Simply delivering a traditional course via the internet is not enough for today’s students. Online learning needs to actively engage students if higher education leaders are going to expand access, improve learning outcomes, and close the degree attainment gap.
The Online Learning Initiative (OLI) at Carnegie Mellon University was founded to tackle exactly that question: How can learning science be used to inform online learning course design? Over 12 years of research, OLI found that by coupling effective learning practices (such as goal-directed practice and timely and targeted feedback) with predictive analytics and instructional design, they could create highly effective learning experiences tailored to the needs of each individual student based on data-validated knowledge gaps.
Acrobatiq, backed by Carnegie Mellon University, is rooted in the idea that good online course design emanates from learning science. Smart Author — Acrobatiq’s course design and authoring tool — “bakes in” principles from learning design in the design workflow.
For example, lesson pages without associated learning objectives are “flagged” before they can be published for students. Assessments without sufficient practice are also flagged. Using the course design triangle as a framework, Smart Author simplifies the process of aligning course objectives with activities and assessments.
That is the first step toward developing high-impact online learning experiences for faculty and students. There are many other online course design models and frameworks to borrow from, and many share similar concepts, incorporating “active learning” to encourage engagement and participation; providing abundant goal-directed practice with timely and targeted feedback to help students get “unstuck”; and embedding metacognitive activities to help students develop self-awareness about their own learning styles.
Many colleges and universities are realizing the benefits of developing strong instructional design teams and best practices. This is because, as these institutes of higher learning are realizing, at the core of effective teaching and instruction is good instructional design.
San Juan College’s compilation of research for online course design
San Juan College (SJC) in Farmington, New Mexico, compiled a comprehensive collection of research on best practices for online course design. Some highlights:
- Set clear course goals that are achievable and measurable, and then communicate them to your learners.
- Encourage critical thinking by presenting students with tasks that require analysis, synthesis, problem recognition, problem-solving, inference, and evaluation.
- Insert questions, charts, and/or diagrams into text to help students better regulate their own comprehension or to visualize a concept.
- Encourage good learning strategies, such as re-reading, note-taking, distributing learning over time, and time management.
These are just some highlights from this comprehensive collection of research; more details and links to the reference materials are available on their website. They actually offer 48 separate tips for online course design culled from an impressive list of different sources that you may want to review in detail.
Step-by-step guide to online course design by Las Positas College
Las Positas College (LPC) in Livermore, California produced a document called Best Practices in Designing Online Courses for its faculty. Their guide is a step-by-step collection of standards with instructions, examples, and useful references for any educator to build an excellent online course.
Course Introduction. Begin by detailing the general course content and student responsibilities, among other items, in your syllabus. Open your online course by greeting your students with a welcome message telling them how to get started in the course and showing them how to navigate the course. Introduce yourself to the class, and have students introduce themselves to you and to one another in order to begin building a “community of learners.” You’ll need to familiarize students with the course software and make sure they understand what is required for them to succeed in an online course.
Course Organization. LPC advises that you structure your course in a well-organized manner and make it easy to navigate. Test all of the links in your course to make sure they are active and up to date. Create web pages that are consistent and reasonably attractive and design your course so that all aspects of it are accessible to students with disabilities. Design your course so pages can be downloaded within a reasonable period of time even without a high-speed internet connection.
Be sure to include one discussion board forum where students can ask and answer class-related questions and one where they can ask and answer non–class-related questions. Also, post frequently asked questions in your course.
Instructional Design. Introduce learning units with an overview of the topic and connect what the students already know about the topic to what they are going to learn. Earlier, you defined what your objectives were for each course. Now, write and post objectives for each learning unit or module within the course. Align your learning activities and assessments to your objectives and outcomes. Clearly write your content and lessons and structure your learning activities to foster student-instructor, student-student, and student-content interactions.
Related reading: Coherent, Coordinated and Consistent Online Course Design
Creating Personalized Learning Experiences Online
Christopher Pappas, founder of The eLearning Industry’s Network, explores best practices for online course design that are “relevant, relatable, personal, and practical.”
- Create learner-centered goals and objectives.
- Assess online learners to identify knowledge gaps through pre-assessments.
- Immediate and personalized feedback helps see their progress toward objectives and to know. what they need put their attention into.
Related reading: Taking Online Course Design Seriously
The most important components
All of the experts agree: the most important components in your online course design include establishing objectives for your course and your learners, aligning learning activities with your objectives, and providing timely feedback to students.
And while the components of effective instructional design have complex and sophisticated learning science behind them, weaving them into course design has never been simpler. The step-by-step guidance of Smart Author enables swift creation of adaptive, customized, interactive online courses — courses that are rich with meaningful content, activities, and assessments, all clearly tied to the right outcomes.
These experts also agree on approaching online course design with a spirit of personal and professional growth. Don’t be afraid to take risks. Get feedback from your colleagues and your students. Experiment, review, revise, enhance. Have fun in the process.
Because, as training designer and speaker Cathy Moore says, “Our job is to change what people DO, not just what they know. We need to design experiences, not information. Design practice, not a quiz.”
Pam Baker is a freelance writer specializing in human resources, information technology and online learning technology.