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Education: What is e-Learning?

EDUCATION

WHAT IS e–LEARNING

By Peter Hayes and Steve Eadie

WE DID QUITE A BUILD–UP to e–Learning in the first two articles in this series, even to the point of asserting that "e–Learning has driven us to new heights"; that it has shaped the entire redesign of the education system; that its influence on the system cannot be overstated; and that it has become an integral part of our vision for Education. What we didn't do, though, was provide much justification for our assertion, opting instead to defer to a "future article" devoted entirely to "e–Learning." The time has now come, and this is it—a time to set the record straight as to what e–Learning is ... and what it isn't.

There are two parts to any e–Learning system: the small "e," which implies electronic delivery of materials; and the capital "L"—the Learning aspect of the system. Generically, it is any system that provides for electronic delivery of Learning, but with emphasis on the Learning.

What e–Learning is not, within the SOA's basic Education System, is a simple delivery of online reading materials. If that was all that we were trying to deliver to our candidates through e–Learning, the SOA Board of Directors would surely not have authorized the commitment of large amounts of SOA resources to develop an e–Learning system. We could have, after all, delivered additional readings lists within the traditional SOA formal examination system.

Our e–Learning system is an attempt to do more. It is an attempt to introduce more educational rigor to the SOA Education system; to introduce new skill development for our candidates; new support structures for our candidates; and, yes, new assessment techniques to ensure that our candidates have actually developed the new skills and learned what we intended to teach them.

The strength in the SOA Education system prior to the most recent redesign, it was its examination rigor. The examinations were hard, and successful candidates were generally motivated, dedicated and bright. What a great system: all of our passing candidates were very bright and hard workers to boot. Who could complain?

Who could complain? Arguably our most important constituent—the employers of actuaries—that's who. Employers complained that new actuaries could really not do anything practical. Sure they had a lot of knowledge, and could recite complete lists of relevant, and sometimes irrelevant, facts. They could also calculate the necessary amounts when told what to do. What they did not seem to be able to do, though, was comprehend the underlying problems found in the real world, and they could not explain to stakeholders what they did. They had to be "trained from scratch"—and as a result, they were marginalized.

In addition, potential employers of actuaries were clear: actuaries were viewed as technicians without the necessary skills to participate fully in the business world.

Further, some very capable candidates took one look at our system and said, "No thanks, I think I will do something else."

Our e–Learning system was introduced to the SOA Education system largely to address these issues, to help candidates develop some of the missing business skills, to make the system more practical and more engaging, and to assess whether the candidates have made appropriate progress in these areas.

The result is an e–Learning system that requires every candidate to complete 11 online modules. Eight modules make up the Fundamentals of Actuarial Practice (FAP) Course; two are FSA level modules and one is the Decision Making and Communications module. We estimate that each individual module requires at least 40 hours of work (and closer to 60 for the FSA modules). That is a lot of work!

Within each module there are a variety of activities. First, the candidates are required to complete some readings. Some are chapters of selected textbooks; some are online .pdf files developed specifically for the module; and some are real–life articles.

The student doesn't just complete each reading in a vacuum. Rather, each reading is introduced and the key concepts are spelled out. Once the candidate returns to the module upon completion of the reading, he is often asked to complete an activity. This could involve completing some questions, some calculations, comparing the reading to another reading—anything that helps the student learn what is important from the reading. Once this is complete the key concepts are again summarized.

Why all this effort and repetition for a simple reading? Modern education theory acknowledges that there are many learning styles. Some candidates need to know before the reading; others need a summary after the reading is completed; and some need an activity to make the reading meaningful. We're striving to touch all bases!

Second, the candidates are asked thought questions when new concepts are introduced online. These questions ask them to think. Suggested responses are then provided for their consideration.

Third, we have a series of Ask an Actuary questions imbedded throughout each module. These are practical questions that allow the candidates to review what practicing actuaries think about various practical matters. We add mentoring to the modules through these techniques.

Finally, we ask the candidates to complete case studies within each module. The case studies are designed to allow the students to practice the concepts that they have learned with real–life examples. They introduce the candidates to real–life business problems and require that they participate in their solutions. Candidates are required to do some work, which can include spreadsheet work, model building, decision making or communicating their findings to an interested stakeholder. We provide relevant work experience to the candidates here.

The candidates are encouraged to work together and are provided open forums online to discuss the course materials and assignments with other candidates. The goal is to have SOA staff and volunteers active on the forums as well.

Once the candidates are finished with the module coursework, an assessment of their learning commences.

Each candidate completes an end–of–module test to determine whether they have sufficiently grasped the key concepts introduced in the module. This is an online multiple choice test. They can repeat this test as many times as required.

After completion of the end–of–module test, the candidate then completes an end–of–module exercise. This is an exercise that requires the candidate to complete assignments that reinforce the key concepts learned when completing the module. The deliverables for the exercises are similar to the activities in the case studies. In particular, we emphasize the delivery of communication materials to other stakeholders in the problem.

The candidates must deliver their work to the SOA Education committees. They self–assess their work by comparing it to a model solution. If they believe their work is acceptable, they may proceed to a new module. SOA staff and volunteers also assess each candidate's submitted solution.

The end–of–module exercises are part of the SOA Education committee's formal assessment of each candidate's progress. Exercise work is to be the candidate's own and is subject to the same rules as any other part of a candidate's SOA basic education requirements. See sidebar on page 35.

As part of the FAP Course, the end–of–module exercise at the end of Module 5 is replaced by an Interim Assessment, and the end–of–module exercise at the end of Module 8 is replaced by a Final Assessment. These Assessments are also part of a candidate's formal SOA basic education requirements.

The Interim and Final Assessments are more formalized exercises that are marked by SOA member–volunteers, and are not independently assessed by the candidates. Model solutions for the Interim and Final Assessments are not made public.

The Interim Assessment is a series of assignments that the candidates complete. The assignments relate to the key concepts and are of a nature that the student is expected to provide a polished response to a stakeholder after researching the matter. For this reason, the candidates are allowed a month to complete the Interim Assessment. The work on the Interim Assessment is expected to be the candidate's own with no assistance permitted.

The Final Assessment is based on a business situation. Candidates are asked to complete a time pressured assignment within 96 hours (generally over a weekend). The candidates are allowed to consult with others in preparing their responses, but the responses must be their own.

The end–of–module exercises, Interim Assessment and Final Assessment all require the candidates to use and demonstrate skills that are not tested in the traditional examinations. Properly prepared spreadsheets, memos to files, higher cognitive level responses and professionalism are all front–and–center in the e–Learning environment.

WHY IS e–LEARNING PART OF THE SOA EDUCATION SYSTEM?

To begin to answer this question you only need to review the final paragraph of the previous section.

The brilliance of e–Learning is that it allows us to readily introduce higher cognitive level tasks into our assessment process. It also allows us to introduce more practical and relevant tasks to our candidates, and allows the candidates to develop new skills.

These are very important improvements to the SOA's Education system, and would make e–Learning worth doing even if this was all it ever provided. There are, however, many more advantages. Here are a few of them.

Done well, e–Learning provides an engaging learning environment, certainly more engaging than self–study of a large reading list. Our candidates have provided assessments for the SOA modules and have universally given us high grades. They think the SOA e–Learning system is engaging and, frankly, that is good enough for us.

The SOA created a Learning Management System (LMS) as a platform from which to deliver e–Learning. The LMS allows us to receive feedback from the candidates. That feedback has allowed us to improve a large portion of the FAP Course during 2008 (we have almost completely finished the second version of FAP), and the candidates now give us even higher ratings for the course. We will be using the same techniques to improve the FSA modules—continuous improvement is achievable in an e–Learning environment.

The e–Learning LMS platform is flexible and allows us to introduce new material quickly. Material on the subprime mortgage crisis, for instance, has already been introduced into the FAP—a feat nearly impossible under traditional exam delivery where the syllabus needs to be finalized more than a year in advance of an exam's administration.

Our e–Learning system is available 24/7. Candidates learn on their own timetable. The particular design of the SOA e–Learning system allows candidates to commence work on the FAP earlier in their career or to complete any e–Learning requirements concurrently with the examinations, should they so choose. This improves travel time and keeps the candidates engaged.Maintenance of the e–Learning materials has created needs for the development of new educational materials. The demand for new relevant materials will cause us to continuously ask the question, "Are we teaching our candidates what they need to be successful today?" And more importantly, "Are we teaching our candidates what they need to know to be successful in the future?" The resulting research and new educational materials will benefit our profession immensely.

Finally, have you noticed the behaviors of Gen–X and Gen–Y these days? Do you think they will have any interest in entering a profession that does not offer e–Learning? Without e–Learning our profession will suffer. It will not attract the best and the brightest. It is not a question of whether we have e–Learning—it is only a question of how well we can deliver e–Learning. At this point we have made a good start, but it is only a start.

The current e–Learning modules can be an important part of any member's professional development. The FAP provides a large actuarial body of knowledge that could be at your fingertips. The FSA modules could provide the necessary education that you are missing for the next stage of your career. We are developing new modules specifically designed for practicing actuaries and we can do all this because the SOA decided six short years ago that e–Learning had to be part of our future.

The e–Learning LMS platform can be used to deliver learning in many other forms. We are now using it to train our volunteers. We plan to make it more engaging with voice–overs and new techniques.

We expect that e–Learning will become a delivery mechanism for continuing professional development. That, however, is a topic for an upcoming article.

If you would like to review an e–Learning module, Module 1 of the FAP is available to you at no charge. You can access it from the SOA or BeAnActuary Web sites.

We'd be happy to hear from you, and if you'd like to volunteer for e–Learning, let us know—it will be worth your while! Comments referencing this article may be sent to education@soa.org.

Peter Hayes, FSA, FCIA, is a principal with Eckler Ltd. He can be contacted at phayes@eckler.ca.

Steve Eadie, FSA, FCIA, is a partner with Robertson Eadie and Associates. He can be contacted at seadie@re-a.com.

Sidebar: MAKE IT YOUR OWN

of a candidate's career. Therefore, enforcement of the highest standards of candidate conduct cannot be overemphasized. The SOA takes seriously its responsibility to maintain these standards in support of the profession and for the vast majority of candidates whose conduct is of the highest caliber.

To that end, rigorous plagiarism rules and an aggressive plagiarism–monitoring system are in place to help ensure that one candidate does not gain an unfair advantage over another and that an individual who completes the requirements for a designation with the SOA has in fact earned that distinction.

Plagiarism on any SOA educational component is expressly forbidden and is not acceptable behavior for one entering the actuarial profession. When plagiarism is determined in a candidate submission the SOA has no choice but to take strict punitive measures. These measures include disqualification of the exercise or assessment and a ban on earning any Education credit for a period of time ranging from one year to a life. If a candidate is already a member, the disqualification of the requirement may mean that an ASA, CERA or FSA credential is revoked for the length of the ban and such time that the candidate takes to complete any remaining requirements.

Like other professions, the actuarial profession demands integrity and ethical behavior. Adherence to the Education system rules and regulations and the e–Learning terms and conditions is central to maintaining the integrity of the system and to preserving the value of the credentials.