Top tips for online course design

Posted on Sunday, May 27, 2018

Two students working on their laptops.

By Mike Foster

Education professor Yasmine Abtahi knew online courses were a hit when many graduate students from her online Theories of Learning class signed up for her online Mathematical Thinking class the next semester.

“An unprecedented 29 students signed up for a course that often had low enrollment,” said Abtahi. “It was double the typical intake and 40 per cent of them had come from my Theories of Learning Applied to Teaching course.”

Instead of sitting in a lecture hall, three groups of 16 students participated in online discussion forums for the Theories of Learning course. Abtahi and her TA Mark Ingham, who was instrumental in designing the online course, sparked off discussions and encouraged students to post comments and references to academic studies and papers. Students participated in discussion threads, gave formative feedback and challenged each other. Abtahi posted metanarratives which summarized the weekly conversations and added her own scholarly insights.

No silent voices

“Students would get into deeper conversations as they had time to reflect before responding. The level of engagement surpassed anything I’ve ever seen after teaching nearly 30 face-to-face classes,” said Abtahi.

“One of the most inspiring aspects was that there were no silent voices,” Ingham added. “Students who typically might not participate in face-to-face conversations were all posting their ideas and interacting with their peers.”

Abtahi concludes that designing the online courses advanced her teaching, automated many processes and saved time, especially in communications and grading. However, it required a lot of work.

The Master of Education is the only graduate program that offers courses completely online at the University of Ottawa. Abtahi suggests that the Faculty of Education could offer workshops to the University community on the best research, evidence and experience that supports the benefits of online learning.

Abtahi and Ingham share their five top tips for online course design:

  • Do proactive research into online teaching best practices;
  • Ensure that the entire course, including materials, discussions, formative and summative assessment, grading systems and communications, is ready to go before the start date;
  • Dedicate more time for training in the pedagogical aspects of online courses;
  • Set up a feedback forum to ensure that the course is reflective and responsive to students;
  • List online teaching best practices in your course syllabus to provide transparency for students.
    Educational developers at the Centre for Innovative Pedagogies and Digital Learning look at Professor Yasmine Abtahi’s online course on a computer screen in a conference room.

    David MacDonald and Melissa Brasgold, two of the Educational Developers – Blended at the Centre for Innovative Pedagogies and Digital Learning, listen as Professor Yasmine Abtahi explains her approach to online course design.


Design-a-Thon on blended course design

In 2013, in response to a recommendation from the University’s E-Learning Working Group, the University’s Teaching and Learning Support Service (TLSS) launched its Blended Learning Initiative to encourage professors to develop online courses, activities and multimedia resources such as videos and podcasts.

“Since then, we have trained more than 400 faculty in the design and the thinking around blended learning,” says Aline Germain-Rutherford, associate vice-president, teaching and learning.

Interested in getting creative with your courses? A Design-A-Thon will take place on May 30 and 31. More events are planned in June.

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