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.

5 ways to use stories to make your online course more engaging


The ongoing challenge of teaching online is keeping students engaged: providing an experience that’s meaningful and not just transactional—not just a set of content units and assessments.

Stories can be a powerful tool for teaching and learning, with possibilities for enhancing memory, motivation, a sense of relevance, and coherent construction of knowledge. (See OSU’s Digital Storytelling initiative or books like The Storytelling Animal or Storytelling as Instructional Method.)

The following are some of the ways we’ve seen instructors use stories and storytelling to make their online courses more meaningful and engaging.

1. Share your personal, professional, and scholarly experiences

Your presence as an instructor is one of the most important parts of your students’ course experience (and probably why they’re coming to Ohio State). Students want to hear you tell your own stories–through video, audio, discussion messages, or web text. They can relate their experiences and motivations to yours and start to understand how an expert approaches the subject matter. They’ll also be more willing to share their own stories and metacognitive development. (See Why instructor’s presence matter’s so much online.)

2. Incorporate digital stories–interviews, stories, or testimonials–from outside people

In an online course you have the ability to bring in “guest lecturers” with an ease and flexibility that would never be possible in a lecture hall. By recording (or finding) digital stories from outside people and embedding these in your course, you can connect your online students to primary sources, differing viewpoints, and professional perspectives. It’s a way of making your online course a rich experience that transcends the old expectations of content as textbooks and lectures. (See the Distance Education team’s Multimedia and Digital Storytelling primer for more ideas.)

3. Have students create digital stories

To go beyond the traditional assessments—the term paper, the final exam, and so on—you can engage students in telling their own stories using digital tools. This type of assignment can be low-tech (a recorded PowerPoint, a Prezi, and audio interview) or elaborate (a video montage, an animation, a movie), depending on how much time you want to devote to the activity and how much scaffolding your students would need. (For an example, see “Scaling Up Team-Based Multimedia Assignments: A Case Study” based on a 2012 department Impact Grant.)

4. Frame each segment of your content, activities, and assessments with specific stories

A low-barrier/high-payoff way to engage students with stories is to give your weekly content and activities a real-world context, to frame students’ work in terms of a particular story or issue. For some disciplines, this might mean designing each unit around a specific issue in the news, or a particular case. You might also create a fictitious scenario or dilemma that gives students a relatable context for thinking about the week’s tasks and content.

5. Give students an authentic scenario-based assignment or simulation that carries on throughout the course

We learn by doing, and the more authentic and rich the tasks you give your students, the more meaningful and transferable their learning will be. If you can frame a whole set of tasks around the same story, you’ll give students a coherent structure for what they’re learning and doing in the course. (See the Distance Education team’s Active Learning page for suggestions about authentic activities.)

What separates great online courses from OK ones: Experiences

In a good online course, students can't just sit and watch
In a good online course, students won’t be able just to sit and watch

In Creating Significant Learning Experiences, a foundational book for higher-ed teaching and learning, L. Dee Fink proposes three categories of student activities that are necessary for holistic learning in a college course (p. 119):

  • Information and ideas (primary sources, lecture/textbook)
  • Experiences (doing, observing)
  • Reflecting (alone, with others)

Later he uses these categories to discuss whether online courses can provide the same opportunities for learning as classroom courses:

“The weakest link currently is the limited ability of online learning to provide significant forms of doing and observing experiences. Progress is being made in this area but it is still not as strong as the other two areas. As teachers find ways to do this more effectively, good online learning will clearly be comparable with learning in good classroom courses.” (p. 136)

The dilemma:

Online courses are often passive learning experiences—sometimes seeming more like fancy (or even not-so-fancy) multimedia textbooks instead of college courses.

Instructional design methodologies admonish us against planning any concrete activities until all the more important elements are planned, which (in our always-limited timeframes) often leaves us with some very fine learning objectives and a very dull course.

In terms of Fink’s categories, we know there are countless good options for presenting content online (rich web pages, short videos, ebooks, e-learning modules). We also have many tried-and-true mechanisms that allow students to reflect on their learning (weekly journals, minute papers, blogs, and so on). Where there are no formulas or cookie cutter options is the realm of experiences.

The response:

Make the planning of actual day-to-day student experiences a key ongoing component of your course design.

Start brainstorming these experiences as early as possible. Be sure that every week (or whatever other unit of time makes sense) students have all three kinds of learning activities: information, experiences, and reflection. And remember that experiences are going to take the most work and creativity to plan. And pay the greatest dividends.  These are where students will apply what they learn, and these are probably what students will remember after the course.

For me, the most valuable expertise of an instructional designer is a good repertory of examples and ideas of good online experiences. I have my own modest collection, from which I’ve worked out some very general categories of “doing” experiences that work well online:

  • Simulations: Give students a multi-stage problem or scenario and give them  rich real-life data and artifacts to interact with. Have students use the tools and research methods they’d use if they were doing this out in the real world. The simulation can be high tech (a fancy web app) or decidedly low tech (spreadsheets of data, collections of documents).
  • Serious role playing and debates: Have students interact with each other, argue, or present. Make it more than the formulaic discussion questions or many online courses: Impel students to do deep research, to test different perspectives, to engage in real issues, and to comport themselves as professionals or scholars.
  • Field work: Get students off the computer and out into the world. Take advantage of the capabilities of mobile devices to let them document what they’re doing—observing situations, finding examples, participating in a professional or scholarly workplace.
  • Authentic projects: The catch-all, and probably the easiest category for the instructor and designer to brainstorm. Give students a situation they’d face in real life when they’d use what they learned in the course, and have them create a true-to-life work product. Make the problem fuzzy enough to force them try out multiple solutions, but give them adequate scaffolding so you can see them do the important things (i.e., fill in the gaps when appropriate, give them job aids, or do some of the work for them if it’s beyond their level).

The good news is that designing learning experiences doesn’t (necessarily) require programming skills, huge amounts of development time, fancy software, or purchase of any canned publisher assets. The other good news is that these experiences are often the best kinds of assessments, providing opportunities for students to actually demonstrate learning objectives and to receive educative feedback.

These experiences make courses engaging and interactive in meaningful ways—not just in the faux-interactivity of clickable web content. And you don’t have to entice students with time-intensive glittering multimedia when those experiences give them intrinsic motivation to read and watch.

As online courses become more mainstream, I believe the presence of these kinds of experiences will be a fundamental measure of quality. Every textbook publisher and ed-tech platform will have fancy content to sell, but only a place like Ohio State will be able to offer the real learning experiences.

Why instructors’ presence matters so much online

Don’t obscure the instructor!

Or, why online college courses need more than e-learning “content.”

The Chronicle this week had another entry in the (unproductive) back and forth about whether lectures are an effective means of instruction: “In Defense of the Lecture”. I’m not sure whether the author makes a compelling case—I’d argue that his teaching style involves far more than traditional lecture—but he makes a point that I think is often overlooked when we think about how to teach online:

First and foremost, I lecture so that I can model how an expert approaches problems. If my students have read the book (or, for the flippers, watched the video) before class, they have (I hope) obtained some basic facts and also have at least the beginnings of an understanding of how those facts fit together. If I assign them problems or questions to grapple with, they will eventually work toward a deeper understanding of the topic at hand. What the in-class lecture adds is a model of how an expert approaches questions.

What I remember most from my college courses is not any particular fact delivered by a professor, but the processes by which they reasoned through complex issues, and the methods of problem-solving that they demonstrated. Certainly the textbook should provide examples of sophisticated reasoning and analysis. But even if students do the reading ahead of time, how likely is it that they have deeply grasped all of the pertinent points?

The writer presents a hypothesis: Students learn better, and learn how to learn better, when they’re guided through the content not just as stated fact but as reasoned through by a person, with that person’s experiences, personality, and biases present and transparent.

Setting aside some sort of lit review to examine the question, I’d suggest that most people would agree with the hypothesis and understand this sort of instructor guidance to be the difference between a college course and just a college textbook (or series of videos).

This reminds me also of Ellen Langer’s The Power of Mindful Learningin which the author decries methods of teaching that suggest that facts are black and white, settled, or universal. We may not be able to “teach” critical-thinking skills, Langer would argue, but we can model those skills and provide space for students to develop their own.

So how do you teach online this way when students never sit in a room with you? My take is this: Design your course so it emphasizes

  • first: your interactions with your students,
  • second: your students’ interactions with each other, and
  • last: your students’ interactions with the content

Your guidance, explanations, feedback, and modeling will nearly always be more meaningful than the course’s static content (which students probably won’t remember anyway, beyond the basics).

Here are some practical suggestions, based on a few different specific approaches to presenting content online:

  • Video lectures or screencasts: Emphasize your individual intellectual presence in every video. Talk about your own perspective, your research, your particular interests. Then provide a means (such as a regular class discussion in a Carmen forum) for students to wrestle with the information with your input, guidance, and explanations.
  • E-learning modules (from Articulate or Softchalk, for example): If the production effort of creating e-learning modules makes you wary about personalizing them too much as described above (say, if someone else might teach the course soon), then you can try to keep modules short and contextualize them appropriately. When you introduce a module to students (in Carmen or elsewhere), be open about the source of the material and the potential limitations of the format. Let them know that while the module is meant as a helpful introduction that you (or someone) have put together, they should feel encouraged to question what they read, to think about the information differently, and to follow up with you and their classmates. It’s important then to include a platform (such as a regular discussion) for you to solicit questions and provide some personal context.
  • Discussions only: If your course doesn’t include a collection of static lecture content, you’re probably using discussions (or some other collaboration tool) to guide students through the textbook and other content. In this case there are no caveats or careful contextualizing needed as above, but the work of giving your personal expert guidance will likely involve broad, regular class-wide discussions in which you take an active role.

Much of online education and instructional design seems to involve the digitization, modularization, and sequencing of content, often obscuring the role of the instructor. To put these media in the context of higher education, though, I think it’s imperative that we consider the instructor’s place differently—that we give students college courses and not just semester-long multimedia textbooks.