Tip: Design for Online
Flexibility can result in quite a lot more work if we are constantly adapting and re-adapting - here's one way to provide options for students without creating more work for instructors.
For the next few weeks, I plan to explore some course design strategies that might be useful as our institutions start to make some decisions about what fall course delivery will look like. I suspect that flexibility will continue to be the guiding theme, even for schools planning on a full return of staff and students to campus. Now that we have seen how possible it is to adapt to disruption at an individual level (students needing to stay home to quarantine, for example) as well as at the institution level (offering entirely remote advising services), I doubt that we will completely return to less flexible ways of doing things. Flexibility can be a huge benefit, but it also can result in quite a lot more work for us if we are constantly adapting and re-adapting. My goal is to provide options for students that do not create more work for me - that requires up-front planning but ends up saving time over the semester. The first flexible course design strategy is designing course activities for online, rather than face-to-face, delivery.
Design for (asynchronous) online delivery
I think of implementing flexible design as an opportunity to meet students where they are. Over the past year, this has been particularly important for our essential workers, student-parents, and students with health challenges. Whether you had online teaching experience pre-2020, now we all have experienced some of the benefits and can identify what didn’t work as well with our subject matter and students.
Plan Asynchronous. In many ways, it is easier to plan an asynchronous online course with flexible components than to plan a “live” course and spend the entire semester adapting to life happens for each student. If we end up having to make deadline exceptions and alternate assignments each time a student misses a significant part of the course, that’s a time burden on us during times when we might already be quite busy. If we plan on delivering content asynchronously and building activities that have flexible components, this allows students to have some independence in completing course assignments and relieves us of the burden of having to make decisions about how to adapt to each emergency mid-semester.
Adapt to Synchronous. Within the overall asynchronous structure, you have the flexibility to choose what content or activities really should happen “live” - when and if you can meet live. Perhaps that’s whole-group discussion, practice/application, student presentations - the benefit is that the decision-making process is simplified because you are already prepared to deliver any of the components asynchronously. Your decisions can be based on what is pedagogically the best choice, not based on what you have time to plan, given current time constraints.
Break it down
When I think about applying this strategy to my courses, I approach it with the goal of building into the course structure a logical sequence of assignments to support students in making progress. Here’s a typical collection of tasks that culminate in writing an essay outline, broken down into 5 sub-tasks with synchronous, asynchronous & choice components. These tasks can all happen in 1-2 live class sessions or might be spread across at-home and in-class sessions.
Instructions (asynchronous). Students read the assignment expectations handout and/or watch a video of the instructor explaining the assignment. [10 minutes]
Pre-recorded content (asynchronous). Students watch a 10-minute video demonstrating an outlining technique that they should practice using. [10 minutes]
Independent work (asynchronous). Students create an outline draft. [30-45 minutes]
Group Work (student choice: async./sync. online/in-person). Students complete a peer review of a peer’s outline draft using a rubric. “Choice” here means that peer groups could decide to complete their peer review by meeting together in-person or meeting online, or by exchanging drafts by email. [30-45 minutes]
Whole class session (sync. online/in-person) - Discuss outlines and revise them together as a class. [30-45 minutes]
By creating this plan in advance, I have options when we get to this week in the semester. I can do all of these activities in the classroom with students - or, do all of them online. I can let individual students participate online while the rest of the class meets in-person. This works to provide flexibility for instructors as well: we might be the ones needing to be at home with a sick family member or traveling for a conference. (At some point in the not-too-distant future!) By taking the time to carefully plan ahead, this flexibility comes at a cost, but less of a cost than constantly adapting in-the-moment to each emergency that pops up.
Next week I plan to share some ideas about incorporating more low(er)-stakes assignments to encourage students to practice, risk failing in small ways, and then recover.