As spring break was ending, our university like many others around the country began the pivot to remote learning. We had one week of an extended spring break to quickly transition our courses online. This spring semester I am teaching four English language courses, a heavy workload even under normal circumstances, and two of those were writing classes. This meant that I’d need to be restructuring much of my course curriculum in these classes and putting in a lot of extra time planning and developing extra content.

I was not completely unprepared for teaching online. Prior to this pivot to teaching online, I had taken an instructional design course and an online teaching course, so I felt better equipped than most. Yet I was challenged by the need to quickly redesign my courses for online learning and so I could focus on the teaching aspect of my role. What I needed was a rapid course module design approach. I began looking for a process that would enable to quickly cut through what was essential and what was not. My first approach to designing my weekly modules was one that many instructors likely took. I created a task list and content list for each course, with more of a topic or task approach to designing the course. But at the end of the first week I realized there were some tasks that didn’t seem that necessary.

Eventually I came back to Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe’s work in Understanding by Design. In their book they have a simple template that is split into three sections: desired results, assessment evidence and learning plan. For each week in the course I would use the template to map out the weekly goals, understandings, essential questions, performance tasks and other evidence. My learning plan would be the last thing I would complete for designing each week. In this way I was able to get focus my course on was absolutely necessary. As Wiggins and McTighe mention in the tenants of the UBD framework:

Effective curriculum is planned backward from long-term, desired results through a three-stage design process (Desired Results, Evidence, and Learning Plan). This process helps avoid the common problems of treating the textbook as the curriculum rather than a resource, and activity-oriented teaching in which no clear priorities and purposes are apparent.

I began adding the essential questions to the weekly module learning outcomes I was already creating in my weekly road map sections of my modules. In addition to having Wiggins and McTighe’s backward design template to guide my course design, I was also taking an online course myself. This meant that I was able to adopt module design practices in my own course that worked well for me as an online learner. And this design approach seems to have paid off.

In both of my writing courses I’ve asked students to write weekly reflective learning journals, where I asked students to reflect upon their transition to online learning as well as what they learned in the weekly module. Some students mentioned that they appreciated the level of course organization and how I organized my course. Others had mentioned how the felt that in many of their courses there was no “communication focus” or that they didn’t know what they should be doing. I thought of some of my own experiences in online courses I’ve taken and realized their frustration could easily be alleviated and avoided, had instructors only been able to deploy a backward design approach to designing their weekly modules.

Update 7.25.2020

This past week I was reading Flower Darby and James M. Lang’s book Small Teaching Online: Applying Learning Science in Online Classes and I realized that my thinking had changed on backwards design since the original post. I’ve often seen backward design as an approach that one uses during the first part of the course, but Darby actually challenges this notion in her book.

She asks course designers to consider how students can begin work on the final assessment in week 1. She mentions that major course projects can get lost in the thick of nested folders and modules of an LMS and near the end of the course students suddenly are staring at a high stakes end of course project that seemed to have snuck up on them. This is a small teaching online improvement that I will be making in all my courses this fall.

Another practice that Darby recommends is having students reflect and respond to learning objectives. For some reason this idea had escaped me, yet when I consider my own experience as an online student and taking courses through OSU’s elearning certificate program, I realize that when I was asked to do this it was very impactful and helped me have more by in with the course activities. This is definitely another aspect of implementing backwards design during my courses that I’ll be adapting this fall.

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