Suzanne Kern + Christine Looser
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?
Your job as an educator is obviously to help students learn. But think more specifically about what you are teaching and why. Is the point of a lab course to learn how to use specific equipment, or to learn the process of doing good science (see Ahuja, 2020)? This is sometimes referred to as “backward design.” Going back to your purpose not only puts the focus on the outcomes you want students to achieve, but it can also open your eyes to the idea that there are multiple ways to achieve those outcomes. This stage of ideation will let you pick the best path forward amid constraints and obstacles.
Constraints: What is possible?
Once you know your goal, think about the constraints (boundary conditions) you have to work within, and the challenges you have to overcome (obstacles). In general, this list is much longer and people have already written about it eloquently for higher-ed as well as K-12, but if you are just getting started with making your course remote, three constraints are paramount:
- 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?
Once you know your constraints, you should think about the components of your course. Components are not units on the syllabus, or even learning outcomes. Components are the means by which information is shared, analyzed, and applied. There are two important factors to consider:
- 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?
Consider how the constraints impact your course components and use it as an opportunity to experiment with new learning mediums. Ask yourself two questions: how would the components of this course unfold normally? Where in the matrix do those components sit? Anything that is already asynchronous can easily stay that way so you only have to focus on what to do with things that were previously synchronous. Consider how you might shift things around in the Course Components Matrix to improve student learning.
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.
Once you have thought through purpose, examined constraints, broken down components, and addressed gaps, you’ll be in a position to build an excellent course, online or offline. Environment shifts are a prime time to establish new habits (Wood et al., 2005); students will look to you for guidance on how to behave, so help them develop habits to promote engagement. Explicitly address the pitfalls of digital distraction, but keep them optimistic. This shakeup is an opportunity to revisit what you want students to learn and how you want them to approach their education. A well-designed course is the best way to help students stay engaged with their education and socially connected, despite being physically apart.
Suzanne Kern and Christine Looser are professors at the Minerva Schools at KGI.