Whether you’re developing an online, blended or flipped course for the first or 50th time, you can benefit from these insights and practical tips from our Learning Engineers Kim Henry and Erin Czerwinski. Combined, they bring 35 years’ experience in designing, developing, implementing and improving online courses, curricula and platforms. Listen to the replay of their recent webinar, Essentials of Effective Online Course Content.
How do you develop content for Acrobatiq courseware?
Kim Henry: Courseware content development is driven by two primary elements:
- A set of student-centered, measurable learning objectives that articulate the essential concepts and skills students acquire from engaging with the courseware,
- And The Big Picture that represents the subject domain and provides a knowledge structure in which students relate the new concepts and skills being learned.
The language used in learning objectives should capture the level at which learning is occurring and at which feedback is relevant. Learning objectives are designed to:
- Communicate our intentions clearly to students and to colleagues
- Provide a framework for selecting and organizing course content
- Guide in decisions about assessment and evaluation methods
- Provide a framework for selecting appropriate teaching and learning activities
- Give students information for directing their learning efforts and monitoring their own progress
Based on A.H. Miller (1987), Course Design for University Lecturers. New York: Nichols Publishing. Also see, C.I. Davidson & S. A. Ambrose (1994), The New Professor’s Handbook: A Guide to Teaching and Research in Engineering and Sciences. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company Inc.
How do you determine how many learning objectives are needed in a course?
KH: A number of factors may influence the body of learning objectives for a particular course:
- Standards set by a professional organization
- Advances and/or trends in a field or domain
- Role of the course in a sequence and/or curriculum
- Expectations based on similar existing courses
A small core team of learning engineers, subject matter experts (SMEs), course developers, and other stakeholders engage in a process of gathering all of the relevant information about a course and then synthesize it to determine:
- High-level outcomes for the course
- Key features of The Big Picture
- Scope of the course, including major topics
- Learning objectives for the course
- Preliminary skills map for the course
Once the scope of the course is identified and the learning objectives are written, an organization for the course can be formulated. The organization of Acrobatiq courses is based upon a unit/module structure where units are similar to chapters and modules similar to sections. Modules consist of logically clustered learning objectives.
In general, the content development process is focused around the learning objectives and skills map. There are several primary “ingredients” that go into an Acrobatiq course.
Formative and Summative ADAPTivities: These are activities that provide students with sufficient practice to support each learning objective’s skills and knowledge components.
Formative ADAPTivities include “Learn By Doing” and “Did I Get This?” activities that provide students with opportunities to engage in active learning. Summative ADAPTivities are assessments that may occur at the end modules and/or units.
ADAPTivities are developed to capture and convey information, including “must cover” concepts and skills, as well as common misconceptions. Through various styles of interaction, ADAPTivities provide students with active learning experiences that include hints and targeted feedback.
The primary purpose of exposition is to connect ADAPTivities. Generally, exposition is developed in one of two ways:
- Exposition from existing content is reconstituted and combined with original exposition written by SMEs.
- Original content written primarily by the SMEs on the development team.
How do you work with subject matter experts in developing course content?
Erin Czerwinski: Historically, I have worked with subject matter experts (SMEs) to transform materials they developed in one format (paper or PowerPoint, for example) into new, dynamic content delivered through a learning platform.
When working with SMEs, who are typically experienced teachers and authors in the subject domain, it’s helpful to be aware of something we call an “expert’s blind spot.” SMEs know the subject so well they may not remember how they first struggled to understand and learn the concepts in their field.
By asking these faculty experts a series of questions, we help them think from the students’ perspective. This enables us to identify students’ most common misconceptions, and where they struggle with the subject matter.
All instructors who teach and design learning materials should be aware of their blind spots. By continually challenging your assumptions about the difficulty of the material you are teaching, you are in a much stronger position to develop course material that speaks directly to your students, and helps them learn faster and better.
What are some sources of instructional content available to all instructors?
EC: Wikimedia Commons and Creative Commons are a couple of useful resources. These organizations offer access to search services that will help you find content (images, music and videos) from a variety of sources, and often include licensing or permissions information.
Another great source of content is your peers. Many faculty post domain-specific content they use on the Web. With any content, it is important to check if the materials are copyrighted and what permissions may be required to use it.
You can also try creating your own content. For certain media elements, start simple, with something like the animation features in PowerPoint. Or experiment with screen recording software like Camtasia and others. Many types of software available for generating media are easier to use than you might think. And for those technologies that are more difficult, look for free online tutorials. You might find this compilation of open and commercial tools for freelance instructional designers useful.
One of the most important things to remember is that multimedia for the sake of having “multimedia” may not be helpful to your students. Just because students like a video, doesn’t mean they necessarily learn from it. Create or select videos for the purpose of learning, not entertaining. And in this age of YouTube, look for short videos; less than three minutes is the general rule.
What is most important is whether a video (or any other element) supports a learning objective in your course.
What’s the key to writing effective learning objectives?
EC: Crafting learning objectives is not a pure science. There’s a lot of iteration that goes on before we get to a final set of objectives (and the multitude of questions and activities to support them).
To develop learning objectives for your course, write a list of questions you want students to be able to answer about the topic. Then think about how you would assess and measure your students’ knowledge.
- What do I want my students to know, remember and understand from this unit or module?
- Does each learning objective explicitly describe what I expect students to know or do? If not, be prepared to revise it.
In writing learning objectives, it’s essential to use the right verbs so you’ll be able to measure whether students can demonstrate their knowledge. If your learning objective asks students to compare and contrast, it’s important to provide enough information and questions about the topic so students can make multiple comparisons and contrasts.
If you find after drafting some activities and questions, that it isn’t necessary or possible for students to compare and contrast, then change the verb to describe the component parts of the topic.
Finding the right level of detail is also an iterative process. Notice the difference in the type of information and level of detail between these two learning objectives from an Anatomy & Physiology course:
Identify and describe the organs of the digestive system.
Describe the stomach and its functions.
You want learning objectives that require a similar level of detail across an entire course. This helps students know what is expected of them, and helps them feel supported and scaffolded by the material as they work toward meeting the learning objectives.
How do you align content with the learning objectives?
EC: Aligning content with the learning objectives is essential for effective teaching and learning. It may sound easy, but again, it’s an iterative process.
Here’s another example from the Anatomy and Physiology course:
Learning objective: Describe the major functions of the digestive system.
Activity question: Lactose intolerance is caused by insufficient enzyme to digest which kind of organic compound?
Answer choices: carbohydrate, protein, lipid, nucleic acid
Hint (to help the student answer the question): Lactose is found in milk products, and is also known as “milk sugar.”
It is quite possible that by answering the activity question, the student is describing some aspect of the digestive system. It is also possible that the feedback provided for each of the answer choices will focus on digestive functions and tie the question back to the learning objective. But, without asking the SME, the alignment with the learning objective is not necessarily obvious. The goal is to measure learning as it’s taking place, and measure the right thing.
Ideally, I would want to see a question or set of questions that actually asks the students to describe the functions of the digestive system. If that is too broad for the scope of the course, or not exactly what you need students to be able to do, then the learning objective should be revised to more clearly state what students do need to learn. For help in finding the right, measurable verb for a given learning objective, this simple chart has been invaluable to me.
Focus on what your students will be able to do.
Look for content and activities that provide practice opportunities for your students to do something with the information they are learning. This includes making careful use of multimedia and interactive content, and providing different contexts and perspectives on the topics being covered.
Starting with student-centered learning objectives that are measurable and at the right level of detail for students is the most important thing you can do when designing learning materials. If you do that correctly, finding content to support those learning objectives, and your students’ success, becomes a much easier task.