We asked Jennifer Hunter, an online course developer at Southern Utah University, about the process of creating a successful online course, about the challenges she’s encountered and overcome, and about the resources she uses in helping students and especially faculty make this crucial transition. Drawing on pedagogical research and real-world experience in an academic setting, Ms. Hunter offered detailed insights into online learning management systems, synchronous vs. asynchronous course structures, and the best practices she adheres to when facilitating the move from campus-based instruction to e-learning. She also detailed some of the emerging technological assets and advanced learning platforms that are being incorporated into the design of online courses at SUU and elsewhere.
Jennifer Hunter is the Senior Instructional Designer for SUU Online at Southern Utah University’s School of Graduate and Continuing Studies. She assists in the development of the university’s online learning strategy, including research and development, essential learning outcomes, faculty development and outreach.
Ms. Hunter has experience as a higher education instructional consultant, designer, developer, and trainer across multiple institutions (public and private), colleges, departments, and programs. She has a background in adjunct teaching, curriculum development, data management, funding development, institutional accreditation, institutional policy, leadership, learner assessment, online learning, program development and management, public relations, qualitative and quantitative research, team building, technology, and training.
Before joining SUU as an Instructional Designer, she worked for the Economic Development Office of Cedar City managing projects and events for the city and Iron County.
Ms. Hunter holds an undergraduate business degree and MBA from Southern Utah University and is in the dissertation phase of her PhD in e-Learning from NCU with an expected graduation date of June 2016.
[OnlineEducation.com] What are some of the most significant differences between face-to-face (F2F) and online instruction, and how are these best addressed during the course design process?
[Ms. Hunter] Your development process and the time required for it will be significantly different. This is most likely one of the biggest differences between preparing an online course versus an F2F course; the preparation time prior to offering the course for the first time is significantly larger for an online course.
If you have been teaching F2F synchronous courses and you are moving to online, asynchronous courses, you have entirely different formats in lesson preparation and delivery. You can’t just record a face-to-face lecture and post the video or transcribe your lecture notes and post them for absorption. Research shows this is not how students learn.
There are two important elements to keep in mind for an online course: quality online components and effective online teaching. You have to have the right engaging and/or interactive elements and you have to be able to effectively teach online. One or the other is not enough. You need to build an online community and have an instructor presence. Instructor presence requires more than just grading.
At SUU, we have faculty take an online course called Essentials of Online Course Design. In this short, self-paced course, they see the learning management system (LMS) from the student’s perspective and that guides their own course development — what they liked, what they didn’t like; what worked well, what bombed; how they would handle different scenarios in their own course.
[OnlineEducation.com] What is the process involved in converting a traditional course into an online course, and how might this differ for a new course?
[Ms. Hunter] You can’t just “dump” F2F content online and expect the same results. However, that does not mean that you have to start from scratch either. If you have a solid F2F course, then you have a solid foundation for the online version of the same course. You will need to determine the factors that make it a solid F2F course and translate that to an online offering. If you have great in-class dialogue you could turn those topics into discussion boards.
At SUU, we have a nine-step process that mirrors the Quality Matters rubric. We start with the syllabus, and then add an orientation followed by outcomes. That is pretty much the starting template in any online course and it leads to consistency for students. From there, we bring in learning materials, activities and assignments, and assessments. There is a review process to make sure these three are aligned with each other and have congruency as well as variety. The last three steps are more technical and less academic and include working with course technology, student support, and accessibility, specifically as it relates to ADA standards.
This nine-step process works for new as well as seasoned courses, and it is also used to review courses that have been online for a couple of years to make sure they are fresh and functioning.
[OnlineEducation.com] How can online instructors best inspire the kind of student engagement and active learning that are typically associated with a traditional classroom environment, particularly in asynchronous courses, where there aren’t opportunities for spontaneous classroom discussions and live demonstrations?
[Ms. Hunter] This is a great question and one that subject matter experts (SMEs) should ask themselves as they start to move a course online. Northwest Accreditation actually requires F2F courses and their online counterparts to contain the same rigor and experience. Online students should not lose out on the experiences gained from live demonstrations, simulation exercises, and other interactive learning components. At last count, I have a list of over 25 different activities that can be used asynchronously online to keep students engaged and enhance learning. You don’t have to lose any substance from a F2F course when you move the course online. If you have group projects and teamwork, you can have those same learning experiences in an asynchronous course. It just takes planning. Technology is making the inclusion of interactive learning components easier every day to accomplish.
There is one caveat to note: SMEs need to understand the difference between active and interactive. I can be actively watching a video, but I am not interacting with it unless I am doing something to engage with the video. For example, if the video has a built in quiz, then I interact with the video. Many technology tools are marketed as interactive when they are just active.
[OnlineEducation.com] At SUU, you use the Quality Matters Program to insure that your online courses are designed to meet certain standards and specifications. Can you explain how this works?
[Ms. Hunter] Quality Matters is a nationally benchmarked company that takes some of the legwork out of reading all the research to determine what makes a great course. They’ve made a compact rubric out of all the data. The rubric is broken into eight parts and each part covers multiple points. For example, in this day and age you need to build accessibility into your courses: this includes closed captioning for the hearing impaired and alt text on images for the visually impaired. I have learned it is much less time consuming to build in ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act provisions] from the beginning rather than trying to come back later to a completed course and change everything to meet ADA requirements. Some of the specifics under “Accessibility” in the Quality Matters rubric include, providing information related to accessibility of all technologies used in the courses, insuring that the course design facilitates readability, and securing alternate means to access course materials to meets the needs of diverse learners.
[OnlineEducation.com] With that in mind, what are some of the best practices instructors should adhere to when designing online courses?
[Ms. Hunter] Universal best practices include consistent and clear navigation and hiding any links the students will not be using. Don’t strip color out of your course because of the visually impaired, but rather implement color using headers that screen readers can pick up and read to students. This is just good design, as it makes for consistent formatting for all students. We use alt text to supplement all images. And we don’t use images for bullet point lists: bullet point lists are good, just don’t use images as the bullet point. And you should avoid using light text on light backgrounds or dark on dark backgrounds. Most universal best practices are just good design decisions for all students. The National Educational Association has a great research review report on Universal Design for Learning (PDF).
[OnlineEducation.com] In addition to textbooks, which may or may not have an online component, what are some of the other assets that you recommend incorporating into online courses?
[Ms. Hunter] One area we like to encourage our faculty is in the resource section of their course. Don’t just use the textbook, but look into what other resources are available, especially ones that are available for free. Brigham Young University recently ran a study that showed that students scored higher in courses with alternatives to textbooks rather than just a textbook. We highlight this in our design process by asking for a minimum of three perspectives on the course. The professor is one perspective; the textbook can be a second perspective; but a third is required and we love to see even more. Ted Talks are a great source of content material that is short, sweet, and to the point. FURTHERMORE, most of them have closed captioning now so that aids in the accessibility context.
OER Commons is the largest open educational resource I am aware of that is available on the web and free. Flickr is a free resource for pictures. Khan Academy and Nearpod have literally hundreds of lessons you can use for free.
In addition to free resources, there are free apps that you can use to create your own animated videos (moovly, animoto, powtoon). You can create presentations without having to use PowerPoint, through apps like emaze, Prezi, haikudeck, and brainshark. And you can use other apps to create infograms (infrogr.am, piktochart), polls and surveys (polleverywhere, surveymonkey); portfolios (sites.google, pathbrite); and timelines (capzles, dipity, hstry). The great thing about each of these tools is that your students can also use them, to have fun, engaging, interactive activities instead of boring worksheets and scantron tests.
[OnlineEducation.com] What advice to you have for educators who might find the transition from traditional to online instruction difficult or intimidating?
[Ms. Hunter] I have heard all of the reasons not to move online: I want to interact with my students; F2F is better for learning and retention; online is just a fad; I don’t have time to learn a new technology to host the class. Since I am working on my dissertation, I can tell you I have found research that debunks all of these myths and even research that promotes the move to online as education for the 21st century.
Each professor that I approach to move online has unique trepidations. The first step is just to talk. What is it they would like to do? Start small. Many of my professors start by just posting a syllabus online. I just let them learn the LMS over the entire semester without having to worry about monitoring a class or grading online. I probably will send them a few emails through the LMS just to get them a little more engaged.
I also offer two self-paced courses, both of which are about six hours long, so you can do it in one sitting or spread out over a couple of weeks. The first course is all about the LMS, so they see how it functions and learn what they like and don’t like. As they address their concerns with me, I can show them tips and tricks as well as find out what they would really like the LMS to do for them. The second course is about designing an online course. I use Essentials of Online Course Design: A Standards-Based Guide as my textbook.
One great feature of most LMSs is the auto-graded quiz feature, which functions similar to scantron tests, complete with data analytics. When I show professors that they can build in quiz banks instead of handing out different colored tests in the classroom that have different coded scantrons, I can usually convince them to go with the LMS. Now they have their syllabi and tests on the LMS. It is just a one-semester transition after this point to move a whole class online.
I would also recommend calling your nearest instructional designer (ID), This is what they are trained to do. They are not SMEs , they don’t know your content inside and out, but a well-trained ID knows how to intentionally design with pedagogical research in mind to enhance learning in your online class. Partnerships between SMEs and IDs can do great things.