Course Design: To Get to the Beginning, Start at the End

Many in higher education harbor well-founded anxieties about online and hybrid courses. Some critics fear that online formats invite a cookie-cutter, corporate educational model, others that moving content to digital platforms will alienate the system’s most vulnerable students. In order to address some of these critiques, it is helpful to deconstruct the underlying beliefs they stem from. In “Engines of Inquiry,” Georgetown University’s Randy Bass articulates some commonly held assumptions about technology and higher education. “[T]eaching and learning is not about perfect information,” Bass affirms, “but often about imperfect information. . . Sometimes knowledge is too complex to be perfect.” This essential belief in the “importance of complexity to knowledge” defies “[t]he implication that technology . . . can deliver education in the form of information.” To define how effective teaching encompasses this complexity, Bass turns to the words of digital education scholar and educator Diana Laurillard, who “posits that good teaching must be discursive, adaptive, interactive, and reflective” (Bass 10).

While a certain amount of determinism often permeates conversations about online education, the shape of online and hybrid initiatives within many universities and colleges remains amorphous. When created thoughtfully, online and hybrid courses can reach students for whom traditional classes are impossible, more closely mimic the likely professional environments of students post-graduation, and teach powerful secondary skills such as time management, digital literacy, and technological competence. Since Baruch College’s initiative to create more online and hybrid classes remains in its infancy, crafting original, unique, online and hybrid courses that offer increased learning opportunities to all students can meaningfully shape the College’s digital identity.

While certainly not assembly-line products, online and hybrid courses do operate less organically than face-to-face classes. They require more initial planning and preparation. Consequently, they inhibit ad hoc pedagogy; without organization, the center of online and hybrid courses cannot hold. But if, indeed, as Bass suggests, “learning is often about indirection, ambiguity, complexity, and multiplicity” (10), then online environments need to include discursive and indeterminable elements. Yet in asynchronous hybrid and online courses, students work on tasks at times that fit into their schedules. This means that students are more likely to founder through such intellectual intricacies without guidance. In a survey about student access to technology conducted this spring by the Center for Teaching and Learning, 61% of students reported that they would not take an online or hybrid class because they would not learn as much, 54% of respondents noted anxiety about not getting necessary help, and 49% responded that they would feel isolated in an online or hybrid course.

To avoid loosing mere anarchy onto the fall semester of 2014, this semester we asked the eleven faculty participating in the Faculty Fellows Seminar to spend time planning their courses so that things don’t fall apart. Using some principles of Backward Design, which claim that in order for course content to effect the desired outcome, an instructor must start with defining learning outcomes, we asked faculty to articulate learning goals for their hybrid and online courses before beginning to build content. This task involved four major considerations. First, the College has its own set of carefully considered learning goals. Second, many departments and schools have devised particular goals for specific courses. Third, instructors have their own idea about what skills and knowledge students should acquire in their courses. Finally, we asked each faculty member to compose some goals that spoke directly to the online and hybrid format of their courses.

When clear learning goals are communicated to students, not only is assessment easier, but students have a demonstrable map of their learning. Careful planning of online and hybrid courses from the end to the beginning actually allows for innovation and improvisation within a structure. As CTL director Luke Waltzer phrases it, “so much of what we’re doing is solid course planning. It’s like jazz: create a structure and then improvise.”

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