As much as we like to think our online courses are perfect, there is always room for improvement. Our job is never done. On the Distance Learning team, we are first and foremost concerned with partnering with faculty to develop high-quality learning experiences for students. That includes the ongoing process of revisiting courses and individual assessments: how well did this work for students and instructors, and how can we make it better?
The Distance Learning team believes in a good challenge, and during the Spring 2016 course development cycle, faculty developer Dave DeVries and I met and conquered a design challenge while developing the new-to-online Master’s in Sports Administration course Sports Public Relations and Crisis Management. This course had only been offered for on-ground students but never online, so we had a solid syllabus and course schedule to start with. This post focuses on the development and implementation of the midterm project.
The midterm served as an important scenario-based summative assessment that evaluated what students had learned and practiced throughout the first four weeks, during which students engaged with instructional material (such as textbook readings, online articles, instructor topic videos) and participated in various formative and authentic assessments (such as current events forums and other topical discussion forums, weekly accountability quizzes, and written assignments). These formative assessments prepared them for the midterm, which asked groups to plan, prepare, and deliver a written communication plan, give a presentation of the plan, and participate in a post-presentation Q&A session.
The design challenge was to design a summative assessment that included three discrete components normally performed in one sitting in the on-ground classroom. We had to ask ourselves, can this assessment work in the online classroom? We decided, yes it can! The we asked ourselves how will we design this for the online classroom? Do we recreate the classroom experience with a live presentation and Q&A using video conferencing tools? Or do we create an alternative experience where students collaborate throughout the first five weeks to plan, prepare, and practice the midterm collaboratively producing the written plan, deliver a recorded group presentation for instructor review, and participate in an asynchronous Q&A session?
Keeping the student experience in mind, we decided creating a fully asynchronous midterm was the best option because we had the tools and technologies available to create a rigorous, well-paced assessment. We introduced a detailed midterm overview in Week 1 that included the short scenario, instructions for the three deliverables, milestones and due dates, collaboration tools and strategies, and support and help information. We were confident the overview included all the information they needed to plan, prepare, and deliver the midterm. Students were asked to use BlueJeans to collaborate throughout the planning stages of the midterm and to record and deliver their final presentation. We included BlueJeans tutorials and help guides, as well as encouraged students to attend the optional synchronous session with the instructor so they could practice using the tool before the final recording.
We anticipated pushback from students about the group work component, because it’s time-consuming and especially challenging to carry out in the online classroom. Paula M. Bigatel, an instructional designer and instructor at Penn State University, stated in her article Student Engagement Strategies for the Online Learning Environment that “as much as students complain about the challenges of group work, we have to remind them about how important collaborative skills are in the workplace.” With this in mind, we made sure the midterm assessment was relevant and authentic and that students saw the benefits of this practical real-world application. Alignment of learning objectives and activities and assessments is essential for a high quality course. The midterm aligned with course and weekly objectives, such as:
- Assemble communication plans for routine and crisis communication.
- Generate several pieces of communication to share information with stakeholders.
- Compose and relate a comprehensive communication plan to share proactive news with stakeholders.
We designed and implemented a short midterm evaluation:
- What worked and didn’t work when working with your group?
- Describe one thing you learned while working with your group that you might not have working individually.
- Suggest one practical change the group could have made to positively influence how well the group worked together.
Based on feedback from the evaluation, students found BlueJeans easy to use for recording the presentation. This was great news because avoiding student frustration with poorly integrated course technology in very important. Course technologies should enhance rather than disrupt student learning.
Students stated they learned a lot from each other about their writing and communication styles, the importance of planning and identifying roles, the value of sharing ideas and listening and defending their ideas. They practiced delegating tasks and completing their individual duties for the greater whole. One student said they “realized how critical it is to make sure a public relations team is all on the same page about the communication plan.” The midterm successfully created an authentic situation for students to practice professional skills.
From the instructor perspective, the design of the midterm “performed as expected” in the online classroom. The midterm clearly aligned with course learning objectives so students understood why this assessment was important, how to get started, and what was expected from them. Additionally, the midterm allowed the instructor to start evaluating whether students were working towards mastery of the content.
Lessons Learned and Next Steps
While group work should empower students to direct their own learning and practice authentic, real-world tasks and skills (such as planning, time management, and communication), students definitely do not like doing it, hands down. A solution to this might be reminding students what learning objectives the midterm aligns with and how they can apply the skills learned through the midterm to the their professional lives.
Groups found it challenging to write a collaborative communication plan, but with additional planning they thought they could have produced a more polished piece. Students found it hard to find time to collaborate, and many felt they should have started the process earlier. We implemented milestone reminders throughout the course to help pace the workload and expectations, but a bit more structure could help monitor group interaction. In a previous post by Instructional Technologist Aaron Bannasch about Online Group Work, he stated “either passively using the Canvas LMS or actively by requiring students to document and organize a report of their collaborative and individual actions, a system should be put in place beforehand so that everyone knows what information to keep track of and how it will be used.” By providing more specific milestones, we could have better prepared groups to stay on track. For example, “By Week 2, your group should have an outline of your written communication plan,” rather than the current milestone, “By Week 2, your group should be working on the communication plan.”
Some groups discovered they were all local and were able to met in person, while some groups started a group text to collaborate. Some groups also used video conferencing tools other than BlueJeans to collaborate. Instructional Technologist Jackie Wickham’s post about Group Work Solutions for Students reminds us that “SPS students have access to all @u.northwestern.edu Google Apps for Education” and they “can contact NUIT or visit the NUIT Google Apps Support page” for additional support. Some changes to consider for next time might be to add more collaboration strategies: exchange phone numbers, meet in person if your team is local, offer more options for video conferencing tools, or offer the option for them to choose what tool works best for the group.
Designing and implementing an online course (or program) is never a one-and-done situation. We look forward to revisiting this course in the future and applying some of the continuous improvement ideas we already have and discovering new ways to improve the learning experience for students.
For more information on designing group work in your course, talk to your Learning Designer, or contact the Distance Learning team at firstname.lastname@example.org.