(This post is the second in a series about preparing to teach my first online class. You can read the first post here.)
I'm hard at work on preparations for this fall's course in American Constitutional Foundations. Three things are making this process a challenge. One, it'll be my first online course. Two, I'm implementing specifications grading (the subject of the next post in this series). Three, this is the first new prep I've had since being an instructional designer—and I'm really feeling the pressure, even if it's entirely self-imposed, to make sure that I practice everything I preach to the faculty I work with. With that bit of hand-wringing complete, I want to talk about three words that have been running through my head recently as I think about the course: “avoid the obvious.”
Constitutional law courses and online courses have some common tendencies that I'm hoping to avoid as I put together this class. Constitutional law courses, for example, aren't always the most creative or diverse when it comes to assessment strategies. Admittedly, the collection of syllabi that I've purloined from the web isn't really a representative sample. A large number of courses, however, are driven by: a final exam and possibly a midterm; a “short” writing exercise that varies in topic; and a series of “case briefs” in which students demonstrate that they can read a Supreme Court opinion and summarize all the legally relevant information.
It would be easy to just go with the flow, but I really don't think that's the right choice for my course. Linda Nilson's book Specifications Grading has me thinking that high stakes, broad-spectrum exams map poorly to learning outcomes—unless I wanted to laboriously tag each and every question to the associated outcomes and then do the work required to parse out the details. No thank you. For many years now I've also given students a wide choice of assignment options in my introductory courses (a version of “à la carte grading”). While this won't be a run-of-the-mill Intro to American Government course, it effectively fills that role. I think there's a lot to be said for giving students, especially in a lower-level course, the ability to select assignment options that will improve their buy-in and ability to do quality work. For that very reason, I don't want writing case briefs to be a dominant form of assessment in the course either. Briefing a case is an important skill, and if you're planning on going to law school it's absolutely vital. But for a class composed largely of education students, forcing them to write brief after brief just doesn't make sense. In one syllabus I found, students submitted a total of 40 briefs over the course of the semester. At roughly a page a brief, that's a lot of very specialized writing.
My years leading training workshops for hybrid and online courses has made clear that such courses can also become clones in their means of assessment. When you see your students less frequently (or even not at all), the first thing most faculty miss is the presence and interaction that the physical classroom provides. A traditional face-to-face class has the potential to be a zero-latency, immediate feedback environment. Instructors can read student confusion and respond to questions right away. Students can feel that the instructor is responsive to them (provided the instructor actually WANTS to be responsive). And learners can interact with each other in a variety of active learning exercises.
In many hybrid and online courses, though, I think there's a tendency to react to the loss of immediate contact by overemphasizing the one aspect of traditional learning management software that is designed to be interactive: the discussion board. This leads to two problems. First is a tendency to confuse the discussion board, as a tool, with discussion as an activity. As a result many faculty find themselves crafting “read and discuss the following question” activities to gauge student learning when a different type of assessment might be more appropriate. Second, I have a suspicion that the loss of face-to-face interaction might lead many faculty to subconsciously overcompensate—making discussion-related activities a larger part of the course grade than they would be otherwise.
Now don't get me wrong. I'll still be using discussion in my course but for very targeted purposes. I'm planning on having a fairly informal and low-stakes discussion as part of each weekly unit of content. I don't intend this discussion to be an interaction-based replacement for a formal paper or even to be some rigid, structured debate about the material. Instead, I want an opportunity for students to discuss the content at a fairly broad level which I can use as an opportunity for some formative assessment. I'm also planning on a few mini-assignments where students will use the discussion board to engage in collaborative problem-based learning (cooperatively writing a case brief, for example).
In the case of both constitutional law and online courses, I think the key to avoiding “the obvious” is: 1) intentionality; and 2) variety. Working through the Understanding by Design approach to course development has definitely helped. When you're explicit at the beginning about what you want your students to have learned at the end, it's much easier to choose appropriate assessment strategies and learning experiences instead of simply perpetuating what is “normal” for a given course.
As I've mentioned, in my next post I'll talk about specifications grading. I believe that this systematic reconsideration of how to grade student work is a natural fit for the Understanding by Design framework. Since the through line between this post and the next is the idea of learning outcomes, I've posted my working list of outcomes on my website. In addition to your comments on these posts, I'd love your feedback on the outcomes as well.