Reinventing the Wheel and DIY Online Instructional Design

Even for those of us who have taught online courses in pre-pandemic times, and those of us who have crashed our courses online mid semester in 2020, many of us now find ourselves in a third completely new situation with respect to online teaching: suddenly teaching an entire course load online, and with inadequate timelines and insufficient supports for adequate course development.

We have not done this before. Indeed, virtually no one has done this on this scale before. We are not in a position to create the best online content. We do not have a semester of course release to develop each course. Moreover, we are designing multiple courses at the same time, and doing so in non-ideal circumstances. (Cough. No child care.) Instructional design specialists are in demand, overworked, and too few and far between. Rather than months of one on one support from an instructional designer, many of us are scrambling our way through YouTube tutorials, zoom seminars, and online user manuals for instructional design. Many of us are not paid over the summer. The development of these courses alone is already overwhelming. The circumstances in which we are doing so can make it feel impossible. There are lots of reasons to be wary of what is going on, and to be cautious about how we proceed. To highlight one that carries over from my previous posts: fully supported online course design typically takes months per course – and should be compensated as such. In this situation, it will not be.

In a nutshell, the central reason that I advocate for online pedagogy is its accessibility. Or, at a minimum, its potential for accessibility. Online education has its origins in distance education, and the basic principle of distance education is that the learning comes to the learner. It also, as it turns out, comes to the instructor. That has proved useful in the pandemic context where many of us are also teaching from home. We each access the entirety of the course in our own space, in our own time, and on our own devices. That’s one way that distance education has a starting point that is more broadly accessible than face to face education, which requires us to fit ourselves into other people’s spaces, at scheduled times, with all of the limitations entailed by those physical spaces. Accordingly, the first principle of online instructional design is, and should remain, accessibility.

But, given that most of us have little to no experience of designing a course for online delivery, this post is an attempt to offer a preliminary framework for thinking about accessible and student-centered instructional design for online environments, and to provide some questions to think through as we start this daunting process.

1. Learning Outcomes

A really helpful way to stay focused on a student-centered paradigm is to think explicitly about learning outcomes. Think carefully about these at the outset of course design, because you can (and should) ultimately use them to guide every subsequent choice: from course material, to assessments, to lecture formats. Depending on the course, the educational outcomes you focus on are likely to include some blend of content, skills, and competencies. What do you want students to achieve – what do you want them to be able to DO – by the end of the course. Write an essay? Think critically about certain material? Use truth tables? Build connections between the material and real life experiences? Identify real world examples of fallacious reasoning?

Whatever outcomes you are aiming for, you will be building a path towards those outcomes starting from your initial design choices. Every design choice from your choice of course materials to choice of format and frequency of assessments to your systems of contact with the class – these are the students’ route to the learning outcome. So, start by defining an end point, then break down the steps that will guide your students towards that end point.

Even if you have never (explicitly) started with learning outcomes before, I think that this is a good place to start for designing your first (and second, and third) online course. Focus on the end point, and reverse engineer a path towards it. Think about how each piece of content – each reading, each video, each quiz and each writing assignment – builds towards the learning outcomes. There may come a time when you have to edit your course – use the learning outcomes to structure this editing process. For each element of the course, ask yourself how it serves the learning outcomes. What other purpose does it serve? Can the desired outcome be achieved in another way? Is it already being achieved in other ways? (Hint: duplication is not a bad thing. Accessible design may include multiple and flexible routes to achieving the same outcomes.)

In a face to face learning environment, we would be doing this implicitly. We would be guiding our students towards certain educational outcomes – partly through our course design, partly through our allocations of contact time, and partly through the feedback we offer on each assignment. But we might not do it quite as deliberately or consciously as we are forced to for online learning. In online learning, it will not happen by accident.

Moreover, in face to face contexts, we would have a certain flexibility and agility that we will not have in an online learning environment. We might have the capacity for changing the direction or method of a particular lecture if (gasp!) it were not going as planned, or for granting the whole class an extension when lecture is cancelled for a fire alarm or a snow day. Course corrections are still possible in online environments, but – again – online course components can be more unwieldy, and course corrections will take more effort.

In online learning environments, a significant portion of the ‘guiding’ towards educational outcomes is designed into the very shape of the course: it is built into the pattern of each week, the relationship between weeks; it is in the relationship between each piece of material, the pieces that preceded it, and the pieces that will follow. Best practices in online education suggests that we should have small content blocks with frequent low-stakes evaluations or self-evaluations to help students make progress through the material, and also account for flexibility in course delivery. (Remember the fundamental possibility of accessibility?) But these techniques also help students make progress through the course.

What are the content components that build towards the outcomes you have in mind? Think about the rhythm of the course and the overall shape of the course. Think of small pieces of content as the building blocks. (Can you tell that I’ve been without child care since March 13?). Use small components to build a larger structure. Short readings and short videos. Provide questions to think about as you read – sometimes called ‘guided readings’. Notice that you need some (foundational) competencies before others. You need a stable base of content and competencies before you can start to build ‘up’.

Brainstorm what types of small building blocks will make up your course, and then start to build them into patterns. Some readings or understandings will have to come before others. This is how we often build face to face courses, but in those cases our ‘content blocks’ may be 1.5 hour lectures or 40 page readings. In this case, think much smaller. Think of 10 – 20 minute activities. Larger numbers of shorter readings. Choices for students. (Perhaps: read any 3 of the following list of articles and podcasts by the same author.) It may be helpful to build pass/fail or 2 mark tasks to demonstrate completion of a certain number of readings before moving on to more complex tasks. All the better if the quiz can auto- generate immediate feedback for the learner. Gamification principles might help. Or, simple checklists built using course management software might be enough of a nudge to keep students focused on end points and end goals and progress.


2. Steer the Skid.

Focus on where you want to end up, but be aware of what you are trying to avoid.

The three biggest worries that I hear about teaching online are marking burden, disengagement (disengagement by learners or by instructors), and academic dishonesty. These are all legitimate worries. Many of them are borne of experience. My advice here is first and foremost for you to recognize what you are trying to avoid. Whatever you are most worried about – flag it for yourself. Be honest with yourself that “this is what scares me”. Then, design your course to help you avoid it. Build it into your end point and your choices of path, along with learning outcomes.

So, let’s take the three worries in turn:

To manage your marking burden, front load your work (and mental load) by writing sophisticated multiple choice questions that auto-mark and give immediate feedback. The next way to alleviate marking burden – and also front load the mental load – is to write a detailed descriptive and numeric rubric. Pre-release the rubric to students so they can see what you will be looking for. Many pieces of course management software allow you to pre-load feedback forms. Take the time to do this. But – to the extent that academic dishonesty is also a worry – set both your multiple choice and your short answer quizzes to randomize questions from a question bank (of questions worth equal marks). It may serve your pedagogical (outcome oriented) purposes to give students a 2 question ‘comprehension’ quiz at the end of each content block – but if you can build up 4 or 5 different questions for your question bank, the students will write variations on the same quiz rather than identical quizzes.

These two strategies (auto marked multiple choice and rubric-assisted marking through course management software) will help you deliver meaningful feedback, and to do so quickly and efficiently. They make good use of the modalities of online course design.

One important strategy for maintaining engagement with students is meaningful communication. That doesn’t necessarily mean constant synchronous availability. But regular and predictable presence in the learning environment can keep everyone engaged. If you keep showing up for your students – by checking in, by sending out general announcements, by replying to questions on course discussion forums, by providing feedback, and by making yourself available for office hours – you set up the possibility of engagement. You set up the possibility that they will show up for you.

Then, make a schedule for yourself to do all of these. Send out personal emails and make general announcements. Recognize or acknowledge local and world events as they are relevant to the course – as you would in a face to face class. You are, after all, still a flesh and blood professor interacting with real live students in a real world, albeit mediated through the computer and technology.

You may find that in an online environment it takes more conscious effort to use an authentic voice in your communications with students. Start by making a genuine attempt to empathize. From Flower Darby’s Chronicle guide to online teaching comes a reminder to put yourself in the students’ shoes. Do so at the stage of course design, and remind yourself to do so regularly throughout the course.

When you are trying to avoid academic dishonesty, start by being clear about your expectations. Pre-releasing your rubric, or perhaps even using a specifications grading system may help. Clarify relevant features of academic integrity policies as they apply to a particular assignment, unit, or course as a whole. If students are invited to discuss with a peer at a certain stage but not others, explain that. And then – yes, use question banks for quizzes and tests, avoid overly broad essay questions that are more likely to be easily available for purchase, and use anti-plagiarism software such as SafeAssign and TurnItIn. But do all of this openly and honestly through reasonably transparent communications. If you are worried about academic dishonesty, don’t attempt to entrap your students. Rather, try to be clear about what constitutes academic dishonesty in this context, or about what your pedagogical purposes are for a particular assignment.


3. Size Matters

If you have 14 students in an online class, it may be feasible to assign long essays, review drafts, and allow re-writes. Although, be warned that screen fatigue is real, and that even in a small class, you may want to have your students complete assignments in ways that allow you to print them out and mark on paper and offline.

When you have 220 online students, regardless of your level of TA support, responding to email enquiries may take up a measurable portion of each week, and marking may be incredibly time consuming. Downloading or uploading 220 text boxes for marking takes more time than flipping over 220 sheets of paper.

All of this is to say that the numbers matter in online education, perhaps more than in face to face education. (And for any university administrators that may advocate for removing caps in online courses, feel free to read that again.) They matter for your experience of teaching the course, for the students’ experience of taking the course, and for the feasibility of different design options. So, take stock of the expected size of a given course, and of the total number of students you will be teaching across all courses, and design each course with size and numbers in mind.

Then, structure your time – your weekly plan – accordingly. Remind yourself that there are only so many hours in the day, that there will be technical glitches along the way, and that self care and rest should be part of everyone’s schedule.

Help structure your students’ expectations in a number of ways. Be up front with your students about your email policy. I tell students that it may take up to 2 working days for me to get back to them. I tell students that I will check email regularly between 9 and 5, Monday to Friday (or – this was my policy pre-pandemic. I may have to revise for the foreseeable future), and that I will check irregularly or not at all over night and on weekends. Set up systems – often a discussion board will be helpful – to allow students to ask each other about where to find something in the syllabus.

May Day 8 hours image

May Day image: 8 Hours for Work; 8 Hours for Rest; 8 Hours for What We Will.

In the context of planning for Fall 2020 online courses, there is a temptation to reinvent the wheel. To try out all sorts of new technology, but to try to keep the teaching (and learning) as familiar as possible. My suggestion is to think about Marshall McLuhan, and remember that the medium changes everything. But that’s okay. Online education cannot be the same as face to face, and it should not be. But online education is not new. It was not invented in the pandemic context. And it can serve these purposes, if we allow it to.

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Rather, in this context, try to aim for where you want to end up, and let that goal guide you.

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