Open Networked Learning Course (ONL212), Topic 4: Design for online and blended learning – advice to my younger self?

When I started teaching many years ago, I received a variety of advice from well-meaning senior colleagues. “Don’t let the students walk all over you.” “Get some student feedback around the mid-term mark to see how you are doing.” “Don’t be too nice.” “Don’t assign too much material.” I don’t recall much discussion about overall course design, much less blended learning.

I found this ONL topic the heaviest in terms of substantive content. There are just so many theories and models on course design out there! During our group discussions, some members talked about the models they use (e.g. Gilly Salmon’s Five Stage Model). This was most helpful. I wouldn’t know where to start otherwise.

Wading through all the theories and models on course design, I think it is important to remember to return to basics: the theories and models chosen will ultimately depend on course objectives. Based on their 3C-model, Kerres and De Witt argue that learning environments are made up of three components: (a) a content component (“that makes learning material available to a learner”; (b) a communication component (“that offers interpersonal exchange between learners or learners and tutors”; (c) a constructive component (“that facilitates and guides individual as well as cooperative learning activities to actively operate on learning tasks (or assignments) with different degrees of complexity”). All three components can be delivered face-to-face (FTF) or online, but the balance between these three components will depend on course objectives. For example, if the main objective of a law course is simply for students to learn applicable ‘black-letter’ legal rules (not advisable especially in this day and age) then the course will necessarily be designed to focus on content delivery (via FTF or online) as opposed to communication or construction.

One theme that came up during our group discussions was the need to ensure that our courses are inclusive. After several years of teaching, I sometimes take student profiles for granted. While I try to get to know my students as individuals, I do tend to assume that they start the course with certain study skills and learning styles. A couple of years back, I had a student with special needs who taught me never to take this for granted. When preparing for next term’s course, I will definitely be referring to some inclusivity frameworks highlighted by my group mates, in particular the Universal Design for Learning.

Thinking about course design also made me really appreciate our synchronous ONL group discussions. Even when group discussions are slow, these synchronous sessions always spark my curiosity and encourage further self-study. Preparing for these synchronous sessions is however tiring. Smith, Groves, Bowd and Barber emphasize the need for educators to carefully plan synchronous sessions as such sessions are “expensive” for learners in terms of time and effort. I found Marshall and Kostka’s Synchronous Online Flipped Learning Approach (SOFLA) useful for thinking about how to combine synchronous and asynchronous sessions to maximize learner experience. According to Marshall and Kostka, teaching presence can be enhanced in both synchronous and asynchronous settings by thinking through lesson plans using a series of eight steps: prework, sign-in activity, whole group application, breakouts, share-out, preview and discovery, assignment instructions, reflection. This SOFLA model clearly aims to empower learners and encourage collaborative learning by recognizing “the interactive and dynamic nature of learning that results when teacher-led activities are moved out of class”.

I realize I have learned a lot from our group’s facilitators. Miriam and Peter functioned more like coaches throughout the course, especially during our synchronous online sessions. Timonen and Ruokamo argue that there is a difference between facilitating and coaching. A group coach “participates in the learning process” while a group facilitator “leads it”. Group coaches aim “to foster internal agency” and “uphold the common targets of the group”. A group’s coach “capitalizes on its members’ capacities and competences”. Based on my observations, our ONL ‘facilitators’ took a coaching approach in getting our group to take charge of our group’s direction. They provided us with resources and collaborative methods (e.g. the say ‘Yes, and’ approach). They motivated us with encouraging comments and suggestions. Such group coaching is resource-intensive. We had two group ‘facilitators’ or ‘coaches’ for our group of eight.  

Given all this, course design is really quite an undertaking. Knowing this now, I wonder what advice I would have given to my younger self.

3 thoughts on “Open Networked Learning Course (ONL212), Topic 4: Design for online and blended learning – advice to my younger self?”

  1. Thanks Cheah for your insightful reflections! It’s amazing to notice how many things you have read and critically revised in such a short time! You are right, there are so many approaches and methods one could get lost and loose the original focus. I think you have given already to your ‘self’ the answer to your original question. ‘What should I do when it comes to designing a course? ‘Just Keep it simple and listen to your learners!

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  2. Thank you for sharing your views and experiences on the topic. It is always pleasant to read your post. I fully agree with you that the theories and models chosen will ultimately depend on course objectives. It is the learning outcomes that guide us to choose the theory, design the learning activities, and select the technologies to promote the teaching and the learning. The example you showed in the law studies somehow reflects the adapting the modes of learning from the hierarchy individual to the distribute collective as discussed in the Topic 5. I also agreed with you on not assuming the students’ study skills and learning styles. However, somehow it would be useful to know the students’ skills and knowledge levels beforehand so that we can design the learning to ensure the students with diversities to reach the same learning outcomes.

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    1. Thanks for engaging with my post! Yes, I agree it would be great to know the students’ knowledge levels beforehand. I also think it would be great to get to know how this develop throughout the course (apart from using continual assessments). Getting to know students as individuals takes time and effort. This gets hard as the class size gets bigger, I feel.

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