Val’s Blog - National Online Learning Day: Designing to Teach (Even in a Pandemic)

Val's Blog Kent State Online

September 15th is National Online Learning Day. Recognition of online learning is especially relevant this year after the pandemic and resulting school closures exposed many more people to online learning. If the pandemic had happened 20, or even 10 years ago, the quick pivot to online learning would not have been possible. Existing technology, resources, and online pedagogy have advanced to the point that it was possible to provide education to most students and to keep them from missing a year of schooling.

Although courses hastily transformed for online delivery may not always have incorporated all the best practices of online course design, the necessity of online delivery due to the pandemic, created awareness and basic competency of teaching and learning in a new modality. Some who never would have tried teaching or learning at a distance, now have experience and fundamental knowledge of online learning.

This is an important point in the progression of online learning as an integral part of our educational system. A willingness to experience a virtual classroom and newfound confidence in our own abilities to succeed in our use of new technologies benefit both teachers and learners. The potential of online learning has been demonstrated to the masses and hopefully has sparked the desire to continue to improve online pedagogy and online offerings as part of the overall advancement of our educational system.

When working with instructors to create an online course, instructional designers in our office reference our own conceptual viewpoint of Design to Teach. The importance of teaching is emphasized irrespective of whether that teaching is done in-person or through an online platform. It also highlights the necessity of a well-thought-out design before developing a course for digital delivery. The essential aspect of designing a course for online delivery is to make sure that the course promotes teaching interactions.

Often when first thinking about moving a course from an in-person delivery to online delivery, attention is primarily given to the digitization of content. For many instructors converting their courses to online delivery because of the pandemic, their initial focus was on transforming their lectures to text, audio, or video that could be accessed by students. Although this needed to happen, digitizing content, and making it available is only a small part of developing a fully online class. Whether in-person or online, the importance of teaching interactions should never be underestimated. Building in opportunities for teachers to give feedback, encouragement, directions, and to guide learning are critical components of an online course that are part of an intentional design.

Teaching at a distance requires that everyone be able to navigate through a learning environment without being in the same space at the same time. Even if classes incorporate synchronous discussions or class meetings, the online course should be designed so that the student has an organized and intuitive learning space from which to pursue their studies.

A benefit of moving a class to an online format is that it promotes intentional design for effective teaching. Because spontaneous revisions are much more difficult when teaching from a distance, an online course is designed with a focus on making instructions clear, diligently aligning content, learning activities, and assessments to learning outcomes, and on developing consistent communication avenues to keep students informed of their progress.

Backward design is a framework developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe that begins the design process by focusing on the learning goals of the course instead of beginning with the focus on prepared content. The focus on outcomes and aligning all learning activities, content, and assessment toward the attainment of stated goals results in a course with a clear purpose and a clear pathway for students to achieve the stated outcomes.

Although the sudden onset of the pandemic was not conducive to developing online courses by following established design processes, the exposure to learning management systems, digital delivery of content, and interactions through video conferencing, digital discussion boards, and other online communication channels familiarized instructors and students to the tools that are available and prompted thinking about unrealized potential.

There are many lessons to be learned from the trauma of the global pandemic. Maybe one of those lessons is that we can do things we would not otherwise have thought ourselves capable of doing.

For those who succeeded in transitioning their courses online and those who successfully continued their education in an online environment, congratulations on your tenacity and adaptability. For those experienced in online teaching and learning, thank you for developing the tools, resources, and expertise that kept our schools functioning in a difficult time.

Now that we have a better-shared understanding of online learning, let’s continue to work together to intentionally design high quality, accessible, engaged online learning that will complement, support, and elevate all teaching and learning opportunities. We are only beginning to explore the potential of online learning. Let’s work together to discover the possibilities and design an inclusive educational landscape

Valerie Kelly is Associate Vice President of the Office of Continuing & Distance Education. She is responsible for the oversight, strategic innovation, and faculty/student support for Kent State Online programs and courses including Continuing Education credit and non-credit workshops/certificates and conferences.
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