NTER: An Open Source, Customized Solution to Course Creation, Cross-Institution Credit Articulation, Learner Analytics, and Business Intelligence
October 2012, Volume 25, Number 10
By Louise Yarnall
Due to trends to accelerate workforce training and meet higher student completion goals set by government and foundation funders, community college presidents need new ways to coordinate the development and delivery of instructional resources while keeping a sharp eye on student, faculty, and program performance.
SRI International, a nonprofit research and development institute with expertise in educational technology, learning assessment, higher education evaluation, and open source software development, has collaborated with several colleges to develop and instrument an open source online software solution. It enables colleges to create and integrate instructional resources across systems and collect actionable business intelligence. The approach is showing early promise. This article will review the results so far, summarize the potential, and outline the collaborative research and development opportunities yet to be explored.
The Starting Point: Open Source Software to Create and Coordinate Instructional Programs
In October 2011, the College of Lake County and the Illinois Green Economy Network (IGEN), a consortium of the state’s 48 colleges, won a $19 million grant from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training (TAACCCT) program to accelerate green job workforce training. A cornerstone of this effort was the National Training and Education Resource (NTER), an open source learning and course management system, developed by SRI.
Lake County President Jerry Weber envisioned using NTER to offer a one-stop portal to green jobs courses. He saw NTER as a way to create online 3D simulations as an integral part of preparing for green jobs. IGEN hopes to coordinate the creation of 33 hybrid and online degree and certificate programs by 2014, an effort comprising more than 190 courses.
The possibility of coordinating across institutions for the benefit of the student is a highlight. One of the new IGEN degree programs will permit students to take courses created at three different colleges without ever having to leave their neighborhoods.
Since work got under way in spring 2012, the IGEN project director, Terri Berryman, has observed that the online delivery mode permits educators to create learning activities using the latest equipment—without having to repeatedly replace the actual equipment. The college team has been developing templates to standardize course creation in NTER across the colleges, and they look forward to increased use of learner analytics.
“It has a great deal of flexibility,” she said of NTER at a June event. “We think it will change the way community colleges do business.”
SRI has been leading training sessions for course developers, setting up the IGEN portal, and preparing to take the courses live by spring 2013. SRI is also adding features that support efficient grading, synchronous online collaboration, and faculty communications with students. In addition, SRI’s NTER team is ramping into high gear as the software was featured in three 2012 winning TAACCCT grants in North Carolina, Florida, and northern Illinois.
The Bigger Vision
Yet within the laboratories of SRI, John Shockley, NTER’s project manager—and the son of two educators—has reached out to other researchers in the learning sciences, assessment, higher education, and mobile technology to explore a bigger vision. It focuses on customizing NTER’s learner analytics to provide more business intelligence for community colleges. The system may someday link with mobile apps that permit quick sharing of analytics with those who need to act on the data soonest—students, faculty, deans, and college presidents.
The main college beneficiary is the institutional researcher. Imagine a week when an institutional researcher receives
- a call from an external researcher for data outputs on STEM student retention and graduation;
- an email from the college president who needs input for a major federal grant proposal requiring regular data on program effectiveness;
- a chance lunchroom chat with a department chair who wants to use student learning outcomes and retention data to inform the next curriculum committee discussion; and
- a query from student services about how to obtain more timely data from faculty electronic grade books for tracking first-generation student progress.
Imagine the value when the researcher can go to a single data dashboard and, by tapping into a few drop-down menus, address each request swiftly and thoroughly. This is the next direction for NTER, one that accelerates the potential for program evaluation.
In this hypothetical case, the proposed dashboard permits the institutional researcher to quickly determine relevant data sources, accurately identify the data using plain English labels and formats, and select the best analysis and reporting systems for each audience. The researcher can use the dashboard to set up a data macro, making reports web accessible using institution-specific formats.
Given the right opportunity, NTER can be adapted as a tool that integrates analytics from multiple levels of the community college system into usable dashboards and provides feedback customized for a wide range of users. They can spot problems earlier and are empowered to solve them more quickly. The new system could enable program evaluation in dynamic, accelerated form.
In the view of the SRI research team, NTER will be able to integrate data from multiple student information systems and will also link different levels of learner analytics, ranging from assignment grades entered by instructors into electronic grade books to student performance on assessments of discrete knowledge and skills in 3D learning simulations. The web-based dashboard system permits a new vision of data transparency that can support data sharing with multiple stakeholders—possibly through their mobile phones. The data can be collected at multiple levels to address everything from individual student performance and curriculum improvement to programmatic and college success rates. In short, the system seeks to accelerate the production and sharing of usable data to accelerate institutional improvement at all levels.
Another Part of the Potential: Assessment of Student Learning
A complementary line of basic and applied research at SRI’s Center for Technology in Learning (CTL) offers ways to incorporate more sensitive measures of student learning than grades into the proposed NTER learner analytics system. CTL instruction and assessment researchers have been collaborating with workforce, general education, and developmental education community college professionals since 2003.
Some of this work has focused on using technology to help faculty design and share workplace problem-based learning materials. It has involved documenting the additional knowledge and skills that students can learn from such curricula, and helping faculty change their approaches to assessment to measure those higher-order skills of workplace problem solving. The work has examined knowledge and skills in multiple industries: network security, bioinformatics, engineering, and computer programming. A key part of this work involved incorporating the perspectives of industry professionals, sometimes through online tools for gathering their expert input into the industry-relevance of the course materials.
Some of this research has involved developing assessments that permit general education science and economics educators to understand when and how instruction focused on basic terminology and concepts is leading to the capacity to apply that knowledge to real world problems—and when it is not. To date, many of the stories about the differences between learning the facts and learning how to apply knowledge are anecdotal. SRI has developed a reusable framework for concretely measuring when and how these different forms of learning are occurring.
Finally, some of this research has focused on understanding when and how industry partnerships inform workforce instructional content and practices, and how educators operationalize standards in a way that builds the broadest, most transferrable set of skills for students.
These advances in the learning sciences at SRI provide a solid foundation for informing the design of learner analytics for NTER.
Development Opportunities to Be Explored
Community colleges stand to receive historic levels of federal and foundation funding over the next several years. Both individual colleges and college consortia can improve their chances of winning such support if they can demonstrate they have strong institutional research capacity. For example, the Department of Labor’s TAACCCT grantees are required to invest 10 percent of their funds in quality evaluation.
Rather than letting that evaluation investment serve only the purposes of the short-term input and the federal reporting system, SRI seeks to instrument NTER with a college partner to provide a lasting impact on business intelligence beyond the life of the grant.
A college employing SRI as an evaluator of a program such as TAACCCT, or any other program, has the potential to gain access to the NTER system. It’s a chance to pilot test NTER during the grant as part of the evaluation instrumentation, and then have the opportunity of expanding its use to support full open source instructional development and business intelligence purposes after the grant ends.
As the use of an open source solution such as NTER expands, colleges may begin to see—like homeowners installing solar panels—that their costs for institutional infrastructure decrease as they become more empowered to grow their own dynamic approaches to course creation, and performance data collection and reporting.
For more information, see Louise Yarnall’s project information.
Louise Yarnall is a Senior Research Social Scientist at SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning.
Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.