Director’s Report, March 2022
How does one determine whether learners have completed a non-credit course? That has been a challenge with which the Wilmette Institute has been wrestling since it began offering extension courses (formerly called non-credit courses) in 1998.
The Wilmette Institute first experimented with grading the learners’ work (A through F), but it quickly found that students did not want to take a course for their own pleasure and benefit if they received a C or lower. The Institute quickly dropped the A-through-F approach for acknowledging completion of courses, but the software available at the time was extremely primitive, and there were not many other options that the Institute could afford.
After further discussions in 1998 and 1999, the Wilmette Institute Board (which included several education experts) decided to ask each learner to create a Personal Learning Plan (PLP) at the beginning of the course and to complete a Learning Self-Assessment at the end, in which the learner critiqued how their plan went. Completion of the Learning Self-Assessment was the only required activity by which a learner could qualify for a “certificate of completion.” The certificate did not claim the learner had actually learned anything because the system had no measure for ascertaining whether any learning had taken place. The certificate only indicated that the learner had completed the course.
The Wilmette Institute began to experiment with the Personal Learning Plan and Learning Self-Assessment system as early as 1999 and implemented it fully in 2000, when it was able to collect course-completion statistics systematically. The system had the advantage of being very simple to use. It did not require faculty training because any staff member could count the number of completed Learning Self-Assessments. Some students took the Learning Self-Assessment very seriously and wrote amazing accounts of what they had learned and actions they had taken as a result of that learning. The Institute has published many such accounts in its newsletter over the last decade.
But the plan had the disadvantage of not engaging all learners. Almost everyone posted a PLP, but many did not post a Learning Self-Assessment. It was clear from conversations with students that learners who completed, for example, only three-fourths of the work in a course felt unworthy to complete the Learning Self-Assessment because they had not done everything. It was also clear from such conversations that many other learners, for a variety of other reasons, were not accessing the Learning Self-Assessment forum at the end of their course and writing something to get a certificate of completion. Moreover, the system did not examine learner engagement in the course materials. In addition, the Institute has provided no guidelines to indicate how much work one had to complete for the course to be considered “completed.” And there was also no easy way to track student engagement in the material to determine whether a course was in trouble because people felt overwhelmed or confused.
In January 2022 the Wilmette Institute developed a new system for its extension courses, which uses the “activity-completion” feature in our Moodle learning management system. The software allows the Institute to track which students have completed which tasks. In the new system, the faculty members decide which three to five tasks are essential for completing a course; then the Wilmette Institute staff turns on the activity-completion feature. At the end of the course, students who have completed the designated activities will be awarded a certificate of completion.
From the time it began offering extension courses in 1998, the Wilmette Institute has never expected the students in such courses to read every reading, watch every video, and respond to every study question. With the new activity-completion system, the Institute is able to set a minimal standard of completion. The new system also allows faculty and staff to track student engagement in the material as the course progresses and to note any decrease in activity, thus allowing the faculty to take steps to boost completion of activities crucial to course completion.
Every month the Course Assessment Team (more about them next month) meets to review the courses that have just ended and make recommendations to the faculty about how they could improve their courses. The activity-completion data is an important measure for the Course Assessment Team to monitor.