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An Online Course Maintenance Program that Works
Four Horsemen of the Teaching Apocalypse

One of the challenges that an online program faces is how to keep courses up-to-date. Links break, articles become outdated, new material appears, and so on. In essence, an online course starts deteriorating as soon as it is built. New programs are often unprepared for this problem, and end up racing to put out fires, rather than keeping the fires from developing through an organized course maintenance and updating problem. Norwich University developed an efficient and effective system that can serve as a map for online programs everywhere.

Course problems

The first step in designing an online course maintenance program is to distinguish between problems and upgrades. A broken link is a problem that must be addressed quickly because it is undermining learning. Swapping out a resource for a better one is a course update, and those can happen at scheduled intervals because the issue is not undermining learning. Plus, upgrades are an opportunity to put a new set of eyes on a course and potentially coming up with activities and material that are an improvement over the original course.

The major stumbling block that new programs often encounter is setting up an efficient system for identifying and addressing problems. Problems are usually found by students, who communicate them to their instructor. But here is where the process can become ad hoc. Often the instructor is unsure of who to tell about the problem and will just contact their closest contact in program. That person sends to the message to the instructional designer, who may or may not have the information needed to fix the problem, and with a busy schedule of course builds could put the issue on the back burner.

The ideal way to gather information on course problems is with a web form. Not only does this provide a convenient one-stop location for anyone involved in the process to submit the ticket, it also allows the institution to require certain information needed to address the problem, such as the broken link URL, exact location in the course, and a recommended alternative if the person knows of one. A webform also allows the program to catalogue problems to identify common issues and create fixes that keep them from cropping up.

Institutions then need to determine who gets the information. Normally someone with subject matter expertise is needed to identify an alternate source. For this reason, an academic who is assigned to be the program manager should get the message, as he or she can be held accountable for seeing that the problem gets fixed. 

At this point many programs run into the problem that contracts they sign with their course developers end when the course is put together. This leaves the program manager trying to find an alternate source themselves, often by doing a Google search to look for resources with similar sounding names to the original. But it is hard to tell from a resource name whether the substitution really fits into the underlying purpose of a lesson and the assessment. This is one way that online courses decay over time. The various patches applied start undermining the coherence of the lessons. Thus, the content developers must be on hand after course development to address problems. Course development contracts need to stipulate that the developer be available on an ongoing basis to fix problems that crop up over the next couple of years.

Upgrade cycle

Many online program directors make the mistake of not budgeting for course upgrades, since face-to-face courses are not generally budgeted for upgrades. This means that courses are upgraded when the number of complaints reaches a critical mass and money can be found. Instead, programs should build an upgrade schedule into their budgets, not only because of courses decay, but because new resources are constantly coming out that are better than the original ones.

At Norwich University we found that online courses needed to be upgraded every 18 months. The program director is given a budget for hiring someone to do a top-to-bottom upgrade on each course on an 18-month cycle. This person should be different from the course developer in order to get a fresh perspective on the content.

Unfortunately, the people who actually teach the course are often left out of the course upgrade process. But these people are in the best position to identify problems with material. At Norwich University we created a webpage for gathering feedback from course instructors. Instructors were required to fill out the form at the end of each week of teaching. That feedback was gathered into a report that was given to the person hired to upgrade the course. This ensured that the person upgrading the course received a variety of perspectives on better material and activities.  

The instructor feedback form should not just be an open-ended request for any ideas on improving the material. It should instead have pointed questions about each part of the course, such as quizzes, readings, etc. The instructor does not have to find a problem with each part—he or she could say “The assignment works well. I suggest no changes.” But by focusing the instructor’s feedback on specific topics the program will gather far more information than just asking: “What do you suggest we do to improve the course?”

The topics to be covered in the instructor feedback form are:

Many online course programs start strong but stumble due to lack of an effective course maintenance and upgrading program. It is important to understand that putting up an online course is only the start of an ongoing process of course repair and improvement.