Facing the Challenge to Design Quality Online Learning Experiences

by: Bonnie Anderson

Ask anyone who has taken an online course what they thought of the experience, and you are likely to hear words like “impersonal”, “boring”, “tedious”, “ineffective”, or “monotonous”. The modality has unfortunately earned itself a poor reputation due to a plethora of such examples.  Unfortunately, the majority of online courses available today embody a passive approach to learning in that they provide lecture-style videos followed by multiple-choice quizzes with automated grading. This “talk and test” strategy is reflective of some of the least effective face-to-face classrooms, with the only potential advantage being that learners can access material in their own space and at their own pace.

Still, the cost savings, flexibility, convenience and other perceived benefits of learning online have combined to ensure that the modality is not going away anytime soon. An unprecedented number of Americans have enrolled in online learning experiences in recent years, whether formal courses for post-secondary credit, professional development courses for career growth, or non-credit experiences such as massive open online courses (MOOCs). As of 2015, key leaders at nearly 70% of American post-secondary educational institutions consider online education to be a critical component in their long-term strategies (Allen & Seaman, 2015).

While the promise of flexible, personalized and highly engaging online learning has yet to be realized at scale, the pieces are in place. New technologies with the potential to enable and enhance learning experiences are developed at an overwhelming pace. Leaders in the corporate world are beginning to recognize the impact that quality development opportunities can have on the bottom line, particularly when achieved online. Educational leaders face increased pressures to offer online learning experiences that not only generate revenue, but also standout in an increasingly cluttered landscape of such products.

The TLL is engaged in these challenges on a regular basis. Most recently, we worked with Dr. Kathy Boudett and the Data Wise Project to design the Data Wise Leadership Institute - Online (DWO), as a web-based alternative to the annual Data Wise Leadership Institute (DWI) hosted here on campus each summer. Together with the teaching team, the TLL considered how to increase access to this popular institute while maintaining the close facilitation and highly team-based experience that make it so successful. We explored how the power of the online learning context can be leveraged in a unique way, enabling co-located teams to work closely with the Data Wise facilitators based in Cambridge. The result, DWO, represents a new kind of learning experience.

Three Students at Whiteboard - Left and Middle looking at printed out articles, Right student writing on paper on the whiteboard with a market

Design The DWO course team consisted of myself, Kathy and two Teaching Fellows (TFs) who were also Data Wise Coach Certification candidates (Johanna Barmore and Max Yurkofsky). This team met on a weekly basis to produce a detailed design document, clarify roles and responsibilities, and identify the assets and tools needed in the course. As the team experimented with various ideas and models for how DWO would be structured, we settled on a five-day, intensive, retreat-like experience for a few important reasons:

  1. The target audience of teachers and school administrators were able to plan their summer break around the week scheduled for this retreat.

  2. Kathy and her TFs were able to set aside that week to focus on their assigned teams in a dedicated way.

  3. The success of the course depended upon the ability of participating teams to both be in the mindset of the previous school year before much vacation time had passed as well as to complete the course well in advance of the upcoming school year.

Development With the design plans in hand, the course team leveraged the full range of expertise in the TLL to develop a suite of multimedia resources including a course welcome video and a series of case studies. Barmore received training in Articulate Studio to produce a series of mini-lessons including narrated slide decks with embedded videos and reflection questions. All of these assets were integrated into the course site on Canvas, which was built to feature commonly shared resources and private team workspaces for group discussions and assignments.

2 tables with blue tablecloths and 3 students around each table looking at DataWise paper materials

Delivery The pilot offering of DWO ran from June 22-26, 2015 with three teams based in Chicago, IL, Orange, NJ and Syracuse, NY. These teams gathered in their own school buildings to work through a rigorous set of learning activities including collaborative meeting agendas and individual task lists to plan the implementation of the Data Wise Improvement Process in their respective schools. The week was bookended by live online webinars with the whole Data Wise Teaching Team and all three school-based participant teams to foster a shared learning community. Throughout the week, each school team met with an assigned TF every day during a live web-conference using Big Blue Button, a tool built in to Canvas. They also received daily feedback via text and short recorded videos from their TF and, in some cases, from Kathy.

Results While Kathy and her TFs had vast experience leading school teams through the Data Wise material in campus-based programs, the plan to facilitate such an immersive experience remotely from Cambridge for teams in three different states was a new venture. To everyone’s relief, DWO was a resounding success. Barmore and Yurkofsky each felt that their respective schools had made important progress throughout the week. In a post-retreat survey administered online to all participants, 100% of respondents rated the retreat week as either good (33%) or excellent (67%), and one participant described the week as an “awesome experience”.

Next Steps This course team is currently in debrief mode, already planning and documenting improvements to be made for the next offering of DWO. While working on DWO, we also designed and developed the third and final (for now!) online course, the Data Wise in Action (DWA) Program, which is currently under way. Stay tuned for an upcoming post about the birth and early life of that course as we continue on this journey together to bring the Data Wise Universe into clear, accessible, and scalable focus.

Image Credits: DataWise Summer Institute

See also: Project