Online Course Development from the Student Perspective

I must preface all that I am about to write by explaining that I am not much of a techie. I don’t blog, I am barely active on Facebook, and my tweets are rarer than well-behaved NFL players. When offered my position as an Online Course Development Assistant at the College of Nursing, however, I took the chance. Online course offerings and degree programs have expanded significantly over the last decade, but the quality of these programs is sometimes dubious. Too often, students enroll in online courses and fail to complete them successfully. Instructors puzzle over ways to teach course content in more engaging and effective ways in an online format. Everyone concerned – students and faculty – must deal with occasional technological frustrations.

This is where I come in. Part of my job is to research various technologies that may assist in online course delivery, present various options to faculty, and then help to ensure that the chosen technology assists students’ learning rather than getting in the way. This is both exciting and challenging – particularly when using a chosen technology for the first time. The College of Nursing recently purchased a departmental license for VoiceThread, which is a great cloud-based software that enables more interactive class discussions than what is possible with the Carmen discussion board. Students and faculty can create their online discussions using video and other media and add comments directly on one another’s threads. Dr. Kim Arcoleo is using VoiceThread for the first time in her online Responsible Conduct of Research course this autumn, and the feedback so far has been positive.

Graduate students at the College of Nursing experience a significant portion of their curriculum online, and the university recently launched a new master’s program that is entirely online. It has been my pleasure to work with Dr. Kim Arcoleo and Dr. Carolynn Thomas-Jones to revamp two of their courses for the new Master’s in Applied Clinical and Pre-clinical Research program. MACPR is a new interdisciplinary graduate degree program offered entirely online by the colleges of Medicine, Nursing, Pharmacy, and Veterinary Medicine, and will prepare graduates to become administrators, regulatory specialists, and research team members in clinical and preclinical research studies. The program offers a multidisciplinary curriculum across four specializations: Clinical Research Management, Regulatory Affairs, Safety Pharmacology, and Clinical Pharmacology.

I am currently working with professors Alice Teall and Rita Kaspar on a project to develop an online wellness coaching module that will enable online FNP students to become certified wellness coaches.  These are very valuable skills for any provider to have in practice, and the expectation is that any health professional student at the university will be able to become a certified wellness coach.  The wellness module goes live next week so stayed tuned for updates.

I have come to know so many of the faculty and staff of the College of Nursing through the projects I am involved with. I have enjoyed this experience and the freedom to explore various technologies designed to deliver online educational content. The main challenge has been the amount of time required by both me and the faculty involved in the course redesign process. The MACPR program uses what is called the Backwards Design process to structure its courses. This is a very involved instructional design method that establishes measurable course learning objectives, creates student activities and assignments, and ensures that course technologies work as intended. Throughout the process, one has to keep the end goal of ensuring that students actually learn what they are supposed to learn.

I’d like to wrap up with a list of helpful tips that I have learned through my experience as a course development assistant.

  1. Don’t expect perfection.  Every course technology has its flaws and limitations.  Better to know these and bring them to the attention to the developer.  Sometimes, they are addressed in future releases.
  2. Don’t overload students.  Instructors are subject matter experts who are passionate about what they teach.  It’s understandable that they want students to know what they know.  Remember, though, that this cannot be accomplished in just one lesson or even in a single course.  Design lessons so that students take away five main points that you want them to learn.
  3. Feel free to experiment.  There are so many technologies available that allow instructors to present online course content in engaging and convenient ways.  I had never heard of most of these until I began this job.  Consult the CoN IT department, Joni Tornwall’s blog, and other educational blogs and websites for ideas on how to use these technologies.  Most are not nearly as scary as you might think.