, where all students feel respected and valued, and where they can express themselves freely without fear of judgement or discrimination.
I included this question because of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the classroom, and with an ESL course in particular, students will be from diverse backgrounds. It was good to see that the chatbot could provide not only a list of topics to answer my question but also to give additional advice on the learning environment.
Converting this into an online course
How could everything mentioned so far be developed as an online, asynchronous course? Student interaction might be limited to discussion boards as they are likely to be in other countries with different time zones.
An intermediate English as a second language course can be developed as an online, asynchronous course by using a variety of tools and resources to create a self-paced and interactive learning experience. Some potential strategies include:
Use a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle to create a centralized location for all course materials, assignments, and communication. This will provide students with easy access to all the resources they need to complete the course. Use video and audio recordings, as well as interactive online exercises and activities to provide students with opportunities to practice and reinforce their grammar, vocabulary, and idiomatic expressions in a fun and engaging way.
Use discussion boards, chat rooms, and virtual meetings to provide students with opportunities to interact with their classmates and teachers in real-time, thus promoting their speaking and writing skills. These tools can also be used to create a sense of community among the students, despite their geographic distance and time zones.
Create and provide online multimedia-based learning materials, such as interactive e-books, mobile apps, and podcasts, as additional resources for students to explore and practice their language skills on their own time.
Use online quizzes, tests and assessments to evaluate student’s understanding, and use the results to provide them with feedback and guidance on areas where they need to improve.
Use Self-reflection or peer-evaluation to evaluate students’ progress, and areas of improvement.
Provide detailed and clear instructions for all assignments, activities, and assessments, and make sure that the deadlines are flexible enough to accommodate students in different time zones.
Encourage students to take an active role in their own learning by regularly checking in with them, providing them with feedback, and giving them opportunities to reflect on their progress and set goals for themselves.
Overall, an online, asynchronous course can be designed to be flexible, interactive, and engaging, and can provide students with opportunities to learn and practice their language skills at their own pace and on their own schedule.
I work in the field of online and hybrid learning, and often adapt existing in-person courses to online versions. I wanted to see if the chatbot could also do this, given that all of the previous answers were based on the assumption of an in-person class. This was not the fault of the ChatGPT – I never specified whether I wanted it to be an online-specific course. An important lesson here is that imprecise input will not result in precise output (see: GIGO for more information, or this article on tailoring your prompts for ChatGPT).
Still, given the updated prompt, it was able to provide both synchronous and asynchronous activities to accommodate for differences in time zones and locations.
Asking directly for an opinion
Can you think of anything else that might be important to consider when building this course?
Here are a few additional things that might be important to consider when building an intermediate English as a second language course:
Assessing students’ prior knowledge and language proficiency: It’s important to assess students’ prior knowledge and language proficiency before the course begins, in order to tailor the course content to their needs and to ensure that they are placed in the appropriate level.
Differentiating instruction: Since students in an intermediate English as a second language course will have varying levels of proficiency, it’s important to differentiate instruction and provide multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement to meet the needs of all students.
Scaffolding and modeling: Provide students with the necessary support, guidance and modeling to complete the activities and assignments.
Provide opportunities for students to practice and apply their language skills in authentic and meaningful contexts.
Encourage students to use English as much as possible: Encourage students to use English as much as possible, both inside and outside of class, by providing them with opportunities to interact with native speakers, read authentic English texts, and listen to English-language music and podcasts.
Use technology to enhance language learning: Use technology to enhance language learning by providing students with access to online resources, such as grammar exercises, vocabulary lists, and pronunciation guides.
Provide regular and constructive feedback: Provide regular and constructive feedback on students’ progress and areas for improvement. This can be done through formative assessments, individual conferences, or through online tools such as rubrics and self-reflection.
Be flexible and responsive: Be flexible and responsive to students’ needs and be open to suggestions and feedback to improve the course.
Cultural sensitivity: Be culturally sensitive, and be aware of the cultural backgrounds of the students and make sure that the course content is inclusive and respectful of different cultures.
Keep in mind that the course is not just about language, but also about culture. Provide students with opportunities to learn about the cultures of English-speaking countries in order to help them to understand and appreciate the language and its context better.
For this question, I wanted to see if the chatbot could provide additional considerations for teaching and learning. These are all great suggestions, which is probably why the AI selected them – they likely appear in many examples of educational content that it had been trained on.
Rewriting course learning outcomes to be more measurable
Can you take the aforementioned course learning outcomes and rewrite them with strong, measurable verbs? For example, “understand” is not easy to measure.
Sure, here are the course learning outcomes rephrased with strong, measurable verbs:
Students will be able to identify and use complex grammatical structures in spoken and written English, including verb tenses, modals, and conditional sentences with 80% accuracy on grammar quizzes and tests.
Students will be able to initiate and participate in discussions and debates on a variety of topics, using appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic expressions with 70% accuracy on oral presentations, debates, or discussions.
Students will be able to read and comprehend authentic English texts, such as news articles, short stories, and literary works, and analyze and interpret them with 80% accuracy on reading comprehension quizzes or tests.
Students will be able to write clear, well-organized, and grammatically correct essays, using appropriate transitional words and phrases to develop their ideas with 80% accuracy on writing assessments such as essays, reports, or research papers.
Students will be able to give presentations in English, using appropriate pronunciation, intonation, and stress to convey their message effectively with 80% accuracy on oral presentations or speeches.
These objectives are now specific, measurable and have a clear criteria of success. They are also aligned with the assessments and activities that you have previously mentioned.
I conducted an experiment which mimics the process that instructional designers routinely encounter when designing online courses. There are often a set of learning outcomes given at the start of the development process which regularly use verbs that are heard to measure such as “understand” or “know”. This makes it difficult to align assessments to outcomes because what does it really mean to “understand” something? How can we apply a rubric or grade to it?
Note that, in a real development beginning from scratch, we would want to design the course learning outcomes to be measurable from the start before anything else. In practice, however, I usually work with faculty on courses with predetermined outcomes that are either modified to more measurable ones, or linked to more measurable weekly learning outcomes.
ChatGPT modified the one verb I called out – “understand” – but left “comprehend”. Perhaps this also required a specific mention in the initial question, and is another example of how your initial prompt influences the results.
Creating a weekly schedule
Can you make a weekly schedule, from week 1 to week 10, with an overview of activities for that particular week, incorporating the aforementioned assessments where appropriate and aligning all of it with the course learning outcomes?
Sure, here’s a possible weekly schedule for an intermediate English as a second language course:
Overview of the course and introduction to the course learning outcomes
Assessment of students’ prior knowledge and language proficiency
Introduction to verb tenses, including present perfect and past continuous
Interactive online exercises and activities to practice verb tenses
Vocabulary building and idiomatic expressions
Review and reinforcement of verb tenses
Quiz or test on verb tenses
Introduction to modals, including can, could, may, might, must, should, and will
Practice using modals in context
Review and reinforcement of modals
Quiz or test on modals
Introduction to conditional sentences, including zero, first, second, and third conditionals
Practice using conditional sentences in context
Review and reinforcement of conditional sentences
Quiz or test on conditional sentences
Vocabulary building and idiomatic expressions
Practice using vocabulary and idiomatic expressions in discussions and debates
Reading comprehension and analysis
Practice with a variety of texts and interpreting them
Writing skills, including clear organization, development of ideas and use of transitional words and phrases
Review and reinforcement of writing skills
Writing assessment such as essays, reports, or research papers
Presentation skills, including pronunciation, intonation and stress
Review and reinforcement of presentation skills
Practice oral presentations or speeches
Self-reflection or peer-evaluation
Vocabulary building and idiomatic expressions
Reading comprehension and analysis
Practice with a variety of texts and interpreting them
Writing skills, including clear organization, development of ideas and use of transitional words and phrases
Review and reinforcement of all language skills
Final assessment, which can include a combination of quizzes, tests, essays, oral presentations, or other forms of assessment.
Feedback on final assessment
Review of key concepts and skills
Feedback on the course, and suggestions for improvement
Final self-reflection or peer-evaluation
Note: This is just a sample schedule, and it can be adjusted depending on the specific needs of the students and the course design. Also, it’s important to remember that the assessments should be designed to be both formative and summative, in order to provide ongoing feedback to the student and help them to track their progress and identify areas for improvement.
The language I used in this question yielded the correct number of weeks from the AI. Each week is structured to include a review of the previous week’s content, which is a common teaching technique. This is asking a lot from the chatbot! It managed to incorporate most of my requests though, which again is impressive.
What measures could be taken to ensure academic integrity in the online version of this course?
Academic integrity is a critical aspect of any course, and it’s important to take measures to ensure that students are completing their work independently and honestly. Here are a few measures that could be taken to ensure academic integrity in an online version of an intermediate English as a second language course:
Use plagiarism detection software: Use plagiarism detection software, such as Turnitin, to check students’ work for originality. This will help to detect instances of plagiarism and ensure that students are completing their own work.
Provide clear guidelines on academic integrity: Provide students with clear guidelines on academic integrity, including definitions of plagiarism, cheating, and academic dishonesty.
Monitor online activities: Monitor online activities, such as discussion board posts, chat room conversations, and virtual meetings, to ensure that students are participating in the course honestly and independently.
Use proctoring software: Use proctoring software, such as ProctorU or Respondus Monitor, to monitor students while they take online quizzes, tests, or exams.
Use randomized questions: Use randomized questions, or different versions of the same test to prevent students from sharing answers with each other.
Encourage self-regulation: Encourage self-regulation, and make it clear that the students are responsible for maintaining academic integrity in their work.
Create a culture of integrity: Create a culture of integrity in the class, by emphasizing the importance of honesty, trust, and responsibility.
Have clear consequences: Have clear consequences for academic dishonesty, and communicate them to the students.
Overall, it’s important to establish clear expectations for academic integrity and
ChatGPT froze here, the servers were experiencing high volumes of traffic.
Again, these are solid solutions which are used in both in-person and online courses. A quick web search would yield similar results as these are shared across most educational institutions.
Thoughts on further usage
It is clear that AI is set to change the way we interact with technology in education (or already has depending on how much you are using it). For this test, I simply provided the most generic input to see what the chatbot would generate. For an intermediate (however that was interpreted by the chatbot) ESL course, the learning outcomes were solid, once measurable outcomes were requested, and I was impressed by the generated weekly schedule including high level overviews of activities and assessments.
With more precise input requirements for course content and outcomes, one would expect an even more accurate output.
There are many ways that this kind of technology can be used to enhance courses – and I can see it being a very useful tool for quick questions such as potential assignments for certain learning outcomes, or figuring out if an assignment prompt might result in unintended consequences. For example, see the following:
What could go wrong?
Can you think of any potential negative consequences of using the following prompt in a classroom?
“Make a presentation on current events in your country.”
There are several potential negative consequences of using the prompt “Make a presentation on current events in your country” in a classroom setting:
Bias: Students may only focus on certain events or perspectives, leading to a biased understanding of current events.
Limited perspective: Students may only present events happening in their immediate community, leading to a limited perspective on current events in the country as a whole.
Inappropriate content: Students may present on sensitive or controversial topics that may be inappropriate for a classroom setting.
Lack of critical thinking: By only presenting current events, students may not develop the critical thinking skills needed to analyze and understand the underlying causes and consequences of the events.
Limited access to information: Some students may not have access to current events information, especially if they come from low-income or marginalized communities.
It’s important to consider these potential negative consequences and take steps to mitigate them, such as providing guidance on how to present information in a balanced and fair manner and encouraging critical thinking and analysis of current events.
Watching for potential bias
During my “conversation” with the bot, I was impressed with the response to the diversity and inclusion question I posed. The points it presented were, like most answers in this experiment, fairly common and expected responses for such a course (‘don’t talk about politics, religion, etc. etc.’). A phrase that kept cropping up is ‘it is important to…’ followed by a value statement. Those presented in this conversation were benign, and actually good advice from an educational standpoint (e.g. every student is unique, you should create a safe learning environment, and so on). It seems a lot of work has been done to minimize bias – responses from the bot on many issues have disclaimers and things that are ‘important to remember’. It is also, however, important to remember that biases can creep in and to keep an eye out for it, especially when taking advice from AI.
Obviously the chatbot is pulling this information from somewhere (more info on this is contained on the Wikipedia page for ChatGPT), and even though it is generative AI, one has to wonder how much this will be an issue in the future if content is too similar to an existing program or course – not to mention all other subjects it is capable of generating.
In my last post, I wrote about how designing an ‘open course‘ empowers others to make desired edits more easily. One major component of an open course is providing adequate and accurate documentation for your intended audience. If you were handed a course to teach or redesign, what aspects about the course would you like to know? Probably as much as possible, which would require a strong set of documentation detailing design processes and decisions, learning outcomes, tutorials for using novel course elements, and so on. If you care about having a solid set of documentation for your courses, then you may be a ‘Documentarian‘. In this post, I look into some components of good documentation design from the software field, and apply them to instructional design.
Informing the recommendations of this post are the Documentation Principles of Write the Docs, a “global community of people who care about documentation”. As described by the Write the Docs authors, their set of principles:
“seeks to define similar standards for software documentation that, when practiced, will foster clean and intuitive content”
While software is the stated primary purpose of these principles, much of it is applicable across a wider range of subjects, with aspects of instructional design (such as design and code choices) falling into similar categories.
Why is documentation important?
Every Instructional Designer will work with many different people, known as stakeholders, across every project. The stakeholders of a project fulfill different roles and have distinct requirements. Fellow Instructional Designers, eLearning Developers, Middle and Senior Managers, Subject Matter Experts, and the learners themselves are all examples of stakeholders with different needs and roles. Each of the stakeholders on any particular project will require a certain level of documentation matching their needs. Use of an external tool, for example warrants instructions for how to incorporate the tool into an LMS and its functions for designers, but also instructions on how to use the tool as a user for the learners on the course.
Perhaps some of the most important people to consider when designing a course are the ones who will inherit it later on when the original designers have moved onto other projects. Because of this inevitability, proper documentation is key to understanding how a course was designed, the original intended audience or needs analysis (in case any prerequisite courses are changed in a way that breaks the flow of this one – example: switching from one programming language to another in the classes leading up to this, resulting in it not being fit for purpose), decisions made and why they were taken, how certain features work, just to name a few.
With these reasons for well-structured documentation in mind, what should designers include in documentation? For that, Write the Docs has some advice.
General recommended documentation principles
Write the Docs breaks down “good documentation” into multiple components. The full explanation of each can be found on their Documentation Principles page. Here, I will just use the summary of each one from the page.
The components state:
Documentation should be:
Begin documenting before you begin developing.
In the documentation process, include everyone from developers to end users.
The content (meaning how documentation is written) should be:
Accept (some) Repetition In Documentation.
Structure content to help readers identify and skip over concepts which they already understand or see are not relevant to their immediate questions.
Include (some) examples and tutorials in content.
Use consistent language and formatting in content.
Consider incorrect documentation to be worse than missing documentation.
Sources (meaning where content creators store documentation) should be:
Store sources as close as possible to the code which they document.
Eliminate content overlap between separate sources.
Each publication (meaning the end product that users see) should be:
Funnel users intuitively towards publications through all likely pathways.
Provide addresses to readers which link directly to content at a granular level.
Content should be ordered to cover prerequisite concepts first.
Within each publication, cover concepts in-full, or not at all.
Visual style should be intentional and aesthetically pleasing.
A documentation body should be:
Ensure that together, all the publications in the body of documentation can answer all questions the user is likely to have.
Documenting course designs
Taking the above principles, which were initially designed for software, as a guide, we can see how they would fit into the field of instructional design.
The principles of documentation being precursory and participatory are simple to follow, especially if one takes on a project management role in course design. Intake meetings and early plans are the first steps to crafting course design documentation. It is at this stage that the initial course design plans are mapped out by the stakeholders on the project. This includes Designers, Faculty, Project Managers and Product Owners (if these are separate people), to name a few. The initial plans for learning outcomes, assessments, and general ideas for activities on a more granular scale can all be converted into documentation on the structure of the course. These would usually fit into a ‘Design Solution’ document that gives an overview of how higher level course decisions are put into practice, or at least intended to be, once the course is running. An ID and the rest of the course design team could revisit this documentation during an evaluative stage to see if things were still going to plan, or modify it based on feedback.
Intended learner journey
I use the phrase “learner journey” a lot, but I am not entirely sure how well known it is, nor if I am using it in a standard way. So for this instance, my meaning of “learner journey” is the following: How the course developer is expecting the learner(s) to interact with the course site. This includes things such as: what learners are expected to click on when reaching the course landing page, the order in which they are expected to complete modules, how assignments are completed, etc. There is room here for interpretation, but it does not hurt to note the intended learner interactions and progression through a course. That way, other faculty members who may be teaching the course in the future can quickly understand learner progression too. This could take the form of a more technical document for fellow instructors, and a quick video for students (or more, depending on how in-depth you wish to go in the learner-facing side of things).
As an Instructional Designer, I often take on the role of the learner sometime during a course development. I will set out a specific meeting time with a faculty member to go through how I would approach this content as a learner, and ask them if this was an intended way for the learners to interact with the content. I usually start by following the order of the module, which is usually set up in the order a learner should complete tasks. What happens, though, if a learner decides that they are just not going to bother reading the Overview page for that week (or any week) and skips right to the Assessments? Is there anything preventing the learner from completing an assignment before they know important background information? Maybe some sort of purpose statement would help (e.g. “This assignment will test your knowledge of learning materials for Week 3. You should complete this week’s background reading tasks before submitting your work.”)?
Content, or how documentation is written
Most Instructional Designers will know about how to make a page more readable by including headings, descriptive hyperlinks, and other stylized formatting like ample paragraph breaks and correctly set up list items (ordered and unordered, for example). If you can create documentation in this way, it meets the skimmable principle and helps readers quickly identify the section they are looking for. I would also recommend adding a unique ID to each distinct section of each page so readers can quickly jump to it using a navigation menu. To find out more about this, see the W3Schools HTML id Attribute page. Once these are set up, you can link anyone to a specific part of the page.
In the previous article on designing the open course, I included a section on the “Side by Side Code Block Tutorials” I use to demonstrate new and complex course elements. This aims to hit the exemplary principle, as it gives readers a quick example of how certain elements work and how to manipulate them in the future.
Video tutorials are another way to give examples using a step by step process, and provide an additional level of personalization that is often missing from text-only tutorials. There are some downsides to video tutorials, however, which may influence the decision to create them.
Each of the following involve the time commitment required to create videos in the first place, and the principle of staying current.
Scripting and editing
Usually a video tutorial, or series of videos, involves scripting
what the person giving the tutorial is going to say. With written
documentation, this would usually be the end of the process – but with
videos, it is only step one. The written form then needs to be spoken,
correctly, and edited to make sure any mistakes are removed or audio
synched up with what is happening on the screen.
Editing mistakes or changes
It advisable before creating a video tutorial to check if the
procedure, process, or system is going to remain in place for long
enough to make the time investment making a decent tutorial video worth
it. It is a lot easier to change text-based tutorials when something
changes than record another video. Additionally, videos are a more
personalized version of a tutorial, and if the initial video creator
moves on to another position or institution, it would no longer be
possible to keep the consistency of any other videos in the
Those who write documentation with others will know about the importance of an agreed upon style guide. Using the same style of writing, formatting, and terminology across pages and writers ensures that no one section or page stands out or looks jarring in comparison to another, thus fulfilling the consistency principle.
Sources, or where content creators store documentation
For an Instructional Designer, it is not always possible to include documentation directly next to the thing it is explaining. For example, certain Learning Management Systems will remove code comments from all pages, leaving just the content. This is contrary to software development in general, where comments can be left inside code without issue. Therefore I recommend expanding the definition of ‘nearby’ when it comes to documentation for online courses to get around this potential problem.
How you, or your institution, store documentation will have a large effect on how people interact with it. Some institutions use specialized software such as the well-known Confluence by Atlassian, which allows collaboration between users. Other platforms such as Google Workspace are easier to start using for universities and colleges, which often already have Google accounts ready to go, and can be used without extra costs. A similar outcome is offered by other platforms such as a WordPress installation with multiple users creating and contributing to existing articles. Depending on the Learning Management System, it is possible to include documentation closer to the course files (such as attaching files to pages), which is recommended under the nearby principle. Using a single repository for documentation is important so that similar and identical information (such as tutorials on the same topic) are not unnecessarily duplicated (i.e. kept unique) in multiple places such as on an LMS, blog, shared docs. For example, a user of Canvas duplicating tutorial pages across courses leads to problems if part of the tutorial needs to change. This means numerous edits across multiple courses as opposed to pointing to one central location that requires edits only once.
Publications, or how someone can find what they are looking for
Continuing from the previous paragraph on Sources (where the writers store documents), the discoverability of the documentation is key. Where are faculty, designers, and support staff likely to look for help on various topics? Consider linking to the established repository where possible – rather than duplicating it across multiple sites. This will make it easier for others to find the help they require. In a previous section, I included a link to the W3Schools HTML id Attribute page. Specifically here, we are interested in the “HTML Bookmarks with ID and Links” section which tells us about how to jump to different “bookmarks” of a very long page. This is handy when you want to point someone directly to a smaller part of a more complicated and longer page. Doing this manually, however, can take a lot of time, but there are shortcuts for creating these IDs.
When writing documentation, I often use Markdown and then export to HTML. During this conversion process, the headings are automatically given a unique ID in HTML. When pointing people to this part of the documentation, I just need to append a # and the ID name of the heading to the end of the URL. This is known as making the documentation addressable, and links the reader directly to where they would be helped the most. For example, I might want you to go directly to the General recommended documentation principles section of this page, and you can do so with that previous link.
The Write the Docs authors ask the following question:
Can a reader follow your entire body of documentation, linearly, from start to finish without getting confused?
Answering “yes” to this would fulfill the requirements of being cumulative, and this is important when writing something like a tutorial for faculty from start to finish. I try to structure HTML tutorial documentation with the absolute basics first, using headings to structure the page, so that if an instructor already knows basic HTML/CSS principles, they can just skip to the sections that are important to them. If they know nothing about it, however, they should be able to start at the beginning and go through the steps in order.
Completeness of a document increases in complexity depending on what you are writing about. Rather than overpromising what will be in the documentation, state to the reader which parts are covered and stick to those. For example, if there are five assessment criteria for an essay titled Essay 1, only covering three of those in a document titled “Assessment Criteria for Essay 1, Explained” would be misleading.
The beauty of a page is subjective, but proper document structure can help enormously. Things like logical reading order of headings, use of whitespace, properly sized images with captions/alt-text go a long way to making documents more readable.
The time required to make your institution’s documentation comprehensive also depends on the complexity of the systems in use. Write The Docs defines comprehensive documentation as being able to answer all the questions a user is likely to have. Instructional Designers are often connected to all aspects of the course, and can work with the various teams involved to provide the informative questions and answers required to be as comprehensive as possible for all stakeholders.
Creating successful documentation in the Instructional Design field starts from the inception of a project. It begins with the very first needs analysis and ends with a fully comprehensive set of publications that are easy to access by both writers and readers. It is a collaborative process and involves promotion and discoverability. but once created, it provides opportunities for learning, understanding, and importantly, modification and revisions to existing projects. For those thinking of designing an open course, or if you simply like learning more about how things work, perhaps you too are a Documentarian.
The concept of the ‘right to repair’ has been on my mind recently, both as a user of tech products and as a designer of online courses. Electronics are notorious these days for their enigmatic design. The user is not trusted to make repairs or is restricted in the ways they can interact with device components. This is a choice made by manufacturers to limit access to approved vendors or repair shops. Instructional Designers have a similar choice when building courses. Do we follow a restrictive approach to modifications, or open up courses by anticipating, welcoming, and providing the resources for modifications?
Difficult by design
I recently experienced the restrictive side myself as I needed to fix an air purifier that had an unfortunate run-in with my youngest child and her colorful stickers. Apparently, the inside of the machine was not pretty enough, and the stickers were now stuck inside the machine, not quite clogging up the fan, but making a noticeable noise when the purifier was running. Realizing that I should probably remove them from the mechanism, and the partially obstructed fan, I grabbed my handy screwdriver, and rotated the cylindrical case to find where to begin.
And then I saw it – nothing. There were no screws on the outer shell. I turned it around a few more times, holding on to some hope that there was another way in – some switch to press or clasp to unhook. Nothing. The company designed the device to prevent a consumer from taking it apart. The only thing I had access to was the filter opening. No screws inside there either, and the manual had no sections on repairing the device.
I was put into a situation where I knew what I needed to do, and how to do it, but had no way of accomplishing it. If I tried to open it in a way it was not designed to be (whatever that was), I risked breaking the device even further, and voiding the warranty.
This is the situation many technology users find themselves in these days, which has led to a push for the right to repair one’s own devices.
Right to repair principles
Had the manufacturer made the air purifier with the consumer in mind, it may have been more closely aligned with right to repair principles, which are given by The Repair Association through their Policy Objectives. Some more relevant ones are currently paraphrased on the Right to repair – Wikipedia article:
the device should be constructed and designed in a manner that allows repairs to be made easily;
end users and independent repair providers should be able to access original spare parts and tools (software as well as physical tools) needed to repair the device at fair market conditions;
repairs should by design be possible and not hindered by software programming;
the repairability of a device should be clearly communicated by the manufacturer.
Applicability to Instructional Design
This whole endeavor got me thinking: What is the best choice for designers and developers who create courses and complex elements for our users? It seems that it falls into the same design philosophy choices that we see with other products like computer hardware or electronics today. For simplicity’s sake, let’s narrow it down to these two opposite choices designers have when making course components:
Modifying course elements is made difficult because the designer is either not confident in the instructor’s abilities to properly work with the design, actively discouraging changes, thus resulting in no change until the user approaches the designer(s) again.
Course elements are designed with user modifications in mind, and the user is left with sufficient instructions, access, and ability to make changes when necessary.
I prefer to use technology that closely follows the second choice, as this is more aligned with the ‘right to repair’, and results in more user-friendly practices. That is not to say that everyone would want to modify courses, but the option should be there.
Or, in other words:
It is the philosophical difference between engineering things to make them harder for the end user because you don’t trust them and documenting things to educate the end user so you know you can trust them.
Linus Sebastian, talking about the design choices of a pro-repair consumer laptop
If the previous main points of “right to repair” were to be re-written with online education in mind, how would these look? Perhaps something like this:
The course and its objects should be constructed and designed in a manner that allows edits to be made easily.
Instructors and SMEs should be able to access course components and tools needed to modify the course and its elements.
Revisions and additions should be possible and not hindered by design choices.
The Instructional Designer should clearly communicate the ability to modify the course, and how to do it.
How we could do it
What could we do as course designers to inform and empower faculty? Here are a few ideas:
General Documentation for Course Elements
By far one of the simplest ways to provide support to users is through basic documentation pages. If located on the course site itself, they can remain unpublished so learners do not see them. For those who would like more autonomy over their course structure and design, detailed documentation pages provide an excellent way to take the initiative and make the desired edits. Well-written documentation may also reduce the need for Instructional Designer support after the course is running. Plus, if you, as the designer, are worried about things breaking, you can always have a backup of all materials ready to revert pages.
Side by Side Code Blocks Tutorials
I use these all the time with fellow designers. On a Learning Management System (LMS), these function as a tutorial page where the page is split into two columns. Users can see the HTML/CSS code on the left and how it is displayed on the right. Then it’s a matter of copying the code from the code block and pasting it where they want it to go. This practice is very useful when it comes to the more advanced features of your LMS. This makes it easier to choose which element a user wants to incorporate or edit.
Learner Journey and Alignment
If an instructor wants to change the course a few terms after it has been running, how do we achieve a similar look and feel to the one created by the Instructional Designer long after the project has been developed? Mapping the expected learner journey, and how the content aligns with learning outcomes, can help with this. For example, imagine the learner is expected to interact with a week-long module by completing the following tasks in this order:
Step A (Fulfills Learning Outcomes 1, 3. Informs Steps C and D)
Step B (Fulfills Learning Outcome 2. Informs Steps C and D)
Step C (Fulfills Learning Outcomes 3, 4)
Step D (Fulfills Learning Outcome 1, 4)
Each step may include reading or watching learning materials, completing an assignment, participating in a discussion, and so on. How would this expected behavior change if, later on, an instructor added an additional assessment between C and D? What about removing Step B entirely (which in this example would remove alignment to Learning Outcome 2 from the module). Would a learner on this new version of the course still have the required information to complete the remaining parts of the module? Would they interact with the content in the same order as initially expected (and how the course was likely designed to be completed)?
These are things Instructional Designers plan and check during the initial development which can be shared to ensure that the same methods are followed in subsequent iterations of the course.
Some may prefer to leave everything in the hands of an experienced Instructional Design team, and use their expertise whenever a change is required. For others who have enough technical skills to edit content, the desire to learn more, or would like more autonomy and ownership over course content, an open course design provides the same user-friendly approach that at ‘right to repair’ would have for general electronics.
Right to Repair, Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Right_to_repair
Policy Objectives, The Repair Organization: https://www.repair.org/policy
The LMS Canvas by Instructure comes with a decent set of styled elements to start with, but diving into the HTML editor is where you can really modify content, giving it a specific look and feel. Recently I have found that I am going to these customized elements more often to help achieve learning outcomes and provide a different look and feel for accessible course pages.
It is not limitless, however, or even as open as regular web development would be. Canvas has an HTML Editor Allowlist for elements, styles and classes (though some absent from this list will work if you give it a go!). Many of these are activated by using in-line class or style, but other attributes are also available.
Without further ado, here are three of the more popular elements I have been drawn to when creating courses over the past few terms.
Accessible Rich Internet Applications (ARIA)
a set of attributes that define ways to make web content and web applications more accessible to people with disabilities Source
These attributes are some of the most popular because they help with accessibility (particularly, screen readers) on the course site. Where native HTML5 elements are not available, these ARIA attributes help to explain what a particular piece of content does and how a learner should interact with it. By using these, we help to make courses open to a wider set of learners.
You want to include an element on your course site that expands to reveal more content. You will need to make a screen reader aware that the content is there, and what it does. Using the following should get you off to a good start:
<spanclass="element_toggler" role="button" aria-controls="something"
aria-label="longer description of the element" aria-expanded="false">
Click here to see the explanation</span>
<divid="something" style="display: none;">
combines with id="something" later on in the code. The value must match the id value for it to work correctly. This is used to interact with the element.
aria-label="longer description of the element"
used to describe the functionality of the element if it is not explained prior to the interaction.
used to tell the screen reader the button is initially closed.
Example 2: Descriptions
You have a particularly visual element on the page, and you want to write a larger piece of text for a screen reader to explain this. You can use aria-describedby and then link it to the id of an element (in the <span> below):
<spanid="close_up">A close-up view of the rock target named "Máaz" from the SuperCam
instrument on NASA's Perseverance Mars rover.</span>
Analysis of SuperCam data shows that Máaz has a basaltic composition.
It is either an igneous rock or consists of fine grains of igneous material
that were cemented together in a watery environment.<br>
Full image and caption from
NASA Jet Propulsion Labratory.</a> NASA/JPL-Caltech/LANL/CNES/CNRS
Device specific content
Next up, is hidden content. So you added the element_toggler above, but your learners with the Canvas Mobile App let you know they cannot click it!
Some of the projects I work on with these elements require an entirely different way of accessing the content on a mobile device.
A potential fix
Create different versions of the content by hiding each one depending on the device.
To do this, you will need to divide the content using two containers. Using the same element_toggler code from above, we can easily add a separate, but hidden part underneath for Canvas app users.
<spanclass="element_toggler" role="button" aria-controls="something"
aria-label="longer description of the element" aria-expanded="false">
View the explanation</span>
<divid="something" style="display: none;">
<divclass="hidden-desktop hidden-tablet hidden-phone">
The addition of the class="hidden-desktop hidden-tablet hidden-phone" attributes will hide this container for most users. As it is sitting outside of the element toggler, however, mobile app users do not need to click the element toggler to see the explanation! This provides a more accessible option for users of those devices.
Note: if you have access to the stylesheet for your institution, it would be more beneficial to add these changes there than on a per-page basis.
Anchoring to part of a page
If you have ever seen text content that says something similar to this…
As we discussed before…
As I mentioned previously…
Back in Module 3, we talked about…
…then you need to use this simple feature of the anchor element!
I use this a lot on course content that requires students to refer to previous material. Everyone will have heard of a hyperlink using the <a> tag, but you can also use this anchor to link to a certain part of the page. I regularly use it to send learners to particular headings or content that they would find relevant for assignments. If you set up your course from the start with this in mind, it can be a fast way to group revision material from certain parts of a page, or create more accessible navigation menus.
Give an element an id, like this:
<h3 id="section_2">Section 2</h3>
Then, when you want to send a learner back to that part of the page, just reference it by adding the id to the end of the page link with a `#`. For example:
This will take the learner directly to the heading with the id of ‘section_2’, which you set up before.
You can even do this within the same page to jump to that part of the page. Just link it like this without the rest of the URL.
<a href="#section_2”>Section 2</a>
These are a sample of the elements, classes, and styles I have used to enhance content over the last few terms. With each, accessibility has been a must, which requires a bit of reflection on how learners would interact with the content. There are a lot more available, and you have a list in the Canvas HTML Editor Allowlist to start experimenting. By thinking of accessibility from the early stages of course design, more users can appreciate these page elements and content.
Five years ago, I wrote a small entry in the ORTESOL Newsletter about the then state of “adaptive software capable of teaching, testing, giving feedback, and most importantly, adjusting to student needs” (Chambers, 2015: 13). I mentioned a set of technologies colloquially referred to as the “Digital Aristotle”, or ‘Project Halo’ (Friedland et al., 2004), and the update to this six years later (Gunning et al., 2010). The Digital Aristotle was described as ‘an application that will encompass much of the world’s scientific knowledge and be capable of applying sophisticated problem-solving to answer novel questions’ (Friedland et al., 2004).
At the time, I was writing about a more grandiose piece of software that might one day replace the repetitive tasks of an ESOL classroom. The idea, or perhaps the concern about this technology for existing teachers was where they would fit in once a set of algorithms could replicate much of the day to day learning of a language course.
Five years on, I turn to how learning designers might be able to incorporate AI into course design.
First, a question: is there currently a program capable of teaching a course and adapting to student needs like an instructor? The answer is still no. Certain technology has, however, progressed to the point that portions of an online course can be enhanced by AI.
Quite possibly the most exciting development in artificial intelligence for learning is that of adaptive learning. This concept has been in the works for a while with certain platforms utilizing algorithms to produce content that adapt to specific learner needs.
Instructure’s Canvas for instance, allows Instructional Designers to set up ‘Differentiated Assignments’ (Canvas Doc Team, How do I view differentiated assignments with different due dates in a course?, 2017) and ‘MasteryPaths’ (Canvas Doc Team, How do I use MasteryPaths in course modules?, 2020) which ‘allows targeted learning activities to be assigned to different users and sections’ (‘MasteryPaths’). Currently this is a manual process with course designers creating every assessment beforehand. The best students might not see the additional activities. It is not ‘intelligent’ in the way that course content is adapted specifically for a learner’s needs and on the fly. To do this requires large amounts of data and most importantly, AI training to see patterns, strengths, and weaknesses for a particular learner.
This is why Duolingo records progress at every step and offers learners a review of concepts the learner struggles with in previous activities. Platforms that provide an automated review often use large question banks and flag questions that learners initially, or continuously incorrectly answer. An intelligent AI could create novel questions based on learner goals, data from prior students, and information about the subject matter. An example of this is Google or Amazon’s ability to predict and offer products or suggestions based on the vast amount of information provided to them every single day. Certain training providers are currently working with application developers to produce tools capable of this on-the-fly feedback and adaptation.
At the OLC Innovate 2020 conference, Kasey Gandham from Ed Tech company Paperback and Kim A. Scalzo, Executive Director of Open SUN, demonstrated how Paperback’s AI is being used with online discussions to help students write higher quality posts. As students write their discussion posts, the AI program checks for “close-ended questions, plagiarism, insufficient length, content about class logistics, profanity and abuse’ (Gandham & Scalzo, 2020). After this, if required, the post is moderated and the learner receives email feedback saying why and how to revise their post. The AI is also capable of suggesting posts to feature as the best of the week by analyzing, among other things, sentence depth and ‘curiosity score’.
More than a Quiz
The role and importance of ‘big data’ in online learning cannot be understated. Technology already exists that records the time learners interact with learning materials. It knows where they are clicking/tapping on the screen and how long activities hold learner attention. Using this data, AI could suggest, or even craft assessments that are adapted specifically to a single learner’s usage habits. Traditional quizzes which assess information retention could become only part of the larger formative assessment of the entire course, at every point in the course, without the learner even realizing any of this is happening.
AI-enhanced design has the ability to transform Instructional Designers like never before. It could help us to modify our own design practices based on how learners are responding to course content. Through learner feedback, it could demonstrate which activities are most appealing and conducive to personalized learning goals. Big data’s role in recording learner interactions with content can provide insights into preferred learning styles and methods of instruction. Instructional Designers will have to continue adapting with the technology just as we have done in our everyday lives.
Gunning, D. et al. (2010). ‘Project Halo Update – Progress Toward Digital Aristotle’, Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, 31(3), pp. 33-58. DOI: http:// dx.doi.org/10.1609/aimag.v31i3.2302.