I am fortunate to work in a school district that has a 1:1, student to laptop, program. The contents of my course are almost completely online, and my students access this online course on a daily basis as part of their curriculum for my and other classes. Recently, I was challenged to think about the setup and effectiveness of these courses as I prepared to create a hybrid course to be offered as part of a teacher professional development series.
The first critical design decision I had to make for this hybrid course was choosing a teaching and learning platform, also commonly known as a content management system (CMS). I assessed various CMSs for their effectiveness, knowing that it had to appeal to an adult audience, that this would be a hybrid course (part of instruction is virtually and the other part in person) and using the article “Keeping pace with online K-12 and online learning” (Watson, Murin, Vashaw, Gemin, Rapp, p. 48-57, 2013) to outline four factors to consider when assessing effectiveness: content, teaching, technology and operations. I ended up choosing Schoology as my teaching and learning platform. From the content and teaching standpoint, Schoology made it easy to share, save, and access a wide range of content from educators all over the world, and its abundant customizable and individualized material features were wonderful. Studying the technology aspect of Schoology, I found that it was easily accessible and worked well on many different types of devices. The format was similar to other online platforms and the app was easy to download and user friendly. I knew this familiarity and ease of use would be a win with my teachers taking the course. From the operations standpoint, this program was easy to use for both the teacher and students. Course organization, uploads and communication all were fluent features and would help make for a smooth learning experience. When studying different CMSs, I was surprised what many of them did or did not have to offer and am happy I was able to learn that before building my course. CMSs are constantly changing and new ones are added. The method of instructional delivery (hybrid vs. fully online), and the audience can also change, so I think this process of evaluation is beneficial prior to any course being built. Just because Schoology worked best for my course this time does not mean that will be the most effective choice for the next course I build. Remember to always explore your options and be open to new CMSs!
After I chose a platform, I was ready to dive in and start organizing content. However, here again I was challenged to step away from old habits and more closely plan and set goals for my course based on standards set it place by the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE). The seven clearly outlined standards described by ISTE helped me develop some big picture ideas and goals for the organization, delivery and content of the course, and I was able to keep these standards in mind as I further developed the course. Ultimately, I think this helped with the quality of delivery and content for my students. ISTE is not the only quality technology education set of standards out there, however, I chose to work with these standards because they left some room for instructor personalization and innovation in regards to the set-up and delivery of instruction. If this rubric does not suit your fancy, I also enjoyed the standards and rubrics by the National Center for Universal Design for Learning and International Society for Technology in Education. Ultimately, having a rubric of standards for myself to follow from the foundation of this course helped keep my focus, and I would highly recommend doing the same for anyone else creating an online course. Below are two examples of rubrics that I used to continually check and reflect on work. This constant reflection and revision of my work helped keep my overarching objectives on track from the beginning of the course, to the end.
The pre-planning for this course took a significant amount of time, and I attribute this pre-planning phase to much of the successfulness of my course. Moving forward, I was excited to jump into the nitty gritty elements of planning content. My favorite part of in person classes has always been making connections with other students, so I wanted to make sure I carried this element into the hybrid course. My pedagogical goals were ensuring quality communication and helping students build relationships with one another, ensuring my course was meeting the needs of each individual student (blame the special education teacher in me!), and ensuring that the content and learning was authentic and connected.
I also set specific content related goals for my course that are clearly labeled and visible to students on the course under each lesson. I was able to use these pedagogical and learning goals as a map to organize the information I was going to deliver and make sure the content followed a logical progression. If there was one thing I learned while building this course, it was that consistency and organization of the material and delivery is key from the start.
I strived to create a course that was easily navigated, but that also included many different types of content, or activities. By mixing it up, I hoped to hold my student’s attention and make the learning process more exciting and meaningful, as opposed to a course they could blow through on auto-pilot. Every lesson provided ways to communicate with the teacher and classmates (through discussion boards, video hangouts or peer review), to interact with the content (through assignments, media boards and videos), and to assess and reflect on what was learned (through assessments including quizzes, assignment uploads and picture or video demonstrations). The mix of content was also intended to appeal to various learning strengths so that everyone could better understand and feel successful on portions of the content. I placed a special emphasis on assessment after reading Punya Mishra’s piece on assessment and online learning titled, “All you can cheat, the web & learning.” Punya Mishra inspired me to encourage open testing, where students have access to resources during assessments. I think it is important to make sure that students practice and know how to access and research information, and if we want them to do this, we need include it in our assessments. “That ability, to learn to assess different and large bodies of information, that may often contradict each other, is a critical skill and I am glad to learn of this effort,” (Mishra) and by including this as part of our assessments, we are making this skill a requirement and priority. All of my assessments are “open book” and allow access to information. In fact, I encourage students to access the internet and dig through information while taking their assessments. All of my assessments also allow students the opportunity for re-submission until passing. I did this because I want students to review my feedback and their scores so that they can be reflective about their work, which ultimately grows their learning.
Once my course content was created, I turned my attention back to the user side of an online course. There was a clear need to explicitly outline the rules and expectations for the course. I also tried to think ahead about my guidelines for course completion, communication, professionalism, learning and assignment expectations. By stating these expectations from the start, I hoped that conflicts would be fewer and more easily solved. It is also important to take note of some of the issues that arise as the course happens, so that you can edit and evolve the expectations of the course. I also wanted to ensure that the course was individualized (made possible by the varying types of assignments and student choice over their work), personalized (made possible by providing comments and feedback to all students), and that I was following the Universal Design for Learning, UDL, guidelines. Taking a closer look at the UDL guidelines was most certainly something I wish I would have done from the beginning of the course creation. Instead, I heavily edited my course at the end to make sure I was meeting these expectations. For me, these guidelines brought to light the fact that some students will need more support throughout the course than others, and that I need to provide instruction for students in many fashions (using video, pictures, and text as opposed to just text). Everyone deserves the opportunity to be successful during this course, and it is my job as the creator and instructor to create an appropriate environment and experience for that intended outcome.
There were a few overriding themes that guided my successful course making experience: planning, goal setting and reflection.You can never plan too much! You may not use all of your planning items, and plans can change over time, however, being overly prepared sure does not hurt the smoothness of the process. Setting goals keeps the vision and ideas in check. Setting goals ultimately helped guide my thinking and was a very large part of creating a coherent course that followed a logical path. Reflection is key before, during and after any course you create, and the revisions from that reflection will ultimately help to keep your course updated and more beneficial for learners over the years. I created content and then checked back over my work a few times using different self evaluating tools. Each time I went back, I found something I could improve on (even when I thought I was all done!). In short, your course is never totally complete and it is allowed to evolve over time! I hope some of my experiences can help guide others starting online courses. Best of luck fellow educators and online course creators!
CAST (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from http://udlguidelines.cast.org
International Society for Technology in Education. (2014). ISTE standards teachers. Retrieved from http://www.iste.org/standards/for-educators
Mishra, P. (2009, November 13). All you can cheat, the web and learning [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://www.punyamishra.com/2009/11/13/all-you-can-cheat-the-web-learning/
Watson, J., Pape, L., Murin, A., Gemin, B., & Vashaw, L. (2014). Keeping pace with K-12 digital learning: An annual report of policy and practice [Web report]. Evergreen Education Group.