This chapter represents our collective experience of 40+ years with online course design, structure, organization, and evidence-based practice. We note that developing an online course takes considerable time and effort. The design of an online course requires the consideration of available technology combined with a mindset of intentionally focussing on deeper learning and accessibility. Technology affordances and constraints need to be considered while creating the course structure and purposefully connected to research, theory, and practice (Nilson & Goodson, 2018).
Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Decolonization
Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Decolonization (EDID) is essential for online course design. Equity is fairness and thoughtful consideration of what students need in this activity to be successful citizens in the academy. Diversity is a characteristic of Canadian society; careful anticipation of diversity is a cornerstone of course planning. Inclusion is a skill set used to design learning environments where all students are represented and can engage in learning successfully. Decolonization is a process of recognizing that education and knowledge systems of the past had a narrower scope of defining knowledge and ways of knowing. According to Zidani (2021), course designers should select readings and concepts carefully to include pluralized voices. Instructors should not rely on one academic canon that has had a single, authoritative voice (e.g., European and male) and view difference as “a vital asset” (Zidani, 2021, p. 973). When EDID is deliberately included, we create safe learning spaces for critical, counter-cultural discourse in their courses (Smith et al., 2021; Zidani, 2021).
How Much Structure is Enough?
When designing a course, instructors must consider how much structure is required because it will impact student learning. A moderate level of course structure is not only supportive of students of diverse learning backgrounds, but it has a significant impact on closing the gap for first-generation students and other groups who have been historically less successful in the academy (Eddy & Hogan, 2014). With this in mind, we recommend a moderate degree of structure in the course outline.
If instructors want students to understand and apply new learning beyond the course, then the learning needs to be deeper (rather than superficial or content-based). We know that we cannot educate using traditional content-based approaches because students need deeper learning to live, work and interact in a knowledge-based economy.
Dede (2014) organizes deeper learning into three dimensions. The first dimension, Cognition, includes knowledge, creativity, critical thinking, innovation and literacy. The second dimension, Intrapersonal (self) dimension, involves skills such as metacognition, work ethic, flexibility, initiative and appreciation of diversity. The third dimension, Interpersonal, contains critical skills such as teamwork, collaboration, communication and leadership. In a similar vein, Fullan (2014) has identified key competencies associated with deeper learning: Citizenship, Character, Collaboration, Communication, Creativity and Critical Thinking (Fullan, 2013). We consider both of these views on deeper learning in this chapter on course structure.
We offer eight general guidelines to help educators address the themes of technology, EDID, levels of structure and deeper learning in courses, based on Bloom’s (1956) and Krathwohl’s (2002) taxonomies of educational objectives:
- Know the architecture of the online course.
- Align everything with the learning outcomes.
- Design the course ecosystem.
- Plan for interaction and collaboration.
- Distribute and scaffold student learning.
- Universal Design for Learning (UDL).
- Structure in accountability.
- Reflect for continuous improvement.
1. Know the Architecture of the Online Space
The digital teaching platform is a newer type of classroom or learning environment with affordances that allow for deeper learning (Dede, 2014). Still, instructors need to take advantage of these affordances for deeper learning to happen. An online course is housed in a learning management system or LMS, which will impact course design because an LMS offers affordances but is also a bounded system. For example, the LMS may automatically produce a temporal calendar of assignment deadlines to enable students to plan their time, but it may not easily integrate other software. Course designers need to consider both the affordances and the interoperability of the LMS and peripheral technologies that can be added to support learning. Increasingly, LMS systems integrate with other external tools; however, some tools are not integrated.
Our preference is to publish all the course information in advance to allow students to view the entire course at a glance. We use Canvas as the official LMS, and we use other peripheral technologies such as Google G-suite for collaborative student authoring and the Zoom platform for synchronous classes. In a recent review of an online program, students reflected that too many technology tools could negatively impact their ability to learn online. No matter how good the technology is, there is always some learning before students can easily use the tool. We look at the cost/benefit of tech tools that complement the LMS and their affordances, as these affordances are central and not peripheral to instruction. For example, Zoom and Canvas allow instructors to create videos of the slides for class with a voice-over and a headshot of the instructor speaking. When videos of the weekly class topics are provided to students in advance of the class, students can view the scope of the upcoming class. Providing students with the materials in advance of the course prepares them for learning and supports diverse learners.
Not only should the teacher know the architecture of the online space, but it is also helpful to communicate this structure to students so that they can find the information when they need it. We have found that a short (> 5-minute video) highlighting the instructor’s logic in organizing the course helps students. These organizational considerations are based on the instructor’s understanding of the technology and subject areas. This expert organization scheme may not be evident to novice learners. Learners benefit from understanding the expert’s organization of the subject and technology (Ambrose et al., 2010). A short video of the instructor navigating the LMS with voice-over can be completed and posted within 15 minutes and pays dividends later in the course when students can find materials independently.
2. Align Everything With the Learning Outcomes
Think of a course through the metaphor of the Guggenheim museum in New York that uses an open center and a circular design. Visitors to the museum travelling up the rows of the Guggenheim are constantly returning to the center, where the light streams into the museum as they move up the floors. In the same vein, in a course, students need to continuously keep in mind the central concepts of a course under the instructor’s guidance. Creating a short video highlighting the learning outcomes can help all students, especially those who may be first-generation, to understand these learning goals often hidden in the long legal document that is the syllabus (Fuentez, Zelaya & Madsen, 2020).
Learning online takes more time than face-to-face learning (Nilson et al., 2018), so we need to be critically aware of the course’s cognitive, interpersonal, and intrapersonal learning goals. As instructors make critical decisions about learning materials, activities and assessments, they need to articulate the key learning concepts at the center of the course. These key concepts are the big ideas or enduring understandings (Wiggins & Michtighe, 2005) that students will remember after the course. They are the conceptual understandings of the content area. Skills acquired in a course requiring deeper thinking, problem-solving and academic skill development are priorities in a knowledge-based economy where the shelf life of knowledge becomes shorter each year. These are ideas that students will retain for life and apply to other courses and other content. Instructor-designers need to keep these key core learning outcomes at the center of course design decision-making.
Here is an example of the key concepts from a Social Justice in Education course (Figure 1). Readings, activities, discussions and assignments need to link to these concepts, and instructors can help by bringing students back to them in a straightforward way, much like the design of the Guggenheim.
Key concepts’ Big Ideas’ in a Social Justice in Education Course
- Human rights.
- Educational inequality and social inequality.
- Individual identity and group identity: social identity theory.
- Critical pedagogy, Hegemony, and Alternative ways of knowing.
- Agency, responsibility and empowerment.
Once the instructor determines the course’s key concepts relative to the course description, the next step is to create student learning outcomes that align with the program’s learning outcomes. If, for example, an essential course concept is human rights, then the instructor looks to see how that matches the program and degree outcomes. Another way of saying this is, “What is learned in this course leads to growth in the program and the degree.” Helping students understand this helps them see that everything in the course is linked to the program degree or certificate. Clarifying this alignment shows students that each activity or reading has a purpose. It also gives students a clear idea about what they are expected to know, value, and do by the end of the course. The course learning outcomes are also the basis for assessing student learning.
Generally, three to five learning outcomes are reasonable for a 3-credit course. Within the course design, each course element should connect to the learning outcomes explicitly. The table below provides a planning model that an instructor can use. If the learning outcomes are aligned with all aspects of the course, this helps students focus and understand the purpose behind the readings, the learning activities and the assignments. A sample plan to articulate alignment is shown in Figure 2.
Sample Learning Activity Chart
|Learning objective #1
|Learning objective #2
Note that each of these key learning objectives may have several activities and readings associated with their development.
The syllabus should provide a clear statement of commitment to EDID at the outset (citation). The statement alone is insufficient without deliberate and specific design elements to structure the learning for all students. Here is the statement from a Serious Games and Simulations course which includes a faculty statement and a course-specific statement:
In keeping with the university’s values statement, which underscores our commitment to honesty, inclusivity, and equity, the Faculty of Education is committed to acknowledging and addressing the multiple ways in which hegemonic perspectives have shaped course content and privileged some learners over others. To that end, we strive to ensure that the courses in all of our programs include opportunities to engage with themes related to inequity and marginalization in Education.
In Serious Games and Simulations, this will include:
- multiple strategies for learning new content,
- examining the representations of other cultures in games and simulations (or the lack of),
- multiple ways of demonstrating learning, and
- creating class norms and routines to support all learners.
The concept of alignment in course structure is associated with deeper learning (MacPhail, 2021). It helps if the instructor can articulate the key concepts in a course before instruction and then build understanding, application and reflection on these key concepts through the readings, learning activities and assessments. During instruction, students need to be able to connect knowledge about these concepts and the know-how – or how to apply these concepts (MacPhail, 2021). Enduring understandings or big ideas (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) are those concepts that can transfer easily to other contexts and subjects. Students can also be supported in learning to transfer knowledge and skills to new contexts (Fisher et al., 2020).
3. Design the course ecosystem
Students need to be engaged so that their learning is memorable. Deeper learning is significant learning that students remember and apply in their life. A lecture where students passively receive information does not allow them to actively engage with the content or discuss it with other students. Social e-readers (such as PerusAll) allow students to interact with the text and their peers’ comments and questions to co-construct deeper understandings. Instructors can discuss these comments in class. Another strategy is to provide a guide for reading and ask students to complete it before class. These types of strategies encourage student engagement.
Increasing the level of the course structure in this way has the effect of increasing the perceived value of the course (Eddy et al., 2014), but course structure should not be confused with teacher presence. Instructors vary in the degree of teacher presence that they provide in courses. In some courses, the instructor is a facilitator guiding the students from the side. This facilitation stance allows students to problem-solve and engage in academic discourse with instructor support.
Before class: In the flipped classroom model, the information and readings are given to students ahead of the class. Students prepare for class by watching videos (with closed captioning), analyzing readings and completing assignments. Including closed captioning in videos assures that the material is accessible to diverse learners. When they come to the full-group class, they are more prepared for discussion or in-class activities.
In the flipped classroom, the instructor spends less time providing information and class time can be dedicated to applying the knowledge and evaluating it through collegial, academic discussion. The application can take many forms, such as problem-solving or responding to multiple-choice questions and discussing responses. Hogan and Eddy (2014) found that moving the information transmission to before class freed up 34.5% more time for reinforcing major concepts, higher-order thinking and study skills.
There are multiple EDID advantages to providing the content before the course. First, students who need more time to understand the material can better prepare for the course. Secondly, research has shown that engaging students in preparing for the course in advance of the course promotes academic achievement and is significantly helpful for first-generation post-secondary students (Eddy & Hogan, 2014).
A word about readings – the online world has provided us with an overabundance of readings. After assuring that there is a tight alignment between readings and the course learning outcomes, focus on the reading comprehension level of the students. We also recommend offering pre-class preparation in various formats, including readings, videos, activities, and serious games. Tools such as PerusAll will also read compatible pdfs aloud.
Additionally, our LMS contains videos on using free text-to-speech tools such as Google Read and Write to read web materials and texts. Instructors and designers must also be cognisant of the reading load (amount, complexity and relevance) of readings included in courses. The ease in which readings can be included or assigned in an online course and just-in-time references may lead to a state of overload where excess references and resources can overwhelm even the academically competent student. Thus, we suggest instructional designers be aware of the potential for content creep.
Online learning environments offer opportunities for purposeful design to include visualization of crucial concepts and ideas in any design process. Numerous programs allow instructors and designers to create visualizations of key concepts which help to link and represent diverse connections between concepts and ideas in a manner from which visual learners can draw meaning. Content creation tools allow for drawing, expressing ideas, using colour and adding shapes as well as brainstorming ideas to assist in reducing complexity while increasing interconnectedness of knowledge with theory. Some processes are better represented through graphic depictions. More recently, graphing software can imbed other modalities such as video, audio and hyperlinks to create a rich hyperlinked learning environment for students to explore. As these tools become more user-friendly, instructors and designers can begin to revisit notions of relying upon the text as the primary learning resource online and explore newer learning concepts in what some have called multimedia learning theory (Mayer et al., 2005). Learning is enhanced through adding multimedia resources.
Since we do not know the backgrounds of all of our students, it goes without saying that if any of the reading materials or videos contain sensitive information, it is vital to provide trigger warnings before they read, view or listen to sensitive material.
Student-to-student discussion can happen either in the whole class format or in small groups during a class. In whole-class discussions, live transcription can help students process and understand language and follow the conversation. Encouraging speakers to use their cameras provides another information channel for students to read lips and facial expressions.
One strategy for an online class is to organize breakout rooms and a guided discussion. Accountability here is critical. Groups can post their collective findings on the discussion board in the LMS, or they can present their results from the small group discussion to the entire group as an exercise to consolidate the learning. Students can be engaged in activities leading toward a group assignment. One reminder is that not all students gain energy from the group setting (Eddy & Hogan, 2014), and they may need different amounts of time for individual meaning-making. For these reasons and others, encouraging students to choose a group and allowing some variation in group size is essential. Students may also suggest alternative ways to construct collective knowledge.
Everyone wants the course ecosystem to be student-friendly and safe. One easy way to ensure the online environment is safe is to ask questions that scaffold toward the key concepts but are open-ended. An example would be: “In your view, are the outcomes of schooling equally available to all populations? Why or why not? Can you draw on your experiences to help others understand this concept?” Questions like these do not have a single correct answer, but they allow the students and instructors to revisit the course’s key concepts during discussion.
A second way to build more safety is not to assume that students have all the skills they need to succeed in a course. This false assumption may be especially true for first-generation students or students whose primary and secondary education did not encourage group work and collaboration. Students who have had mostly teacher-centric learning may not know how to work within a group in a way that promotes positive interdependence (Johnson et al., 1984). The development of interdependence in the course is helpful for first-generation students in higher education (Eddy & Hogan, 2014). Before assuming that students have group skills and know-how to contribute successfully, these skills may need to be developed or reviewed. Students may require additional information and guidance to take advantage of different learning activities. One way to build these skills is through a quick instructional video or initially structure the course format with supervised group discussions. In the orientation program to our fully-online BA in Educational Studies program, small groups analyze good resources for working collaboratively in an escape room format before the students need these skills in their classes.
One area where students tend to feel anxious is around assignments. Some anxiety can be relieved by providing a fulsome explanation of the assignment in the LMS accompanied by a quick video. It helps both the instructor and the students have a clear explanation of how the assignment will be assessed and how the assignment leads toward the learning outcomes of the course. Our students value the video descriptions of assignments.
4. Plan for Interaction and Collaboration
Freire (2018) was critical of courses where the instructor provides knowledge to the students without considering their prior experience. He called this the banking model of education, which does not consider the reality that students have diverse experiences and knowledge that they bring to courses. It is imperative to design learning activities where students interact and share knowledge.
As discussed in other chapters in this book, students in online courses work to build a social presence. Social presence online is supported through the visual and auditory affordances of the software and the users’ interactions. Lombard and Ditton (1997) describe presence as the perceptual illusion of non-mediation – in other words, the perception that the computer-mediated environment is real. This sense of real can be enhanced by encouraging personalization and immediate feedback. Social presence, which is linked to presence, is defined by Garrison (2011) as “the ability of participants to identify with the group or course of study, communicate purposefully in a trusting environment and develop personal and affective relationships progressively by way of projecting their individual personalities” (p. 34).
In some cases, where the software allows for breakout rooms, the students in the breakout room will turn off their cameras and microphones and work in silence to write responses to discussion questions in a google app. This practice can be a teachable moment where the instructor can help students understand that social presence is crucial to deeper cognitive engagement, critical thinking, and student success. When students are not using cameras, the instructor can gently investigate this with them outside of class. In some cases, it can be a bandwidth issue or cost factors. There are other particular circumstances, such as the necessity to participate in class from the family kitchen or the need to combine child care and study. These cases reinforce the need for personalized approaches for individual students.
5. Distribute and Scaffold Student Learning
Readers of this chapter may be familiar with cramming – likely we have all tried this strategy at one point in our academic life- we waited until the last minute to cram material for an exam and hoped that we would be successful. Distributing learning is the opposite of this. It is a deliberate element of course design that encourages students to look at key concepts more than once. As Carpenter (2020) explains, distributed learning (also called the spacing effect) is a research finding that better learning occurs when the learning opportunities are spaced apart rather than happening close together. When learning is spaced apart, it is more likely to have the student’s attention, which is more likely to be connected to different contextual cues. Distributed learning means that students spread out the time they spend on a concept with pre-reading activities, in-class assignments, and post-class reviews. This strategy helps students spread out their study time and directly impacts how well they perform in the course (Eddy & Hogan, 2014). One way to space out the learning process is to consider how long the information needs to be remembered. Retention for longer periods requires longer spacing in the course (Carpenter, 2020). Distributing the learning also allows the students to cycle back to the key concepts in a course frequently (or in a circular fashion like the Guggenheim experience).
Another way to scaffold and distribute learning is to design cumulative assignments in a course. For the first assignment, students provide their learning plan for the full assignment and have opportunities early in the course for rich, detailed feedback. This approach helps build a student’s sense of safety that they are on the right track. The second assignment builds on the first, and the final assignment is a culmination of their learning in the course.
One of the affordances of information and communication technologies is the means to provide rich feedback in multiple formats, including digital handwritten annotations to assignments, text comments within a document/assignment, and video or voice feedback to assist students in exploring and completing assignments. Rich asynchronous feedback with synchronous discussions between the instructor and student that mimic the established office hours of old create an environment where instructor and students are engaged in a context of learning together and exploring in unison.
Another strategy to support diverse learners in online courses is to scaffold the use of new tools, not assuming that all students will be familiar with the features needed for the learning activity. As mentioned above, our students collaborate extensively in Google Drive, but we can’t assume that all students know how to share and organize in this versatile tool. Students find links within the LMS to good how-to-sites helpful; the careful naming of these links can even raise awareness of features that the students did not know existed. Our online program also has started events where students share their favourite tools and how to use them.
Where critical thinking skills are essential, an Analysis Guide can support developing these skills. Similar to reading guides, these guides offer prompts to help focus student attention when undertaking activities such as playing serious games and simulations. The course learning outcome, “Actively participating in learning games and simulations and critically analyzing the experience,” is challenging for education students without much experience with games. The Analysis Guide helps them apply concepts from readings and viewings to the games. As additional scaffolding, the analysis guides are first completed collaboratively before individuals are required to analyze independently.
6. Universal Design for Learning
Universal design is an approach that begins with the assumption that human diversity is ordinary and expected. It is a broad approach meant to support all learners. Although some have viewed it as accommodation for certain learners, UDL is more appropriately viewed as a design that helps all students. For example, recording the slides for a course in advance allows all of the students to see what is coming up in the next week or module, but it is especially helpful for those students who need more time to process and prepare for the lesson. Universal design considers students’ needs and nurtures creativity, collaboration and divergent approaches to learning.
Dalgarno (2014) connects the polysynchronous affordances in online learning with deeper student engagement. While earlier models of online learning did not allow opportunities for real-time collaboration, the advances of technology now make it possible to share dialogue, images and video in real-time and make new pedagogical approaches possible. Newer affordances also allow students to participate in multiple communication channels (such as a chat feature to ask clarifying questions without disturbing the dialogue). Polling tools and games (e.g., Socrative) allow instructors to check for misconceptions as they emerge. Apps like Google’s G-Suite enable students to collaborate in real-time or asynchronously. There are also, as Dalgarno explains, quasi-synchronous forms of chat such as WhatsApp, which would allow participants to respond right away or with a short delay. Innovation continues unabated! As the software and hardware for virtual reality become more affordable, new spaces for collaboration and the development of social presence are emerging (Robertson et al., 2022). New technology affordances provide innovative avenues for implementing UDL. UDL is best approached by the instructor asking some key questions. Here are some examples:
- How do I, as an instructor, provide multiple means of representation of the information to students? How do I provide for students’ different levels of language ability? Can I present the information using other modalities (e.g., audio and visual)? How can I show patterns in the course design, such as highlighting the big ideas and key concepts?
- How do I provide students with multiple means for action and expression of their learning in the course? Do I encourage students to respond in different ways to assignments? How do I support students in setting goals, planning and managing their time?
- How does my course provide multiple means of engagement? Have I considered that students have different interests and different attention spans? Do students have opportunities to connect their learning to real-life and real work to build relevance? How can I structure the course to foster collaboration?
Ultimately, UDL is about designing a course or a program that uses the space and the technology affordances to promote student security and safety. Ideally, attention to UDL will provide students with the ultimate flexibility in accessing and demonstrating their learning. For expanded insights, feel free to visit the UDL chapter.
7. Structure in Accountability
Eddy and Hogan’s (2014) research on course structure finds key linkages among structure, accountability and student success. When assignments outside of class time (preparing for class) are moderately structured, student performance is positively impacted. Increasing the course structure helps students to view the course more as a community, and as a result, they take more risks to solve problems and challenges. The design of assignments outside of class (such as providing a guide for a reading) results in more students doing the readings and moving into a knowledge acquisition stage. When students come to class prepared by the readings, they can better connect the readings and their experiences. Surprisingly, it can also impact how students value the course (Eddy & Hogan, 2014). An interesting finding from the implementation of increased course structure was that when students increased how much time they prepared for the course each week (4-7 hours), they tended to view the preparatory assignments as necessary.
8. Reflect for Continuous Improvement
Likely everyone reading this chapter has had the experience of teaching the same course twice in the same semester to different groups of students. These opportunities to teach the same material to different cohorts allow for just-in-time reflection regarding what worked and didn’t work. Even if you don’t teach two cohorts in a semester, courses seem to run more smoothly the second and subsequent times you teach them. This improvement comes through a process of continuous reflection and continuous improvement.
The reflective process can be supported by seeking student feedback during the course in safe and anonymous ways. It helps keep the questions focused on the course structure and what is working (or not) for them. Students are individuals, and their needs differ. Some prefer quiet study to speaking in front of the class or group. Others rely on live transcription of videos or posted transcriptions and videos of synchronous courses. Still, other learners want their learning to be connected to what they view and hear online and how they learn in their out-of-school practices. It can be challenging for instructors today to structure courses to meet these diverse needs.
Our goal in designing this chapter was to provide readers with suggested tried and true strategies to address challenges with course structure and organization. We conclude with two activities that readers may want to try with their classes.
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