Chapter 12: Ensuring quality teaching in a digital age
12.12 Building a strong foundation of course design
The emphasis in this series of steps is on getting the fundamentals of teaching right. The nine steps are based on two foundations:
- effective strategies resulting from learning theories tested in both classroom and online environments;
- experience of successfully teaching both in classrooms and online (best practices).
The discerning reader will have noted that there isn’t much in this chapter about exciting new tools, MOOCs, the Khan Academy, MIT’s edX, mobile learning, artificial intelligence, and many other new developments. These tools and new programs offer great potential and these have been discussed extensively in other chapters. However, it doesn’t matter what revolutionary tools or teaching approaches are being used, what we know of how people learn does not change a great deal over time, and we do know that learning is a process, and you ignore the factors that influence that process at your peril.
A subsidiary aim is to encourage you to work with other professionals, such as instructional and web designers and media producers, and preferably in a team with other online instructors.
I have focused mainly on using learning management systems, because that is what most institutions currently have, and LMSs provide an adequate ‘framework’ within which the key processes of teaching and learning can be managed, whatever the mode of delivery. I have more difficulty with integrating lecture capture or web conferencing within the nine steps, because the pedagogy they require is not suitable for developing the skills needed in a digital age.
But if you get the fundamentals of the nine steps right, they will transfer well to the use of new tools, and the design of new courses and new programs; if they don’t transfer well, such tools are likely to be a passing fad and will eventually fade away in education, because they don’t enable the key processes that support learning for a digital age. For example, MOOCs may reach hundreds of thousands of students, but if there is no suitable communication with or ‘online presence’ from an instructor, then most students will fail or lose interest (as is the case at the moment), unless there is significant support from other, more experienced, co-learners, as in cMOOCs. However, this support needs to be structured and organised for effective learning to take place.
The approach I have suggested is quite conservative, and some may wish to jump straight into what I would call second generation flexible learning, based on social media such as mobile learning, blogs and wikis, and so on. These do offer intriguing new possibilities and are worth exploring. Nevertheless, whether or not an LMS is used, for learning leading to qualifications, it is important to remember that most students need:
- well-defined learning goals;
- a clear timetable of work, based on a well-structured organization of the curriculum;
- manageable study workloads appropriate for their conditions of learning;
- regular instructor communication and presence;
- a social environment that draws on, and contributes to, the knowledge and experience of other students;
- a skilled teacher or instructor;
- other motivated learners to provide mutual support and encouragement.
There are many different ways these criteria can be met, with many different tools.
1. For the purposes of this book, quality is defined as: teaching methods that successfully help learners develop the knowledge and skills they will require in a digital age.
2. Formal national and institutional quality assurance processes do not guarantee quality teaching and learning. In particular, they focus on past ‘best’ practices, processes to be done before actual teaching, and often ignore the affective, emotional or personal aspects of learning. Nor do they focus particularly on the needs of learners in a digital age.
3. New technologies and the needs of learners in a digital age require a re-thinking of traditional campus-based teaching, especially where it is has been based mainly on the transmission of knowledge. This means re-assessing the way you teach and determining how you would really like to teach in a digital age. This requires imagination and vision rather than technical expertise.
4. It is important to determine the most appropriate mode of delivery, based on teaching philosophy, the needs of students, the demands of the discipline, and the resources available.
5. It is best to work in a team. Blended and especially fully online learning require a range of skills that most instructors are unlikely to have. Good course design not only enables students to learn better but also controls faculty workload. Courses look better with good graphic and web design and professional video production. Specialist technical help frees up instructors to concentrate on the knowledge and skills that students need to develop.
6. Full use should be made of existing resources, including institutionally-supported learning technologies, open educational resources, learning technology staff, and the experience of your colleagues.
7. The main technologies you will be using should be mastered, so you are professional and knowledgeable about their strengths and weaknesses for teaching.
8. Learning goals that are appropriate for learners in a digital age need to be set. The skills students need should be embedded within their subject domain, and these skills should be formally assessed.
9. A coherent and clearly communicable structure and learning activities for a course should be developed that are manageable in terms of workload for both students and instructor.
10. Regular and on-going instructor/teacher presence, especially when students are studying partly or wholly online, is essential for student success. This means effective communication between teacher/instructor and students. It is particularly important to encourage inter-student communication, either face-to-face or online.
11. The extent to which the new learning goals of re-designed courses aimed at developing the knowledge and skills needed in a digital age have been achieved should be carefully evaluated and ways in which the course could be improved should be identified.