Lessons Learned From Building An Open Online Course

Lessons Learned From Building An Open Online Course
Summary: In this article, we will discuss how we went about designing an open online course based on the idea of flexible, student-centered learning, and we will provide recommendations for how you might do the same.

Designing, Developing, And Evaluating An Open Online Course

As graduate students in EDUC 612 (Educational Web Design) at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, we were challenged to design, develop, facilitate, and evaluate an open online course for educators. We started our course design project (Designing Digital Media for Teaching and Learning) by identifying a topic and developing a list of 7 learning objectives. We then discussed and explored various ways that we could provide flexible learning pathways and assessments for our learners. In the 2016 National Education Technology Plan, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Educational Technology, emphasizes the importance of using technology and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles to provide personalized, flexible, and accessible learning opportunities. In the following section, we will discuss how we used Universal Design for Learning principles as a framework for our course design.

UDL Principle #1: Provide Multiple Means Of Representation

Knowing that our open online course would serve a global community of learners, we sought to provide multiple means of representing the content. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning, “Learning is impossible if information is imperceptible to the learner, and difficult when information is presented in formats that require extraordinary effort or assistance”. To meet this need, we:

  • Offered alternatives for auditory and visual information by providing many different ways to access the content (e.g., text, images, infographics, videos).
  • Embedded videos that included closed captioning (for YouTube videos that did not have closed captioning we provided alternative means of accessing the same information, such as a link to a related article or infographic).
  • Partnered with ISTE Inclusive Learning Network Officers to conduct accessibility testing and revised the course content and multimedia based on their suggestions.
  • Added alternative text descriptions for all of the images and buttons on the site.

In the post-course survey, participants were asked to describe the overall course design and one of the participants specifically praised the multiple means of representation of the course content:

“I liked that there were several options of media for getting the information for each lesson (video, text, etc…).”

With the vast amount of resources available online and the relative ease with which multimedia can be created, we encourage all course designers to find a variety of ways to represent the course content.

UDL Principle #2: Provide Multiple Means Of Action And Expression

Providing multiple means of action and expression means giving students voice and choice in determining how they want to demonstrate what they know. According to the National Center on Universal Design for Learning,

“There is not one means of action and expression that will be optimal for all learners; providing options for action and expression is essential.”

As graduate students who greatly appreciate flexibility in our own assignments, we wanted to emulate this and create assignments that were open-ended and allowed learners to demonstrate their knowledge in a variety of ways. In the final assignment for each week, we provided a learning objective, activity instructions, supporting materials (e.g., templates), and levels of assignment difficulty (e.g., Novice, Intermediate, High Flyer) with no “correct” answer. For example, the week 3 learning objective, “design a digital media product that enhances student learning”, could be achieved by designing an image, creating an audio product, or designing a video. These three levels were tiered based on learners’ interests, goals, and technology competency. Some learners completed one of these activities, while others completed all three. By providing multiple levels for these assignments, the learners had flexibility in choosing how they expressed their knowledge and demonstrated whether they achieved the learning objectives. Visit our Google+ Community to see the many different ways the course participants achieved the learning objective.

One participant provided the positive feedback that the course “was differentiated, so there was something for everything, love that there were mandatory and optional activities (i.e. assignments vs. Twitter chats)”. Others felt that we could improve our learning activity design, breaking up the participants “who are constantly doing the higher level assignments from those who are doing the lower level ones”, suggesting that a tiered community would have also been helpful for their learning.

UDL Principle #3: Provide Multiple Means Of Engagement

The National Center on Universal Design for Learning contends that “affect represents a crucial element to learning, and learners differ markedly in the ways in which they can be engaged or motivated to learn”. Knowing that our course was going to be publicized to educators who had different professional interests and goals, we incorporated multiple features and activities with which our participants could connect and engage. For example, we:

  • Designed open-ended activities (e.g., “develop a learning activity or lesson plan that incorporates digital media”) which allowed participants to engage with the content based on their professional needs and interests.
  • Offered individualized feedback (see our article 9 Types Of Feedback To Boost Student Engagement) in order to connect on a personal level with the participants and increase motivation for learning.
  • Hosted weekly Twitter chats (using the hashtag #eddigimedia) to provide our participants with opportunities to engage with other participants and the course facilitators in real time.
  • Required all participants to post their learning activities in an open online community space (G+ Community) in order to foster connections and knowledge sharing among participants.

By offering learning activities that adhered to UDL principles, participants had individual choice and autonomy in their learning. For example, participants were asked to create an engaging image that represented one or more of the elements in the ARCS model. The only criteria for the image was that it was geared towards enhancing student learning, allowing participants to pursue their own interests rather than one directed from us. Participants designed memes related to a variety of concepts (e.g., digital footprints, rotational equilibrium, accessibility, teamwork, paying attention to detail) based on their practice. One participant remarked that an image he created “...uses the ARCS Model a couple of ways. [It] uses humor to grab attention. At least the students laughed a bit when I showed it to them.” This example highlights how a participant was able to engage in an activity that could be used directly in his practice.

The participants consistently praised the student-centeredness of our open online course. One of the participants shared that she “really appreciated that the ‘assignments’ were open-ended enough that [she] could apply [the results] to [her] own work”, and another participant commented, “This [course] was so much better than any other (M)OOC I've ever participated in before...With this course, I felt like I had the autonomy to proceed at my own pace while still being able to interact with other course members in meaningful ways (e.g. getting constructive criticism/feedback on my assignments in a timely manner, seeing what other people created, etc.)”.

By discussing these lessons learned and demonstrating how we followed UDL principles, we hope to empower instructors to vary their approach to course design in order to create courses that are accessible and engaging for all students. As Arne Duncan mentioned, you can set the learning goals for your students, but give students voice and choice in how they reach those goals and you might be pleasantly surprised.