Rigor – how much is enough in your online learning?

Using rigor to guide your IBM LMS and LCMS design

from_the_workbench_01The concept of “cognitive rigor” in the educational context has taken some interesting directions in recent years. (Search Wikipedia.org for details and links.) At SSI, we have been applying the concept of rigor in the context of IBM LMS and LCMS strategies for learner evaluation since 2001. And specifically, we have identified various levels of rigor that become one of the key starting points in the instructional design process.

It starts with asking this simple question: “Exactly how do you want your audience to achieve completion of this material?” It seems simple enough, but take the opportunity to ask that to a Subject Matter Expert (SME) point blank at the start of a project. In my experience, there’s a big gulp and then the wheels start turning. And those wheels need guidance. By starting with this question, we have identified a number of strategies that tie into AICC and SCORM standards. And the answer guides the structure of the learning to come.

Let’s dwell on the server-to-server interaction aspect for a moment. By focusing on how we want the audience to achieve completion, what we are really seeking is the trigger. What is the trigger that sends the completion data from the LCMS server back to the LMS? That is the Holy Grail in an LMS -> LCMS system. Otherwise, learners remain in one of two general states: not started or incomplete. (Those states hold useful data from an LMS perspective… but those data points are transitional… they are not the desired end state.) We want all want “complete”. What is the trigger? We have found it useful to use levels of rigor to help define the trigger. These levels are:

  • Level zero – no rigor
  • Level one – simply reach the end
  • Level two – demonstrate
  • Level three – invigilate


Rigor level zero

It’s possible to trigger a course completion status simply by entering the course. It’s also possible in the IBM LMS to trigger a completion simply by selecting a downloadable course asset. (In other words, the course is the asset, whatever that might be.) One might be tempted to ask… in return for doing nothing, how can I possibly justify a learning design that grants credit for this transaction? It’s a reasonable question, and my answer would be “You shouldn’t grant credit in return for nothing.”

What utility would this approach have then? The answer lies less in the learning realm, and more in the realm of responsibility and possibly even liability. If you’re like me, you have accepted countless End User License Agreements (EULAs) over time. The principle is straight-forward: these are our copyright-holder’s terms; you must accept them in order to proceed. Some form of acceptance is required… and then it’s “on you” from there, regardless of whether you actually read the terms. (It’s always interesting to read about someone who actually reads the full agreement… finds something in the fine print and goes public and forces a change.)

In the learning context, we have also had clients who have used this concept in an adult-learning-principled fashion. This approach, stated conversationally, is: “This information is part of your job responsibility. It’s not enough of a priority to set up formal knowledge testing for it. By downloading this resource, you accept responsibility for it.

For learners, you can use the “Rigor level zero” approach in the IBM LMS to achieve an assumption of responsibility. It takes the shape of a course, called “Independent learning”. And the moment you click on the downloadable resource, you, the learner, trigger completion. The LMS records that you have accepted the download and take responsibility for whatever it contains.

An alternative approach, to achieve the same purpose, would be to create a course in the LCMS that contains the information, possibly some explanatory or background pages, and the text of the “agreement” or “commitment” with an “I agree” button at the bottom. Clicking agree in the LCMS course becomes the trigger of completion and sends that data back to the LMS.

For external vendors or contractors, you can use either strategy (IBM LMS alone, or IBM LMS -> LCMS) to create an acceptance of terms… and an effective transfer of liability. Conversationally stated: “We’ve given you the information you need to work properly and safely on our work site… you accept full responsibility by downloading or clicking.

When I first considered the idea of a transaction that had zero rigor to it was not favourable. Time and experience has shown me that rigor level zero has significant utility. The reason for going through this sort of staging is to create the reportable completion. It’s there… and it will remain reportable for many years into the future.

Stay tuned for the next blog entries:

  • Rigor level one – simply reach the end
  • Rigor level two – demonstrate
  • Rigor level three – invigilate