Course Design

Many instructors approach online teaching as a re-purposing of existing courses through a process of “curriculum conversion,” where a course taught face-to-face is converted or loaded onto the web for online delivery. Educational researchers suggest, however, that the most effective online courses require more than converting content; instructors should use this opportunity to redesign teaching methodologies to facilitate online community, interaction and assessment. Digital and online technologies offer instructors and students new opportunities to engage material and construct knowledge.

Faculty Interviews: Why Teach Online? UCLA Faculty discuss online course development

Advantages of Learning Online

  • Allow students to view materials at their preferred pace. In lecture podcasts, for example, students can pause and rewind material for greater comprehension. This may be particularly useful for a course which enrolls students with a diversity of language skills and backgrounds.
  • Offer flexibility for non-traditional students who balance job- and family-related responsibilities.
  • Allow for difficult logistical features such as ‘virtual field trips’ or programs which provide immediate feedback and process-based exercises.
  • Provides accessible links to further resources and multimedia information
  • Potentially allow more students to enroll.
  • Draws on student interest in online learning

Advantages of Teaching Online

  • Offers the opportunity to experiment with techniques only available online, such as threaded discussion and video projects
  • Expand the reach of the curriculum to non-traditional students. Online teaching encourages a greater diversity of student life-experience and background
  • Offer instructor conveniences such as at-home office hours and flexible work schedules

Introduction to Online Course Design

The goals of your online/hybrid course will shape how you design course elements, deliver content, facilitate peer interaction, and assess student performance. Teaching online draws on many of the same educational practices developed for face-to-face teaching. The Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education (see an adapted version here) offers a useful starting point for thinking about your course structure.

Principles of Good Practice in Undergraduate Education

  1. Encourages contact between students and faculty, especially contact focused on academic content.
  2. Develops reciprocity and cooperation among students, i.e., teaching students to collaborate productively with others.
  3. Encourages active learning, i.e., doing and thinking about the learning process.
  4. Gives prompt feedback and helps students understand how to respond.
  5. Emphasizes time on task by providing repeated useful, productive, guided practice.
  6. Communicates high expectations and encourages students to have high self-expectations.
  7. Respects diverse talents and ways of learning and fosters respect of intellectual diversity (Codde, 2006).

Others have pointed to an eighth quality:

  1. Includes a well-organized course, the structure of which is clearly communicated to students (Poe & Stassen, n.d.).

Experienced online instructors and students emphasize the importance of:

  • a clearly-structured course, and
  • the communication of expectations and student assessment frameworks.

This means that the entirety of course planning should take place prior to the start of the quarter. Although expectations, due-dates, and methods of student assessment should be clearly marked in the syllabus, leave time in your schedule to troubleshoot unexpected technological issues and address student difficulties (Poe & Stassen, n.d.).

Learning Modules

Because online courses lack the imposed rhythm of lecture sessions or immediate peer communication, students require clear organizational frameworks in the online environment (Poe & Stassen, n.d.; Karen L. Smith Faculty Center for Teaching & Learning at University of South Florida, n.d.). One method of accomplishing this is to divide (or “chunk”) course content into learning modules organized by topic, theme, or skill-set.
Modules are designed to reproduce the weekly routine that would take place in a face-to-face course and are usually spread throughout the quarter (one per week is a common organization). Modules often include:

  • an (unit) introductory video, which provides an overview of the material and assignments in the unit, answers questions and addresses immediate concerns in the course
  • one or more mini-lectures, which are often twenty to thirty minute lectures marked by topic or skill-set
  • assignments/tests
  • learning activities
  • requirements for participation or peer interaction

Screenshot from an online lecture in Professor David Glanzman’s course "The Neurobiology of Learning and Memory" (Physiological Sciences 147) at UCLA.

Modules provide a framework for both the students and instructor to gauge progress toward learning objectives. Many modules are presented with subheadings such as “Reading Assignment,” “Lecture Content,” and “Interactive Activities,” to reflect specific skills/content. Using a Table of Contents layout design helps students access materials and understand the structure of the course.

Included below is a sample module from a UCLA online course:

Screenshot from an online lecture in Professor David Leaf’s course "Songwriters on Songwriting" (Music Industry 105) at UCLA.

Modules may also be more comprehensive, such as this example from the University of South Florida. 

Course Assignments

Educational research suggests that online students – like students in the face-to-face classroom – learn best by completing frequent assignments throughout the course rather than preparing for a small number of “high-stakes” assignments (such as a midterm and final exam) (Wideen et al., 1997; Nilson, 2010). Activities may include anything from formal writing assignments, draft writing, reading responses, quizzes, and problem-sets to discussion commentary and creative journaling activities. Assignments should be clear to the student and include corresponding due-dates, preferably in a set interval or time each week. For example, an instructor may require a weekly reading response due to the course Dropbox (electronic submission repository) every Saturday by midnight.

In designing assignments and other student assessment activities, consider your learning objectives and how best to “scaffold” skills and knowledge in the course. In other words, think about how to order assignments so that they build skills in a logical sequence and incrementally (Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation at Carnegie Mellon University, n.d.). Experts suggest that instructors assess student activities in a variety of formats throughout the course. Different types of tasks appeal to students with diverse learning styles and help students practice course skills in the virtual settings. A popular type of assignment in online courses is the eportfolio (electronic portfolio), which requires students to create a visual presentation showcasing a selection of assignments. In these assignments, students reflect on the achievement of learning outcomes. For examples of eportfolio assignment prompts, see here.

If you are designing a hybrid or partially-online course, consider which elements of the course can happen outside the class. Often, faculty chose to move content to online modalities and devote face-to-face sessions to collaborative exercises. This type of instruction follows the model of the flipped classroom increasingly popular higher education. In “flipped” learning, students view lecture material at home (in pre-recorded videos) and participate in interactive activities and coursework during face-to-face lecture sessions.

Experienced online instructors also consider methods to prevent cheating or academic dishonesty in the online environment. Assignments frequently employ substantive writing questions, which require individual and original argument. For other types of exams, online testing systems often include features which allow only a short window to answer questions or randomizing of questions.

Social Learning and Faculty-Student Relationships

Recent studies have provided compelling evidence for the significance of social interaction in student learning experiences (Brown and Adler, 2008; Shapiro & Hughes, 2010). One of the most significant elements of students’ success is collaborative or so-called “social learning.” Rather than focusing on subject content (what do you want students to know?), researchers emphasize the significance of learning activities and peer interaction in knowledge acquisition and analysis. Instructors can use a variety of methods to create community and peer-based dialogue in virtual learning environments.

Before the course begins, consider how you will communicate with students about course goals and expectations, and how students will interact with their peers. Develop specific frameworks for this communication and provide clear guidance for students in the syllabus (Poe & Stassen, n.d.).

Communicating Course Policies

Post and discuss with students course policies and rules of conduct for email communication and threaded message boards, if included in your course. Some faculty also find it useful to include a FAQ section that answers common technological and organizational questions.

Faculty may also choose to require a syllabus quiz or course contract to ensure that students understand the structure and expectations of the course. A syllabus quiz often includes multiple choice questions, such as the following question:

  1. If an emergency occurs on a day that an assignment is due, which of the following is required in order to receive consideration from your instructor?
    • You must email your instructor before the due-date and be prepared to provide official and verifiable documentation.
    • You may email your instructor any time after the due-date.
    • You may email your instructor any time less than three days after the due-date.

 

A syllabus quiz may also include scenarios that require students to apply course policies to hypothetical situations.

Consider also providing students with handout of tips for succeeding in online courses, as prepared by the Office of Instructional Development.

Creating an Online Community

In courses where students and instructors do not meet in the face-to-face environment (or meet rarely, such as in a hybrid course), developing a positive and interactive community is extremely important to successful learning. You can use particular strategies to develop and monitor a respectful learning environment throughout the quarter (Poe & Stassen, n.d.). In online courses, you should pay special attention to structuring environments in which students collaborate or interact with peers. It is important also that you develop and clearly communicate a rubric or method for evaluating these interactions (for more information on rubrics, see Step 3: Assessing Student Learning). In recommendations developed by Poe and Stassen at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, instructors should consider the following tips to develop positive peer interactions online:

  • Allow students to post student-to-student communication (as well as student-to-teacher) to get answers to questions: Encourage students to discuss among themselves. Do not respond to every comment—interject and guide the discussion. Encourage students to introduce themselves to the group at the beginning of the semester.
  • Pair each student with a “buddy” in the course: The buddy system gives students a source of support in the online classroom. Some instructors match students with varying technological experience. Other instructors prefer to match students who possess similar technological skills. Pair students according to the goals of your course or the assignment.
  • Encourage peer response: Post student papers online, and ask each student to select a partner to critique each other’s work. Be sure that students know their paper will be posted.
  • Structure opportunities for personal interaction: Incorporate opportunities for students to tell you something about themselves in a "student lounge” or meeting place. A “student lounge” can also be a place where students can share with each other, meet each other virtually, and learn more about each other without your presence.
  • Assign discussion group leaders or project team leaders to facilitate group work: Assigning team leaders is one way to ensure that students receive ample feedback. Make sure that the team leader disseminates information to every member of the team. Part of the responsibility of the team leader should be to report to you frequently on the progress of the team (Poe & Stassen, n.d.).

Experienced instructors note that dividing students into small groups or “discussion sections” encourages communication in online threaded discussions (much like in face-to-face discussion sections). If students are automatically assigned discussion sections and a corresponding teaching assistant when they register for the online class, you may consider further subdivisions within these groups.

If possible, change the composition of the discussion group throughout the quarter. You may do this by assigning a student a color or number at the start of class and using this to assign discussion groups (for example, you could group students with odd numbers from 1-30 into group 1 during the first two weeks of the course, and numbers 1-10 and 30-40 into group 1 during the third and fourth weeks). Depending on the size of your course and your teaching support team as well as your learning outcomes, you may also choose to require that students rotate as “discussion leaders” in online discussion. You may also choose to invite guest speakers or experts to comment on discussion. In all cases, however, be sure that you or the teaching team provides a consistent presence in the forum.

The tone and content of student interaction are important considerations in fostering productive dialogue and meeting learning goals. It is recommended that you communicate clear guidelines or “ground rules” for discussion, which may include policies on how and what to post. In your syllabus, consider including a section entitled “Netiquette,” which details etiquette guidelines for electronic communication such as email or threaded message-boards. In university courses, netiquette focuses on fostering respect, harmony and tolerance in the tone and purpose of interactions (Mintu-Wimsatt, Kernek, & Lozada, 2010), and upholding UCLA’s commitment to nondiscrimination. Included below is a sample of an online netiquette policy:

Online Class Netiquette

Your instructor and fellow students wish to foster a safe on-line learning environment. All opinions and experiences, no matter how different or controversial they may be perceived, must be respected in the tolerant spirit of academic discourse. You are encouraged to comment, question, or critique an idea but you are not to attack an individual. Our differences, some of which are outlined in the University's nondiscrimination statement below, will add richness to this learning experience. Please consider that sarcasm and humor can be misconstrued in online interactions and generate unintended disruptions. Working as a community of learners, we can build a polite and respectful course ambience (Educational Technologies at University of Missouri, n.d.).

In your netiquette policy, consider also discussing specific issues in virtual communication.  This may include discussion of satire and sarcasm, or avoiding the use of all caps (an indication of yelling) or all lowercase letters (an indication of mumbling).  If you are coordinating a team of teaching assistants, develop a set of policies on student feedback, interaction and “tone.” 

Students may also feel more comfortable in online interaction if they are provided general information on their peers in the course. You may consider either encouraging or requiring students to post short biographies or introductory videos on the course website. Free video programs such as Animoto or Flixtime allow students to mix images, music and text in a short video.

Note: If your course website is not password-protected and part of the public domain, students should not post identifying information per the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) (20 U.S.C. § 1232g; 34 CFR Part 99).  FERPA is a Federal law that protects the privacy of student education records.  Ferpa applies to personally identifiable information in educational records. This includes items such as the student's name, names of family members, addresses, personal identifiers such as social security numbers, and personal characteristics or other information that make the student's identity easily traceable.

FERPA does not prevent you from assigning students to create or post content on public social media platforms outside UCLA CCLE - Common Collaboration and Learning Environment. When doing so, however, inform students that their material may be viewed by others and, while not explicitly required by law, acquire parental consent from students under the age of 18.  Many instructors require students to post information under pseudonyms or aliases that are tracked throughout the course to protect privacy.

Developing Faculty-Student Relationships

A second key aspect of positive interactions in the online course is the faculty-student relationship.  Faculty often struggle with developing and maintaining what experts call an active “instructor presence” in students’ online learning experience. (Tran-Taylor et al., 2013) This could take the form of contributing frequently to online discussions, responding to individual questions, and providing individualized feedback on student work.

In the online environment, your first opportunity to engage with students is in introductions.  (Tran-Taylor et al., 2013) Some courses will allow you to schedule one in-person meeting at the start of the quarter, which often helps student associate names with faces and can be a time-efficient method of communicating administrative issues and course goals.  In the fully-online environment, introductory videos communicate your interests and personality, as well as course goals and expectations.  Studies have shown that students in online courses do, in fact, watch digital introductory videos and value meeting the instructor in the online setting. (Jones, Naugle, & Kollof, 2008)  Introductory videos can be recorded using mobile device, webcams and other recording devices.  Free video programs such as Animoto or Flixtime allow you to mix images, music and text in a short video. For discussion and examples of introductory faculty videos, see the UCOE (University of California Online Education) webinar “Uses of Video in Online Courses” (minutes 5:57-7:45). 

Instructors may also consider posting an electronic portfolio (eportfolio), which presents a collection of documents, images and files.  This can introduce students to a sample of your scholarship as well as personal interests. 

If you choose to create an eportfolio or biography outside of CCLE, consider using Scholars @ UCLA or free blogging sites such as Wordpress.com (see off-site tutorial).                      

Understanding the demography of your class allows you to develop more effective instructor-student relationships.   One way to gather information about your students and communicate your interest in their education is to conduct a survey prior to or at the start of the course.  A pre-course survey can be administered through CCLE and include a variety of multiple-choice and/or open-ended questions.  In the online environment, you should also include questions regarding the student’s technological skills and access to a personal/shared computer and high-speed internet.  Examples of general pre-course survey questions include: 

Pre-Course Survey Sample Questions

  • What is your current major?
  • What year are you at UCLA?
  • Is this your first year at UCLA (freshman or first-year transfer student)?
  • Why did you register for this course (multiple-choice of possibilities including major requirement, major elective, general education requirement, writing requirement, self-enrichment, etc.)
  • Is this the first online course you have taken?
  • If you have taken other online courses, list them here
  • Describe your access to a shared or personal computer
  • Describe your access to high-speed internet
  • What is your level of computer expertise?

In the second segment of the pre-course survey, the instructor may prompt students to respond to open-ended questions on topics relevant to the course.  It may be useful to learn more about students’ background or personal investment in course topics, or their starting knowledge level.  In classes with smaller enrollments (or courses in which the instructor commits to reading all responses), instructors may also include an open-ended question asking students to share any relevant information that may impact their work or approach to course topics throughout the quarter.  Questions will vary in this section.

Video also provides a method to facilitate instructor presence throughout the course. At the beginning of each unit, consider posting a video which provides an overview of the coming week and responds to student concerns and questions.  Instructors can also consider virtual office hours using Skype, Google Hangout or a 3-D program such as Second Life and Active Worlds. For more information on 3-D virtual environments in online education, see LINK.

Challenges of Teaching Online

Teaching online presents new challenges relating to digital proficiencies, fostering peer communication and feedback.  For literature reviews of current research in these areas, see the list of “Special Topics” below.  We encourage faculty to contact the Office of Instructional Development or other campus support centers to make an appointment to discuss course design and overcoming challenges.

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