Letter to the Coures Editors – Part II: In my travels and dealings, I have seen thousands of online courses. Some courses are brilliant, while others leave much to be desired. Unfortunately, there is still a significant number of what I call, “Text Under Glass” – essentially courses that are all reading with little to no interactive content. Likewise, there are courses where the instructor has no presence – no immediacy, no communication, no evaluation…no teaching! I have also seen courses that aren’t really courses – they are incomplete from the traditional concept of a course. So, for these last two blogs, I’d like to present my letters to course writers. These letters are meant to both motivate and call out. See what you think.
Dear course author –
I saw one of your courses the other day. Whoops! It’s hard to know where to start in trying to explain the numerous problems I saw, but I’ll try to take a stab at it.
Let’s start with the pretty pictures…perhaps you might want to rethink grabbing any old photo from Google images and tacking it on a page. It’s especially helpful if the picture actually has something (anything) to do with the content you are discussing! But not to worry, there weren’t that many pictures anyway, so at least there won’t be many to fix. (Although the different colors of your paragraphs seemed to match the pictures sometimes – how great for your class of ADHD students!)
Of course, not much in the way of images suggests that you had a lot of text. That would be like saying the Titanic took in a lot of water. Take some direction from our Instructional Design friends – less can be more! The Word documents you converted to html pages were…well, they were probably exactly what you designed them to be – notes! YOUR notes. Not meaningful content or substantive comments, but notes to help guide your own understanding. Do you know what good your notes are to me? Let me try to help you. Here are my notes from a lecture on Objectics:
Objects and Artifacts. Function and aesthetics. Presidential debates – going back to Kennedy / Nixon. Colors = context culturally.
I have several more lines, but I hope you get the idea. This also translates to PowerPoint slides. I finally get the saying: Death By PowerPoint. This is because your slideshow had no power, nor did it have a point. I’m guessing that’s because some were your notes, while others were publisher slideshows. You do realize that the 200 slide presentation was designed for face to face consumption? As well, it is probably best edited down to a manageable grouping. Finally, the keywords your students see really need to be sentences as it generates a LOT more meaning.
Don’t get me wrong – the educational integrity was there! You are obviously a master of your subject matter! (Read: I would NOT want to play Trivial Pursuit against you in your degree area!) As well, you took great care in providing feedback to your students on their final paper. It’s a shame you had to mail the papers back to the students – there are ways to capture that information electronically! But the rigor in your course was intense for sure. Discussions, essays, tests, literature reviews, bibliographies, definitions pages, and other assignments would surely help students know more of the material by the end. (That’s assuming they made it past week 3, right?) But you had a lot of sources and resources to give a mosaic of content – albeit in only one or two formats.
That said, it might be time to rethink the amount of work and time your students are spending in the course materials. Perhaps adding a few group assignments would be good. After all, most workers find themselves in teams once they leave school. If you believe the current literature, this happens more than ¾ of the time! So perhaps it’s time to teach them skills they’ll need even if they aren’t specific to your discipline. I know, I know, you aren’t a “small group” instructor. (Unless you are a small group instructor – and in that case – good for you – you are salt of the Earth!) But students need help tying the pieces of their education together just like humans need help tying together anything. When someone becomes very sick, they may tie together diet, medicine, exercise, mental calm, environmental toxicity, and dozens of other pieces of life. Why shouldn’t we teach them how to best live their lives once they’re out of school? (Perhaps that’s why teachers always refer to graduation as going into the “real world” – hmmmm.)
Oh, here’s another tip. Directional text. Your students don’t automatically know what to do or where to click next. So, it’s probably a good idea to let them in on it, rather than making it some kind of secret club or game. Speaking of games, why note embrace the full power of the online medium! Gaming is powerful – it increases retention, comprehension, and engagement. These things are well documented. So, instead of transferring your face to face (F2F) lectures to digital lectures (or walls of text), perhaps transforming your content to fit the new medium is a good idea! Instead of needing a test in every unit, perhaps a group exercise is called for. Why not include a simulation, a game, or a real-world exercise and have the students simply reflect on it? You don’t even have to make it up completely – there are thousands of free resources on the Internet that have pre-made learning assets. So, if you aren’t feeling particularly inspired or creative, find someone else who was and who also put their content up on the web for anyone to use…free!
Lastly, it’s time to figure out learning outcomes. I don’t care what you call them – here’s how I view them. Course objectives (specific tasks) suggest or “prove” course outcomes (standards in k-12). Outcomes suggest mastery, proficiency, or competence of program goals. Goals, ultimately can imply institutional values. That’s it – four levels. Objectives, outcomes, goals, and values – figure out how your content maps to those and you are well ahead of many of your colleagues (both online and F2F).
So, my friends, I’m left wondering what to do next. I don’t want to offend all of you with good intentions, but it’s time to get in the game! I realize that most instructors are not taught principles of education – mapping to standards, how to create immediacy, PBL, what is authentic assessment, etc. – these are concepts that are foreign to most college level teachers and loosely understood at the k-12 level. (By the way, I realize there is a contingent of you who are researchers and not teachers. I realize you are teaching 1 or 2 classes per term because you have to, not because you want to. This blog is not for you. To you I beg – find a GREAT graduate assistant and force them to research education in addition to teaching your load…) Learning styles mean little in terms of student understanding and even less in terms of curriculum creation. And that is a shame. (I’d call it more of a travesty really.) My suggestion? Go back to school. Pick up an instructional design class. Check out a teaching effectiveness conference. (And actually go to the sessions – don’t just hang out by the pool or the bar….I’ve been to your conferences and I know how you are!) Buy a book on teaching, instructional design, or curriculum mapping. And for the sake of all that is holy, invite quality speakers to perform your inservices. (If you need one, I happen to have a million dollar idea…) But leave the committee chairs and community business leaders off the luncheon schedule for a while. Promote good learning, effective teaching, and sound pedagogical strategy. Hold teachers accountable to outcomes, problem based learning, effective use of Bloom’s taxonomy, etc. In other words…promote quality education.
Want to hear more about building a better course? Need some help finding a balance between standardization and effective teaching? Contact email@example.com for more information!