Mascot for #DevilDiss

Mascot for #DevilDiss
Mascot for #DevilDiss

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Tips for Online Course Design

The last couple of years I have designed online courses for Early Shakespeare, Shakespeare and Film Adaptation, and for this semester, Late Shakespeare. This semester, a new item is that they ask the instructor/creator to conduct an internal review document, which a committee then uses as they evaluate the course. The online course people made a big deal about it, how much work it was, how hard, apologizing for all the time it would take, etc. So I was a bit nervous opening the document to see what I had to do.

And it was nothing.

I mean, it's a sixteen page rubric, but it wasn't hard, or a lot of week. But the reason it's not (I spent maybe half an hour writing notes on it, and maybe an hour typing that up and double checking links) is because I've done this before.

I am a certified online teacher, and a large part of the course that was required to earn that covered the legal accessibility of courses and some design.
But I also worked for a for-profit online high school for a couple of years. And while there's a lot wrong with that model, and I don't have good things to say about it, I did design two from scratch courses for them which taught me a lot.

Not all people who teach online have been trained for it, and there are some misconceptions about what online courses look like. However, as I've taught TAs for years, creating a good online course is really easy if you know some things in advance.

So this is an easy how to for online course design.

  • The design and set up of your syllabus is very important. You'll mimic this structure in your course, so it's important you have a solid, easy to read, intuitive structure to your syllabus.
    • My late Shakespeare syllabus is here
    • Each week is numbered, as students find this easier to follow than just dates. Each week then has a bulleted list of what they need to do. I've marked through both the words "Extra credit" and color differentiation, assignments that are optional (to be accessible you can't just distinguish by color). Likewise major deadlines are highlighted AND bold, for the same reason.
    • In addition to the numbered weeks I have numbered the modules
    • This is then the exact copied and pasted formula/set up that the course map has. 
    • Years ago, I also separated my course policies form the syllabus, for pedagogical reasons.
  • I have a Getting Started Module. In general, the demographics of your online students are different from your face to face. Most carry a full time load. Many work. Many are also juggling family obligations. They often take online classes to fulfill requirements for these reasons not necessarily because they're tech prodigies. 
    • Because my courses follow a pattern, it's key to me that students LEARN this pattern. So the Getting Started module does this. It also assumes zero experience with online classes, and acclimates/teaches students how to do well in an online course.
    • I spend two weeks on it. For me, this time is vital as it ensures students 1) know what they're getting into, expectations and 2) feel comfortable operating all the tools.
  • Each module is numbered, the weeks are numbered, and I've just copied and pasted the bulleted items from the syllabus. The students can see what each module contains. I color and through images, differentiate the modules.
    • Your course must follow a logical order.
  • When you click on the module to open it, it also follows a pattern, consistently used across all modules
    • The student learning objectives are at the top, so students know what they'll focus on. Each week within the module is labelled. The resources/pages/assignments under are in the order we cover them. So the intro lecture/material comes first, then everything builds on that.

  • I also have a page under course resources that outlines what the symbols mean, so students learn to differentiate between resource page, assignment, discussion boards, etc.
  • At the bottom of the module is the larger project, and its rubric
  • Each module also has a variety of resources
    • An introduction- usually a background webpage, sometimes a presentation. It's a general overview.
    • Next, I usually ask the students to respond to some sort of "what do you already know" piece.
    • Assignments that come after are varied and play to different strengths:
      • Participate in a discussion board
        • Their post earns a 77. Post plus a comment on another an 85. Post plus two comments a 100. This allows students to prioritize time, and learn how to read and respond to classmates.
      •  Written responses, with clear guidelines to teach structure and how to address tips.
      • Assignments that require them to find resources, images, webpages, share them, then respond to them.

  • Each module follows this layout/design so students know what to expect. Once they learn the pattern in the first module, they learn the pattern.
  • All of this material in the module, and all modules, are available from day one. Students can see all of the course. I allow them to work ahead within a module, but encourage them not to race ahead.
  • Other Helpful Design Features:
    • Students have a help forum where they can ask questions of each other and me in addition to emailing me. 
    • The syllabus is a "live" Google Doc. I highly recommend this because it means that you post the link and are done. You don't have to worry about uploading a new, revised Word document every time you make a change.
    • Each module has a "Let's Talk About..." discussion board that is optional. It lets students ask clarifying or comprehension questions, as well as post fun memes and videos. 
    • Supplemental links. I have links to the library, the writing center, but also student health. And I try to post helpful resources about self-care, anxiety, and offer ways to not stress over grades.
  • Accessibility of images and videos: 
    • I record video lectures, usually less than 10 minutes, at the beginning of modules, and to clarify what I'm looking for in papers, and revisions. I usually post to YouTube but sometimes use the internal Kalthura media (because it uploads immediately versus waiting 8 hours for YouTube). If/when I have a student who requires adaptation, my TA writes scripts based on these videos and links them under the videos. If I post video links, for same reasons, I strive for ones with closed captioning available. 
      • One of the biggest complaints students have about online courses is that they feel disconnected from their professors, as though it was a correspondence course. I go out of my way to personalize things, both in announcements and these videos.
    • For images, the biggest thing it to provide alt-text when you load them. Going back and doing this later is a pain. Typing a quick note as you upload it is easy.
  • Grading Assignments. Above I've said how I grade discussion boards. For class assignments, I moved to a mostly 100 or 0, complete or incomplete. On these, the feedback is where they grow. 
    •  Each module has a major assignment and they build on each other. So they start with a presentation, move to a close reading, then a project that walks them through the steps of a large research paper, then a final paper or project.
      • The smaller, weekly assignments are often the pieces of the larger assignment, so if students do them they perform better on the larger assignments.
      • Students have a week to revise larger assignments for a higher grade as long as they also submit a cover letter reflecting on the revision. 
      • Students choose their own topics.
      • I look at drafts up to 48 hours of the due date.
    • Feedback: each assignment has a clear rubric, as you saw, posted and available from the beginning. So students get that. I also make numerous in line comments then provide holistic feedback at the end.
      • Students are encouraged to download the paper with feedback to revise for a higher grade. One downside of Blackboard is that students can download the PDF with comments, but not the Word document, which sometimes is a barrier to revision. You can download the document, comment in Word, then reupload. However, I teach large survey courses of 75, and this is time consuming, so I prefer to use the in line comments. It's a personal preference.
  • Announcements. I post one every week. I used to post more and email them out but students found this overwhelming.
    • My announcements do several things at once:
      • Review what that week's assignments are.
      • Offer instructional help through resources, PowerPoint, videos on how to do well on that week's work.
      • Reiterate personal message that I'm here to help and to reach out.
      • I also keep an eye out on the internet, and the students' "Let's Talk..." posts for fun things that are connected to that week's work, and post these things (videos, cartoons, etc.)
By having a clear idea of what I wanted to course to do, then having a clear organization to how each module works, the students can easily follow the materials. The variety of materials and assignments serves all kinds of students and their interests. A clear, internal logic, and consistency, are the marks of good course design.

I am also very transparent as to why I do things a certain way, so students know there's a reason behind it.

Below is a link to one of the presentations I've done for TAs on this:

Here is also a list of Web 2.0 tools that are fun to integrate in the course (not all aimed at higher ed):

I hope you found this helpful. I am always happy to talk on Twitter or email about any of this!