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By Lorna Kearns
CIDDE Learning Designer
Editor’s Note: Varied learning activities, faculty presence and consistency of course design are critical to student learning in an online course. These three stand-out practices were highlighted by CIDDE Learning Designer Lorna Kearns in a self-review of Organizational and Management Theory, a Pitt Online course taught by Gail Wolf, Nursing, that won a 2011 Blackboard Exemplary Course Award. Kearns explains each of these criteria and offers accompanying recommendations to anyone who teaches online or hybrid classes:
Variety of content presentation and learning activities
One of this course’s best practices is the variety of ways in which content is presented and learning activities are conducted within an appropriately controlled framework of media choices. Using a variety of media types not only enhances student interest and curiosity but also takes advantage of the capabilities of Web-based instruction. While not every media format is used in each module, each module features a sub-set of pre-selected media types for presenting content and conducting learning activities. This strategy captures and maintains students' attention without overwhelming them with variety. For content presentation, media include: 1) readings from the text, 2) journal article readings posted as PDF files, 3) readings from outside Web sites, 4) videos from outside Web sites, 5) narrated PowerPoint lectures, and 6) videotaped interviews between the instructor and guest lecturers. Learning activities include: 1) online discussion, 2) self-assessment quizzes, and 3) case studies to be submitted as individual assignments. This mix of learning activities allows for both individual and group work and also provides opportunities along the continuum from low- to high-stakes assessment.
Key recommendation: Vary the media used to present content and conduct learning activities, but do so within a pre-selected set of media types. This approach optimizes opportunities for capturing and maintaining student attention and interest while at the same time provides students with a structured, consistent learning environment.
Immediacy/social presence of instructor
One of the challenges instructors face in teaching an entirely online course is creating the sense of instructor presence that students find so important in a course. Something that students consistently mention about this course is the quality of the teaching and the accessibility of the instructor. Throughout the course, Dr. Wolf conveys enthusiasm and warmth in all of her communication with students as well as in the content she has prepared. Her immediacy and social presence come across very strongly in all her materials, starting with her warm and enthusiastic welcome message on the first page of the course site. She maintains immediacy throughout the course by using a personal writing style in the introductions to each of her learning modules. Where it is appropriate, she has created audio narration over PowerPoint slides that students view as part of the lecture material and has even produced a couple of short video interviews with guest lecturers from area hospitals.
Key recommendation: Create course materials that convey warmth and personality. Make use of technologies that give students the opportunity, at least occasionally, to hear your voice. Create text for your course Web site that uses a professional yet personal tone, one that facilitates a bond between you and the student.
Consistency of course design, module format, and Web site
All Pitt Online courses use a standard set of design elements for the CourseWeb sites. The color scheme is consistent across all Pitt Online courses as is the order of links on the navigation bar. All the learning modules follow a consistent format and order: 1) introduction, 2) learning objectives, 3) readings, 4) learning activities, and 5) assignments. The consistency of elements within this course and across all Pitt Online courses enables students to quickly familiarize themselves with their online courses.
Key recommendation: Use design elements that are interesting but not distracting and that facilitate course viewing and navigation. Develop standards that can to be used across courses. These include following a preferred order of links on the navigation bar, using a Read Me First or Getting Started link, and including a Help link. Adhere to solid instructional design principles in designing and presenting course materials: Make the syllabus as explicit as necessary to convey all essential information to students. Use a Q&A discussion board for questions that still need clarification or arise during the semester. Introduce each module with a short paragraph or two to capture students' attention and set their expectations. Provide learning objectives for each module that align with activities and assessments.
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The Teaching Times newsletter is devoted to the support of teaching and learning at the University of Pittsburgh. The Teaching Times shares faculty teaching experiences, strategies and techniques that can be applied in classrooms across the University. The Teaching Times welcomes letters and articles from faculty about any topic affecting University teaching and learning.
Carol DeArment, Editor