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The Need for Pragmatic Expectations in Online Courses

As spring 2021 approaches, emergency remote teaching has perpetuated the need to offer online courses, without time to properly design and prepare for its implementation. While some faculty members were already teaching online or hybrid courses before the pandemic, for many others, their introduction to online teaching has been quite a debacle. Consequently, our students, whose ability to smoothly transition to the online learning environment we have overestimated, despite their being considered digital natives, are overwhelmed, inundated with academics, and experiencing challenges in their personal lives. It is not that students are not well versed in navigating technology, or that faculty members are not putting in a tremendous amount of time and effort into their teaching. Simply put, online courses differ greatly from traditional brick-and-mortar classes in organization, structure, schedule, and pedagogical approach. Coupling that with the reality of the type of online teaching that is mostly happening right now, is, to be frank, not normal.

Students are burned out. Their lives have been disrupted. See this recent letter to the University of Michigan faculty that one student posted on Reddit.[1] The pandemic is still ongoing, the election is perpetually taxing, and the recent attack on the nation’s capitol has only elevated the unrest that will certainly permeate into our spring courses. Like us, our students are balancing working, parenting, learning, and caring for loved ones while taking several courses at once. We want students to be excited about our courses, not just logging in and checking off things as done. We do not want learning to be an ancillary burden. We want learning to be a marvel, enriching, and an exciting part of a student’s day. Let’s rethink what our major aims of our courses are, what students must know by the end of the course, and how we can reasonably guide them in gaining knowledge in the context of the current world within an online learning environment while still maintaining its academic quality.

Consider cognitive load

Students commonly take several courses during any given academic term. There is only so much information that a person’s working memory can store. If we overload students with information that requires them to use their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, then we run the risk of overloading their cognitive functions, which could negatively impact subsequent performance in your course or their other courses (Sweller, 1988). Quantity does not necessarily equate to quality. Instead of requiring countless assignments and exams, consider students’ cognitive load when designing the course syllabus. Think about how much time it will take students to read the directions of the assignment, learn the content, navigate the technology, and submit the work. Would you rather students take two hours deeply synthesizing one article or five hours reading several textbook chapters just to share three key terms they learned on the discussion board? If you are at a smaller institution and know the other courses students are taking, consider mapping out major due dates with other professors, so students do not end up having multiple major assignments due within a short time frame.

Adapt

Yes, the environment changes as we move from a physical classroom to a learning management system, but that does not mean course aims and learning outcomes need to change as well. While often referred to synonymously in education related contexts, to adapt and modify are dichotomous. The move to online teaching does not mean that we need to fully modify the course with changed expectations, content, and assignments. Rather, it means only adapting existing course aims and outcomes to a new environment. When your course is moved online, you are creating interactive lecture materials that can be shared live or through a recording, providing a virtual space for students to meet for team projects in lieu of having them break off and meet in different sections of a physical classroom, you are using videoconferencing tools to hold live office hours as an alternative to meeting in your on campus office, and you are having students engage in online simulations to put content into practice rather than having them role play during in-person class time. When making course adaptations, we have to be certain not to give out more work than we would if the course was in person. Since the online learning environment will not afford us as instructors to “see” students at the same time each week for class, we may inadvertently overcompensate by assigning a larger workload then we normally would for our traditional on-campus courses. We are by no means lowering standards but also not creating a new course with different expectations. We are taking the same course, the same learning goals, while presenting the information, engaging students in the content, and providing students the opportunity to demonstrate their learning in ways that are conducive to the online environment.

Scaffold learning

Even with successful adaptations made to the online learning environment, there will be learning curves. Scaffolding instruction (Vygotsky, 1978) can lead students toward independent mastery of course content, in a structured and supported way. Yes, many students are online all day, casually consuming social media content, sending messages to friends, and watching and making videos, but the brain requires more to get at Bloom’s higher level thinking (Anderson et al., 2001). Break down the course content, model expectations, processes, and procedures for students, and provide opportunities for them to connect with you, each other, and the content, before requiring independent learning activities and assignments. Challenge them, support them, and give them choices in assessments. Front-load courses where possible and assign the more intensive assignments toward the middle of the course rather than the end, when students are exhausted.

We must be cognizant of the fundamental requisite for self-care—for you and your students. Allow time in the course for everyone to step away from their devices, reflect, and recharge. For this to happen, there must be time and space embedded in the syllabus. Maybe there are two lighter weeks within the full term, or even a practice of no emails, postings, or announcements over the weekend. Students need time to prepare and eat well, exercise, spend time with friends and family, sleep, and enjoy activities outside of school. When I started teaching online a decade ago, I had months to prepare. I started off as a graduate teaching assistant working with a seasoned online faculty member. The reality is that not many faculty members have had the chance to prepare in that way. We have to consider what online teaching looks like, how that differs from the traditional in-person course, and what is practical in our expectations of students. We can certainly continue to carry out robust and rigorous courses, online, and as a starting point we can consider cognitive load, adapt to the online learning environment, and scaffold learning curves.

[1] Read with caution: The student does use profanity in the letter to illuminate their frustration.

References

Anderson, L. W., Krathwohl, D. R., & Bloom, B. S. (2001). A taxonomy for learning, teaching, and assessing: A revision of Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives (Complete ed.). Longman.

Sweller, J. (1988). Cognitive load during problem solving. Effects on learning. Cognitive Science, 12(2), 257–285. https://doi.org/10.1016/0364-0213(88)90023-7

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society. Harvard University Press.


Stephanie Smith Budhai, PhD, is an associate professor of education at Neumann University with over a decade of experience teaching online. She is coauthor of Best Practices in Engaging Online Learners through Active and Experiential Learning Strategies and has written about reducing cheating, designing effective team projects, and student presentations in online courses.