I wanted to share an interesting project that we tackled utilizing Canvas. Every couple of years I administer a survey to all the students within my education system (five affiliate institutions across twelve campuses). I survey students on everything from which technologies they own/utilize, to their preferences and attitudes toward eLearning, instructional technology, Canvas, etc. We are a small education system but I typically receive from 800-1,200 responses from my surveys. We receive a good amount of quantitative data to work with, but as we were formulating our latest iteration of our organizational strategy and technology road map, we decided that we wanted to supplement our quantitative results with qualitative feedback.
The approach that we wanted to employ was to run a series of focus groups. The problem is that it would not be feasible to gather students together for a live, synchronous session. We are really a global institution and we wanted a chance to have representatives from remote locations. So we turned to Canvas and our instructional design team in order to execute our focus group initiative. It was an interesting process and I wanted to share it here with you.
First of all, we sent out a recruiting email to all full time students. This is the copy we used:
Dear [FIRST NAME],
Last year we administered a student survey to understand your preferences and opinions regarding eLearning and instructional technology within the classroom. Insights gleaned from your responses helped to inform us regarding the climate of online learning attitudes which have helped us to improve course delivery methods.
As a currently enrolled student, you are invited to participate in a focus group discussion further examining student attitudes and preferences for online learning. This focus group is part of a study, sponsored by The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Pacific Oaks College, and the Colleges of Law, aimed at helping these institutions better understand online learning. We will use this data to redefine our institutional eLearning strategy. Ultimately, the findings of this research will enhance our institutional effectiveness by allowing us to keep pace with students’ interests, needs, and expectations regarding eLearning and instructional technology within the classroom. The data we collect from these focus groups will be used internally to help inform our strategic initiatives and will not be published. We hope to identify trends for student preferences, opinions, and experiences with our online learning platform. To compensate you for your time, all participants will receive a $100 gift card.
The focus group will be one week long and will be held online through Canvas during the week of March 23 to March 27, 2015. It will include currently enrolled students from The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Pacific Oaks College, and the Colleges of Law. During the focus group, you will have the opportunity to share your experiences with and thoughts about online learning, in a casual and confidential environment. Your views and experiences are extremely valuable in helping us improve online learning. Your input will greatly help these institutions to better serve students.
Although we hope you will join us, participation is voluntary. If you choose not to attend, it will not affect any benefits that you receive as a student of The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Pacific Oaks College, or the Colleges of Law. Please be assured that anything you say during the focus group will be kept strictly confidential, and no information that can be linked you will be released.
If you are interested in participating in this focus group, please indicate your interest by filling out this brief questionnaire: [link to survey]. If you are eligible and selected, a focus group team member will contact you.
OIR on behalf of the eLearning Task Force
We received a very good response from students. It turns out that $100 can be a very motivating sum for students in higher education. We established a process for determining eligibility criteria and then randomly selected students to participate – ensuring proportionate representation from our affiliates. The email that we sent to selected students reads:
You have been selected from among hundreds of applicants to participate in our eLearning Focus Group. This focus group will take place throughout the week of March 23 through March 27. This focus group is strictly voluntary, though if you consent to participate then we will expect that you will be active in the discussions throughout the week.
As a participant in the focus group, you are the expert and we are here to learn from you. We will be taking notes and reporting on our findings to the executive leadership at our academic institutions so that we can best understand the needs and expectations of students as we develop academic strategies for our course development and instructional policies.
Your focus group will be moderated. The role of the moderator is to move the conversation along and encourage active participation from everyone in the focus group. The focus group discussions will take place online through the Canvas learning platform. You will be enrolled into a “course” where you will participate in online discussions. The topics of discussions have been created based on the results of multiple opinion surveys that students completed.
- This is a forum where you are welcome and encouraged to express your thoughts, ideas, opinions, and attitudes freely.
- Be constructive and productive in your dialogue with other students. Build upon their ideas.
- Be respectful of others in the conversation. You are welcome to openly disagree with others, and you have the right to challenge or critique ideas. However, you must respect the other people in the focus group at all times. Personal attacks are never proper netiquette.
- Use appropriate language at all times and eschew sarcasm. Avoid “flaming” (online screaming) or sentences typed in all caps.
- Be encouraging of others.
- Speak from your own experience instead of generalizing (“I think” instead of “we think” or “they think”).
- Participate each day. We will have a different discussion each day for the first four days. You can use the last day of the focus group to visit previous discussions and further develop your ideas, if you choose. You are expected to dedicate time to participating in each discussion. This is an opportunity to have your voice heard by our academic executive offices.
Again, your participation in the focus group is voluntary. You have the right to drop out of the focus group at any time. The incentive for participating in the four focus group discussions is a $100 prepaid credit card, which will be mailed out to you upon completion of the focus group. If you agree to the ground rules and would like to move forward with your involvement, then we would like to get your consent so that we may begin setting up your enrollment in Canvas.
[This was sent through Qualtrics and students clicked a button]
Thank you for your time. Your honest opinions will be tremendously helpful as we look to improve our academic programs and enhance online learning experiences for students. We really appreciate your enthusiasm and help.
The eLearning Task Force
Our next task involved creating a master course for our focus groups. The instructional design team worked to create a format that was fun and engaging, but also minimalistic and easy to navigate. We split up the students into three focus groups and assigned two instructional designers as moderators for each group. One of our online professors also acted as a moderator for one of the groups. The home/landing page contained boilerplate text which the moderators would customize. A table of images were used as navigation buttons to the focus group content. The students had access to only a few navigation pages: Home, Announcements, Discussions, People.
The duration of the focus group was one week. After an initial day of ice breakers and ground rules, each day for four days a new discussion would open up with two question prompts for the focus group. These question prompts were based on item analyses that we ran on the survey data. We kept the focus group open after the last day of our discussions in order for students to continue contributing. Each discussion was set up with the following generic instructions:
Day (#) Topics
There are two separate topic threads started below – please post your replies within these existing threads (i.e., do not begin a new thread).
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A moderator would then create two initial posts to the discussion. Each initial post would be a discussion prompt for the focus group to elaborate on. Participants did not create their own initial threads, but only contributed to the moderator’s initial thread. This helped us contain the discussions and focus the participant remarks.
Each day on the home page, one of the moderators would change one image from the navigation table to reflect the new content that was available for the participants to discuss. They would then hyperlink the new image to the appropriate discussion. This did take a bit of manual work each day, but the interactivity made the effect worth the effort. The discussions were programmed ahead of time to open one at a time.
By the end of the week/session, all the images were changed and fully hyperlinked:
We ran three concurrent focus groups over the course of a week with dozens of participants. Some participants were exceptional and very engaged, most participants did the minimal work (which was still very valuable to us), and only one student did not meet our expectations in terms of contributions. The content from the focus groups was copied and pasted into a report and responses were grouped thematically. We ran analyses to determine relevant themes and content prevalence.
The final deliverables included a summary report, a PowerPoint show for the executive offices, and a comprehensive roap map with strategies and action steps. This initiative also directly impacted our institution’s long term strategy documentation which was completely rewritten and formalized recently.
It is not typical to have asynchronous focus groups, and Canvas would not be the first place where one would think to develop and administer focus groups. But through some creative thinking and a team of dedicated instructional designers, we were able to have a very successful experience.