Showcase: IDS 425


Our first Showcase course is IDS 425: Learning Environment Design, taught by David Noffs in Fall 2016. This course was selected due to its high Quality Matters score, enthusiastic student response, and innovative use of technology by the faculty and distance learning staff. Take some time to learn about how the course was developed and some of the teaching strategies and learning technologies it used to create an engaging educational experience for students.


Quality Matters

Using the Course Development Blueprint also prompted us to think about how course content and course design decisions would meet Quality Matters Standards. For example, the Blueprint included information on Course Activities and Learner Interaction, Standard 5. Students were given an explanation of how learning activities like collaborating to create a community charter would foster peer interaction and contribute to the course objective of building community. The Blueprint also included information about how the course technologies, like Nebula and Yellowdig, would support the learning objectives and promote active learning. We also provided detailed information on how to use each of these tools and how to ensure student privacy.

Community Building

When designing the discussion board rubric, we wanted to emphasize two criteria for rich discourse between students and professor.

Criteria Ratings Points
Content and Conventions Demonstrates exceptional understanding of the subject matter, and selects and applies the most appropriate content. Ideas are expressed clearly, concisely and directly relate to discussion question(s). Very few grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. 3.0 pts Demonstrates acceptable understanding of the subject matter, and uses some appropriate content. Some ideas are expressed clearly but some are disorganized or hard to understand. Some grammatical, spelling, and punctuation errors. 2.0 pts Demonstrates limited understanding of the subject matter, and does not use enough appropriate content. 0.0 pts 3.0 pts
Contribution to learning community Thoughtful, reflective comments that show respect of and attention to postings of peers. Comments offer a new perspective or an example that furthers discussion. 2.0 pts Comments related to discussion question but does not prompt further discussion of topic. Comments show some attention to peers’ comments. 1.0 pts No feedback or responses to peers’ comments. Comments repeat existing information or do not sufficiently further the conversation. 0.0 pts 2.0 pts
  Points Total 5.0 pts

The first criterion, on a scale of 0 to 3, rated the student’s understanding of the subject matter and their ability to articulate observations and ideas directly related to the subject matter in a clear and grammatically proper manner.

The second criterion, on a scale of 0 to 2, rated the student’s “virtual listening skills” and social presence in the discussion. While students were expected to demonstrate empathy and respect towards each other in a learning community, they were also expected to be willing to engage in meaningful and authentic discourse that included challenging and questioning ideas and stated positions.

Weekly sync sessions

When initially designing the course, I was asked to schedule an optional sync session each week. I perceived this to be a sort of virtual “drop-in” center for my students to meet with their professor and coursemates just in case they needed help. Much to my surprise, this weekly optional sync session became our community water cooler. Rather than an afterthought, it became the place to be seen and heard for our virtual community. We had nearly 100% attendance for each weekly sync session for the entire course, including one session when attendees were logged in from Florida, Connecticut, Illinois, and Queensland, Australia simultaneously. I began each session with a general well-being check. While in the early weeks these check-ins were mostly course related, by the third and fourth week, we began to hear more about important life events outside of class. Rather than detract from the coursework this seemed to strengthen our community and the collaborative thought that was going into group projects and discussion boards.

How this came about was quite accidental but worth briefly reciting for other online community builders.

During the course design process, my learning designer, Jessica Mansbach, suggested I add a page to the end of each weekly module called, “What happened this week?” I agreed to include this page but wanting to ensure students had a place where they could ask questions, I also created an “Ask the Instructor” discussion board.

During the first week of class, several students posted questions on the coursework to me in a variety of places including the Announcements board, the Ask the Instructor board, and via direct message. This seemed inefficient to me and so I suggested to the class that they post questions and topics for review and clarification in the “What happened this week?” page, and that the content there, including my own notes, would become the agenda for our weekly sync session. This seemed to suit everyone as a central location and gave students a sense of control over the weekly sync session discussions, something they respected and valued.

  • Allowing group spontaneity, creating an environment where things can happen, giving students opportunity for creativity and involvement.
  • Built upon the weekly recaps; had the students post questions about things they were uncertain about, used that as the agenda for the sessions
  • Became an avenue for feedback

Being vested in the creation of weekly sync session discussions not only encouraged participation and collegiality among students, it also modeled a core tenet of the course, which was learner-centered teaching. I offered students an opportunity to lead discussions during some of these sync sessions and they could see how their own areas of interest guided the course discussions, and group assignments. In particular, this became a time where students could question me about assignment requirements and define their case studies to be used in group projects for the course. So together we created course content while spontaneously responding to specific student needs and interests.

Community charter

As community building was also one of the main learning objectives for the course, we felt it was important to have the students, as a class, create their own charter, called the “Graduate School Online Learning Community”. They renamed it, appropriately, “About Us-The People of IDS-425”.

This was to become for most, if not all, the activity that most defined how our community came together and one that, once again, modeled an important course topic and brought it to life as an experiential learning activity. Nearly all students cited the development of community charters as an activity they would include in their own work environments, whether virtual or even IRL, to use an acronym for “In Real Life” our community adopted from the internet.

The Assignment description is below:

Using this week's readings and suggestions from our discussion board, as a class, develop a set of guidelines (as many as you feel are necessary) for building an online learning community of graduate students. What are your main roles, rights, and responsibilities? Choose a different color for your own contributions to the class document. The document may be two to three pages in length or longer if necessary.

On page 34 of the Palloff and Pratt text, the authors list some possible steps to be taken when establishing a learning community. These may help you in your own deliberations. In addition, on page 145 of the Yu-Chu Yeh reading, the researcher notes the emergence of eight online roles. This, along with the Palloff and Pratt text, may help guide your discussions and thoughts on the roles of teachers and learners in online learning communities.

This assignment is due at the end of week 3. So you have two weeks to work on it.

Group projects throughout the course

Group projects can be good for everyone, if time is taken to build a community.

While group projects are an important way for graduate students to work collaboratively while learning important skills such as defining roles and time management, the selection of groups may be at times contentious and time consuming. Students may know each other from previous courses and want to work with some but feel reluctant to work with others for numerous reasons. Working to build a community from the beginning can help students and teachers express their strengths, weaknesses, needs, and expectations, before group projects are assigned.