About the National Institute for Online Learning

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Last week MindEdge Online added two courses on online learning from the National Institute of Online Learning (NIOL). It was a milestone for the Institute, which seeks to improve the quality and effectiveness of online learning, especially for adult learners, by promoting best practices and innovation in the field.

We founded NIOL last year for several reasons. First, we thought that MindEdge Learning had knowledge and expertise of value that we believed would be helpful for those involved in online education. MindEdge has developed effective online courses and simulations used by hundreds of thousands of students in higher education and the private sector. The Institute seemed to be an appropriate vehicle in that transfer of learning.

Second, in working with partners and new entrants to the field, we encountered somewhat of a gap between theory and practice—some of those tasked with designing and creating online courses did not have prior grounding in learning theory or much exposure to the technology involved. We think the Institute can help in educating those who want a deeper background in online learning.

Third, we wanted a place where those interested in educating adults would be able to find resources. While the recent emphasis on MOOCs and undergraduate online education is promising, we thought that the challenges of designing and creating online courses and simulations for adults continues to deserve focused attention.

For those reasons, and others, we decided it was time for NIOL. What can you expect from the Institute in the near future? NIOL will be focused on training, education, consulting, and advocacy.

The Institute will offer additional courses focused on various aspects of online learning, including instructional design, course development, and key technologies. By the end of 2013, learners will have the opportunity to earn NIOL’s Online Learning Fundamentals Certificate, awarded for the successful completion of the Institute’s twelve introductory courses.

NIOL will also release occasional white papers focused on relevant learning topics (including narrative and adaptive learning) and will host webinars on best practices in course and simulation design and on technology issues.

The Institute will also be establishing an advisory board of academics, practitioners, educators, and others interested in online learning to help us keep NIOL abreast of the latest developments in the field.

You can learn more about the Institute at the NIOL website, or you can contact me directly at MindEdge Learning (info@mindedge.com) with any questions or suggestions.


Jefferson Flanders, an author and educator, is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2013 Jefferson Flanders

Meeting the quality challenge in online learning

The question of whether online learning represents an effective way to educate and train has been answered. It’s clear that e-learning works for both institutions of higher learning and for corporations and other organizations by providing a convenient alternative, or supplement, to face-to-face learning.

Now the challenge has become one of quality. It’s time for a renewed focus on upgrading the quality level of online learning. Some schools and organizations relied on instructors and self-taught course designers for their initial online offerings to students. These do-it-yourself (DIY) solutions often failed to leverage the strengths of online for engagement, interactivity, and focused instruction.

Students have noticed. A report from Eduventures, a Boston-based research and consulting firm, has found that student interest in a virtual academic experience has plateaued, and that quality concerns are part of that leveling off of interest.

Eduventures reported that there has been “only a small bump over the last six years in the percentage of adult students who said online college is equal in quality to campus learning,” according to insidehighered.com.

The report also notes the growing competitiveness of the online education market with the arrival of massive open online courses (MOOCS) and new, innovative venture-backed entrants. Learners have many more options today—from both academic and non-academic players.

The quality challenge

We’re convinced that future success in online learning means developing courses and simulations that students will see as clearly better in quality than current offerings. That’s the quality challenge those of us creating online courses and simulations need to address.

Courses need to engage and encourage critical thinking (where we think narrative learning is key). They should make use of video, interactivity, and cloud-based tools, and empower instructors to coach and guide (rather than simply present). They should address different learning styles, and be accessible to all. Their content should flex to the new smartphone and mobile devices, and should incorporate external resources whenever appropriate.

When we design and develop online learning at MindEdge, we keep these factors in mind. We also recognize that a continuous improvement process is vital because the technology and platforms learners uses remains in a state of flux. For example, our new Online College Courses (OCC) have been designed to fit on the smaller screens of the next wave of smartphones and mobile devices, and elements (games, exercises) in these courses will automatically adapt to a more limited viewing canvas.

Raising the quality level of online learning isn’t a one-time effort. It means listening to learners, our academic and corporate partners, and focusing on what works and what enhancements we should make. The educator John W. Gardner once said: “Excellence is doing ordinary things extraordinarily well.” We agree. So we’ll meet the challenge of quality by doing our best to make the ordinary, extraordinary.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2012 Jefferson Flanders

The practical pursuit of excellence

Long before the continuous improvement movement, before Kanban and Lean Six Sigma, the ancient Greeks prized excellence and thought deeply about how to achieve it.

It was Aristotle, for example, wrote: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” While Aristotle was discussing the individual achievement of areté (a word that meant both “excellence” and “virtue” to the Athenians), his insight applies to other endeavors as well. To achieve excellence, make it a habit.

Of course, that is easier said than done. But the lessons of the quality movement of the past several decades has taught us that a focus on incremental improvements can dramatically improve the quality of whatever we produce or create. So the habit we need to encourage is that of consistently striving for improvements. That, in turn, should lead to excellence. I keep that notion in mind whenever we talk about quality in the courses, learning resources, and simulations that we develop at MindEdge.

What does that mean in practical terms? Consider the video we produce for our learning content. To improve its quality, we’re on our third video camera. We’ve now upgraded to a digital camera, and a high-end microphone, to ensure more consistency in what a learner experiences when they watch one of our videos. We are moving to new offices in 2012 where we’ll have a dedicated studio where we can better control lighting.

In some cases, we find that emerging technology enables this process of improvement. We’re making greater use of jQuery, a library of functions that makes writing JavaScript code even easier and lets us tap into lots of pre-built graphical functions and animation. Our technical team is also looking at ways we can begin to employ HTML5, the latest revision of the language for structuring and presenting content for Internet browsers.

In our internal quality discussions, we stress that achieving excellence is a journey where the destination is always just over the horizon. We know we aren’t going to achieve perfection, but we can strive for near perfection. When we fall short, we look at ways we can tighten up how we are doing things.

One advantage of creating digital products—which is what our learning resources are—is that we can make changes quickly. When we hear from a learner that something isn’t working for them (a concept that needs further explanation, or an exercise that doesn’t engage) we look to address that weak-point through rapid revision.

I think of this as the practical pursuit of excellence. There’s nothing theoretical about it. We want students to have the best possible learning experience, and we can measure our progress toward that goal by their feedback and their performance.

I like to think that Aristotle would approve.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders

The changing face of American higher education

Most of us walk around with an outdated vision of American higher education in our heads. We picture campus life with scores of young students, most just out of high school, striving to earn their degrees in four years. The 2011 reality is vastly different.

For starters, as Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute reminds us in a fascinating post on The Atlantic website (“Old School: College’s Most Important Trend is the Rise of the Adult Student“), of the some 17.6 million undergraduates enrolled in U.S. higher education, just 15% of them attend four-year colleges and live on campus! Of those that do, 36% percent graduate “on time” (in four years). The National Center for Education Statistics further reports that there are more students over the age of 30 attending college than under that relatively advanced age. What’s more, as Hess notes, the share of all students who are over age 25 is projected to increase another 23% by 2019.
One other striking statistic from the National Center for Education Statistics: 32% of undergraduate students work full-time.
The face of American higher education then is, and will be, older. More and more of the students in higher education will be working adults.
The challenge for all of us involved in education will be how to respond to these trends. It’s quite different educating 18-year-olds entering college for the first time and 35-year-olds who are juggling work and family life.
I’d argue there are several approaches that should guide us over the next decade in addressing the needs of adult learners:

  • Offering opportunities for learning-on-demand, learning that fits into the schedules of busy people
  • Addressing the skills gaps through learning that targets critical thinking, writing, and other forms of communication
  • Recognizing the value of concise, modular, and flexible learning content for working adults
  • Connecting with adult students’ experience through narrative learning, simulations, and other “reality-based” learning
  • Developing learning that supports certificate and credential programs
  • Offering learning that enhances professional development and may also carry professional or college credit

Through our partnerships with institutions of higher education, professional associations, and corporations, MindEdge has been called upon to develop online learning to address many of these challenges. The good news is that there are a wide variety of tools available (video, simulation software, search engines, digitized books and scholarly articles, community-centered applications for discussion) that can engage learners. We’ve found that monitoring student performance coupled with a consistent continuous improvement process can help refine, and enhance, how we meet the needs of adult learners.
In short, we have the means to accomplish the desired educational ends; now it’s a matter of responding to the demand.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.
Copyright © 2011 Jefferson Flanders

In search of effective learning

This past year has seen accelerated growth in online learning in both institutions of higher learning and in corporate settings.
The folks at the Sloan Consortium report that nearly 30 percent of all college and university students are taking at least one course online. (Click to download a PDF of the Sloan findings: “Class Differences: Online Education in the United States 2010.”)
The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) notes that in 2009, 27.7 percent of all formal learning hours made available in corporate training were online, an increase from 23.1 percent in 2008. (Click to access ASTD’s “2010 State of the Industry Report.”)

We’ve seen the same sort of growth at MindEdge, with existing partners expanding their e-offerings and new clients eager to add our online learning to their training or educational mix.
We’ve discovered that educators and trainers face somewhat of a paradox. Learners have more ready access to courses, learning environments, and digital content than ever before, as ink on paper has been converted into bits and bytes and face-to-face instruction has moved to the Web. At the same time, however, students struggle with drinking from this technological firehose of information. They seek structure, relevance, and engagement when they learn. They want choices—not only formal and sequential education but also just-in-time (JIT) learning.
We’ve found that as we develop learning solutions, it’s crucial to employ technology as a tool, not as a substitute or crutch,
but as means of helping learners maximize comprehension, retention, and mastery of key skills. For example, MindEdge often turns to narrative learning, with coached simulations and case studies—which can require some sophisticated software running in the background—to allow students to learn through making decisions and seeing their consequences. The technology enables this learning model in an unobtrusive way that doesn’t overwhelm the learner. Putting technology in proper perspective also means keeping course navigation simple and intuitive and reducing the number of learning elements that a student encounters in any given assignment.
The future will bring more technological choices: more platforms, more ways to communicate, more ways to integrate learning, more information resources—and more potential for distraction and confusion for learners if these advances aren’t handled appropriately. The key is to focus at the start on learning objectives and desired outcomes and then find the best solution. For example, we wouldn’t advocate migrating text-based learning directly to mobile devices—instead, we’d suggest that some elements (skills drills or just-in-time snippets of information) could be delivered to a smart phone, and others need to remain in a more welcoming fuller screen environment.
As we look ahead to developing content, courses, and simulations for 2011, we know that we’ll be called on to integrate pedagogy (or more precisely, andragogy, since our focus is on adults) and technology. We’ll continue our search for the most effective ways to do that, and to empower learners.


Jefferson Flanders is president of MindEdge. He has taught at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University, Babson College, and Boston University.

Copyright © 2010 Jefferson Flanders

Best Practice: Five Steps for Continuous Improvement Learning

We regard a continuous improvement (CI) process as vital to any effective training or learning program aimed at adult learners. “Listening to the learner” can dramatically improve the quality and impact of your content and courses. At MindEdge, we believe the process of continuous improvement must begin with goal-oriented advanced planning and appropriate revisions and enhancements based on learner feedback.

The five steps

Our continuous improvement process has five steps that apply to both online and face-to-face settings. For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to describe the process MindEdge employs for developing its online courses and educational solutions.

  1. Identify desired educational or training goals for the learner.
  2. Define learning objectives and create feedback and assessment mechanisms.
  3. Identify any gaps between learner performance and learning objectives based on feedback.
  4. Revise content to address gaps.
  5. Monitor feedback to ensure effectiveness.

1. Identify desired educational or training goals for the learner.

…online courses allow an accelerated continuous improvement process. Revisions can be rapidly incorporated, even into a live course—with proper planning.

We begin course development by thinking about what the learner will take away after he or she has completed the course or instructional activity. At this stage, we ask ourselves, What body of knowledge should learners have mastered after completion? What should they be able to do with this knowledge? How can this be assessed? Will there need to be evidence of student learning for accreditation? What will be considered an acceptable performance level?
Spending the time up front on establishing these goals makes course development easier and results in a well-thought out experience for the learner. (It’s worth heeding the advice of Abraham Lincoln on the question of preparation: “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”)
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2. Define learning objectives and create feedback and assessment mechanisms.
Once learning goals are established, it’s time to develop learning objectives and establish a way to collect feedback and assess progress. Learning objectives are brief, clear, specific statements of expected student performance: “The learner will be able to calculate probability and explain its practical application in assessing project risk.”
We craft learning objectives to cover the range of learning in Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy, with a focus on the cognitive domain (knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation). Click here to see a table of Bloom’s taxonomy.
The course development quality review process presents an ideal opportunity to compare learning objectives against the instructional presentations, exercises, and activities in the course. Our reviewers have a different role from the subject matter experts or instructors who develop the course and who often “know too much.” Especially when the reviewer is new to the discipline or area of knowledge, he or she brings a fresh set of eyes and can assess the course as a new learner rather than a seasoned expert.
During this step, we ask a number of CI questions:

  • Do reviewers find the course learner-friendly?
  • Are terms and concepts clearly defined?
  • Are there connections made with real world applications (always appreciated by adult learners)?
  • Is there an appropriate balance between knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation?
  • Is there attention paid to differing learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile/kinesthetic)?

Performance measures (open-ended questions, multiple-choice questions, short answer, interpretative essay questions) offer another channel for feedback. It’s important to make sure that these measures are aligned with the course learning objectives, so that what you measure is what needs to be mastered.
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3. Identify any gaps between learner performance and learning objectives based on feedback.
We have found most valuable the actual learner feedback we receive once the course is live. Adult learners generally are not shy about expressing themselves, so we provide multiple opportunities for learner response: feedback forms (based on IACET-approved questions) embedded in our courses and an “Ask the Expert” function that lets learners send us questions as they work their way through the course.
Monitoring and analyzing learner feedback represents a marvelous opportunity for continuous improvement. In some cases, adult learners will tell you directly where improvements are called for (“A fuller explanation of Tuckman’s model of team development, please.” or “How to arrive at the payback period isn’t clear to me.”), and revisions are straightforward. In some cases it may make sense to provide supplementary explanations or additional exercises.
And since performance measures are linked to learning objectives, we can also tell whether the course needs improvement by looking at test scores and student work. If it becomes clear that, for example, many learners cannot calculate probability and explain its practical application in assessing project risk, then it’s time to make changes in the course to address that gap.
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4. Revise content to address gaps.
For the most part, online courses allow an accelerated continuous improvement process. Revisions can be rapidly incorporated, even into a live course—with proper planning. One of the questions we ask ourselves when make decisions about course development is: “How will this decision affect our ability to continuously improve based on learner feedback?” Our course structure has become more modular over time because of this consideration.
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5. Monitor feedback to ensure effectiveness.
A continuous improvement process should be…continuous. It means continuing to monitor feedback, especially when learners have indicated (through comments or performance) there are problem areas or barriers to learning. When learners bring challenges to our attention, we like to follow up with them and make sure that the revisions have addressed whatever problems they’ve encountered. It can take several iterations to find the optimal way to teach something.

Room for innovation

Along with this five-step approach, we also actively seek fresh ways to improve the way we teach and develop courses. We don’t want our overall CI process to become overly reactive—too focused on “checking and fixing” at the expense of innovation and potential quantum improvements. That’s why we review our courses on an ongoing basis, always looking to incorporate the latest insight or best practice into what we do.


Copyright © 2009 MindEdge, Inc.