In traditional classrooms we start the learning design process by taking a quick inventory of the resources we have to work with. How many chairs are there? Where is the projector? The entrance? The whiteboard? As we get a feel for the possibilities and constraints of our classroom we can then start building a learning experience for our students that optimizes both who they are and the resources we have.
The same goes for online learning. We need to assess our resources before we can design online experiences. Problematically, especially for teachers new to online learning, the online classroom bears little semblance to traditional physical spaces. Instead of morning gatherings we use Zoom meetings and email. Instead of a whiteboard we use Google Drive and Dropbox. The translation isn’t one-to-one.
One of the best reasons to teach online is that you are afforded new possibilities to scale your learning. The digital classroom allows for you to up-cycle and iterate content in clearly measurable ways with larger audiences than you could have ever hoped for in a traditional classroom. Instead of teaching 30 students per hour you now have the ability, if your curriculum is configured correctly, to teach 30 groups of 30 students at any given time.
The most common issue for new teachers coming online for the first time is that they try to think of their physical classrooms first and then attempt to translate the elements and practices within those spaces one-to-one. Doing this one-to-one translation inherently diminishes the capacity for the curriculum to scale due to a lack of consideration for the variety of audiences attempting to access your content.
The following elements and principles of scalable online learning were curated specifically for teachers who are looking for guidance on how to start thinking with an online learning mindset. These building blocks will help you to design optimal learning experiences that maximize accessibility and engagement.
NOTE: We’ve enabled the “click to enlarge” feature on all of the images below for readers who would like a closer look.
We’ll begin with the elements, which you can see in the graphic below:
Video can provide a fun way to engage students in learning. Videos can take on the form of animations, documentaries, and simple lectures. Ensure that all videos are transcribed to allow for greater access to content. Remember that video isn’t great for everything as it requires the consumer to sit, watch, and listen. Over an extended length of time this combination of requirements can lead to learner burnout.
Presenting your material as a podcast, especially longer lectures or guest interviews, can be a great way to offset the fatigue mentioned above. Listening to audio recordings can free the learners to move around, take notes, or multitask while listening. Be aware that only a small portion of your learning audience actively consumes learning-based podcasts/ audio so make sure that you include instructions and suggestions for how to listen. For example, when running focus groups for the Great Communicators podcast we found that people needed to be explicitly told that they could go for a run or do the dishes while listening to our series. Make sure you indicate the level of concentration you expect of the student while listening to your course’s audio content.
For many learners reading is still the quickest way to consume learning material as it allows for skimming and self-paced consumption not afforded by media like podcasts and videos. Consider making your course’s required readings as short as possible and favoring longer versions for your additional resources section.
Whether hosting guest speakers or webinar live or asynchronously consider including this element as a way to expose your students to professional perspectives on what they are learning within your course. Field related experts can add credibility to your course’s assignments and goals as well as connect students with a deeper understanding of the material being consumed. If conducting a live session where students can interact with the speaker make sure to tape these sessions to allow access to future groups of learners.
Assessments provide educators with the ability to track individual and group progress within courses as well as an ability to see growth over time. Assessments for scale need to be simple and systematic so that you can easily understand where your students are within their learning no matter the size of the population you are working with. Traditional assessment types within scalable online learning environments are quizzes, tests, and peer-reviewed assignments. In my latest experiments I’ve been also taking latent analytics into account when assessing student engagement. Latent analytics include email open receipts, clicks within emails, and time spent on pages. While these latent analytic assessments probably wouldn’t help in forming a final student evaluation of learning, they can enhance my ability to see which pieces of my curriculum are working and for whom.
Due to the nature of scale anything synchronous needs to be minimized as it limits the curriculum’s ability to be relevant asynchronously. That being said, there is definitely an argument to be made for students facilitating their own conversations synchronously to engage more deeply in course content. Within an application like Zoom or Google Meet you can have your students record smaller group meetings and discuss course content. These recordings can be used for assessment later.
OK that’s it for the elements. Now on to the Principles.
Design your core curriculum to reflect the needs of multiple types of learners. Voluntary online learning typically shows a large drop-off of engagement immediately following initial exposure to learning materials. Plan for that kind of student as well as the student who eats up everything your course has to offer. Engage active and passive users equally, by providing unlimited content access to all users. Active users will have content delivered to them as they engage with material while passive users will have the ability to see all information within the course with the option to participate or not.
Just because users don’t sink their teeth into your content immediately doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in doing so at a later time. There are many reasons why an internet user may not have time for your material when they first see it. Plan for those users to walk away with easy-to-remember phrases and search terms so they can readily find your content again later when they do have the bandwidth to consume.
Design your course in a modular way (see my article on future-proofing) so that it can be repurposed for new audiences in the future. This allows you to reconstruct the course easily on different learning management systems in the future thereby increasing the accessibility of your content for future audiences.
There is a reason that people like TED Talks better than traditional lectures filmed and made available on Youtube. TED Talks are engineered to make complex ideas accessible and entertaining. Work to look at your content and ask yourself, “Why would someone care about what I’m trying to teach them? What about it might get them excited?” Work hard to hook users within 15 seconds of exposure to your material. There are many ways to do this such as creating instructional animations, micro-videos, and podcasts that break the topic down so that the user can engage enthusiastically. At the end of the day what entertains your course’s audience is something you will need to figure out and iterate upon.
Remember those short attention spans mentioned above? Plan for that by ensuring that all information presented will be to-the-point and designed to be read by the casual passerby while maintaining the depth needed to engage intellectually.
Not all of your users are coming to your course to complete it. Some are actually coming to learn quickly how to better themselves and it would be a logical fallacy to correspond completion rates with learning. Plan for that by making your assignments and activities memorable and high-quality. Ensure activities will always be geared
around demonstrating competencies and that users are always asked to do something within the course that they can use outside of the course.
The more I’ve embraced designing automated course experiences the more I’ve leaned towards making sure that all the content presented has sign-posts that ensure the student within my courses knows, even if I’m not present within the run of the course they’ve enrolled in, that the content developed was done so with care and passion. I alternate between declarative statements that best demonstrate my expertise on a subject and “I” statements that remind the student that a teacher, a person, designed the course that they are enrolled in.
Example declarative statement: “The first thing you need to do to approach painting watercolors is to make sure you have the right supplies.”
Example “I” statement: “I’ve found that fear is the biggest factor in why my students don’t naturally identify as artists.”
The “I” statements do quite a bit to humanize the course to the students. “I” statements make my assertions opinion statements, which weakens their ability to be authoritative but strengthens their ability to show vulnerability and feeling.
I try to show, when I can and where I can, what I’m excited/nervous/ passionate/concerned about within the content. How this is done changes between media types. For instance, I’m writing my opinions in this paragraph by using the first person consistently. This gives you, the reader, a sense of my presence even though I’m not actually here reading this with you. The way this manifests changes when considering podcasting, video, graphics, etc. but the sentiment and goals remain the same.
If you choose to present a course synchronously with yourself as an ever-present instructor you will still need to keep in mind what is described above. Just know that you are sacrificing scalability by designing a course that can only function with you present.
In an in-person classroom I would encourage you to do field trips and bring in guest lecturers. With online learning you do not have the ability to bring your students physically from space to space or share a room with a content expert. What you do have, however, is the
ability to connect your students to experts more easily through taped conversations and/or live question and answer sessions.
You want to give students within your course the awareness that they can dive into the material being presented even deeper at any point they want to. After presenting highlighted/required work, direct participants to optional materials that can deepen their understanding of the content.
Due to the inherent qualities of teaching online your students are bound to feel that the material within a course is less personalized and more sterile than if they were in a room with peers. To combat this consider employing project-based learning practices online with your students (see our recently released “How To PBL Online” course for more tips and tricks on how to accomplish this).
Some possible online learning structures that can be repurposed to enhance online PBL:
Consider employing a peer review system for assessing work completion instead of formative quizzes and tests. Peer review of materials allows for scalability as well as personalized feedback on work. Within a peer review system students can submit artifacts such as writings, videos, audio recordings, or images. Once submitted they will be prompted to review a set number of their peers’ submissions. This allows for everyone to get personalized feedback on their work. The only caveat to this is that peer-review is also limited in scalability as it requires a set number of users to be synchronously taking the course in order to work.
Consider having your students construct media that demonstrates their understanding of the consumed curriculum. This can be done in the form of presentations of learning recorded on video, reflection writing in essay form, audio reflections of significant learning experiences, etc.
Before I started designing online learning experiences I was a high school art teacher. On an average day I worked with a little over 100 students that would rotate out of my classroom mid-year and be replaced with a new population of incoming art students. I consistently had predictable absences by students because of competitions, sickness, etc.
It became predictable that students would ask, after an absence, “Mr. Yurick— what did we do yesterday?”
In my second year of teaching I started wanting to find a way to have that question answered before the student came through the door. I abandoned my whiteboard and started using Google Documents and my digital portfolio website to house my lectures, assignments, and worksheets. I trained my classes to go to this online space before coming to me. Doing this freed me up to have meaningful conversations with students around their specific art and decreased the rote repetition of instructions. My ethos was: everything that can be repeated needs to only be said once—and it needs to be digital so students, and parents, can easily access it anytime they need clarification.
An unforeseen additional benefit came from this approach to managing my classroom. Due to the fact that almost all of my instructional material was constantly being digitized my classroom structures suddenly became easily scalable. Instead of writing instructions, assignments, lectures, and grading systems for one class at a time, I was constructing a base set of materials that could be used for all classes. If one class needed something unique or custom I was able to add those instructions and additional materials without needing to rewrite and construct the entire system.
This all led me to start asking myself questions regarding the nature of scale in-and-of itself. Could my scaled curriculum for 100 students now scale to 1,000? 10,000? 1,000,000?
I subsequently left classroom teaching to explore these questions. This set of elements and principles are some of the consistent building blocks of my findings. These elements and principles are chosen to reflect the tools specifically needed for thinking around scaling curriculum for lots of audiences.