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.