Sixteen Weeks Rolled into Six: A Challenge in Instructional Design

Online course delivery always presents challenges. Instructors must determine the best way to provide content, instruction, and meaningful assessment as well as be aware of technologies available via the course’s learning management system. The work I just completed this week with a science education professor included all of these challenges, and in a couple of months—when students evaluate the course—we should find out how successful we were. Here are some highlights of my experience in designing “Trends in Science Education” as an online course for K-12 teachers.

My colleague, Dr. Scott Townsend, is teaching a graduate-level course on trends in science education, and the emphasis for the summer term is engineering education in the K-12 classroom. If the course were taught in the typical 16-week physical classroom setting, students would meet weekly to perform hands-on activities, work in teams as needed, and discuss procedures and findings. Scott’s course offering, however, is not in a physical classroom. Rather, as part of Eastern Kentucky University’s e-Campus Learning, the course is 100% online. Perhaps even more daunting, the course is condensed into about 40% of a traditional course semester: the time period spans only 6 weeks, as opposed to 16. Clearly, students who plan to complete the course successfully must be motivated to study and work at a pace about 2 ½ times greater than their traditional courses have offered.

Scott places great emphasis on making professional development a key part of graduate-level courses for education students because what they learn should be transferable to their classrooms. Thus, he wanted hands-on activities, discussion, collaboration, and reflection to play major parts in the course. Lecture would not be necessary or even desired. Scott also is dedicated to giving students their “money’s worth” in a college-level course. In addition, we had to ensure that the course met standards of Quality Matters, a quality assurance program for online courses to which EKU’s e-Campus Learning subscribes.  How did we bring all of these elements into the course while also delivering it completely online, creating innovative content, staying within Blackboard confines, and requiring no more than 6 weeks for students to complete the course?

Over the past few months, Scott and I painstakingly analyzed what he wanted to accomplish, what students needed to obtain from the course, and what tools would be most efficient, innovative, and motivational for meeting these accomplishments and needs. With Scott as the subject matter expert and me providing best practices and technology ideas, we created a five-module course covering six time-intensive weeks that uses myriad Blackboard-based or other Web-based tools. Here is a quick rundown of the plethora of tools we decided to use. Note that we developed the site such that, unless students experience some issue with their browser or operating system, all tools are available within the Blackboard course site, and no tool from a site other than Blackboard requires students to possess or create a new user account. This helps to keep students focused on the course, without the likelihood of distractions from other websites or problems with logging into another site.

  1. Introductory videos: Scott used the free Screenr screencasting application to record brief introductions to the course modules and embed them into the modules. Using Screenr, Scott was able to show students what the course site included each week and limit himself to Screenr’s 5-minute timeframe for each video.
  2. Blackboard’s tools: In addition to the discussion board (a Blackboard tool that has been available for years), Scott implemented three other Blackboard communication tools—the journal, blog, and wiki features—that many students likely have not yet used. The journal enables students to reflect on a topic and share ideas only with the instructor; Scott is using this as a reflection assignment for students in one module. With the blog, students will talk about a particular activity they have done in the course and share with their classmates; everyone should review others’ posts and comment accordingly. Using the wiki, students will share ideas and also work in teams to get a project done.
  3. Creative presentations: To make activities more interesting and motivational for students, I developed instructional materials for Scott’s “engineering challenges” using iSpring Pro 7, a PowerPoint plug-in that converts PowerPoint files to Flash and HTML5. Rather than just offer a written list of instructions with a couple of images tossed here and there, we created interactive, entertaining presentations that should motivate the students in their activities. Students may also find these presentations useful in their own classrooms, as we provide the PowerPoint file that they may request to download and modify to their liking.
  4. Third-party videos: Scott used two videos as parts of the activities in the course: one from YouTube and one from TED Talks. We embedded the videos right into the course site so that students need only select the Play button to watch them.
  5. Quizzing tool: One instructional piece Scott initially had developed was a PowerPoint presentation file that presented students with questions, but the file included no way to collect answers to those questions. I used TechSmith’s Camtasia Studio 8 to modify the presentation so that we could include the questions through the software’s quizzing feature, upload the file to the company’s Screencast.com, embed the file into the course site, and collect the answers to the questions. Now when students answer the questions, their responses are sent to the Screencast.com server, and Scott will receive a report of those responses, along with who responded, the following day.
  6. Survey-type tool: Scott also included an activity in which he wanted students to respond to questions and also view how others had responded. We used a Google Form to collect this information (making a “Name” field required so that Scott could provide points to students for completing the form), and we embedded the form right inside the course site.

Clearly, these technology tools are not solely what determine whether Scott’s course is successful. Scott provided clear objectives, well-stated activities and assignments, and detailed information regarding expectations and policies, and these are key to a great course. However, online courses need innovative techniques to keep students focused, clear, and motivated, and the technologies used contribute greatly in this sense.

We are hoping that students begin the course with a desire to learn and a commitment to work hard, and we look forward to hearing from them—our true audience—whether our approach was successful. I plan to update this post when we know how things turned out. Stay tuned!

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