Updated: Nov 14, 2020
As a symptom of the uncertainty that is present in this COVID-19 global pandemic, educational professionals are rightfully concerned about learning continuity for students between this and last year. While some hope campuses will reopen come fall, no one knows for certain right now. In the meantime, the field of education is girding itself for the possibility they’ll have to offer another course of instruction online and asking themselves how to best prepare for more distance learning.
Though Spring 2020 has taught us that teachers can’t completely replicate at-school days online, there is one thing that we can’t deny. The most effective teaching principles apply regardless of modality and often stand the test of time. To help educators continue leveling up in distance learning teacher skills, this blog post is dedicated to helping teachers iterate individual modules for learning in small chunks, given that school buildings may be open at any point in the upcoming school year.
Here’s some general principles that informed the below process:
The role of a teacher is to be a specialist, not a generalist. As you teach during this time, the balance of the role of a teacher shifts to more of providing individualized support and accommodations for access and equity because you can address the questions and content instruction in a different way like online resources and references in video, audio, and text forms.
The amount of independent work can make or break a course. Education experts recommend that students spend no more than 50 minutes on independent study at a time, and no more than four hours of total independent study time a day. While four hours might sound like a lot less time than a regular school day, keep in mind that the independent learning a student does in a brick and mortar school is less than that on a good day as well. Dependent on your school or district expectations, you may be limited even more (especially because this isn’t just learning online - it’s learning during a pandemic).
Good online courses have a mix of modalities to support access and equity for all learners. This includes asynchronous and synchronous learning tasks. Asynchronous learning happens on the student’s schedule. The teacher provides materials for reading, lectures for viewing, assignments for completing, and exams for evaluation within a flexible time frame. Synchronous learning is the kind of learning that happens in real time. This means participants interact in a specific virtual place, through a specific online medium, at a specific time.
Steps to Creating a Module
Step 1: Map out a module.
Just like in a brick and mortar classroom, an effective way to develop learning modules is by planning backwards.
Look at the content you want to cover for a time period, and then identify the major or thematic chunks of information. Each one of these chunks is a module. Don’t worry about planning the whole year now - you may be back at school soon! Instead, focus on one module at a time. Within this module, you will create academic tasks, their related assignments, and supplemental resources.
Tip: Your module should be no more than 5 learning objectives. If you have more, your objectives may be too task oriented or your module theme could be too broad.
Decide how long this module should take. Try to keep it no longer than a month. Any longer and your students could lose focus or their place in the path.
Sequence the learning in the module into a logical order. The duration between modules can be flexible based on the depth of knowledge students need to engage in for that topic.
Tip: Don’t get too caught up in specifics. This map should be an outline of the unit NOT the individual lessons.
Step 2: Create a replicable structure/pattern for every module.
By including a variety of interactive exercises and creatively using technology tools while following a logical order, you can keep your students interested and engaging participants frequently, you will help them learn. Creating chunks of information students will encounter can increase the effectiveness of your online learning module.
Ideate a pattern, such as "introduce it, practice it, and apply it," that's repeated throughout the module. A good rule of thumb is to have a weekly cadence to learning. This makes the structure predictable for students so they can actually focus on new content.
Tip: Each module should look like the previous modules, only with updated content and learning outcomes.
Step 3: Create the module’s content.
You’ll now create the academic tasks and their assessments, including supports, opportunities for collaboration, and resources. Use your structure to plan these out to make them accessible for students as well as organized.
Academic Tasks - How are you asking students to learn?
A common perception is that online courses require students to just read or view videos, and then regurgitate the information in an essay, simple discussion post, or demonstrating mastery through the selection of a correct answer. However, this is inaccurate because there are numerous activities that can fully engage the minds of your students. Students should demonstrate their understanding of the content through heightening their engagement with the content throughout any course. Ask yourself these questions to create your module’s content.
What resources will students need to learn the new information?
How do each of these relate to the learning objectives?
What resources will help the student get more help academically if they need it?
What will they go to if they have trouble using the technology?
How flexible are your tasks?
Do all of your students have to do the same tasks, or can they choose how they demonstrate their understanding?
How does your module compare to other ones?
You’ll get a wealth of design ideas from courses regardless of the subject area. Good design is not content specific. Check out some Canvas courses and Open Source course (like Merlot, edEx, Open Educational Resources (OER), & MIT Open Courseware) for ideas. Also check out examples from your LMS that are used in other districts for ideas.
Publishers often create online courses and course materials that go with your textbook. Talk to your publisher to receive access to the content. Often, you can select the materials and customize it to reach your learning objectives.
Tip: Universal Design, or UDL, references a set of best practices to help instructors meet the needs of all learners, not just their abilities, such as designing pages that can be read by mobile devices to screen readers.
Assessment - What are you asking students to produce?
Assessment is more than just tests, quizzes and final projects. Truly “informative” assessment helps students measure their progress and helps to guide your instruction.
At what points in the module will you assess student understanding?
How will students know before the end of the module whether they are on the right path?
What will students produce to show their understanding?
When will the due dates be?
How flexible are your tasks?
Do all of your students have to do all of the same tasks, or can they choose how they demonstrate their understanding?
Tip: The use of rubrics with online assessments of learning is a great way to communicate to and with students about what they have learned and/or produced.
Collaboration - How are asking students to check their learning?
After figuring out how students are involved with the module content, you now must consider how students interact with peers and the teacher. Teachers often consider online collaboration as challenging or near impossible. However, through the use of simple strategies, collaboration can be a seamless benefit for all of your students.
Which tasks are best lent to synchronous and asynchronous interaction?
Plan for a balance of 50% of each, if possible. If that’s not possible, lean towards more asynchronous. This allows you to keep a balance between equity and accessibility for all of your students (given that everyone’s ability to hop on Zoom is not the same if they are learning from home).
Try to stay away from group assignments unless in a synchronous space, as you cannot always be sure that everyone can produce within a specific amount of time and with the collaboration needed if they can’t actually gather and work in person. Save these for your synchronous times with students.
How do students interact with each other during asynchronous learning activities?
What should students ask each other if they need help?
Can students text each other? Chat each other? Email each other?
How do students interact with the teacher during asynchronous learning activities?
Which academic tasks do you foresee needing specific office hours for questions?
Which academic tasks do you foresee needing specific resources to support?
Can students text you? Chat you? Email you?
Step 4: Create an introduction to the module.
Congratulations - the hard work is done! No really, it is! You have mapped your modules with objectives, aligned all your resources to activities, and designed space to get support via collaboration. Now let’s ensure that students can follow the structure of all of your hard work!
Create and post an outline of the module in text format.
Create an overview page or document of the structure of the module, including the academic tasks, assessments, and collaboration expectations by due date.
Try to include links to all of these things in one document - just in case.
Create and post an outline of the module in video format.
A video of you explaining each module and/or week reduces the sense of isolation because it simulates face-to-face instruction.
Make sure to point out where the text lives in the video and post those two things in the same place every week. You can also send an email with both if your LMS doesn’t allow for that.
Relax! You won’t be creating the perfect online module, at least not the first time you teach it. As your students begin to use the module, start planning your next one - learning from what you and your students experience in the current one. Continue to experiment with new approaches, refining your teaching based on the feedback of your students. Give yourself permission to be a student too – to learn over time. This guide helped you get a start - now keep improving!