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Faculty Guide to Flexible Course Design

Flexible course design allows for faculty to continue teaching courses regardless of their location or the location of their students. By combining the use of synchronous methods (in-person sessions or online video-conferencing) and asynchronous methods (chats and discussion boards, pre-recorded content, curated content), classes can continue to be effective, engaging, and impactful no matter the medium.

The Academic Technology and Instructional Design team at Peabody (AT&ID) created this guide by curating articles, research, and resources; creating resources where gaps were found; and organizing the tips and best practices based on one of the most popular instructional design processes – ADDIE (Analysis, Design, Development, Implementation, and Evaluation). If you are conversant in the ADDIE process, you may notice that the tips in this guide don’t always fit perfectly – some liberties were taken in the interest of practical applications and usefulness.

First, a few general tips:

Get Back to Basics. 

Start with your learner goals, content, and sound pedagogy, then identify the tools and technologies to support those goals, rather than the other way around. 

Take It Slow.

You will find supporting articles, videos, and deeper  background associated with many of the tips. The guide is designed to be useful for those who want to take one or two tips just to get started, as well as for those who want to explore further. There are so many exciting opportunities presented by our “new normal.”  Just try a few of the approaches, iterate on them, and add more when you are ready. The AT&ID team is here every step of the way, so let us know if you have any questions. 

Analysis

The analysis phase clarifies the instructional problems and objectives, and identifies the learning environment and learner’s existing knowledge and skills.

Begin With the End in Mind.

One of the foundations of course design is the Backward Design Approach. By starting with the desired learning outcomes, you can ensure that all of the content, assessments, and discussion are relevant and in service of your teaching goals.

  • The Backward Design Approach
    Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2015
    Excerpt: “Identify the desired learning results. Determind the acceptable evidence. Plan learning experiences and instruction.”

Organize Your Topics and Have a Course Plan.

If content is organized well, with consistent due dates and workflows from week to week, students will be more able to focus on learning rather than the logistics. Online learners have to be more self-motivated; minimizing confusion and setting clear expectations helps.

  • Extending Classroom Management Online
    Edutopia, September 2017
    Excerpt: “Managing Online Learning: If you are facilitating an online learning environment, here are nine suggestions for successfully managing your group.”

Create Clear Expectations and Share Your Communication Plan.

Students should have no doubts of what the learning outcomes are, how the assessments will measure their learning, and how they will be graded. Make sure your students know how you’ll contact them and when and how they can reach you. You likely already keep a schedule for office hours; you should also structure time for your presence in the online community and times that you will grade and return their submissions.

  • Preparing for a Fall Without In-Person Classes
    Inside Higher Ed, April 2020
    Excerpt: “Successful online programs, ‘those that truly put taking care of learners first,’ this administrator said, require substantial consistency in course design (so students can comfortably navigate through the curriculum) and deeply integrated support for learners, blending student and academic services as seamlessly as possible. ‘Those two things — more constraints on the curriculum and more integration of roles — cut across the grain for traditional institutions,’ which are ‘distributed by design’ and significantly value faculty autonomy. […] A full-blown shift to online learning, done right, the source said, ‘is not pedagogically difficult or technologically difficult — the challenge is cultural.'”

Design

The design phase deals with learning objectives, assessment instruments, exercises, content, subject matter analysis, lesson planning, and media selection.

Make Your Course More Welcoming.

Every student should feel like they belong in your course. Is the diversity of your students represented in your content and discussions? Something as simple as making sure that imagery represents students of all races and backgrounds can leave a profound first impression.

Chunk Your Content.

Keep your content in small chunks. This applies to learning modules, videos, and assessments. The longer any one item is, the less likely it is consumed and the less is retained from it. Research has shown that student attention span lessens in the online environment.

  • Content Chunking is King!
    Association for Talent Development, May 2014
    Excerpt: “Besides telephone numbers, content chunking is the reason credit card numbers and social security numbers are grouped into smaller sections. When children learn about United States in geography class, the states are grouped into different regions, like the Midwest, to help them remember. When you memorize a song on the radio, that song is made up of different sections: the verses, refrain, and maybe even a bridge.”

Use Live Sessions Wisely.

Consider moving some of your lecture content to asynchronous, and using live classrooms for discussion and to build community. Asynchronous learning is more learner-centered, while it can also leave students feeling more isolated. Balance is key.

Balance Curation vs Creation.

Don’t put everything on yourself. Find and use content that is available. Incorporate guest speakers – online courses make it much easier to have guest speakers from all over the world. Create only the content that is unique and original. This whole web page is a prime example of creation and curation!

  • The Importance of Content Curation, and Tips for Teachers and Students
    The Learning Scientists, September 2016
    Excerpt: “What we call ‘information overload’—when the volume of potentially useful and relevant information available exceeds processing capacity and becomes a hindrance rather than a help—has only gotten worse in the near past. In fact, 90% of all the data in the world has been generated over the last two years. To put things in perspective, between the dawn of civilisation through 2003, about 5 exabytes of information was created. Now, that much information is created every 2 days. [… This post] discusses the importance of content curation and then provides 22 tips for teachers to help them teach content curation (and develop their own good habits).” 
  • Content Creation vs Content Curation in E-Learning
    Virtual College, October 2018
    Excerpt: “Put simply, it’s the difference between being an author and being a librarian. An author researches and writes a book for their audience. A librarian reads, sorts through and provides books from a variety of sources for their audience.”

Incorporate Your Library Resources and Services.

Speaking of curation, librarians support tasks related to research, reference, and collection development in online education. Uniquely qualified to teach information and digital literacy and source evaluation, the librarian can improve academic performance in online research and enhance the online learning experience. The librarian also provides options for dynamic content, open educational resources, and avoiding copyright issues. Research courses may feature an online library guide of custom resources for your class and research projects.

  • Create or Curate? Making Decisions About Content
    University of Michigan
    Excerpt: “It can take a lot of work to build an online course. There are going to be places where your unique perspective is critical to students. But there may also be places that other people have done really good work too. Open Education Resources Commons (OERs) and Canvas Commons are great places to find content created by other experts so you can focus on creating the content that is specific to your course.”
  • Peabody’s Friedheim Music Library

Develop

In the development phase, instructional designers and developers create and assemble content assets described in the design phase.

Incorporate Storytelling.

Pique your students’ curiosity. Tell a story in each video or arc a narrative throughout your course. Stories help us find and share meaning. You already do this in your classroom!

  • Why Storytelling Works in eLearning
    eLearning Industry, July 2018
    Excerpt: “…according to Psychology Today, stories are powerful—even in this digital age—because simply put, the human brain hasn’t evolved as fast as technology. As such, storytelling is still one of the best ways to connect with your audience. The key is finding the story that is relatable to each person.
  • 3 Examples On How To Use Storytelling in eLearning
    eLearning Industry, January 2018
    Excerpt: “1. When Stories Illustrate What You’re Teaching, 2. When Stories Frame What You’re Teaching, 3. When Stories Are What You’re Teaching”
  • Why You Need to Use Storytelling for Learning
    The eLearning Coach, September 2011
    Excerpt: “Stories help us process and remember information. Perhaps they even touch a part of our consciousness associated with the magic and creativity of childhood. […] Here are [10] key points I gathered from a session titled The Art of Storytelling.”

Use Your Enterprise Tools.

We all have our favorite tools for document collaboration, communication, and conferencing. Institutions like JHU have gone through comprehensive, inclusive processes to select the best ones for their environments. Further, no systems are perfect, but because these are provided at the enterprise level, your students will never have to remember more than one login or user interface. The best approach is to squeeze all the value and innovation you can out of the tools available. 

As will be addressed further down this page, if faculty all normalize on the enterprise tools, the students only have to learn those tools. One of the keys to online learning is to reduce technological friction as much and as soon as possible, so the students can focus on learning. 

Explore Your Options When Creating Content.

There are many tools and methods out there to create original content on any budget. Be creative and have fun – your students will notice!

  • Using Video in an Online Course
    JHU Center for Educational Resources (CER), June 2020
    Excerpt: “This page provides suggestions and resources for using video in an online course.  While this page describes general suggestions for any faculty at the University, please contact your local teaching and learning center for more information and support.” The site includes “different examples of how video can support instruction in an online course,” […] “best practices for video capture and lectures,” technologies to leverage when recording, and accessibility considerations. The page also includes a curated list of relevant research by Professor Christopher Devers at the JHU School of Education.
  • How to Use Mayer’s 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning [Examples Included] (referenced in the above CER page)
    Water Bear Learning, June 2020
    Excerpt: “To help us create the most effective multimedia learning experiences, Richard Mayer has developed a theory of 12 Principles of Multimedia Learning. Think of these principles as ‘guidelines’ as you develop your digital learning experiences. […] As you begin building your next multimedia learning experience, we suggest printing out the 12 principles as a checklist. Keep the checklist next to your computer as a helpful reference to design and develop your learning experience. […] Instead of flooding your audience with paragraphs of Arial text, why not use a little science theory to help you stay on track.”
  • A Quickstart Guide to Teaching from Home by Andrew Ng
    Coursera Blog with downloadable PDF guide, May 2020
    Excerpt: “How can you migrate a live, in-person class to an online setting quickly, without needing to redesign the class? If you have time to redesign the class into five-minute videos and autograded homework, that’s great! But if you don’t, here’s what you can do. We will go through three quick options with increasing levels of complexity and equipment/setup needed. I recommend using the most sophisticated of these options that you feel comfortable with.”
  • Make Super Simple Videos for Teaching Online (11:17)
    YouTube, Michael Wesch, April 2020
    Excerpt: “1. Five Reasons to Do It, 2. Simple Tech Tips, 3. The Hard Part, 4. Five Tips to Get on Camera, 5. Student Interviews”
  • Affordable Software for Producers and Musicians
    Google Doc
    Excerpt: “Not all of us can afford a big fancy studio filled with cutting-edge tech and vintage hardware. A lot of us are working with little more than a laptop. As such, here’s an extensive freeware list compiled by Western Carolina University professor Justin Leo Kennedy and producer Gabe Spivey (aka SALT). Special thanks to Gil Dori for his contributions.”

Implement

The implementation phase includes the actual delivery of the course, from content to assessment.

Think About the Student Experience.

Coordinate with colleagues and learning professionals and use the same systems to decrease the cognitive load on students of using different system for everything. You may have favorite tools you like to use, but if every faculty member does that, imagine the student experience! Use supported tools, so students don’t have to figure out new ones for each class or log in to a variety of different tools.

It is also important to remember that students go home to a variety of circumstances and environments. Understanding that and being flexible is not only kind, but also equitable.

  • Preparing Quietly for a Fall Without In-Person Classes
    Inside Higher Ed, April 2020
    Excerpt: “The shift to remote learning that most colleges have taken this spring, this person continued, ‘works well for the learners who normally do well at our institutions,’ but not nearly so well for the ‘already disadvantaged’ students who have ‘more chaotic lives’ and need more support than can be delivered by a professor via Zoom lectures and email. ‘It will drive inequalities.’”

Consider Offering a Variety of Assignment Options.

Perhaps allow students to choose between written papers and video submissions. Or perhaps students could build infographics or produce a podcast that provide different ways of working with and processing the content. In addition to providing multiple ways for learners to demonstrate mastery, it will cut down on the number of papers you have to grade.

  • Explanation Effect: Why You Should Always Teach What You Learn
    Medium, February 2020
    Excerpt: “It is peculiar irony in life that the fastest and best way to learn something is to give it to others as soon as you learn it — not to hog it yourself. Knowledge wants to be free. To rest in other people’s minds. To connect to other knowledge. It’s an innately social organism. Therefore, teaching is knowledge’s oxygen. In teaching what you learn as soon as you learn it, magical things happen before, during, and after.”

Provide Practice Opportunities.

Students need formative opportunities to practice with new concepts and skills. Be sure to include a feedback loop that lets students know how they are doing before big graded items are submitted.

  • 7 Smart, Fast Ways to Do Formative Assessment
    Edutopia, April 2019
    Excerpt: “Within these methods you’ll find close to 40 tools and tricks for finding out what your students know while they’re still learning. […] When it comes to figuring out what our students really know, we have to look at more than one kind of information. A single data point—no matter how well designed the quiz, presentation, or problem behind it—isn’t enough information to help us plan the next step in our instruction.”

Evaluate

The evaluation phase consists of two aspects: formative and summative assessment. In the former, students are surveyed and assessed early and often to make sure they, and the course, are on track. In the latter, feedback from throughout and following the course is incorporated into an iterative process. Often, after the evaluate phase one would loop back to the beginning of the ADDIE process and repeat it.

Continuously Survey Your Students.

Don’t wait until the end of the semester to gather student feedback. Work with your students a few weeks into the course to see how things are going, what the pain points are, and what could be better.

  • Incorporating Student Feedback in Your Course
    Northwestern University
    Excerpt: “In my courses, I aim to send students a short anonymous survey between weeks 4 and 5. I aim earlier if the course is ‘newer’ or something seems ‘off’ so I have more time to adapt. I usually ask the same questions and then I summarize the feedback for the students and lay out a plan to address/improve the concerns.”

Iterate, Iterate, Iterate.

Don’t get discouraged! Teaching online is hard, especially when it is new to you. Try to remember that if you’re frustrated, you’re learning (just like your students!). Failures don’t always mean your approaches won’t work; they often mean you need to evaluate, iterate, and try again.

  • 5 Benefits of Iterative Design in eLearning
    eLearning Industry, March 2016
    Excerpt: “1. Identify issues at the earliest possible stage, 2. Collect valuable feedback throughout the process, 3. Allow for more course design time, 4. Produce a more polished finished product, 5. Put theory into practice”

Courses and Comprehensive Resources

Outside of these specific tips, any existing and new courses and resources are out there for you to explore. These are just a few of the complete resources that you might find useful.

  • The Peabody Digital Teaching Collective
    The Peabody Institute, Academic Technology and Instructional Design Team
    Created in the Summer of 2020, the Peabody Digital Teaching Collective will bring over 55 faculty through a comprehensive, collaborative professional development program centered on flexible course design. By the end of the program, faculty will have laid out a complete course map for one course, and will have fully developed 25% of that course. 
    The Peabody Institute is considering offering this program to faculty outside of Peabody after its pilot run. If you or your faculty are interested in future iterations of the Peabody Digital Teaching Collective, please email peabodyonline@jhu.edu.
  • Faculty Playbook: Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID-19
    Online Learning Consortium
    Excerpt: “Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID-19 is a faculty-focused playbook intended to improve course design, teaching, and learning in online environments. With special attention to the needs of instructors teaching online for the first time, the guide offers strategies for getting started and improving over time.”
  • Learning to Teach Online
    LinkedIn Learning
    Excerpt: “This course is designed to help corporate trainers and teachers update their skill sets to teach effectively online.”
  • How To Teach Online: Providing Continuity for Students
    Future Learn
    Excerpt: “Explore online teaching with this practical course for educators designed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
  • Pivoting to Online Teaching: Research and Practitioner Perspectives
    EdX
    Excerpt: “This course explores research-informed, effective practices for online teaching and learning, providing guidance on how to pivot existing courses online while enhancing student success and engagement.”

Summary

Now is the time to move from emergency response to thoughtful innovation. This list of tips can be overwhelming. We can’t say it enough – just try a few of the approaches, iterate on them, and add more when you are ready. The AT&ID team is here every step of the way, so let us know if you have any questions.