Tips, Tricks, & Trends in Instructional Design (Part 1)

DSC_0040-001By Eric Hudson, GOA Instructional Designer

In my role as Global Online Academy’s Instructional Designer, I recently finished an intensive review of the 20 classes GOA is offering this fall to nearly 300 students. I spent a few hours with each course, immersed in the world the teacher had created, and then I met with that teacher for an engaging, fruitful discussion about pedagogy, instructional design, and the challenge of adjusting one’s teaching to an online learning environment. This post and the next will share the tips, tricks and trends I learned from the courses and our teachers. First, I’ll address the importance of leveraging the online learning environment to create innovative lessons and manageable workloads for teachers, and in my next post I will focus on how to design a course with the student experience in mind.

PART I: When Teaching Online, Free Your Mind

The primary challenge of teaching online is not a technical or a logistical one; it is a creative one. In an online learning environment, teachers are liberated from the restrictions of a daily schedule, a physical classroom, and the traditional models of structuring and delivering lessons. The best lessons I saw in GOA’s Fall classes will succeed not in spite of their location online, but because of it. These lessons use the time and space available to send students out into the community, to ask them to invest in rich and imaginative projects, to exploit the vast array of resources and tools available on the internet. As I reviewed courses and spoke with teachers, I found them to be excited and challenged by the freedom they had to innovate and reevaluate their own entrenched teaching habits. This adventurousness, and the lessons we learned from it, will benefit our students and create new and unique learning experiences.

  • Think and instruct in active verbs: In an online environment, clear, inspiring writing matters. What you ask your students to do has a significant effect on the kind of work they will produce. Teachers can use verbs like those presented in Bloom’s Taxonomy to inspire their thinking about lessons — if one of these critical thinking verbs doesn’t apply to your lesson, is it worth teaching?

  • Part of Good Teaching is Good Curation: The traditional role of the teacher as the source of all knowledge in a classroom isn’t a good fit for an online course. The wealth of information available on the internet pushes the online teacher into the role of curator, using his/her expert eye to find and share the best resources, not necessarily create them. Our psychology course eschews a textbook and instead incorporates instructional videos, interviews with experts, and an interactive, online laboratory where students become patients. Because our 9/11 course lives online, the teachers can create a mosaic of resources from around the world that students can interact with at their own pace, immersing themselves in an array of perspectives.

  • Application of Knowledge over Accumulation of Knowledge: Different terms for this kind of work abound: project-based learning, experiential learning, 21st century skills, etc. Because so much excellent content already exists online, teachers can dedicate their creative energy to imagining how students can apply that knowledge. Some of the best online lessons I saw asked students to engage the world outside of our learning management system: choose a religion or religious group, then locate and interview a local expert on the topic; design a roller coaster using principles of multivariable calculus; use nascent Japanese skills to narrate a video tour of your home and share it with classmates from around the world. Online, teachers have the resources, time, and space to ask students to do more with their ideas.

  • Curate technology with the same keen eye you use to curate content: The diversity of technology available to a teacher is incredible, but it can be overwhelming. The temptation to regularly introduce new or complex tools that are trendy or more “professional” is strong, but teachers must keep in mind that learning new technology is time-consuming for students (and teachers!). Teachers should use technology that is intuitive and with which they are familiar. They should minimize the number of different tools used in a course and instead maximize the potential of the technology they do use by using it in a variety of ways.

  • Global is local: Global awareness is a “21st century skill” teachers have been hearing about since what seems like the 19th century. GOA students come from all over the world, and some of the best “global” assessments I saw were assessments that asked the students to think locally and then bring that perspective back to class. Our Digital Photography course will culminate with a “My City” portfolio, and our Online Journalism class begins by asking students to share and assess newspaper front pages from their own communities. Relying on students’ knowledge of their own communities allows teachers to bring rich global perspectives to their courses.

Teaching online should mean more than simply trying to translate or transcribe what one does in a brick and mortar classroom into an online course. Those teachers who are most enthusiastic about the challenges of designing an online course are excellent teachers, but also good curators, designers, and innovators.