4 Expert Strategies for Designing an Online Course

Steps for success include involving the learner, making collaboration work, devising a consistent structure and revising based on evaluation. 

March 15, 2017
 

Teaching in a fully online environment can be daunting even for seasoned online instructors when they have to prep a new course.  However, with a few simple strategies, the process can be smooth and enjoyable. Here are four strategies that any instructor can use to successfully build an online course. 

Strategy 1: Involve the Learner

A common perception is that online courses require students to just read or view videos, and then regurgitate the information in an essay or simple discussion post.  However, this is false because there are numerous activities that fully engage online students.

Students should demonstrate their understanding of the content as well as heighten their engagement with the content throughout any course.  Instructors can incorporate authentic activities that connect real-world relevance and content knowledge. Authentic activities can range from examining case studies to creating problem-based scenarios in which the students research the problem and create solutions or address gaps within the problem.

Key References

Borup, J., R. E. West, and C. R. Graham. “Improving Online Social Presence Through Asynchronous Video.” The Internet and Higher Education 15, no. 3 (2012): 195-203.

Dixson, M. D. “Creating Effective Student Engagement in Online Courses: What Do Students Find Engaging?” Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning 10, no. 2 (2010): 1-13.

Herrington, J., R. Oliver, and T. C. Reeves. “Patterns of Engagement in Authentic Online Learning Environments.” Australasian Journal of Educational Technology 19, no. 1 (2002): 279-286.

Kim, J., Y. Kwon, and D. Cho. “Investigating Factors That Influence Social Presence and Learning Outcomes in Distance Higher Education.” Computers & Education 57, no. 2 (2011); 1512-1520.

Simon, H. A. “How Big Is a Chunk?” Science 183, no. 4124 (1974): 482-488.

Instructors also can use inquiry-based learning (IBL), which requires students to investigate questions they have concerning the content.  One strategy that online instructors can implement to establish IBL is through the implementation of Know, Want to Know, and Learned (KWL) charts. Utilizing KWL charts can initiate exploration of the content as students identify what they know and what they want to know about the topic.

Inquiry begins when students explore areas they are unfamiliar with and develop questions to guide them in this exploration.  A final project based on their questions in the KWL chart will guide their learning. However, before students start their final project, they should submit a proposal to the instructor on how they will present the material learned  in order to ensure content focus. Final projects can range from, but not limited to, research, scholarly or applied, extensive discussion-based role playing and enactment of practice.

No matter the method of engagement, it is imperative that instructors reinforce learning with every section and continue to foster interaction. According to research, students feel a heightened level of engagement when they receive regular updates about current and upcoming content. Any attempt to increase social presence creates a simulative environment of a real-world experience for students.

One way to implement this would be through, depending on the design of the course, weekly or bi-weekly email updates. Sending announcements through the Learning Management System (LMS) about due dates or highlights of upcoming assignments is another effective strategy. Instructors also can send video recordings of themselves giving brief announcements, which reduces the sense of isolation because it simulates face-to-face instruction. The video communication provides students with the opportunity to learn their instructor’s mannerisms and increases overall course satisfaction for students.  

Implementing methods to increase social presence can translate virtual experiences into tangible connections for online students.

Strategy 2: Make Collaboration Work

After integrating student involvement in the course and with the instructor, the next phase is to increase collaboration between peers. Often times, instructors feel that collaboration in an online environment is challenging or near impossible. However, through the use of simple strategies, collaboration can be a seamless and beneficial approach to course design. 

One method is the implementation of Professional Learning Communities (PLC), which are groups of students who collaborate regularly through emails, discussion boards, video conferencing, group phone calls, etc. to work on issues or topics related to the content. Instructors can assign roles within the PLC to assist with active participation of all students. Roles can include facilitator (serves as team leader and key contact to instructor), interpreter (reteaches concepts),  reminder (reiterates assignment criteria and deadlines) and mentor (review’s peer work and offers professional critique before submission).  PLCs are useful for collaboration with authentic activities and assisting with peer scaffolding to support students who are reluctant to participate.

If instructors prefer to use group assignments not associated with PLCs, they should provide clearly defined expectations. Prior to starting the assignment, groups should determine who will handle what aspects of the assignment and indicate when each component will be completed.

To assist students, instructors can provide a chart that outlines sections of the assignment, so students can select a specific area for contribution. The group will collectively examine each member’s submission to create a final product.  Students can use emerging technology tools such as wikis, blogs and podcasts to further collaborate. 

Strategy 3: Develop a Clear, Consistent Structure

The course’s look can be intentionally inviting, intentionally disinviting, unintentionally inviting or unintentionally. Often times instructors have a lot of information that needs to be crammed into the online learning environment, which can create a disinviting learning environment. In order to create an intentionally inviting online environment, courses need to have a clear and consistent structure that offers intuitive navigation. Each module should have the same structure.  The location of reading materials, assignments, tasks, collaborative opportunities, etc. always should be in the same location and format. 

In addition, each module should look like the previous modules, with updated content and learning outcomes. When thinking about course design and usability for learners, an effective approach is to ensure all resources utilized throughout the course are contained within the LMS.

The course design can play a huge role in usability and student success. One strategy for engaging learners is through the integration of microlearning, which is a trend in online learning.  Microlearning involves presenting content through mediated micro levels so students are exposed to small learning units on short-term assignments.  Microlearning is based on H.A. Simon’s 1974 research that outlines the effectiveness of creating chunks of learning experiences that the short-term memory can retain. This approach translates into online course development through the use of learning modules.

An effective way to develop learning modules is by planning backwards. Instructors can look at all the content they want to cover, and then identify thematic chunks of information. The thematic chunks become units or learning modules that are a short-term approach to long-term planning. Within the learning modules, instructors provide tasks, assignments and supplemental resources, and tools to enhance content mastery. 

An effective strategy for module development is to begin with an overview page that outlines all readings, tasks and assignments required for the module, along with corresponding due dates for each item. Depending on the LMS, instructors can hyperlink items in the overview page directly to the assignments, which provides a clean and organized feel to the course. The overview page adds to the course’s structure, and can help keep students engaged in the learning process and increase academic integrity. 

It is imperative to have precise instructions for expectations of all aspects of learning outcomes within the learning modules. Electronic Performance Support Systems (EPSS) can increase students’ performance. An example of EPSS within the online learning environment is the use of job aids, which offer a summary of steps or a checklist of how to complete a task. Job aids reduce mistakes and potential follow-up questions because they provide clear performance expectations and correct common misconceptions. Assignments that require students to complete a specific task can include a job aid to increase student success.

Along with job aids, rubrics posted with each assignment also foster open communication and clear expectations. Students easily can read the assignment narrative and still not comprehend what is expected; rubrics provide additional clarity. Students are more successful on assignments when they know exactly what will be expected for assignment grading. 

Strategy 4: Reflect and Revise

According to academic research and excellence in teaching narratives, a reflective practitioner is a successful practitioner. There are several strategies that instructors can use to practice reflective strategies in order to improve the learning environment for students.

Successful instructional course design needs a performance evaluation process that has flexible guidelines. One evaluation framework is ADDIE, which has five phases that are the basis of content design: analyze, design, develop, implement and evaluate.  

Reflective practitioners use the evaluation phase to review their courses through the lens of best practices. A few ways to reflect upon course designs is through student feedback and by keeping a design journal of things that come up during a semester.  Finally, there are course design rubrics, such as from Quality Matters, which can assess course design according to research-based rubrics.

Bio

Salena Rabidoux is teaching program coordinator and instructional designer at the University North Carolina at Wilmington. Amy Rottmann is assistant professor of education at Lenoir-Rhyne University.
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