Last year, in its final annual report on online learning, the Babson Survey Research Group found that the number of U.S. higher education students taking at least one online course reached 5.8 million (nearly one half taking all their classes online). More than one quarter (28 percent) of all students enrolled in higher ed took at least one online course.
This is a continuation of the long-term trend that the survey has identified. With online education having gone mainstream, the report’s authors no longer see the need to focus their resources on it. (The National Center for Education Statistics’ Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System is now closely tracking online and distance education.)
As interesting as the numbers are, it’s of equal importance to see that a significant majority of academic leaders (over 70 percent) believe that the learning outcomes achieved by online education are equivalent (if not superior) to those found in the face-to-face classroom.
The growth of online education, and the acknowledgement that it works, is heartening to those of us who recognize its importance in reaching nont-traditional learners. However, there remain underlying questions about the uneven caliber of online courses.
Competing on Online Course Quality
Quality is starting to matter–and matter a lot. With almost 6 million learners taking online courses, there’s a large and growing market of providers. Moreover, as students are presented with added options, the institutions are now competing on course quality.
All this is translating into colleges and universities taking course design extremely seriously, and making sure that they are providing a quality experience that’s consistent, engaging, and accessible.
Essential steps to building high-quality online courses are numerous and expansive, but let’s look at three crucial phases that can make a difference.
1. Upfront Analysis
When it comes to instructional design, one of the most important investments a designer can make is in the upfront analysis. Analysis should occur first at the institutional level – what is the institution’s culture, history with online learning, timeline, and mandates? Then the analysis moves to the program and/or course level. This is the time to ask a lot of questions:
- What are the accrediting outcomes that learners need to achieve?
- Who are these learners? How have they been previously onboarded to online?
- What’s the expectancy of time on task?
- Where is the course content coming from? Is it to be transformed from a face-to-face course, does it draw on existing content contained in an LMS, or is it something completely new that’s just now being developed? What technical or functional constraints exist in delivering this content?
Many designers, under pressure to begin producing courses immediately, tend to take face-to-face lecture notes and force them into an online format and neglect to spend time on this crucial analysis stage.
The key, however, is taking the time to get the upfront analysis accurate and work from it as everything else will be realized from it.
(Next page: Steps 2 & 3 for crafting a high quality online course)
2. Framework Mapping
With analysis complete, the next step is to design and create the course framework, mapping the information derived from your analysis to the course itself. Here’s an example of how the upfront analysis informs online course creation:
The source material is a three-credit lecture course that has been delivered, in one three-hour session, in a traditional classroom. This is often assumed that it is a week’s worth of content; however, the online student may be a non-traditional learner or one who is perhaps taking the online course for the first time in an asynchronous delivery. With one session a week devoted to the course, the three-hour lecture may represent too much material to absorb in one sitting. The lecture and supporting materials need to be disaggregated and redeveloped iteratively against the sectional/modular objectives and learning outcomes.
This conceptual approach will alleviate the cognitive overload that could result and transform into a poor outcome, such as a disengaged learner who ultimately underperforms and disengages. Designers must think through the best ways to present the material so that it’s understandable and digestible, without losing sight of the desired outcome.
If we’ve taken the time to understand the source material and the targeted user experience of the learner before we start designing, we’re better prepared to make sure that we’re providing the students with what they need in a sensible way.
3. Learner Experience
While determining how the course materials are presented is fundamental to creating a successful, high-quality online course, it’s also equally important to pay attention to the overall learner experience.
Many online learners are already facing challenges when they enter the arena. We don’t want them to be burdened with additional challenges when it comes to navigation, sequencing of materials, course expectations and assessment requirements, or even where and when they can elicit outreach to instructors or peers.
Too often learners are stopped in their tracks trying to figure out how to get from Point A to Point B. They may not know how to interact with one class in isolation, with their full course load, and with their overall experience as a learner within the online institution. Simplistic bridges that are designed purposefully can alleviate most of these gaps and provide an intuitive, insightful understanding.
There’s no reason why the online learning experience can’t be as seamless as that enjoyed by traditional students in an on-campus setting. In some ways–such as supporting the needs of those with diverse learning styles–online provides an even better medium than in-person. We need to design an experience that considers the multiple interactions that online learning requires (interactions that we take for granted in the face-to-face environment), including:
- Learner to learner
- Learner to curriculum
- Learner to instructor
All three of these interaction types must be incorporated in online course design and development.
By analyzing the situation ahead of time, by using that analysis to carefully chart the course, and by never losing sight of the fact that what matters most is the quality of the overall learner experience, course designers can create the kinds of courses that engage and retain students.
There are too many students looking for online learning opportunities–and too many institutions competing to meet their needs–to ignore the fact that, now more than ever, the quality of the online learning experience matters.