Are You Writing a Course or Creating a Learning Experience?

Authors of online course materials are usually selected for a combination of their subject matter expertise, their pedagogical prowess, and their experience in the classroom. Course writers, however, sometimes struggle to translate what they do effectively in the classroom into the new medium of online course development.

Pedagogically effective instructors use a number of techniques to ensure their students’ understanding and mastery of the material. These techniques vary from instructor to instructor and from course to course, but they include things such as step-by-step walkthroughs with helpful explanations along the way, relevant and engaging examples, Socratic questions and dialog, in-class practice (for quantitative or performative subject areas) with instant feedback and error correction, and so on.

Many instructors understand and use these techniques intuitively, say in the classroom or with students directly during office hours, and do not have to think excessively about how to use them; the techniques are habitual and second nature. Many of these same instructors, however, when serving as course writers of online course materials, struggle to translate the best of what they do in the classroom into a different environment, which takes conscious effort on the part of a course writer and an understanding of the pedagogical goals and possibilities of online course materials.

An anecdote may be helpful: I was once training a new course writer who was working on some online course materials for a developmental English course. She had taken several hours to write the first draft of some “homework” problems on the difference between particular language and general language, which were essentially accurate but also fairly uninspiring and not terribly enlightening or pedagogically helpful. The course writer herself was not happy with what she had produced and asked me for some feedback and advice on how to create something more engaging.

So we grabbed some coffee and sat down in a small office space in front of a whiteboard, and I said, “Okay, pretend I’m a student in your office hours who has just come to you for help. What would you do to help me understand the difference between general language and particular language, so that I genuinely understand the distinction and why it matters?” She replied, “Well, I’d probably use an example.” “Great! What kind of an example would you use?” After taking a moment to think of an example:

“You know when there’s a presidential election how you see electoral college maps with red states and blue states? Calling Iowa a ‘red state’ or a ‘blue state’ is accurate only very generally, but it doesn’t tell you anything about what’s actually going on inside the state. Now imagine a different map of Iowa broken down by county, with some of the counties colored red and some of the counties colored blue. A sentence like ‘60 percent of the counties in Iowa voted for the democratic candidate’ is more specific, more accurate, and reveals more information about the politics inside the state.”

I thought this was a great example, and even better that it had a visual component in the form of easy-to-understand pictures of Iowa. So I asked, “Why didn’t you write that example, pictures of Iowa and all, as part of the assignment instead of these boring multiple choice questions?” Her answer was revealing: “Oh, I can do that?” (Insert flabbergasted emoji here.)

Even though this course writer was a brilliant and engaging instructor who had the most effective examples and teaching techniques at her command, it didn’t even occur to her to try to replicate that pedagogical effectiveness inside the materials she was writing. She had become so consumed with meeting the “expectations” and “requirements” of her course writing assignment, and by the typical assumptions about what homework means (multiple choice questions in this case), that the most effective teaching techniques didn’t even enter the sphere of possibilities for what she could create for her online course.

So I said to her, “Even if you do nothing else today, go create that assignment about the different maps of Iowa!” With the help of a media designer she created two different maps of Iowa, one a solid color and the other broken down by counties, and she wrote some engaging follow-up questions analyzing the difference between the two maps of Iowa in terms of general versus specific language and descriptions.

The end result was much more engaging and more visual, but also more pedagogically effective. The assignment itself, instead of being mere “homework,” had become a learning experience very close to what I had briefly experienced as a mock student in this course writer’s office hours. An effective teaching technique and example had been successfully translated into a different medium. But this took conscious effort on the part of the course writer and a willingness to deviate from the usual (often uninspired) norms about what online learning means and could mean, for the sake of creating the best learning experience.

This more-engaging assignment didn’t require any specialized content development tools, just some pictures of Iowa and some well-thought-out follow-up questions to help students analyze the example in terms of the relevant concepts. Even better, the course writer took the time to write pedagogically helpful explanations of the correct answers to each follow-up question, so students could learn from their own mistakes if they didn’t answer the follow-up questions correctly, just as she would have done as an instructor during office hours if I had incorrectly answered one of her Socratic questions about Iowa while sitting in front of the whiteboard.

Subsequent experiences with other course writers in other contexts have led me to conclude two things about instructors and course writers:

  1. Instructors often intuitively know the most effective teaching techniques for any particular topic or learning point, especially when in the classroom with actual students in front of them. These instructors are brilliant, interesting, engaging, helpful, and pedagogically effective.
  2. When those same instructors sit down to write online course materials as new course writers, it falls apart. Their biases about the nature of online learning and “homework” serve to place those effective pedagogical techniques outside the sphere of what they think of as possible to create in an online environment. They revert to technically correct but uninspired and non-visual descriptions (merely “covering” the material instead of teaching the material), and they fall back on predictably uninspired and unengaging assignment types and assessment questions.

This experience tells me that creators of online course materials often need to be reminded of the difference between “writing a course” and “creating a learning experience” in the more inspired and pedagogically helpful sense. At every turn, course writers should be encouraged to think through the effective teaching techniques that they use in the classroom in a very fine-grained and granular sense, and to replicate these techniques in their online courses. These techniques often come so intuitively to instructors (along with their subject matter expertise) that they do not often take the time to think about them, much less about how to replicate and include those techniques in their course writing process and in an online environment.

Also revealing to me was that a fifteen-minute conversation with a whiteboard, some markers, and a couple of cups of coffee was vastly more productive at leading to a pedagogically creative and helpful end-result than the many hours that the course writer had already spent working on her still-uninspiring multiple choice questions. This close, creative collaboration between a course writer and an instructional designer, focused on the nitty-gritty of how best to teach and learn a specific learning point, produced a much more engaging and helpful final product after a mere fifteen minutes of conversation, at which point the course writer was off and running again, bringing her more inspired vision of how best to learn the concepts at hand into life and into fruition for her online students.

So when creating an online course, don’t just assess students; teach them! Don’t just introduce the material; really explain the material and help make it intuitive for students. Don’t just ask homework questions; give students relevant and engaging examples and scenarios to analyze, and help them learn from their own mistakes. And don’t forget the old adage that a picture can be worth a thousand words, even pictures of Iowa!

Zachary Fruhling is a senior instructional designer at HotChalk Inc. where he is responsible for the design and implementation of graduate-level online course materials. Zachary has over 15 years of experience in higher education, both in the classroom as a university-level philosophy instructor and in educational technology as a digital content author, instructional designer, and creator of interactive online course materials and media for a variety of disciplines.

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Are You Writing a Course or Creating a Learning Experience?

by Zachary Fruhling
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