When Building an Online Course (May the Fourth be with you)

About a month ago, I blogged about the unique opportunity the virtual learning environment offers. Given the response, I have felt the need to push the topic a bit more. COVID-19 has forced many of us to consider how we would actually build an online course since we had no choice in mid-March. The pandemic that led to campus closures pushed many of us out of the comfort of our classrooms. But now that we’ve been out there in the great online wilderness, we can sing with the Indigo Girls, “I went to the mountain, I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains.” We have time and aren’t feeling the pressure of making virtual what was supposed to be on-campus. Perhaps some of us are thinking how we might redesign a course for online learning without feeling lost. Here are some general thoughts if you’re beginning the trek.


Readings. I’m including not only literal reading but also other media used to inform students. Anything involving a knowledge transfer such as video and audio material. With all assigned readings, faculty must require a response for a grade if they want students to complete the reading. Responses need not always be writing, though writing is a great medium for synthesizing and analyzing information.


Discussions. Create discussions that are not only informal but also actual conversations and NOT typed out responses to questions. Tools like Flipgrid are great for getting students to record video conversations. One faculty member liked the tool especially for online courses because she got to see the students—and they her. She later was able to recognize students on campus. Flipgrid enabled a much more personal experience for courses notoriously known and rightly chastised for impersonality.


Quizzes. This category includes anything we might call a quiz, test, or exam; quizzes are created in OAKS with the Quizzes tool. The guiding principle for online quizzes is Test to learn instead of assess. What I mean by this distinction is to turn our students’ perspective from earning a perfect or high grade to learning material in preparation for more heavily weighted grades. To achieve this effect, faculty can create quizzes students can take multiple times and are graded automatically, expose themselves to more test material, and face more difficult testing levels. These quizzes should contain questions testing students’ memory and higher order thinking skills.


Essays. The guiding principle is Teach the process. Essays are great because they are efforts in analysis and synthesis. For this reason, they have valid places as mid-term and final examinations. Because CofC has Turnitin, they are also cheating-resilient. The only caution is to assign them carefully. We can get so excited at the beginning of the semester we fail to realize how much work we are creating for ourselves. If you choose to have numerous writing assignments, assess their writing narrowly, give students feedback on early drafts, and use Turnitin to teach students what original contributions are. If possible, enable students to display their work publicly as knowledgeable contributions to give added meaning.


Projects. I’m a big fan of publicly-facing final projects whose relevance outlasts the duration of the course. The second is not always achievable unless you think of students producing materials you can use as future course content. These can come in the form of videos, podcasts, etc.–viz., digital information. The point is to let students have the satisfaction of creating materials others will listen to or watch besides the professor, letting students feel the satisfaction of contributing to the learning experience of future students. Professors direct and curate projects to be archived on a website like the one you’re currently on.


One last note for those reading the blogpost prior to TLTCon 2020. We have many great presentations pertaining to the virtual environment, and I will be leading one on the gamification principle “leveling up.” The hope is that we can capitalize on our recent foray into the virtual wilderness and move some of that experience into our long-term memory receptacles.

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