Design for Learning: A Course Development Framework

Suzanne Kern + Christine Looser

Minerva Classroom

COVID-19 has caused a paradigmatic shift in teaching and learning. Schools are prioritizing flexible course design to accommodate local pandemic responses and build resilience into their offerings. Redesigning a course sounds like a big lift, but it can be much easier if you go back to the basics of problem-solving. Begin with purpose, consider your constraints, break down your course components, and address any gaps that you find.

Purpose: Why are we doing what we’re doing?

Constraints: What is possible?

  • Tech accessibility: Will students have reliable internet to access the course materials and turn in assignments? If you want to adopt a real-time virtual classroom model, do students have a laptop with a camera and mic; do they have a strong enough internet connection for video calls?
  • Time zone: Where will students be? Can you maintain the typical class time? Can you split the group into multiple timezone sections?
  • Human factors: How will motivation and engagement be impacted if students are distributed? Can you use your course design as a means to build community amongst students? What additional expectations or challenges are students facing if they are sick, in self-isolation, and/or living with family members?

Once you’ve outlined your boundary conditions, you should analyze the different components of your course so you can think about how the components will be impacted by your constraints.

Break it down: What are the components of your course?

  • Information Flow: whether the communication is one-way or two-way
  • Information Timing: whether the communication happens synchronously in real-time or asynchronously with variable timing.

These factors interact with each other, and chances are that portions of your course already fit into all four cells. See the Course Components Matrix for examples of where common course components lie in this space.

Course Components Matrix

When we rushed to put things online in the Spring of 2020, many people replicated on camera whatever they would do in real-life. The course components largely stayed where they were. Readings were still assigned, people met for lectures with as many students as possible during the originally scheduled time, and it was recorded so that others could review it later. Everyone got through the transition the best they could, but now there is time to examine what worked well and what didn’t. You should think through how the components can be optimized for student learning.

Gap analysis: What isn’t addressed by the quick adaptations?

Reserve synchronous time for interaction. Take anything that is currently in the bottom left (synchronous, broadcast) and consider moving it up (asynchronous, broadcast). Record videos or do voiceovers for your slide shows. Instead of having a guest lecturer come to class, interview them in advance, let students listen to the audio like a podcast, and then have a live Q&A in a virtual classroom. Here are some tips for leading effective discussions in a virtual classroom.

Embrace active learning. Consider if there are things on the left side (broadcast) that you can move to the right (interactive). Information transfer is undoubtedly needed, but the more students engage with your material rather than passively listen, the more likely they are to encode it. If you want students to learn things, focus on your overarching purpose, boil your learning goals down to their essence, shorten the information transfer period (e.g., try not to talk uninterrupted for more than 10 minutes), and extend the time students have to interact with the material.

If your course has a lot of components that were already interactive and synchronous, but also have a lot of constraints (large class size, time zones, or tech limitations) you have some options:

  • Split the class to keep it synchronous. Multiple small sections can accommodate more time zones and reduce connectivity issues associated with streaming too many videos at once. If a lab period is usually three hours, have people show up in shifts during that time, or meet just for one hour and schedule the other two hours for other times that are more time-zone flexible.
  • Move synchronous interaction to asynchronous while maintaining the interactivity. Here discussion boards or collaborative annotation might work well. Think about how to seed debate or have students collaborate even if it’s not in real-time.
  • Take yourself out of the equation. Have students meet in small groups outside of the typical class time, work together on mini-projects, and send their writeups (or recordings of their meetings) to you for asynchronous feedback. Even though you’re not there, they can stay connected with each other, engage with the course material, and receive input from you.

Remember, revisiting your course is a chance to make it better.

Suzanne Kern and Christine Looser are professors at the Minerva Schools at KGI.

I like science, coffee, and creating things.