Common Course Design Questions

On June 26, thirteen SPS faculty members who will be designing courses for Winter 2018 began the Course Design Workshop, a two-week workshop about creating online learning environments, using the Quality Matters Standards, and designing an accessible course.  Throughout the workshop, nearly all of the workshop participants enthusiastically engaged in discussions of effective online course design and instruction. The participants brought their many and varied experiences as educators to the discussions. The following is a summary of the major themes and insights and questions that emerged.

How do you help students understand the main ideas in your course?

Organizing content in a “narrative arc” or progression of complexity from one module to next was suggested. History courses, or courses that take a historical perspective, can be readily structured using this approach. Other faculty members expanded on the idea by suggesting that each module should build on the next to give students a sense of mastery and understanding of the flow of the course content. Module overviews can be used as transitions for recalling material from previous modules and relating it to the material being introduced in the next module.

How do you use rubrics?

When it comes to assessing students’ learning and providing students with feedback on their progress, many faculty mentioned using rubrics. Some faculty said they use rubrics regularly, whiles other considered doing so for the first time at the recommendation of their peers. Many instructors agreed that rubrics are handy tools for:

  • Ensuring consistency in grading
  • Setting clear expectations for student work
  • Showing students how they will be graded
  • Enabling student and the instructor to check work
  • Providing distinctions among different levels of quality of work

For more information about rubrics, you can read these SPS blog entries: Rubrics: A Clear Pathway to Success, Part 1 and Rubrics: A Clear Pathway to Success, Part 2, or view different types of Rubrics.

What are some considerations for group work?

The topic of student resistance to group work was raised. While all faculty acknowledged that this was an issue, they agreed that group work has educational benefits and is practiced widely in the workplace. There exists a perception among students that assignments were designated as group projects without any thought to their authenticity or instructional value. To counter that, the faculty suggested clearly explaining the purpose of the group work and suggested alternative approaches, such as these four types of group work activities to engage students. Another student concern is the practice of assigning a single grade for all group members regardless of the amount or quality of the individual contributions. Some solutions to address student concerns/grading group work:

  • Assign team leaders to manage the project and address those who are not contributing,
  • Assign a unique role for each team member,
  • Use peer evaluation forms allow group members to identify the contributions of others,
  • Assign complex assignments that require the efforts of all team members,

Understanding student resistance to group work while keeping these solutions in mind may improve the quality of group work.

How do you support students with use of Canvas and other technology tools?

The workshop participants discussed how difficulties using Canvas may distract students from learning, and at the same time addressing students’ Canvas issues may distract faculty from teaching. New instructors were warned that they should not assume that all online students are “tech-savvy” or that all the features of Canvas are easy to use. The need for student Canvas training and support (beyond what the instructor can provide) was apparent. NU Information Technology offers the Canvas Student Center, an online reference tool for the commonly used student features of Canvas

How do you convey instructor presence?

Many workshop participants stressed the importance  of faculty involvement in online teaching. They agreed that online education requires more student support and faculty involvement than on-ground. Applying the Community of Inquiry Model, they discussed how the social, cognitive, and teaching presence of the instructor in the course must be directly experienced by the students. One consideration was the need to balance teaching presence with enabling student-to-student interaction and the learner-centered approach — in short, the instructor needs to be active in the course in effective ways that allows students to learn from one another and guide their own learning and not wait for the instructor to “teach” them.

What’s next?

Upon completion of the Course Design Workshop, faculty members begin collaborating with a learning designer and instructional technologist to design their courses. Discussions about building a logical course structure, using rubrics, incorporating group work, using technology, and conveying instructor presence will continue. To learn more about all of these topics, please check out our blog.

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Daniel Murphy
Director of Online Learning Technologies – SPS | Distance Learning
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Jessica Mansbach
Learning Designer – SPS | Distance Learning
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