When instructors design courses, they are faced with at least three crucial decisions: what to teach, how to teach it, and how to ensure students are learning what is being taught. When I was approached to teach the Introduction to Distance Education class, I had to consider all three. Students come into this graduate level course with widely different knowledge, experiences, and needs. Many of the students are discovering during their subsequent job searches that employers no longer ask "What courses have you had?" but rather "Show me what you can do."
The Woodring College of Education at Western Washington University offers graduate programs in School Administration and Adult Education. The Instructional Technology Department also offers a certificate in Instructional Technology which can complement these Master's degrees. Students in both of these graduate programs have been increasingly required to have the skills necessary to teach courses and do training online. To help all of my students learn to do this, they are required to create an Instructional Design Document that creates their own online course. This document essentially allows my students to answer those same crucial three questions that I did when I was asked to teach the course.
The instructional design process has been defined as "the systematic development of instructional specifications using learning and instructional theory to ensure the quality of instruction." Utilizing this process, I began to address my crucial concerns:
When students undertake the creation of their own "course," they embark on the same journey. They may start the journey at different points, however, depending upon their knowledge and skills.
I customize my course for each student through the Instructional Design Document assignment. If students are in the beginning of their program, for example, they would spend most of the quarter creating the Instructional Design Document, and building the associated course during a different quarter. If the student was experienced with several web authoring tools and had a rough design or plan coming into the class, that student would revise the document and build part of his or her course.
"Experiential learning" (learning that is project-based and has real world applications) is also considered to be important in the adult education field. But how do we make this happen? First we have to create an environment that encourages students to create their own learning and give them a real task to do. I always require two assignments from my students: 1) to be the teacher of content face-to-face; and 2) to be the teacher of their own online course.
In the face-to-face teaching mode, students design learning activities for other students to represent authentic experiences. (For example, to develop strategies to promote collaborative learning one would review research, text, websites, and create a simulation for students.) Students in my class are preparing for a career in the education and/or training fields and really benefit from delivering information to their peers. This applied learning helps students both remember what they've learned and be able to use it in a "real" situation.
To design this assignment, I follow the guidance of Malcolm Knowles, a well known and influential professor of adult education. He called for educators to:
Students in this class complete a teaching/learning experience on one (or more) of the chapters regarding online learning from the class textbook. They come to class prepared to teach their peers the skills and techniques covered in the chapter. They prepare a professional presentation on the information they have learned. I look for significant evidence of research and preparation. The student needs to go beyond what we can all glean from the text. This means additional resources, handouts, websites, etc., and they prepare a short "interaction" for their peers that helps them synthesize what they've learned. These interactions consist of simulations, group discussions, scenario choices and best practice summations. The students create an evaluation sheet to assess their techniques and concepts. Following the teaching experience the students reflect upon what they perceive were the strengths and weaknesses of traditional content delivery. This reflective piece aids in their personal development as an instructor.
I use the Blackboard course management system for the online portion because it is easy and effective, and has been adopted by Western as its primary mode to deliver courses online. The goal is for students to spend time developing their course content, not spend hours learning to use the software.
Giving students the opportunity to teach a subject online presents a number of advantages. First, it gives students a conceptual framework in which to hang major ideas and factual information about distance learning. Second, it gives them "hands-on" experience in applying the principles of adult learning to the design of training:
Third, they say good training programs move the audience to action, as well as teach and inform, and take full advantage of all the special characteristics unique to a topic. As educators, trainers, or project designers, students need a thorough understanding of these characteristics and how they are used in specific mediums to be effective.
I interact online with my students in various contexts. Topics I always include are:
I also try to include reading material that is appropriate, and in this fast changing environment, I continually look for new or updated versions of these materials. However, the students must be accountable for the direction and format of their chosen content. This accountability helps students gain an awareness of and be able to evaluate their own teaching methods/style.
The "student-as-instructor" approach requires that each participant evaluate each other's teaching as well as write a reflection and assessment of their own teaching. This has proven to be an important piece in the design of this course. Often we forget what we have done, why we have done it, if it was effective, and how we would change it if we had to do it again. Reflection allows for the creation of transformative learning. The concept of transformative learning was developed by Jack Mezirow in the late 1970s. According to Mezirow, transformative learning occurs when we reflect on a learning experience and use this self-knowledge to create a plan that brings about new ways of learning and knowing.
Continuity and sequence in any medium is essential for active learning. To achieve this goal, planning is the key ingredient. Designing instruction with early attention to the intended purpose and audience makes putting the package together far easier in the end. I believe the most important component to apply to other disciplines is making the learning environment experiential. That is, creating an assignment that is project-based and has real world application, one that engages the student in the creation of something meaningful and relevant they can take with them when they leave class.
1 Berger, C., & Cam, R. (1996). Definitions of Instructional Design. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan. Retrieved on May 31, 2002, from Definitions of Instructional Design
2 Knowles, M. (1984). Andragogy in action. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
3 Mezirow, J. (1978). Perspective Transformation. Adult Education, 28, 100-110.