A Course By Any Other Name

red rose with white rosesI’ve been thinking lately about what makes a course. Part of my job is to take “bad” courses, look at the curriculum and the student learning outcomes, and decide what is needed to make them “better”. I also work with subject matter experts to design new courses. What is a course? The traditional paradigm is “read this, watch that, take the quiz”. Many of the courses I look at consist mainly of reading assignments, chapter quizzes, and a longer assignment or two thrown in. Maybe they have a PowerPoint slideshow in them. The more progressive ones have links to YouTube videos in them. Many of the courses are built around the textbook publisher’s platform such as WileyPlus or Pearson’s MyLab, with very little content, resources, or activities in the college’s LMS. With resistance to developing original content, I wonder why we even bother building anything in the LMS at all. And that’s the rub.

Part of our model for new courses is to create shells with as much original content as possible to make them as independent of the publishers as possible and to do so in a sustainable way. This is a new concept for faculty who have always envisioned courses as a series of textbook chapters. To transition from a F2F course to an online one is simply a matter of posting the PowerPoint slides (mostly from the publisher’s instructor resource files) and voila! you have an online course. The LMS is just a tool for transmission of information. To me, there are all kinds of problems with this. Most PowerPoint presentations are merely outlines of a chapter in bullet points, and not actually a “lecture” at all. Using YouTube is at least more engaging, but it also creates a sustainability problem as links break and accessibility problems as most aren’t captioned. Who checks them each semester? Who is responsible for finding alternate content when the links do break? When I pushed for original content, I had an instructor tell me that the book was written by experts and was therefore smarter than she.

Read this. Watch that. Take the quiz. We talk a lot about being a “guide on the side, not a sage on the stage” but most of our courses are still run in a very 20th century manner. I am the instructor. I tell you what to read and what questions to answer and then you take a quiz that the LMS will happily grade for me. Where is the teaching in this? The college actually employs a full-time person to go through courses and make sure that the “instructors” are logging in and participating. Yes, that’s right. I said logging in.

All of this troubles me. Too many faculty course developers see online courses as little more than good old-fashioned correspondence courses and use resources that are neither engaging nor sustainable. When I meet with them to talk about developing a course, I generally start with student learning outcomes and what students should be able to do when they complete the course, what they want students to know and how they will have students show that they’ve mastered the objectives. This is mind-blowing to a surprising number of them. Then we talk about content development, supplemental resources or “lecture” material that builds on the readings, how to craft meaningful and engaging discussion prompts, and what students will do in the course beyond reading chapters and taking quizzes. With lots of hand holding and hair pulling we eventually get to something that is closer to what I consider an online course should be. A textbook is not a course. A YouTube video is not a course. Bulleted PowerPoint slides certainly aren’t a course.

“A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”, or so Mr. Shakespeare says. So what is a course? Where do we draw the line between “bad” courses and “good” ones? How do we quantify, or qualify, the sweetness of the rose, or the course? I think a good course is like the rose. One petal does not a whole flower make. A good course needs more than just readings or just lecture slides or just discussion or just projects. Unfortunately, I’ve seen lots of courses with just one petal. Like the rose, a good course has depth of colour and scent. A good course has an active gardener tending it and helping it grow. I don’t have the definitive answer but I do my best to fertilize the courses I work on and hope that they bloom. Okay, so it’s a cheesy metaphor. I’d love to hear more thoughts. What do you think makes a course? What is a “good” course or a “bad” course?

Design. Do. Learn.

paints mixed colorsRecently I’ve been at loggerheads with an administrator at the college over projects, especially <gasp> group projects, in online courses. The projects at issue are not your garden-variety dead tree library research projects – they are authentic tasks embedded in courses with a project/problem-based learning approach. For example, an IT planning course has groups of students develop a strategic plan for an actual client. In an education course, students work in groups to create a multidisciplinary unit plan. Learning by doing rather than by lecture? “Blasphemy!” according to the aforementioned administrator.

Feeling war-torn and weary, I was happy to see a piece by Melanie Kahl on the Mind/Shift blog about a project in Berkeley, California and another in rural Bertie, North Carolina in which students collaborated in community-based, real-world active learning. Emily Pilloton, who has chronicled her experience in a pretty awesome TED Talk says of the projects, “The biggest thing that design gives students is this amazing sense of possibility.” Teachers and students are recast as designers, learning through the process of designing structures for their communities. As students’ eyes open to the possibilities and they realize the difference they can make and all that they can achieve, they become empowered, take ownership, and learning is made personal. Are they all going to become designers? Not likely. But these students will walk away from these experiences with more critical thinking skills, be more willing to take risks, and with a better sense of connection between the content in their courses and the application of it in their community.

When I think about the group projects that the administrator dislikes so vehemently, I see possibilities for students to collaborate in authentic tasks using the tools of today’s workplace, challenged to design a product for real-world use, connecting course content to the task, become agents of their own learning. For these [primarily] nontraditional, adult learners to meet and work together on a face-to-face project would seem more difficult than to share an online workspace with multiple modes of communication at their disposal. Many of these students are enrolled in online courses because they wouldn’t otherwise be able to pursue a certificate or degree. Some of them have struggled throughout their brick-and-mortar school careers. Imagine how we can empower them through the process of design, engaged in active learning, using real-world tools…online. Maybe the administrator doesn’t get it, but I’m encouraged that there are instructors in our college who come to me with these ideas and believe in the power of process.