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A skill-based approach to creating open online courses

Google has offered a number of open online courses in the past two years, and some of our recent research highlights the importance of having effective and relevant activities in these courses. Over the past decade, the Open Learning Initiative (OLI) at Carnegie Mellon, and now at Stanford, has successfully offered free open online courses that are centered around goal-directed activities that provide students with targeted feedback on their work. In order to improve understanding about how to design online courses based around effective activities, Google and OLI recently collaborated on a white paper that outlines the skill-based approach that OLI uses to create its courses.

OLI courses are focused around a set of learning objectives which identify what students should be able to do by the time they have completed a course module. These learning objectives are broken down into skills, and individual activities in the course are aimed towards developing students’ mastery with these skills. A typical activity from the Engineering Statics course is shown below:

During the course, students’ attempts at questions related to a particular skill are then fed as inputs into a probabilistic model which treats the degrees of mastery for each skill as mathematically independent variables. This model estimates how likely a student is to have mastered individual skills, and its output can help instructors determine which students are struggling and take appropriate interventions, as well as inform the design of future versions of the same course. The paper also outlines the advantages and limitations of the existing system, which could be useful starting points for further research.

We hope that this white paper provides useful insight for creators of online courses and course platforms, and that it stimulates further discussion about how to help people learn online more effectively.
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