When the Dust Settles

two brothers in the apocalyptic city with ash storm, digital art style, illustration paintingTeachers across the U.S. and abroad have been scrambling to transition their courses online these past two weeks. At my own institution we had an extra week following spring break to make the move. For many universities, this forced transition to remote learning seems to have caught nearly everyone unprepared.  When the dust settles and university leadership has had some time to regroup, my guess is that instructional technology training of faculty and staff will become part of their strategic plan going forward in order to ensure some measure of readiness should something similar happen in the future. I think it is safe to say that Coronavirus will likely lead to some dramatic changes to our educational institutions.

What I hope university leaders will come away from this experience with is the idea that they need to make a more committed effort to providing training resources for online learning and teaching for their faculty. I’ve taught at a couple of universities during my college teaching career now, one with a large eLearning component and another with fledging online courses. My experience within both of these contexts has been very similar despite the varying degrees of eLearning training resources offered at each one. Academic departments often act as siloed entities and rarely take the initiative to encourage instructional technology cross-collaboration as a priority for the professional development of their faculty. They remain unable to capitalize on the strength of the online teaching development and training opportunities of their larger institution and beyond unless their teachers are actually in the online classroom and they see an immediate need. Usually only in these cases will an instructor take up training and work closely with instructional designer to develop their online course. This means that decision is therefore left upon the shoulders of individual instructors whether they should develop their expertise in the area of instructional technology, which when not prioritized by leadership, rarely occurs. A lack in instructional technology use and understanding of eLearning course design means that the hurdles for faculty to address when taking the sudden plunge online in response to an event like a pandemic are huge.

Yet I suspect that my own recent transition to remote learning has been less painful than it has been for most instructors, a fact that I credit largely due to my unique professional goals. My own professional development approach as an instructor has always been that of the blended learning educator. And I think that this is the mindset that faculty are going to need to in the future if they are going to be able to weather an equivalent disruptive event such as COVID-19, not to mention increase their ability to engage their learners both within and outside the walls of the physical classroom. In the remainder of this post, I’ll set out how my own professional development agenda developed and how I think other teachers and institutions might benefit from adopting a similar approach. I also think that instructional designers might benefit from considering how my experience might apply to helping them support faculty at their own institutions. Lastly, I hope that this can show university administrators a path forward in removing barriers to online instructional training for their faculty.

1. Getting to Know the University’s LMS

As I mentioned earlier, one the of the university’s I worked at made a big commitment to eLearning, and so they had a number of resources available for faculty who were teaching in that environment. During my tenure as an instructor there, they transitioned their learning management system from Blackboard to Canvas. Shortly thereafter they began offering a number trainings on the new system. They provided faculty with opportunities to learn the basic functions of Canvas, but most of these didn’t answer the burning questions I still had upon completion of these trainings. How do you offer quality and engaging instruction using some of the Canvas tools? How do I set up a course so that is organized in a way that promotes learning? I thought back to my own college experience and how instructors would dump a bunch of content into folders in Moodle or Blackboard with little organization and send out emails every once in a while alerting users to a change in their content. I was often confused and frustrated by time spend trying to understand a harried professor’s haphazard organizational scheme.

Feeling dissatisfied with my quick departmental LMS training experience, I began corresponding with an instructional designer in the university’s eLearning department who pointed me to a number of Canvas course templates that had been created for eLearning courses specifically. Later I would learn that these course templates had been created to provide a means for eLearning instructors to set up their courses while adhering to the standards of the Quality Matters Higher Education Course Rubric. I began using the eLearning Canvas course design templates for my own face-to-face courses. I organized a “Start Here” module and set up an Instructor Information and Communication Page. I also created an online introductory discussion board in addition to the regular in-class icebreakers and community building activities that generally take place in the first week of instruction. I began setting up learning modules to describe what we were doing in-class for the week and how those tasks connected to course learning outcomes.

I mention this experience because these eLearning Canvas templates provided me with a means of seeing what I now know to be what good practices of online education look like. Having been introduced to these basics, I began adapting my own courses to implement some of these practices on a more regular basis.

Despite this development, I knew there were gaps in my understanding and implementation of instructional technology. I knew I was faking the walk of the blended learning instructor I was seeking to become. So I begin researching instructional design as a field and inquiring into the kind of work ID’s do within higher education and within the business world. I took an online instructional design course through another university along with an introductory web design course. As an instructor with an education background, I was familiar with some of the learning theories the ID course exposed me to, but many of the ID models were completely foreign to me. I wondered why in my teaching-focused graduate program nobody bothered to included elements of instructional design in the teaching with technology course I took.

2. Understanding Learning from an Instructional Design Perspective

In my ID course I developed instructional briefs and had to reflect upon the use of different ID models along with their strengths and weaknesses. I began immediately applying these models to my own curriculum design process as an university instructor, realizing quickly the appeal of their applicability. Kemp’s Model with the focus on the learner analysis step, for instance, changed the way I approached designing my courses. I saw just how important crafting instruments such as surveys or other tools is for gathering data as part of the learner analysis piece. And for the very first time I was introduced to concepts of Universal Design for Learning and how they could be applied to developing content that is more accessible. I began chunking content, using different headings, and captioning videos. Suffice to say the way I looked at developing online materials and learning changed significantly as a result of this one class. Towards the end of the course our instructor pointed us to ways to continue professionalizing, with Quality Matters rater training using the QM rubric for higher ed being one of them.

3. Quality Matters Rubric Training

When I followed up on this advice and began looking into the Quality Matters Rubric training, I discovered that my institution would allow for me to take it only if I was going to become a peer rater, meaning that I would be developing an online course for later evaluation and serving as a rater for someone else’s course. My department had no plans for taking any of their courses online, so I got my director to agree to sign off that I would be using the experience to help professionalize in order to benefit our department’s understanding of online education and later the option was there to go online. It was a reach, but it got me into the course. I mention this only to show that there were significant barriers in place for me to get access to respected trainings in online course evaluation. Why wouldn’t a department want to send a few of their instructors to get this training?

The QM rubric training included an analysis of an actual online course hosted on an LMS. We were assigned different evaluation tasks related to a specific criteria of the rubric and had to post our answers and then get feedback from our QM instructor. The rubric was very thorough and the training left me with a much better understanding what a quality online course should look like. Since the training, I’ve relied on the rubric many times in checking my own practices in designing different components of my LMS site, deciding what policies are included, considering how my modules are designed, to name just a few.

The Takeaway

I mention my experiences because they directly impacted how I responded to the transition to what my institution is referring to as ‘instructional continuity.’ My institution and others use this term or ‘remote learning’ to differentiate between quality online learning, which I agree that they should. However, this should not be a time when you lower the instructional standards and throw a bunch of content online and charge your students an equivalent price of a face-to-face experience that instructional designers and eLearning professionals will tell you falls way short in providing a conducive environment for learning. This is what I see happening across the U.S. at my institutions and others like it.

When I was told that we were going to take our courses online, I saw how a number of ID’s and eLearning professionals provided resources to help with the transition online, which I think was the right move. However, many instructors lacked even the foundational concepts I mentioned in this post that I initially gained from simply following an ID-focused Canvas course design template. I’ve heard that some instructors had never even used the LMS. The chasm instructors had to cross was too great for any instructional designer to help them overcome. So what we, and I suspect many others ended up with, was a list of resources curated by our institution (I also participated in this) on how to set up technology for our courses and deploy it. And so students everywhere are left to wade through a mass of materials hastily thrown together on an LMS that seems to break with any standard for online instruction.

For my own course I reflected upon the models of instructional design I was familiar with. I considered how many unknown learner, instructor and institutional barriers I was aware of and I stripped down my first week to the most minimal assignment requirements. I still needed to know more about students and the difficulties they were facing before I could begin delivering any kind of instruction online. I kept it to a simple check in activity and a reflection writing to help me understand the learner characteristics that had changed drastically and were continuing to evolve daily around the world. Some of my international students, for example, were quarantined in China and dealing with unstable internet. So this week I’ve been reminding my students we would continue using the same LMS tools I’d set up from the beginning of the semester. I would adapt a few tasks we did face-to-face, but students had already gotten used to my my LMS module organization, my structuring of weekly tasks, and my use of the LMS tools. I pulled a significant number of assignments from the course and set up an end of the week due date on all assignments. I also pulled all the projects that required successive steps and extensive revision and feedback. I asked students to sign up for a textbook publisher account so that they could complete some online learning tasks through the publisher site. I didn’t require any face-to-face sessions, but held open office hours during class times and my regular office hours on Zoom. These changes were made in light of the ongoing changes to my students and what I felt both they and I were capable of.

I feel content with my courses at this point because I haven’t left out the most crucial piece of all–the learner. I’m making my choices while ever being vigilant of such things as instructional problems and changing learner characteristics, drawing upon my familiarization with Instructional Design models such as Kemp’s model.

My response to this pandemic are unique because I took the initiative on my own to develop online instruction expertise. They shouldn’t be unique though. They should be the norm if universities intend to have their faculty ready to make a sudden transition to remote learning in face of a unexpected disruption. The question we are left with when the dust settles is whether university leaders are up to the task to change their business as usual approach. Can they adapt in order to equip their faculty with the necessary expertise in order to remain relevant in the face of hurdles such as the pandemic we are experiencing?

Published by randyrebman

Randy Rebman is an instructional designer and elearning developer.

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