Critical conversations for creating meaningful online courses

In my instructional-design work, I feel a gap between course design and the actual realization of the online course. I’ve found that well-written objectives and alignment maps have very little to do with the quality of the teaching and learning in an online course.

Backward design is valuable if, and only if, an instructor has the time and willingness to reflect on her goals and her teaching. It doesn’t yield anything if the instructor hasn’t bought in or if the goal is simply to create a course design and show alignment of the course elements on paper.

And for the backward design process to be useful for designing an online course, I think there’s one more ingredient: enough familiarity with the pace, space, and tools of an online classroom. The instructor has to be able to imagine what those design decisions mean in terms of teaching online, not just teaching in a classroom; otherwise you finish the course design and almost need to design all over again as you start actually building it.

So what conversations could I have with an instructor to allow us to backward-design a meaningful course while we also plan and visualize a concrete online course? Here’s my first draft. What’s missing?


What do you really (really) want students to take away from the course, apart from the foundational knowledge you want them to gain?

Lots of course have content to cover, often through lectures, but your other goals will help determine a lot of how the course will be presented and experienced, including how best to present that content.

Implications for the online course: This step creates the parameters for the rest of the design.


How can students tell that they’ve mastered what you want them to learn and met the other goals you have for them?

Are your exams or assignments covering ALL of your goals for students? Is there something else that would address those goals more faithfully and give students real-world skills? How far could you go toward something that was harder to grade but more authentic practice for students? What’s the most helpful way to give them feedback?

Implications for the online course: You can use your assessments to create the narrative for the course, to bulid into your course introduction video and your weekly messages. A this is what you’re going to be able to do story instead of this is what you’ll study to pass the exam. Ideally, you can structure the modules and weeks of the course in the syllabus and in Carmen as a build-up to the major assessments. Different kinds of assessments will require students to use different technology tools, some of which may require additional instruction or resources. You’ll also use different tools or workflows for different styles of feedback.


What are the 5 best things a student could do in a typical week to learn and practice what you’re teaching?

In online, there isn’t necessarily any separate class times and homework times. Imagine you have that student sitting down to the computer five times during the week and you want them to have mastered X. What should they do? In what order? What mix of (1) getting information, (2) doing things, and (3) reflecting or discussing? If you’ll do videos or other instructional content, how can you chunk and sequence that content as part of those five spans of time? How can you frame that content in terms of activity (and not passive intake)?

Implications for the online course: These decisions will allow you to create a prototype of the modules in Carmen. What are the basic tools you’re using (web content, discussions, quizzes, outside tools)? How are items separated, sequenced, and labeled? How long should each page (lesson or lecture) be? What’s the student’s experience of going through each item in the module?


How can students, and you, tell if they’re keeping up as the course progresses?

You can’t see their faces to tell if they’re confused. What can you do to tell if they’re keeping up and feeling confident? And how can you get them to take ownership of their progress?

Implications for the online course: There are numerous mechanisms for doing formative assessment online: you could offer low-stakes quizzes, have students post their most-confusing topics to the discussion board, or set up some sort of peer or group reflection or cross checks. If they weren’t already there, these can be added to the weekly sequence in a way that makes sense with the rest of your activities.


How can you give students access to your expertise and your personality? What could they benefit from?

You don’t need to put your face on every page, but how can you give students access to your expertise, your passion, your caring? What can you offer that a textbook, publisher website, or another instructor can’t?

Implications for the online course: These answers can help you make decisions about the tone of your course content. (Remember that the text, audio, and video in the course need to have personality and warmth and give students a sense that you’re behind it all–this is what a publisher website can’t offer.) To introduce the course and each week, can might use audio or video messages to talk to students to get your presence across more effectively than just text. And you can incorporate synchronous-communication tools (such as CarmenConnect) into the course routine to give students an opportunity to see you or talk to you directly (in the form of office hours or study sessions).


How can you get students to learn from one another and benefit from one another’s experience and presence in the course?

Online courses are often very lonely; you have to be deliberate about creating opportunities and space for students to talk. What would they benefit from sharing notes about? What times could they benefit from each other’s feedback? How could they benefit from seeing each other’s work or progress? When would they get further ahead if they collaborated?

Implications for the online course: Using Carmen discussions or other outside tools, you can pretty easily set up activities where students work in pairs or groups or as a community.


How can you get students to enjoy the course and care about what you’re teaching?

What has worked for you to pique students’ interest? What interests you about this subject, and how can you share that passion and build it into the students’ experience? What can you do to make the routine of the course pleasant, surprising, or interesting? What can you do to make the online course space more inviting?

Implications for the online course: These questions can help you decide where to spend the most time creating activities or content (i.e., focus on the things that you care about most and that will interest students the most). You can also make decisions about the visual style for the course, including the photos you include and the look and feel of your slides or lessons. You can decide where to deviate from the routine, how to make sure students experience the course as more than a lock-step content-driven online textbook.