Course design is an important part of using adaptive learning effectively, particularly in blended classes that bring together both online and in-class instruction. A course may contain valuable content and be led by expert faculty; but it takes deliberate instructional design based in cognitive research and learning science to ensure every student gets a personalized learning experience that will help them progress toward the course’s learning objectives.
Blended classes in particularly may require a more structured approach than in-person classes; instructors have to identify which elements will be taught face-to-face, what resources will be used in the online portions of the course, and what assessments will be issued online to test students’ mastery of skills.
When implemented effectively, blended learning courses can offer high-quality online learning experiences to more students. Importantly, this approach can help to close the degree attainment gap with key benefits such as these:
- Increased access to education and learning
- Increased retention and course completion
- Better learning outcomes and student engagement
- Data-driven learning optimization
Faculty and administrators working to get to those results often benefit from the involvement of an instructional designer. Not all institutions of higher learning, however, have access to those resources. According to a survey by Tyton Partners, while many colleges and universities encourage instructors to implement blended and online learning, not all provide training, incentives, or resources to the instructors expected to design such learning.
Because faculty are often subject matter experts with no training in instructional design or in the learning science that informs it, the prospect of having to develop their own classes using courseware authoring tools may seem daunting. Faculty and administrators eager to create effective online learning experiences should consider the following course design principles.
Commit to evidence-based course design
Research by SRI International shows that courses originally designed — or fully redesigned — particularly for the online learning environment produce the best student outcomes. Learning estimates were significantly higher for whole-course implementation or redesigns than when only a portion of a course was redesigned or supplemental resources using courseware were added to an existing course.
Courses designed specifically for online learning can make the most of a courseware’s features and make the most of the strengths of the blended learning model. By committing to evidence-based course design early on, an instructor can drastically improve the learning outcomes of their students when the course is implemented.
Related reading: An interview with SRI’s Barbara Means on how impact studies are demonstrating learning outcomes of edtech
Define course competencies
An instructor who has never designed an online or adaptive course before may have previously only taught courses around a textbook or series of readings. An instructional design approach to designing a course is much different.
According to WCET adaptive learning fellow Niki Bray, a good course is designed backward. After determining the course description, instructors should decide what they want their learners to know or to be able to do by the end of the course. Those are the course’s learning objectives.
“Once I know what they need to do and once I know the knowledge they need to apply, I then have to think about how I am going to assess that,” says Bray. She considers what will be the “proof” — that is, how students can demonstrate their competency. “After I’ve developed that assessment, I start thinking backwards about what I have to do to build them every week, so they’re up and ready to meet this standard by the end of the course.”
Acrobatiq uses a Skill Graph to map a student’s path toward a course’s intended outcomes. A Skill Graph shows connections between three fundamental components: an individual learning objective, its component skills, and the practice activities and assessments related to those skills. The skills get more granular as the designer works toward developing assessments.
Align the materials to the goals
Once an instructor has decided upon learning objectives and the component skills, they can begin to identify how the course materials will support those. This may involve supplementary reading, video, or other digital media.
A good course authoring tool will allow the instructor to implement these in modules that fit with the course schedule, but it will also ensure alignment with the course design triangle. This means the instructor will be guided through clearly connected modules to the practice activities, other assessments, and to corresponding skills and learning objectives.
As you probably tell your own students, your first draft is not going to be your best draft. That’s also true of a course design. According to Intentional Futures’ report on instructional design, many faculty members unfortunately subscribe to the Crockpot Theory of course design: set it and forget it.
But effective course design should never stay static. Thanks to the latest course authoring tools, online learning can be updated regularly. Data emerging from an online course — such as the analytics provided through Acrobatiq’s learning dashboard — allow instructors to make effective interventions with individual students during a given term. This data also informs how to optimize the course overall, in real time and in future terms.
According to design thinking — a cognitive process used by designers to create a product or solve a problem — this type of iteration is a crucial part of the design process. Design thinking, which has been gaining ground in higher education, seeks to refine a product by putting it through a design cycle: designers empathize with end users (in this case, students), define the user’s problems or needs, ideate, create a prototype, and test it. Then they run the cycle again.
This iterative process can and should be applied to course design. After a course is complete, an instructor should review it, analyzing student outcomes, technical difficulties, successes, challenges, and student feedback. Then the instructor can tweak the course design to improve it.
This cycle, repeated many times, will produce the best online course possible, allowing innovative universities to — course by course — expand access and improve learning outcomes for more students looking to attain a credential or degree.
A.J. O’Connell is a freelance journalist specializing in education reporting and a former college journalism teacher.