Plug-and-Play Online Courses: Innovation or Dystopia?

Template structures for online courses are becoming more common across higher ed. While they can create efficiency, some instructors worry they're stamping out individual agency.

May 22, 2019
 
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Chvonne Parker has taught online English courses at numerous institutions, including for community colleges, four-year privates and fully online for-profits. Each experience brings its own challenges.

One of the biggest disparities between various teaching environments, Parker said, is the degree to which adjunct instructors can play a role in course design. Some institutions want instructors to give frequent input. Others, though, have course modules locked in -- at times, Parker believes, to the detriment of the learning experience.

At one institution where she’s currently teaching, the attached textbook got a significant update last fall. Parker subsequently noticed that the online course didn’t reflect new page numbers and exam content, so she put in a request to her institution’s instructional design team. An entire school year later, she still hasn’t heard back.

“I’ve had to be creative with the workarounds for students, since a lot of them, they just assume that I designed the courses, so these are my mistakes,” Parker said. “I get emails like, ‘None of your dates in the course are correct.’”

Parker said most of her students have been appropriately flexible, as they tend to be when other technical difficulties arise. But her struggles highlight an ongoing tension in the development of online education.

Refreshing online courses can be expensive and time-consuming, particularly for institutions looking to grow online enrollment quickly amid financial pressures and growing competition. Skeptics of online education wonder whether the modality can match the quality of comparable face-to-face courses. Practitioners see a more complicated landscape, with a wide range of course development models, some of which are more flexible than others.

The notion of a “predesigned course,” with the instructor delivering existing course content to students and facilitating their learning experience, originated with for-profit institutions. But as nonprofits have invested heavily in online programs, the concept has spread to them as well.

Catrina Mitchum, a lecturer in the department of English at the University of Arizona, in recent years has grown interested in researching the advantages and disadvantages of predesigned courses. Earlier this year she presented on the topic at an Online Learning Consortium conference and co-led a webinar.

Predesigned courses make sense for institutions with constantly shifting rosters of adjunct instructors, she said. Starting from scratch each time someone new is hired simply wouldn’t be practical, for institutions or instructors. In her program, Mitchum said predesigned structures and modules serve as a useful starting point for building out the particulars of a course.

On the other hand, predesigned courses that don’t give instructors much flexibility can also pose issues when instructors try to get promoted. During a recent performance review, Mitchum said she struggled to explain how anything she had done in her predesigned courses had been “innovative.”

“Traditionally it was always check the box. Did you log in five out of seven days, did you respond to this many students, did you post your grades within 24 to 48 hours?” Mitchum said. “But that’s about quantity. We were arguing that the assessments should be more about quality of the types of interaction that we know lead to student success.”

Particularly for predesigned courses on the more institutionally controlled end of the spectrum, the instructor role can be unclear.

"Oftentimes when you are teaching these classes, it’s assumed that what you’re doing isn't actually teaching because you didn’t do the design,” Mitchum said. “If what you’re doing isn’t actually teaching, then it just becomes a correspondence course.”

Standardization isn’t simply a product of laziness, though. For some cash-strapped institutions, it’s the only path to offering online programs for students who can’t commit to attending campus.

At Ashland University, in Ohio, online instructors in the criminal justice program are required to have input each week into each module of their course -- writing introductions, selecting a lecture format, inserting videos or other multimedia. Courses across the program do have a consistent structure, though, with an essay assignment at the same point in the semester, according to Mark Rubin, the program’s director.

Introducing an element of standardization “became an absolute necessity” to prevent the institution from spending $6,000 instead of $2,000 to design and develop a course. It also helps for accreditation purposes to have full-time faculty rather than adjuncts in charge of “the basic shell, the assessment measures, the assignments,” Rubin said.

Underprepared adjunct instructors, who sometimes get only a few days' notice before starting to teach an unfamiliar course, get a head start when elements of the course are already in place, according to Shelly Rodrigo, associate director of the writing program at the University of Arizona.

On the other, she and others fret about the terminology linked to this approach. In addition to "predesigned," options include "master," "template," "shell" and "canned." The connotation of each is slightly different.

To resolve confusion, Mitchum and some colleagues have begun drafting a document listing the responsibilities of an ideal online instructor in a course environment that's partially or entirely informed by a template. She's also hoping public conversations on this topic will spur more academic research.

"A lot of the [research] work on the predesigned courses comes from the instructional designer’s perspective instead of the faculty perspective," Mitchum said. "We’re still digging into that literature."

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