Q&A: Online Teaching Through a Design Lens

A new book connects instructional design with teaching and learning to offer a road map for online instruction.

July 11, 2018

The new book Online Teaching at Its Best, from Linda Nilson, director emerita of the Office of Teaching Effectiveness Innovation (OTEI) at Clemson University, and Ludwika Goodson, associate director of the Center for Enhancement of Teaching and Learning at Purdue University Fort Wayne, offers a comprehensive guide to a skill set that has become increasingly essential for instructors. Few institutions have skirted the push toward online education, and some have gone headfirst into the medium without giving faculty members adequate time to prepare, strategize and learn.

This book aims to combine instructional design philosophies and teaching and learning research to arrive at best practices online instructors can follow no matter the audience or subject specialty.

“Inside Digital Learning” asked Nilson and Goodson for some thoughts on the state of online teaching and tips for instructors who want to see their work in a new light. Responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

Q: The book offers ideas for improving teaching that draw from instructional design philosophy. Why did you feel that perspective was missing, and how do you hope your work will shift that narrative?

A: Instructional design philosophy has not been missing in the specialized discussions of online teaching by instructional designers and educational technologists. It’s been missing more often among teaching faculty in academic disciplines. For example, the “Instructional Design in Higher Education” report funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Intentional Futures, 2016) tells the story of instructional designers in higher education from the perspective of instructional designers, not faculty. Data from this report show instructional designers can be found in teams, distance learning centers, academic affairs departments and research/doctoral institutions, but also the barrier of a lingering lack of faculty buy-in. If faculty turn to any body of literature to enhance their teaching, it’s the teaching and learning literature, which we integrate with the instructional design literature in our book.

Trends do show more use of instructional designers, but whether the philosophy of instructional design is gradually gaining momentum remains unclear. Dan Berrett, writing for The Chronicle in 2016, reported that colleges increasingly use instructional designers to improve teaching in the context of technology and online course platforms. However, his report covers procedural instructional systems thinking as much as the design philosophy.

We hope that our book will shift the narrative to design for learning. We realize that any specialized discipline can seem strange and mysterious when we are outside of it. With our book, we want to make the philosophy of instructional design more familiar and useful for faculty, and the faculty perspective more familiar and useful for instructional designers. Research in academic disciplines, if given a chance, will contribute high value to learning design.

Q: You start your book from the premise that “excellent teaching is excellent teaching,” regardless of the modality. But you go on to write about the unique challenges faculty members face when teaching online. What are some of the key factors that distinguish teaching online from teaching face-to-face?

A: A large part of what we miss online is the visible presence of other people in the room. We miss the variety of voices, we have no physical walls and instructors cannot clear up confusion in real time. Therefore, courses must use deliberate strategies to reveal the presence of the instructor and the presence of students, as well as provide ways for students to ask questions and find answers. An instructor’s image, short video, audio introduction, a link to the instructor’s personal website, the instructor’s and teaching assistant’s virtual online office, and a “getting-to-know-you” discussion forum for everyone’s introductions will help. Some instructors also create several opportunities for synchronous chat or web-conferencing times during a semester.

Nilson and Goodson's Favorite Resources

Faculty Focus -- free reports include topics of instructional design, online education, teaching and learning, and teaching with technology

Cathy Moore -- their favorite blog for examples of creative instructional design ideas.

Make It Stick (Brown, Roediger III, & McDaniel, 2014) and How Learning Works (Ambrose, Bridges, DiPietro, Lovett, Norman, 2010) -- their favorite books for both faculty and instructional designers

Academy of Process Educators -- an "easy-to-read, insightful" Book Chat with takeaways from each chapter of How Learning Works

International Journal of Process Education -- special edition provides a review of 25 years of learning process and learning design research

The Learning Scientists -- updates on the science of learning

A second major difference is the usual class schedules disappear. An online course typically does not meet for 50 minutes three times a week. For this reason, online students often have difficulty with time management; many face more time demands from jobs and families and sign up for online courses with unrealistically low expectations of how much time they must study. Therefore, the instructor must design the course with clearly visible time signals, such as an explanation of the need to plan nine to 10 hours of study and online participation time, highlighted dates to signal the start and end of each week, highlighted due dates for assignments, and weekly reminders of expected progress.

A third related difference concerns organization and labels given to course areas. Course structure can undermine time management by organizing course materials into topics rather than weekly folders, and labels for course areas often are ambiguous (“Course Materials”) rather than meaningful (“Week 1: The Medical Model, Aug. 9-15”).

A fourth major difference is technical student preparation. Students are likely to have wide variations in prior experience with online learning and computers. The opportunity to do a self-assessment of their readiness to learn online, access to resources to support their weak areas and explicit technology requirements and links for support will help. Finally, instructors must determine how to use course technology to help students learn, to develop course management strategies (such as response times for the online office, grading and methods of feedback), to find and create course materials in formats compatible with course websites, to learn the capabilities of their course technology tools, and to reach out for support from experienced online faculty, instructional designers and information technologists.

Q: In the internet era, students have easier access to a broader range of knowledge and information than ever before. How can online classes build upon that easily accessible information, or challenge students to apply it in creative and fruitful ways?

A: We can all go astray with our elaborate access to knowledge and information. The antidote is to provide students with challenging opportunities that allow them a choice of topics and require their active, rigorous construction of knowledge.

  • Challenge students with unexpected facts, dueling points of view, incongruities, controversies and local, authentic problems or needs.
  • Invite them to use the internet or other electronic resources to find or suggest reliable evidence-backed resolutions that they can post, with reasoning and evidence, in a course discussion forum or assignment area.
  • Have students unpack complex reports, cases, scenarios or stories by creating a flowchart or diagram of the core concepts, relationships and controversies.
  • Create teams that choose a topic from a unit of study to investigate and then formulate a major question for the other teams to answer.
  • Create a constructive controversy discussion assignment for which competing teams of students gather evidence and use reasoning to support opposing points of view.
  • Design a research assignment with explicit scholarly criteria, but allow the students to choose the presentation format -- perhaps a research paper in APA format, a PowerPoint or a blog.
  • Invite students to find a website with relevant, valuable content about a topic from the unit of study, to write a review of the website and to post the link with questions for other students to discuss.
  • Use the jigsaw method to assign a group a problem or case to analyze, have each group member investigate a related specialty area and report back several internet sources and research articles from the electronic library database, then share and discuss findings and analysis in their group.
  • Challenge students to identify problems in resources that contain faulty evidence and logic. With these kinds of activities, instructors can ignite student interest and creativity.

Q. Some instructors are thrust into teaching online with only minimal time to prepare -- perhaps not even enough time to read and digest this book. What advice do you give instructors for quick boosts to their online teaching skills?

A: In these circumstances, preparing for each week and teaching will require ruthless focus. Some basic tips can be found at (My) Three Principles of Effective Online Pedagogy, Bill Pelz (2004), and Blackboard Great Ideas: Organizing Your Course (Duke University video, 3:09).

Our book offers recommended practice, but we can suggest a “get by” approach that encourages interactions and engages students in knowledge construction. To begin, it’s a good idea to have in the syllabus a link to the course site, a statement about hours to plan for study and online participation, electronic support resources, and technology support with the phone, email and hours for the help desk. Next, a list of titles with start and end dates for each week of the course helps create a clear, uncluttered and consistent layout. The course site should include the following.

  • On the course opening page, a welcome message with a faculty photo and link to the “Online Office” or “Ask Questions Here.”
  • The first week’s folder with its title, dates and a list of activities students will complete during the week. This list should parallel what actually happens in the first week of class on campus -- the syllabus review, course materials, activities and major assignments.

Inside that folder:

  • An item titled “Syllabus Review” with the syllabus attached and instructions to students to post their questions and comments about the syllabus at the “Online Office.” A possible addition: a short syllabus quiz worth a few points, with settings to allow three attempts for students to get their best score.
  • A discussion forum titled “Class Introductions” with instructions to students to answer questions such as, “Where and when do you plan to study for this course?” “If you have taken an online course before, what tips do you have for your classmates on how to succeed?” “What previous experience have you had with _______?” “What do you hope to gain from your study in this course?”
  • An item directing students to reading assignments in the textbook and other resources.
  • A discussion forum titled “Muddiest Points and Big Ideas” with instructions to identify the muddiest point from the reading(s), describe one big idea they gained and why it’s important, and find one valuable internet resource on any topic they choose related to the current week’s subject matter, post a link to it and explain why it matters. Instructors can repeat this assignment in subsequent weeks.
  • A preview of any major assignment coming up in the next week or two with tips on how to begin thinking about or preparing for the assignment.
  • At the end of the week, a summary of key concepts from week one and their relationship to the next week’s concepts.

Faculty will need technology support or the advice of an experienced online instructor for building the course site, setting up assignment submissions and tests, using the grade book, creating or editing the course menu, following copyright law, and designing the course site to ensure accessibility.

Q: Do you think most higher ed instructors now know what's expected of them when their institution asks them to teach online? What elements of teaching belong in the mainstream consciousness but haven’t yet arrived there?

A: On the whole, we think that faculty in higher education have not yet internalized the requirements of teaching effectively online, and we think that institutional leadership and resource support contribute to this lack of knowledge. In colleges and universities with teaching and development centers, for example, there may be as few as two instructional designers to provide professional support for 800 online instructors; other institutions have no instructional design support. The expansion of online offerings does not mean an expansion of good teaching. Some departments also make expedient online teaching assignments with as little as three weeks’ notice, which itself undermines the quality of teaching and in turn contributes to faculty reservations about the quality of online courses. Yet, faculty assigned to teach online often have no idea about the look and feel of an online course and know even less about the online pedagogies that can inspire and educate students.

We consider four elements of teaching that have been neglected and yet belong in the mainstream consciousness for online teaching. Faculty should ensure these elements are ongoing from the first through the last week of instruction, not just one or two times during a semester.

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  • Require students to apply knowledge in a relevant context and in incremental stages, so that learning increases in complexity, but not difficulty. This strategy supports all levels of learning from verbal recall to the creation of new knowledge.
  • Use multiple low-stakes and self-assessments of student learning such as quizzes, confidence surveys, checklists, peer review and students’ summaries of what they are learning.
  • Ensure that all students receive feedback about what they are “getting right” as well as what’s “not there yet” and what actions they can take for improvement. Instructors can build automated feedback into course quizzes and give personalized feedback, some of which they can preplan and customize during the term. Classmates can provide feedback using a rubric focusing on criteria of expected performance.
  • Guide students in reflecting on what they are learning. Reflection is a high-impact characteristic of successful online courses, some of which produce better learning outcomes than their equivalent face-to-face classes.

Q: What can experienced online instructors do to help those who are just starting out?

A: Experienced online instructors can help those just starting out in several ways. One important way is to share examples of their own courses. Using these examples, experienced instructors might invite feedback of what’s clear or confusing in the course, explain the process of building the course and demonstrate what works well in course organization and structure, methods of content presentation, communication with students, discussion prompts and guidelines, assessments and grading, providing students with feedback, and addressing concerns students may have expressed. These instructors might allow new ones to copy and adapt successful assignment formats and directions. They should also explain the value of planning and course management strategies, such as setting up weekly announcements and motivational messages to go out to students at selected intervals.

New online instructors may need extra help developing their own persona and setting the learning climate in a course orientation. They may need advice on sound pedagogies for planning the course content, creating task-focused interactions for students rather than busywork and using goal-driven images and media to support learning. Finally, they must understand the limits of course transformation from the classroom to the online context. Just as the pages of a novel don’t transfer word for word to a large movie screen, not every activity from the classroom context moves effectively into a 50-minute video lecture (online students will watch only six to 11 minutes).



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