I think this is a novel idea: alpha and beta courses


I was listening to the wonderful Lucifer Chu talking at the E-Learn 08 conference the other day when something he said struck a big chord. He was talking about edutainment and open content but it suddenly occurred to me that we (mostly) don't have a formal means of incorporating learners in our development processes for online learning. This is silly, especially where courses are, like most online courses, developed in advance of delivery. So here's the idea…

Alpha courses – 0.1 releases

Alpha courses are not those belonging to a curious christian sect, but those that are released for free to a select group of learners who can help us evaluate what we have produced. When we provide alpha courses we give students accreditation for free, but ask them to help identify in great detail what is good and bad, what we do well and what we do badly. We would have to assume that the content would have been produced using more traditional processes so there would be few concerns about factual content – the biggest problems would likely be pedagogic at this stage. This is not the end of the world as these weaknesses in the course would notably be outweighed by the metacognitive reflection that such a process would engender. Given such potential weaknesses, these courses would be most suitable for mature, reflective learners and, although the feedback would be very valuable, we would have to be wary that such learners are atypical.

Beta courses – 0.9 releases

The beta course would be a more general release intended to iron out the wrinkles and tie up the loose ends.   These would be offered at a considerable discount and, again, accredited. As the course would probably be close to its final version, we would expect to get a much broader range of learners on board and could evaluate it in a more authentic context than the alpha version.With luck we would get a lot of feedback both by analysing usage and seeking commentaries from learners.

1.0 releases

Once we have incorporated feedback from these learners, we would release the final course at the usual paid-for rates and it would go through the usual revision processes.

Why bother?

Most e-learning development methodologies (e.g. ADDIE, PADDE etc) incorporate an evaluation phase, but this is fiendishly difficult to manage in an authentic context and is usually either quite expensive or quite skimpy. In real life, we tend to release courses that are as good as we can make them but, given that they are almost always untested (at least in higher education), are inevitably imperfect. In fact, pretty much like beta software. Using alpha and beta releases of courses would provide feedback from real learners with real needs, as well as enabling learners who are excluded for reasons of cost from participating in traditional courses. There is undoubtedly a cost involved but the benefits, in terms of quality control and consequently improved reputation and retention, would probably far outweigh the costs, especially if we could work out how to limit participation in the early stages. Our courses would be notably better tailored to the needs of our learners. Better still, it would enable us to use a lighter weight development process, perhaps based on RAD processes and maybe even something akin to XP, to let us produce courses more quickly and efficiently than older methods. Better still, such a process would lend itself more naturally to flexible and social courses, where learner engagement in a community is a prerequisite for success and very hard to gauge in advance. And just to round it off we would get a lot of useful information on the demand for a course before committing big resources to the project. There might even be some good research spin-offs.

It is a modest proposal but I think, if implemented with care and rigour, it could make all the difference to the courses we create. The process might be useful in traditional face to face courses, but the big value would come from those that are online where there tends to be more up-front development, feedback is less rich and immediate and (in many cases) it tends to be harder to adapt as we go.

I haven't tried to search very carefully for instances of this being done already. Perhaps it is an old idea (apart from anything else we all iterate development of courses and the idea is implicit in the development of open educational resources) but I haven't yet come across reports any attempts to formalise this process. Whether novel or not, I like it.

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor and Associate Dean, Learning & Assessment, at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology, and I teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems. I am a proud Canadian, though I was born in the UK. I am married, with two grown-up children, and three growing-up grandchildren. We all live in beautiful Vancouver.

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