Notes to Myself
Have you ever made notes for yourself about a course? It wasn’t always part of my teaching routine to systematically think about course design during the term. Occasionally I would scratch down some notes about assignments or questions that worked or failed and stick them the course folder. But I admit they often weren’t looked at again. This is especially true for courses I teach regularly. Thus, I missed opportunities to learn from experience.
Last summer, I developed a completely online version of an introductory accounting course. I’ve taught the course online before, but only in 12- and 15-week formats. This time, it was a compressed 6-week term. And because of the novelty of the format and the “once per year” opportunity to teach it this way, I typed notes about course specifics. And I left them in a place I was sure to find them-in the electronic course folder. When I searched for syllabus my notes were waiting for me. Here’s a recap of my observations:
LESS IS MORE
My recent experience learning R (see post Teacher as Student) showed me how overwhelming a new course can be, particularly online. Keep it clean and clear. Too much information up front is confusing and intimidating. Limit the number of folders and tools to the minimum needed for students to get started. The entire course does not need to be available during the first week. Minimalist doesn’t mean insufficient or thin. But it does mean really thinking about the value of each item and organizing all the materials in a way that is user friendly and easily accessible.
TIMING & SEQUENCING
A key issue in such a compressed format is striving for balance between allowing flexibility for students’ varied schedules while helping them stay on track in the course. In this condensed course, the pace is quick. If a student falls behind or delays in clearing up confusion it’s really tough to catch up. Lesson learned: create smaller learning modules, due sooner, with earlier feedback. Build the content more incrementally. The earlier feedback should help students see if they are learning the content well and understand it sufficiently to apply it to the projects.
In addition to providing earlier feedback, it’s a good idea to offer dual submission dates. For students who work consistently, consider offering a small reward including preliminary feedback on their work. Allow time for them to revise. Then set a final deadline for the assessment. Students who miss or ignore the preliminary deadline forego receiving formative feedback.
Related to the “less is more” theme, consider holding off on content heavy discussions during the early units. Wait for students to get a handle on the basics, understand the language of the discipline, and gain some confidence about what they already know, before adding discussions. The cognitive load associated with a new discipline is significant. High quality discourse is more likely when students can devote mental energy to discussion topics later in the course.
Use class introductions, to me and to each other, to teach the online discussion process, etiquette and purpose. Include a screenshot of a “nested” discussion to show students what deep online discourse looks like. Point out the “subscribe” feature in the LMS discussion tool. It will help students keep up with the latest posts.
Weekly “How-to” emails, unit “kickoff” messages and other, targeted messages from me should be an integral part of the course. I spent more time than I anticipated responding and reacting last summer. I’d like to get ahead of the issues this time. By predicting problem spots and sending upbeat messages, reminders and encouragement I hope to foster a community of learners, not just geographically dispersed participants in the same course.
The above advice represents about half the list. The remainder focus on very course-specific suggestions: quality of instructions provided to students, the characteristics and complexity of some assignments, the structure of other assignments, and the guidance (or lack of it) given to students. If you’ve never left extensive course notes for yourself, I encourage you to make the relatively small investment of time needed to do this during and at the end of your courses. You’ll be surprised by the details you’ve forgotten.
By approaching my problems with “What might make things a little better?” rather than “What is the solution?” I avoid setting myself up for certain frustration. My experience has shown me that I am not going to solve anything in one stroke; at best I am only going to chip away at it. ~ Hugh Prather