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Online Course Design

Thinking outside the classic paradigms.

February 13, 2020
 
 

I recently came across a YouTube video that I found especially impressive and insightful. Stephanie Richter, director of faculty development and instructional support at Northern Illinois University, suggests ways to break outside the traditional ways of designing online courses.

As she points out, online courses typically take pretty conventional forms.

There is the classic task-based asynchronous model. A student, in fixed sequence, completes a series of tasks. Typically, students are asked to review a number of assigned readings, view or listen to a digitized lecture or PowerPoint presentation, take part in discussion, and complete an assessment.

Then there is the classic synchronous model, in which students take part in a live virtual session using a videoconferencing tool and watch a lecture or take part in a seminar-like discussion.

Although a task-based approach sounds simple and straightforward, it often leads to student confusion, since it requires students to move from one resource, tool, chore or page to another, usually without benefit of a map or dashboard detailing their progress. The task-based approach also can easily lapse into a pretty mechanical learning experience, where students do what they’re required without much engagement with their classmates or instructor.

At its worst, the classic synchronous approach has its own flaws. Even though it includes the standard features of a face-to-face class, the online version too often fails to convey the passion or emotional intensity and bonding that bring brick-and-mortar courses to life. If synchronous online courses are to take advantage of the digital environment, they must combine lecture or discussion with a variety of activities: problem-solving exercises, quizzes, video clips, polls or surveys, questions and answers, guest lectures, debates, and hangouts.

The classic models tend to be pretty faculty-driven, faculty-centered and faculty-directed. Faculty not only design the course, but deliver lectures and presentations and lead the discussions. But as Richter points out, there are a variety of alternatives to the two classic approaches that shift the focus to the students.

These approaches are less static, more dynamic, more experiential and more authentic than those offered by the classic paradigms. Depending on their design, these models are also more collaborative or more self-directed, self-paced and self-guided. They are also more inquiry-focused, project- and problem-driven, and team-based.

One approach is a courseware model, where students use personalized, adaptive software to master a subject. The courseware leverages students’ responses to frequent low-stakes assessments to personalize content, adjust the student’s learning trajectory and target remediation and feedback.

The courseware model is usually competency-based. Its goal is to bring each student to a minimal viable mastery of content and skills. I find this approach effective in areas where the learning objectives are well defined. But don’t look to courseware to provide powerful social experiences or intense student-faculty interactions.

Another alternative to the classic approaches involves various active learning models that require students to engage in activities outside a classroom. Detailing these approaches is at the heart of Richter’s YouTube discussion.

One active learning model is a collaborative approach that emphasizes group work. Under this model, a team of students is assigned a task to complete, a problem to solve or a project to undertake. The team then engages in an inquiry and produces an outcome: a research report, a collaborative website, an annotated text or bibliography or webography, a podcast, a digital story, or something else.

A team-based approach requires the students to communicate with one another, usually through a blog or wiki, or by participating in a hangout or web conference, or simply texting one another or chatting on the phone.

Another active learning model involves case-based learning. Students are introduced -- through text, a video, a personal statement or a collection of primary sources -- to a real-world example or a realistic scenario and then asked to analyze and reflect on the case, discuss it with classmates, and draw conclusions, tease out implications, and fashion generalizations.

A case study approach can help students develop essential skills, including the ability to diagnose a problem, evaluate a decision and apply a theoretical or conceptual framework in a real-life context. Case-based teaching can help bridge the gap between academic learning and real-world applications.

Another active learning approach involves experiential learning. Typically, students undertake an internship or externship, or engage in a clinical, lab or service learning experience, and then share, discuss, analyze and evaluate what they learned and encountered with their classmates and instructor.

A variation entails field-based research. Students, either individually or as members of teams, conduct interviews, compile oral histories, take photographs, collect data and otherwise gather information, which can be shared and interpreted in synchronous or asynchronous sessions.

As Kathryn E. Linder and Chrysanthemum Mattison Hayes demonstrate in “High-Impact Practices in Online Education: Research and Best Practices,” all of the strategies demonstrated to be most effective in increasing student engagement and learning -- such as intensive writing, collaborative projects, mentored research -- can occur in online contexts

Of course, none of the approaches that Richter discusses is exclusive. All can be combined in various ways. Online classes can integrate courseware or team-based learning or field experiences. But a word of warning: don’t make the class too complicated, or students are likely to become confused or lost and to disengage.

Fully online teaching differs from its face-to-face counterpart in respects that bear remembering. For one thing, online teaching requires far greater up-front planning and preparation. It is very difficult to alter online courses on the fly.

Another difference: online courses tend to place a greater demands on students than do conventional brick-and-mortar classes. Not surprisingly, this reality tends to annoy students who assume that online learning is easier and more passive than face-to-face instruction. All students -- not just the most verbal or extroverted or engaged -- are expected to engage in discussion, and everyone is expected to provide feedback to classmates and to participate actively in team-based activities. And, of course, strong time management skills and self-discipline are essential for success in online classes. It's not for everyone.

Then there are the ways that online teaching fundamentally alters the instructor’s role. A faculty member must not only be a deliverer of content, a feedback provider and an evaluator, but an instructional designer and learning architect, a truly adept discussion leader and an expert observer, who closely monitors students who are disengaged or off task or bewildered or disoriented, and responds appropriately.

If there’s anything we’ve learned about online learning over the past decade, it’s that truly effective online instruction is more demanding and generally more costly than its face-to-face equivalent. Sure, it can be done on the cheap -- and too often is. But as Richter suggests, if done right, it can open up learning opportunities hard to duplicate inside fixed classroom walls.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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