Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tips for Online Course Content Design

Photo of a garden with trees and plants with a walking path down the center.
Here are some of my tips on Course Content design for online courses.
  • Falkofske's Growing Your Garden Analogy-Perennials, Annuals, Cut Flowers: Make your content very granular and keep mindful of the "lifespan" of each piece of information you are presenting. This will help you avoid excess editing each time you offer the course.
    • Perennials: Permanent Policies, Procedures, and Proofs - what information will stay the same unless there is an "Act of God?" Theories and concepts normally persist over time. For example, when is the last time the theory of gravity was updated? What about the last time a major campus policy was changed? Didn't it take great effort and years of development? Isolate your "relatively" permanent information into separate documents. To twist a phrase, then you can "ed-it and forget it."
    • Annuals: Applications, Assessments, Activities - what information needs to be updated on an annual cycle to improve the quality and accuracy? Schedules of due dates for learning activities, assessment descriptions and grading (including quiz and exam questions), and current applications and uses of theories and concepts should all be updated at least once a year. Separate these items to constrain the editing to specific documents which you know need regular updates (such as the "Course Schedule").
    • Cut Flowers: Current News and Controlled by Others - have you every built a hyperlink to another site only to find that when students tried it later in the course, the link no longer worked? Any content which you did not create (or control) should be separated out as a "cut flower." These are items that should be edited / written immediately before they are needed, so that they don't "wilt and die" before students need them. I suggest putting your "weekly links" into a News item. This will help avoid outdated links in your course content and also provide you with special incentives to create News postings with the "latest and greatest" links for the current week's assignments. It also gives you an opportunity to scan the industry news feeds to find articles which pertain to an aspect of your course (showing the topic is noteworthy and newsworthy).
    • Think "Transplantation" - is it easier to transplant a 45-foot tall Oak tree, or a rose bush? If you decide that you want to re-use content in a future semester (or different course), or if your textbook changes, or if the course learning objectives change, how easy will it be for you to prune and transplant the content? It is a lot easier to create lots of small objects (which are easy to sort and shuffle) than creating a few large documents. Example: rather than a 50-slide Powerpoint on the whole chapter, what about seven 10-slide PowerPoints with one for each major topic?
  • It is YOUR Course, Not the Publisher's: too often instructors base their entire course design on the Chapter Numbers in the textbook. This creates a myopic view. Things that aren't in the textbook seem like they "don't fit / don't belong" in the online course site. Instead, start with the course Learning Objectives and use them as the Titles for the sections / units in your course. Focusing on the learning objectives and their related assessments allows the textbook to become a "resource" and not the "course." There will be less renovation of the course if the textbook changes or if a different textbook is adopted.
  • Over-explain Everything! In a face-to-face class, it is easy to get audience feedback and determine if instructions are confusing or too sparse. In an online class, trying to "save time" by giving brief instructions results in a lot of time expended in answering questions and concerns, or worse, having students complete assignments in the wrong manner (because the instructions were open to interpretation). If you worry about providing too much detail and "boring" students, realize that students can easily skim through your content. This design tactic also serves as a CYA - if a student issues a challenge to a grade; if everything is explicitly placed in writing - it should be easy for any third party to determine what the expectations were for the student.
  • Make it Accessible! When explaining an assignment, always write instructions as though you were explaining them over a telephone. Rather than "click here, then click here," use language like "click the Content Link, then find and click Manage Content." Also, learn how to use the simple operations in Microsoft Office software to make your documents accessible. These are:
    • Create Well-Structured Documents: use the Styles > Headings to indicate the outline-based structure of your document (Heading 1 for title, Heading 2 for Major Sections, Heading 3 for Sub-Sections, etc.).
    • Use Text Alternatives for All Visual and Auditory Information: add ALT TEXT to your images (right-mouse-click, choose SIZE, then ALT TEXT) to provide blind users with image captions which are machine readable. If you have a particularly complex image or diagram, add a paragraph beneath the image which explains what principles the image is illustrating (this benefits sighted students as well). If you have a video or audio podcast, make sure that you post a text-transcript of the recording (often, textbook publishers have these available for the asking).
    • Add Column Headings to your tables: If someone cannot see your data table, they need to know the layout before they hear the data. Making sure that you have headings for each of your columns is an accessibility requirement. If your table has a particularly complex design, add a paragraph directly before the table which explains the layout and structure (again - as you would describing it over the telephone).
    • Save in Universally Accessible Format: I strongly recommend using the Adobe PDF file format for online files. This format preserves document layout (if instructors want a multi-column layout), preserves images, and allows documents to be viewed without the cost of special software (the Adobe Reader is a free plug-in). Adobe has added special features to the Reader so that it can work directly with assistive technologies (like screen readers, Braille devices, etc.).
  • Descriptive Title Links: Ever click a link and not know what is going to load? Frustrating? Did you ever get a "file" instead of a web page (and not know how to view the file)? Make sure that your hyperlinks have "human text" contextual labels (Creating Accessible Adobe Documents (.pdf) instead of http://www.adobe.com/enterprise/accessibility/pdfs/acro6_pg_ue.pdf ). If the link brings you to anything other than a web page, indicate the file type which will load (such as .pdf).

1 comment:

marry said...

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