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.

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.

Passive learning online isn’t enough!

Asleep at the Wheel by Aaron Jacobs (Flickr)

Yesterday the Chronicle’s Wired Campus blog  had a post trumpeting what sounded like a pretty obvious conclusion about massive online courses: “Passive MOOC Students Don’t Retain New Knowledge, Study Finds.”

The study’s author explains:

We’ve observed that the highly structured MOOC design focuses on content provision, which the participants are very positive about.

The structure, however, does not encourage learners to actively self-regulate their learning. If anything, participants, even those with high self-regulated learning ability, tend to limit their activity to reading and interacting with course content, overlooking opportunities to use the theory they’ve learned to improve their practice.”

It seems obvious enough (that experiencing course content through osmosis doesn’t mean really learning something), but it’s a lesson we have to keep reminding ourselves of when we design online courses.

For all the time, energy, and technology that goes into making videos, web content, ebooks, and quizzes, the crucial elements of the course are the low-tech ones: discussion, collaboration, and (most important) practice with feedback.

As time passed… [students’] main concerns shifted to completing the course and getting high scores, not practicing their newly acquired skills.

“Learners focused on activities such as watching videos and taking tests, with little evidence of learners’ relating new knowledge into practice, or connecting to their peers through the discussion board,” said Colin Milligan, a research fellow at the university, in a news release.

Active learning makes courses messier—but more meaningful. A canned course that’s just videos, readings, and exams can be easier for both the instructor and the students, but it probably won’t lead to the kind of learning that students come to Ohio State to experience!

Beyond the QM rubric: Where do we want to go?

Many rivers (and streets) to cross

My colleague Ben Scragg and I have been reading a lot of Hybrid Pedagogy and other conversations challenging the status quo of designing and teaching online courses. (The status quo seems to come in two forms: ground classes with PowerPoints that have been recorded and put online, or old-style online courses with cookie-cutter activities—“post your reply and respond to two classmates’ posts,” and so on.)

Quality Matters and solid backward design will get us to a point of courses being usable and generally sound, but where else do we put our effort? How do we make our offerings excellent and not just acceptable?

If I were writing my own addendum to the Quality Matters rubric, here’s what I’d include as qualities to measure:

  • digital first — Content/experience created for the web
  • ethical, learner centered — Course policies, activities, assessments are designed to empower students to control their own learning
  • authentic assessments — Student assessment focuses on students’  creating actual professional or scholarly work and receiving feedback
  • activity centered — Course work emphasizes student projects, tasks, collaboration, and inquiry, not instructor or textbook content
  • human — Course design and delivery emphasizes human interactions: instructor/class, instructor/student, student/student, class as community
  • local — Content (at least the front-and-center content) is primarily created by OSU faculty and staff, not a big publisher or elearning company; tools are primarily OSU tools
  • open — Uses open content and shares content openly (to students, to people outside the course and the institution)
  • accessible — Content and activities are accessible to students of all abilities and on all devices

Alternative to a lecture video: Audio


The multimedia principles of e-learning are, in short, about the superiority of employing multiple media at once to instruct.

When your instructional goal isn’t to show and tell, specifically, or when you simply have lots of words but no visual component, you can use a medium with a long history of engaging people in journalism, entertainment, and education: audio recording of spoken words.

Audio is probably most powerful as a vehicle for bringing attention to people’s voices and stories. It may not be the best medium for explaining a technical concept or promoting memorization of specific details, but it’s surely better than text (or perhaps even video) for having experts or other interesting people share their stories.

A few examples:

  • Planet Money / This American Life: The Giant Pool of Money
    Voice and audio used to narrate an investigation. The hosts explain their journey toward to understand the financial crisis. You can see (hear) how the medium lends itself to seamlessly incorporating the frequent new voices of experts and others included in the narrative. The personality and idiosyncrasy makes the topic seem so much less dry. This could have been  an (expensive, time-intensive) animated/video documentary, but just see how well they explain with just words!
  • #PHONAR: Fred Ritchin lecture
    In this “guest lecture” from #PHONAR, an open online education project about photography, audio is used as a medium for story and personal voice in a sort of long interview. NYU photography professor Fred Ritchin recounts memories and shares thoughts about the trickiness of telling stories through photos. Notably, by having audio only, the lecture seems to encourage you to Google the images, stories, and facts he’s talking about. (How much more interesting that journey was than if they’d just stuck the photos there in front of me!)

Multimedia principles

While this is technically not multimedia, I think we can see its value by looking at a couple of Mayer’s multimedia principles:

1. Coherence principle – People learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included.

11. Voice principle – People learn better when the narration in multimedia lessons is spoken in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.

When the subject is personal—especially telling stories or building rapport, and when the visual components aren’t serving an important purpose, audio can be powerful. It’s a familiar medium to people, and it’s fairly easy to produce compared to video and animation.

Technical considerations

Equipment and technique:

On the DE team we use a few different USB microphones (the last of which can plug into an iPad with the right adapter). These are noticeably better than talking into the built-in mic on your laptop, phone, or tablet. They’re also not as good as using professional equipment.

Your audio recordings need not be NPR quality to be engaging, though. Most importantly, remember to speak slowly and keep the microphone close to your mouth. And don’t be afraid to let in ambient sound (or even to add sound, tastefully).

If you’re looking to get more serious, especially if you’re recording something that’s really worth keeping around for a long time, an excellent resource (which I found through that PHONAR course, mentioned above) is the Multimedia Train website.

Software for recording and editing:

On a Mac, use GarageBand! It’s easy to use and it’s fairly powerful. Just remember to export your file as an MP3 (or something else that works across platforms). On a PC, I’d recommend the free, tried-and-true Audacity.

On iPad, GarageBand only really lets your record “loops” and not long audio clips, so I’d possibly recommend Hokusai. You can also record easily in SoundCloud’s app, especially helpful if you’re uploading to there. Better still to edit on a computer, honestly, if it’s going to be at all complex.


The fanciest option for incorporating audio into your online course is embedding it through SoundCloud, which has sort of become the YouTube of audio. It’s pretty slick looking:

Audio files (especially a judiciously compressed MP3) are pretty small in 2014 terms, too, so it’s probably also feasible to offer your audio files as downloads.