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Design with Learning in Mind

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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In the classroom when you give encouraging words to one student, you are simultaneously giving positive feedback to all the students. But online students never hear these words to other students. Nor do they hear you say "good morning" and see a smile from you each class period. None of those cues are available to students in Web-based courses. Instead, for online students, everything becomes verbal; it takes lots of verbal positive reinforcement to replace all those visual cues that are not happening.


The posting below looks at how to develop learner-centered environments for online courses. It is from Chapter 1, Design with Learning in Mind, in the book, Conquering The Content: A Step-by-Step Guide to Online Course Design, by Robin M. Smith Published by Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 989 Market Street, San Francisco, CA 94103-1741 [] Copyright © 2008 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. All rights reserved.


Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Teaching Large Evening Classes

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning


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Design with Learning in Mind

How Web-Based Learning Is Different from Classroom Learning


One of the most notable differences between the classroom and the Web-based environment is just that: the environment. First, you aren't standing at the front of the room ready to dispense the knowledge to the students. In addition, there aren't twenty to four hundred other people surrounding the student, all with a dedicated fifty minutes devoted solely to the subject matter.

Altered Learning Environment

In the classroom when you give encouraging words to one student, you are simultaneously giving positive feedback to all the students. But online students never hear these words to other students. Nor do they hear you say "good morning" and see a smile from you each class period. None of those cues are available to students in Web-based courses. Instead, for online students, everything becomes verbal; it takes lots of verbal positive reinforcement to replace all those visual cues that are not happening.

It is crucial for your students' benefit and for your own self-preservation that your course be designed in such a way that is creates a clear pathway of learning for the students. The most frequent criticism I hear about Web-based courses is how confusing the course is or how unclear it is to find the proper path within the course.

For a classroom course, you and the students go into the classroom and shut the door. There is almost no record of what is said in that classroom except for the notes that students take. In a Web-based course, in contrast, there is a visible, archived record of what you have presented for the class. This is more like publishing an article or a chapter in a book than teaching a class. Your course materials are now representing not only you but also your department and your institution. Peer review thus becomes a vitally important part of your course. Typo-graphical errors in your course materials, for example, reflect poorly on you, your department, and your institution.

The design of the online course becomes much more important than in a classroom. You'll need to make a few alterations in your course materials in order to accomplish the same learning outcomes in a very different environment. And as you do, you will have numerous opportunities for teaching in more effective ways.

When I thought in terms of my biology lab, I had the freedom not to worry about spending time getting to twenty-five students and telling each of them, "No, that is not the Amoeba; that is a speck of dust on the cover slip." "No, that is not Plasmodium; that is the pointer in the eyepiece."

Learner-Centered Environment

The Web-based environment allows repetition of content. Some students may need to hear a presentation several times in order to be able to absorb it. If the student is willing to invest that amount of time, why should he or she not be able to have that option available? In classroom courses, repeating sections of content usually is not a reasonable option. When content is available in a Web-based course, repetition of information is possible.

The learner-centered environment of an online course has a number of facets:

* Self-selected. The students choose when to come into the course and work on the subject matter adds a distinct psychological advantage: they are mentally prepared because they chose to work on the course materials. Even if it's to avoid something else they don't want to do (laundry, working in someone else's course), they've chosen to come to class. In a classroom course, in contrast, the students are required to come to class at a specific time. Even if they originally selected this schedule themselves, who says that on a given Wednesday at 10:00 A.M., it is agreeable for them to be there? By the way, you as a faculty member get to self-select the moment you go to class in a Web-based course too.

* Time. Students may work at the time of day when they are at their best. You may be at your best in the morning; if so, you can develop your course in the morning. Some students may be at their best at 11:00 P.M. and "come to class" then. Another student can come to class at 2:00 A.M. With everyone working at their optimum time of the day, both the course and the participation in the course are more likely to be the best effort possible.

* Place. Students can choose a place where they can concentrate well and at their convenience. A student who must travel for work or vacation can keep coming to class no matter where he or she is. This means that students can keep up with course work much better than students in the classroom, who if they have a conflict at, say, 10:00 on Monday, totally miss whatever happens in class. In a Web-based course, the attitude is, "Oh, don't worry. Do it later."

* Pace. Web-based learning students can move quickly through parts they understand, go slowly through parts they don't understand, and repeat sections as needed. Faculty members have always had the difficulty of not reaching all the students. Some students are left behind, while others aren't challenged enough. With a Web-based course, students can take care of this for themselves. And because materials are already online, there is no extra effort required by the faculty member to meet individual students' needs.

* Around-the-clock access. Students can access the course content when you are not available. In classroom courses, access to information is typically available during class time and during the faculty member's office hours. With content and other course materials online, this information is available around the clock.

The Student's Role

Students in a Web-based course are more responsible than those in a classroom course for seeking out knowledge. There is no longer a person standing at the front of the room to guide the student through a lesson for an hour. Online students need enough discipline to come to class by logging in and then working through the content. This is placing more responsibility on the student to begin with. In addition, there is no one there saying, "Class is over at 10 to the hour; you don't leave until then."

The greater responsibility on the student is another reason that directions and the pathway for progress through the course must be abundantly clear to students: There is an increased need for them to communicate with each other. Learning guides, discussed later in this book, can help facilitate this communication.

Because of these differences in the environment, course content requires these components:

* Short, directed learning segments-Chunk-ability

* Ability to repeat and review content-Repeat-ability

* Ability to stop and resume without having to start all over-Pause-ability

* Clear, direct instructions-Understand-ability

We'll talk more about these issues as you develop your content presentations.

The Faculty Member's Role

One of the changes in the faculty role is the distinction between development and design activities, and facilitation and teaching activities in courses. You may find yourself developing a course you do not end up teaching or teaching a course you did not develop. This is becoming more and more common as institutions begin to rely on adjunct teaching staff or Web-based teaching. Whether that is your situation or not, development and facilitation are independent activities in Web-based courses. Development and design activities are best accomplished and completed prior to the beginning of the semester, so that the semester may be spent on the facilitation and teaching aspects of the course.

There is a tremendous advantage to placing teaching materials into usable enduring materials. Once the course units or modules have been developed, time can be spent on revisions. The instructor is then free to interact with participants in the course. After you taught your course online one time, you can build from the foundation you have created. Your starting point will be much higher than it was when you began, so you will be able to stand on your own shoulders, so to speak, and build from a higher foundation. Your course becomes stronger and more robust each time you teach it.

Course Development and Design The design and development of the course, rather than the facilitation and teaching of the course, is where the transfer of knowledge takes place. In a classroom course, we typically think of teaching as dispensing knowledge, but today, knowledge is readily available (for example, over the Internet), so faculty are no longer the keepers of the knowledge. Instead faculty now explain that information, explore how to make connections with it, decipher what is most important, explain how it matters to everyday life, and so forth. Dispensing knowledge is something a machine can do, and faculty are much more talented and useful than any machine. Our role now is to make sure that information is presented in a way that is relevant, understandable, memorable, and useful to the students.

I was working with a faculty member who was developing a Web-based course. He was in a large group of mixed subject matter experts, so I was speaking in general terms. It turned out that his course was for remedial reading students. It was a blended course, and therefore not completely Web based, but some customization was in order. We knew that these students have some difficulties, and expecting them to learn to read by posting lots of course documents was a definite stretch. This goes back to the point that Web-based courses have to be planned from the beginning. One of the ways that students learn to read is by hearing others read out loud and by reading out loud themselves, so I suggested some ways to incorporate audio files and assignments in which the students would read out loud and turn in those readings. There are ways to teach most subjects online, but you have to be thoughtful about the way courses are planned.

Course Facilitation and Teaching As facilitators and teachers in Web-based courses, we lead students rather than dispense knowledge to them. We become the bridge between students and content rather than the source of the content. It is a perhaps subtle change but nevertheless important because it means taking on different responsibilities.

A faculty member who is acting as the sage is reaping the benefits of working with, structuring, and communicating the content. One goal in designing effective and efficient learning environments is for students to work as intensively with the content. Strategies that support this shift in perspective include having the students moderate discussion forums, prepare concept summaries and examples for other students, and assume greater responsibility as frontline moderators for the course (Boettcher, 2007).

Design features incorporated in this system of course development and the learning guide will create an environment in which students are confident of their pathway, and the only challenge is the course content, not the navigation of the course or figuring out what must be done in order to complete the course. This focus on students when designing the course will free you up to spend the semester teaching and interacting with the students in regard to the content rather than answering questions about course navigation or specific directions about assignments.

Course logistics questions detract from the true reason faculty are available for their students: for students to learn information they cannot get from any other source. A properly designed and developed course should trigger very few logistical questions during the semester, so your time can be spent on interacting with students, not developing or designing your course.

Appendix D provides a list of design and development tasks.

Advanced Planning

Your students are extremely busy individuals and need to be able to plan their lives in advance. One way I helped my students was to commit to test dates at the beginning of the semester so they could arrange work schedules, babysitters, and other help. I would not change test dates on them. If I had to be flexible about some thing, I might change the amount of material covered on the exam but not the date. This commitment to the students and my respect for them set a tone of professional courtesy in the course that ends up working to everyone's advantage.

For now, it will be helpful to document what is currently taking place in the course you'd like to work with as we work through Conquering the Content. The action steps that follow will help you proceed to Chapter Two, which addresses making sure course materials are in a format that can be ready to be easily updated.