Best practices: Rule #1 of course design? Don't panic

Over the years I have learned a thing or two about designing online courses. The first is as Douglas Adams articulated so well don't panic.

Using a design method really helps because the course in the end will be easy to use and understand which helps you facilitate learning. The second is use what feels right. You've probably heard about backwards design or ADDIE or a half a dozen other design models. Don't feel boxed in by any of them. The point of course design is to help streamline and organize the instruction so that you achieve a well-balanced and effective learning opportunity. Finally if you don't feel like diving into another career as an instructional designer you can use the following tips to help design (or even redesign) your online course.

Tip 1: Begin at the end

While this might seem counter-intuitive (how can I know what I want when I don't know what I want) it is actually liberating. It lets you focus on the meat of the course and making sure all the activities and resources point the learner in the right direction. Think of it this way: a wedding planner wants to plan a happy wedding day. But that's a bit broad. Let's narrow it down. Instead of a happy wedding day maybe it's a completed wedding ceremony with a well-attended reception. It's less subjective and it tells the wedding planner exactly what is expected of her.

Tip 2: Planning

The next step I like to take is to plan out exactly how I'm going to get to my end result. These simple statements always begin with an action like apply engage demonstrate create etc. You could think of them as milestones or actions. Basically what will your learners do to achieve the goal? In our wedding example a milestone or action towards the completed wedding day with a well-attended reception might be "determine which caterer has the best food that fits within the budget." After all a well-attended reception will most likely have great food and it is certainly a step in the direction of the final goal!

Tip 3: Activities

Now that I know where the course is headed and what actions or milestones I need to achieve the goal now I can create activities that let me practice those actions. A wedding planner usually has people show up a day ahead of the actual wedding to practice the big day. That's what you want your students to do as well. Practice can take many forms depending on the topic. Try making the activities reflect how students would use the information in the real world as much as possible. I find it easier to connect learning with practical application most of the time. Here are some suggestions for general activities:

  • Blogging - Blogging is essentially a student monologue presented in text with a subscription potential and usually a comments feature for peer review. It is generally used for news releases and personal journals.
  • Group debugging - Students can use a synchronous tool and by sharing a screen work collaboratively to debug a computer program just as they might in a real world situation.
  • Jigsaw - Students become an expert in a certain topic either as an individual or as a group. The student or group of students then teaches the material to the rest of the class. This is usually done by having the students redistribute into new groups with one expert from each topic present in each of the new groups. The new group then takes turns teaching each other the materials for which each indivual is an expert.
  • Literature review - Students research a topic and prepare a report on that topic with proper citations to literature used.
  • Reflection - Students summarize their learning on a weekly basis. They express the key points for that week's lesson and receive feedback from the instructor.
  • Simulation - Students vicariously experience some phenomena and afterwards they develop knowledge about a given principle.

Tip 4: Content

Now I pull together content that supports the learning taking place in the course. Videos podcasts websites journal articles can all be used. Additionally student activities can also be turned into content particularly if using a jigsaw type activity. In our example the wedding planner might pull together wedding march mp3s images of wedding cakes fabric swatches etc. This is the type of content that the happy couple needs to have a successful wedding.

Tip 5: Review, reflect and return

Finally it's time to take a step back and decide if everything came together like you had planned. Do the actions support the final goal? Do the activities reflect what you want your students to do to get to that goal? Does the content make sense? Is all of it practical? Can you expect your students to complete the course challenged but exhilarated?

If you can answer yes to all those questions congratulations! You've done a great job. If you can't answer yes to all of them it's time to reflect on what isn't working and give the process another go. This time though keep in mind what you discovered during your reflection and apply it as you return to the beginning of the re-design. And as always accept feedback from students and others as you will always be updating or changing your course.

Remember course design takes time patience and a method. Whether that method is more organic than the one I just outlined or more formal like ADDIE what it does is help you create a learning experience that can be engaging and fulfilling.




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