Wednesday, 7 October 2020

Creating Teaching Resources: Online Courses

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts looking at my experiences of developing online learning materials. Hopefully sharing these experiences is helpful as people work to adapt and deliver their own online training. As always, this blog post only represents my own views and experiences with the tools I used.


Building an online course is a huge task and I cannot cover everything you need to know in one blog post so I would be really interested in comments from others on their own experience and how these can help others who are starting to develop their own programmes as we go forward with an academic year focused on online teaching.

What is it?

Online courses are becoming an increasing fact of life for anyone who teaches. Rather than discrete sessions, an online course involves a programme of content designed to be followed over time towards an ultimate goal.

Creating an online course - whether starting from scratch or adapting existing content - is a very involved process and not one that should be rushed. No matter how many times you have delivered a session in-person before, you will need to think carefully about translate this to online delivery. The mistake that a lot of people make it to replicate the content they usually deliver in person without thinking about how this will work in a different format. I speak from experience - the observations below come from my own project and the things I did wrong so please don't think I got everything right straight away. I freely admit that I'm still learning!

How are we using it?

This post is going to focus on the major online course I have created - the Research Support Ambassador Programme. This has progressed from an intensive face-to-face programme into an asynchronous online course which is open to all (an open educational resource). Over the last four years I have taken this from in-person sessions to webinars, an internal VLE course and now a public facing resource available via a LibGuide.

Aimed at library staff, it introduces the essentials of scholarly communication. It contains a range of formats including text, video and audio as well as activities which learners can use to test their knowledge. I've written a lot before on the development of the programme and you can read about the first few years of development in this OA article and about the move to an OER in this blog post from 2019. The course covers six core units which can be taken individually or as a whole programme.


How to...

There are far too many elements involved in building an online course to discuss in one blog post and it depends a lot on the type of programme you want to deliver. Instead, I'm going to outline some of the key decisions you need to take when planning your course:

  • Synchronous or asynchronous? These are terms more of us are familiar with now but as a recap - do you want people to take the course online together or do you want them to work at their own pace. This is one of the biggest decisions you will need to make so make it early.
  • What is the outcome you're aiming for? You are likely to want people to learn something but is this theory based or practical based? Think about what people need to be able to do and then work backwards from that when planning. For more information on this you should explore the work of Wiggins and McTighe on Backward Design. Alison Hicks does great work for librarianship in this area and this presentation from LILAC 2018 (with Charlie Inskip) has some useful information.
  • Think carefully about potential platforms. I used LibGuides as this was the best I had access to within the confines of my project. My key concerns were being able to add University branding and have a course that was as open as possible but your considerations may be different so investigate all options thoroughly.
  • How will you evaluate success or (more importantly) will you do this at all? This will depend on the  nature of your audience. The Research Ambassadors is intended to be an OER (Open Educational Resource) meaning that anyone can take part in any way they like. Assessing this myself wasn't practical in the same way it was when it was a defined audience so I used self-assessment activities instead. If you are working with a smaller group then you may want to use more formal assessment methods.
  • How will you ensure accessibility of your materials? Anyone designing online materials needs to make sure that these are available to as many people as possible. You need to think about transcripts for videos, al text for images and alternative formats for content - and that's just for starters. You won't get everything right first time but you should put accessibility at the top of your list.
  • Following on from the above, remember that designing a course is an iterative process. Things will change over time as new sources and formats become available and as your own learning develops. Build in feedback to your course and act on it where you can. There will be changes to be made but usually if people are giving you feedback it means they are invested in improving your course in some way so you must be doing something right!


Pros

The main plus point of online courses in the time of COVID is that you don't have to come into physical contact with people and (in theory) these courses can be taken from anywhere which will help learners as well. Taking the time to build a good online course now will mean that when education returns to something more 'normal' you will have tools to offer content in a range of formats which will appeal to different people. Developing an online course is also a really good way to take a step back and evaluate programmes you have been delivering for a while in a new way, something long overdue for many of them (mine included!).


Cons

In case it's not obvious from the above - developing an online course is HARD. WORK! It's not something that can be done quickly and it requires a lot of forward planning and thinking around the big questions. Done well it can have benefits for both teacher and learner but it's a big commitment so be sure you're ready for it.


Next steps

Like most people, the last few months have been spent in frantic planning and adapting to changes in the middle of a pandemic and I haven't had much time to think about the next steps I want to take with the Research Support Ambassadors. In the future I would like to make it part of a blended learning programme and create more online courses but first I think I need to take my own advice and plan before I take the next steps.


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