Faculty members who are new to teaching online often don't know the important role that an instructional designer plays in helping create effective learning experiences. Creating an online course entails more than simply posting materials online. For the faculty member, it requires an understanding of the online learning environment and the willingness to cede some control of the course design to an instructional designer. For the instructional designer, it requires an understanding of a wide variety of subject matter and building trust with the faculty member.
In an interview with Online Classroom, Megan Weatherly, senior instructional designer at Texas State University, talked about how to build this relationship and the role of creativity in designing online courses.
Weatherly says that faculty who are new to the online learning environment tend to want to rework their face-to-face content for online delivery without fully considering that online learning requires a significant reimaging of the content and how students experience it. It involves “getting faculty out of that mind-set that ‘I'm going to take what I've got, throw it online, and I'm done,'” Weatherly says.
Before working with an instructional designer, faculty members often don't have a clear idea of what the designer does. Working with faculty is “definitely an exercise in earning people's trust,” Weatherly says. “I think a lot of it is just sitting down with faculty and letting them know we're not here to take over the course. I tell faculty, ‘You're the subject-matter expert. You have a very valuable role in this process. We can't do it without you.' We kind of have to disarm their expectation that we're going to strong-arm the process, because that's not what we do. It's definitely a collaborative effort.”
Weatherly builds trust by having conversations with faculty, talking about her own teaching experiences and the common challenges she and the faculty members face. “Building that empathy between parties is crucial. I invest a lot of time just talking to faculty, trying to make them understand that I'm here to help and that working with us is definitely advantageous for them—we'll take some of the load off them,” Weatherly says.
Faculty who already teach online also can help build trust. “We're fortunate in that we have faculty in just about every department who are teaching online. They help bring their colleagues into the conversation, saying things such as ‘You might want to think about this. It worked for me,'” Weatherly says.
Start with learning objectives
Faculty members often enter the online instructional design process with excellent lecture content and are inclined to begin by thinking how to adapt that content to the online environment. Weatherly discourages this approach, choosing instead to start with the learning objectives “to make sure that the content supports those objectives and that we're actually assessing those objectives.”
The instructor is not the “font of knowledge,” particularly in the online environment, where students have access to billions of Web pages. “Some students could probably go in and curate their own education,” Weatherly says. “[Our goal] is to help faculty realize what the objectives are and what their role is in getting students to move toward those objectives.”
Get students to think creatively
Weatherly points out that with rapid changes in the employment market, many students are being educated for jobs that do not yet exist, which demands an approach to instructional design that goes beyond content and emphasizes creativity.
In addition, some content, such as in the history courses Weatherly teaches, does not have direct application to future employment. “It's unlikely that my students' employers will require them to know the content that I teach. And so it is far more important to me to give my students opportunities to think creatively about the content that I'm teaching. I want to give students the opportunity to think creatively and critically rather than trying to force them to memorize a piece of trivia that with the Internet they can look up in half a second,” Weatherly says.
Weatherly has reframed her own online courses to encourage creative and critical thinking and to foster trust and relevance. She created an activity that addresses the topic of memory, “a convoluted, complex topic that draws across multiple disciplines,” Weatherly says.
She wanted to get her students to consider the validity of the sources used in historical research. She found two TED Talks (Scott Frasier's “Why eyewitnesses get it wrong” www.ted.com/talks/scott_fraser_the_problem_with_eyewitness_testimony and Daniel Kahneman's “The riddle of experience vs. memory” www.ted.com/talks/daniel_kahneman_the_riddle_of_experience_vs_memory). “Both of them will make you completely reconsider why you remember what you remember. It truly pushes students' boundaries. Is what I remember about the past accurate? What does that tell us about these primary sources we use in historical study? How do we know they're accurate?” Weatherly says.
She asked a colleague for feedback on this activity, and the colleague said, “I think it's an awesome activity, and I think it's going to go completely over [students'] heads.”
Based on this feedback, Weatherly refined the idea using a personal example, relating her memories of her grandmother who died when Weatherly was 15 months old. “I have this memory of my grandmother in a nursing home. I can see me sitting on her bed. She had a stroke, so she has movement only on one side of her body. I remember her putting me on her leg and how the room looked. Once I started thinking about it, especially after those TED Talks, I realized everything I knew about memory tells me that I should not be able to remember anything before age three or four.
“Where did these memories come from? Is it a compilation of stuff my parents had told me? I told my students, ‘I have no idea if this is real or not,' and it instantly made it relatable to them. I asked them, ‘How can we tie what we know about memory and what you've just learned to the primary sources we're looking at?” Weatherly says.
Weatherly does this activity early in the course. I'm putting my trust in the students because that's a pretty personal story about my grandmother, and my students are putting trust in me, and I'm giving them the opportunity to think outside the box.”
Update courses regularly
Weatherly finds that new online instructors tend to stick with the initial course design, and usually around their third semester of teaching online, their experience and knowledge of instructional design often lead them to consider changes to the course. “They're seeking new ways to change their course and become more creative in their approaches or more creative in how they deal with students or incorporate new technologies to better enable them to deliver content to their students. I love seeing that cycle. In my perfect world, we would all follow that cycle of constant redesign because it is an iterative process,” Weatherly says.