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Online Course Design Best Practices

When faculty are new to teaching online, one of the most common questions they ask is, "How do I replicate my in-class teaching methods in the online medium?" The short answer is, "you shouldn't, at least not without some modifications." Here are some recommendations on how to adjust your teaching for the new medium. We're going to start by looking at a few things that don't work, and then suggest some alternatives.

I. What doesn't work?

Problems with PowerPoint: Remember that PowerPoint is most effective as a face-to-face presentation tool. If you simply upload your PowerPoint slides for students to review, minus the lecture that puts the information in context, students won't get as much out of it.

    1. Without the presenter, a slide show may not make much sense. The slides are only a part of the talk. They serve as prompts for the presenter, or visual cues for the audience.
    2. Adding more text or a voiceover as a substitute for the presenter also doesn't work well because it's not interactive. Student's can't get clarification of a confusing point, or ask a question on the spot.
    3. Students can't view a PowerPoint directly in the LMS. They need to download the file, locate it, and open it. If they don't own PowerPoint, it's even harder. Many students struggle with these technical challenges.

Lack of Engagement: In an online course, you can't just put the content up and hope the students will engage with it. This was the philosophy of the MOOC (massively open online course), and most of these courses have incredibly high attrition rates. MOOCs can work if you're highly self-motivated and can learn by reading the textbook on your own, but that doesn't work for most students. An effective online course must have "regular and substantive" interaction between instructor and students and, ideally, among students as well.

Problems with Recorded Video: While it might seem like uploading recordings of your 60-90 minute lectures is an easy way to put a class online, studies show that the average student stops watching by the five minute mark, and sooner when the material is dry or challenging. Our Kaltura analytics on NAU course videos are consistent with published data. Even TED talks, which generally cover interesting material, have talented presenters and high production values, only last fifteen minutes, and even then we don't always make it to the end! Faculty sometimes need to be reminded that they were generally exceptional students, not typical ones.

Problems with Live Video: When live streaming a lecture, it is possible to interact with the audience, but usually it helps to have an assistant to monitor the chat, because presenting and reading audience questions at the same time is distracting for all but the most experienced presenters. Technical issues related to audio and video can be a challenge, so testing equipment in advance is essential. When things go wrong, it tends to be a show stopper. Live video uses a lot of bandwidth. High bandwidth requirements may mean that some users will not be able to participate, or that they will have a less than optimal experience. Finally, users often get less out of a live stream than a face-to-face presentation because they tend to pay only partial attention to the presenter while doing other things. Think about the last webinar you watched. Did you give it your full attention?

Problems with Testing: Instructors often come to us for advice on how to use technology to lock down tests or monitor students, so that they can continue to use multiple choice exams that are heavy on memorization and which would be defeated if the student has access to the textbook, Google, or an online test bank with all of the answers. There may be some situations where this approach is necessary, but often the solution is to change the way we assess learners. More about that below.


II. What works better?

Best Practices: There are many lists of best practices for online course design and delivery (two separate things entirely, and both of great importance), but here's one that we think does quite a nice job, and isn't too burdensome. Could you argue about the applicability of any particular point in your own course? Sure. But in general, a course that addresses most of these issues is going to be easier to navigate and more engaging than one that doesn't. Take this survey to see how your online course compares.

Learning Outcomes: In every course, whether online or in-person, an instructional designer will usually start by asking about the learning outcomes. In other words, what do you want a student who has successfully completed your course to know, or be able to do? The answers should be specific, and measurable. A poor learning outcome for an Intro Biology course might say that "students will gain a greater appreciation for the diversity of life." While true, it's hard to measure. A better one could say, "students will be able to define the properties shared by all living things and explain why fire and mineral crystals are non-living, despite having some of these characteristics." Once we have identified the learning outcomes, we can build the course and the assessments to ensure that a student can meet them. This is sometimes called "backwards design." The benefit of having learning outcomes is that if two instructors are assigned teach different sections of the same course, each can do their own thing, as long as the outcomes are similarly met.

General Improvements: So, what are some good forms of engagement in an online class? As in a face-to-face class, it's good to change up the activities about every fifteen minutes. We recommend the use of opinion surveys, journaling for reflection, student presentations, group work, peer evaluation, short case study/scenario videos, student produced videos, debates, and discussions. In STEM classes, the use of simulations, offline labs, and the analysis of data sets are other possibilities. Use these activities to check for comprehension, to break the monotony, and to stimulate interest and creativity.

Better Assessment: Because students tend to cheat on memorization-heavy tests, we sometimes resort to writing very tricky questions that even a colleague who is qualified to teach the course might have a hard time answering correctly. This results in an arms race that makes everyone unhappy. Redesigning your assessments will reduce the tendency of students to cheat, and it has the added benefit of developing higher order thinking skills. Think about activities that involve the higher levels of "Bloom's Taxonomy." Memorization, for example, is a low level skill, and most of what students cram for the test will soon be forgotten. Consider letting students use their textbook or Google as reference tools, as they would in the workplace. They still need to know the base level information, but that's not what you'll test them on. If they don't have that foundational knowledge, you'll quickly know it. Better assignments challenge students to apply their knowledge, to analyze problems, to search for and synthesize information, to evaluate the quality of various information sources and, at the highest level, to create original work. If you can do this, you won't need to worry about Google, and you're developing your students' critical thinking skills along the way. Here are some examples of questions you can't Google.


bloom's taxonomy

Higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy develop critical thinking skills.

Best uses for Recorded Video: People have short attention spans. Think about how long you'll watch a YouTube video if it's boring, or has poor production quality, or takes a while to get to the point. If you have a video for your students to watch, keep it under 5 minutes and, better yet, less than 2 minutes. If the video is longer than that, break it up, and embed activities that engage the learner in between each segment. A talking head is fine for a few minutes, but people lose focus if you don't mix it up with images (graphs and charts), animations, or summary slides to emphasize key points and help to punctuate the sections of your presentation. After a few minutes of video, use a short quiz, a comprehension check, a discussion, etc. A case study/scenario video followed by student commentary is a great approach, for example, because it engages the students to offer their thoughts on what they just watched. That's hard to do if you didn't pay attention.

Best uses for PowerPoint: If you have your course content in PowerPoint, rebuild it as native content pages in your LMS so that the student only needs to click to view it. Break the content up, point by point, so that not too much scrolling is needed. Flesh out the points on each slide. Use informative and attractive graphics to break up long passages of text. Embed activities for students to react to, both to keep them engaged and to check for understanding.

Best uses of Live Video: Virtual Office Hours is a good first use for live streaming. Collaborate Ultra is the recommended tool, because it is integrated with Blackboard, but Zoom is another supported option. This will be a good place to check for problems before you embark on delivering lectures live, from a distance. Record your lectures to make them available to students who want to review or couldn't attend live. Break them into short segments to help maintain attention.

Increased Accessibility: The Disability Resources office is available to help you enhance your course materials to make them more accessible. When a student discloses a disability and asks for an accommodation, we are required to respond according to the Americans With Disabilities Act. Often, this is as simple as allowing extra time on a test, adding a caption to a graphic, or providing a text transcript for a video. The ALLY tool, and Kaltura's machine captioning, automate these processes.

Higher Quality: We propose that there are three elements that are important to the overall quality of an online course. They are: 1) the content, 2) the design, and 3) the delivery. Clearly the subject matter needs to be of good quality, and appropriate to the prior knowledge level of the learners. The course must be easily navigable. The instructor must communicate and engage with the students, answer their questions, and provide meaningful feedback on assessments in a timely manner. Here's a Quality Checklist tool we use to evaluate courses for quality.


III. Where to Start?

We've covered a lot of ground, and it may seem like too much to do all at once. Below are some suggestions on first steps. Take a few first small steps toward improving your online course.

The Low Hanging Fruit:

Question: What's the easiest thing I can do to improve my online course?

Answer: Build a table that lists all activities, due dates, and point values.

It seems so obvious but, in many courses, the student has to explore every page in the course to learn what is expected of them! Even worse, there is often little consistency in the way different instructors organize their courses. Time management is a big challenge for students in online courses. Making clear what is due, when it's due, and how much it's worth, is incredibly helpful. Putting this information up front where it can't be missed, and all in one place is a huge help! Set the course entry point* to land on this page, and/or add a link to it in the course menu**. Keep it simple. This is just an overview. The activity can be described in greater detail elsewhere, but listing it here makes it harder for the student to miss it. Here's an example.


 Week  Activity  Due Date  Due Time  Point Value  Percent
 1  Quiz 1-Syllabus Info  09/04/2019  10:00 pm 25 5%
 1  Discussion-About Me  09/05/2019  10:00 pm 5 1%
 1  Discussion-Week 1 Reading  09/06/2019  10:00 pm 5 1%
 2  Quiz 2  09/11/2019  10:00 pm 25 5%
 2  Discussion-Week 2 Reading  09/13/2019  10:00 pm 5 1%
 3  Quiz 3  09/18/2019  10:00 pm 25 5%
 3  Assignment: Term Paper #1  09/20/2019  10:00 pm 50 10%
 4  Discussion-Week 4 reading  09/25/2019  10:00 pm 5 1%
 4  Test-Midterm Exam  09/27/2019  10:00 pm 100 19%
 5  Discussion-Week 5 reading  10/02/2019  10:00 pm 5 1%
 5   Quiz 4  10/04/2019  10:00 pm 25 5%
 6   Discussion-Week 6 reading  10/09/2019  10:00 pm 5 1%
 6   Assignment: Term Paper #2  10/11/2019  10:00 pm 50 10%
 7  Discussion-Week 7 reading  10/16/2019  10:00 pm 5 1%
 7  Quiz 5   10/18/2019  10:00 pm 25 5%
 8  Discussion-Week 8 reading  10/23/2019   10:00 pm 5 1%
 8  End of course survey  10/25/2019  10:00 pm 5 1%
 8  Test-Final Exam  10/30/2019  10:00 pm 150 29%
 Total       520 100%


Sure, you could make the table a PDF or a Word document, but then the student has to download it in order to view it. If anything goes wrong, they don't get the information. Also, every time you need to make changes, you'll have to pull the document down to your computer, make the changes, and then push the edited copy back up to Blackboard. Why not create the table*** as an Item or Blank Page in Bb Learn, so you can edit it anytime, anywhere? Yes, it's slightly harder to build, but it will be much easier for you, and better for your students, in the long run. It's also easier to meet Accessibility guidelines with native Bb Learn pages, and the ALLY tool makes it easy.

Tip: If you prefer, build the table in Microsoft Excel, then copy/paste it into Bb Learn, select the table, and use the Clear Formatting button in the editor toolbar to clean up the HTML code. Super easy! Then you can even provide the students with the Excel spreadsheet, so they can download it and use it to keep track of their grade.


*Setting the Course Entry Point: Customization/Teaching Style/Course Entry Point.

**Adding a menu link: Click the + button, choose Course Link, and browse to select the document you want to link to.

***To make a table in Blackboard, create an Item or Blank Page, and then use the following tools:

table tools