Monochromatic design. (Photo, and design, by me.)

As I wrote in my first post, this course has been a challenge for me and how I’ve dealt with the feelings that the course has generated (mostly feelings of frustration and confusion) is to use my experience as a source for self-reflection about learning in general and online learning in particular. So, during the course, I’ve kept several writing logs (a meeting log, a feeling log, and a learning log) and now, at the end of the course, I’ve read through them all to see if I could get a wider perspective on my experience. And what I found is that I learn best when I feel inspired, safe, and connected to both my co-learners and the course leaders, and when I have fun. If these conditions aren’t met, I lose both interest and motivation, and feelings of frustration quickly start to build. Of course, all learning involves feelings of frustration since being a beginner is challenging, especially when you are an adult learner is my experience, and this kind of frustration is probably not possible – or even desirable – to eliminate. But the frustration that is generated by an unclear course design and inadequate course leadership can – and should! – be avoided as much as is humanly possible. And how to do that is to start the design process by asking questions. But before I get into that, I did learn some new things about factors to consider in online course design in this course.

Already in 2001, Swan (2001) found that there were two factors that influenced both students’ perceived learning and their satisfaction with the online experience: the clarity of the course design and the quality of communication, both between course participants and course leaders. Several other studies have also pointed out the importance of course design and communication (e.g. Brindley, Blaschke & Walti, 2009; Capdeferro & Romero, 2012; Tseng & Ku, 2011; Thompson & Ku, 2006). Brindley, Blaschke and Walti (2009) identifies seven strategies to improve the quality of group collaboration that includes both course design variables and course leadership skills: 

1. Facilitate learner readiness for group work and provide scaffolding to build skills.
2. Establish a healthy balance between structure (clarity of task) and learner autonomy (flexibility of task).
3. Nurture the establishment of learner relationships and sense of community.
4. Monitor group activities actively and closely.
5. Make the group task relevant for the learner.
6. Choose tasks that are best performed by a group.
7. Provide sufficient time.
(Brindley, Blaschke & Walti, 2009)

The first strategy is an important one I find since a better introduction to, for example, how PBL group work is defined in this course, probably would have lessened my own initial confusion and frustration. Capdeferro and Romero (2012) suggest that students should be provided with an introduction to online collaborative online learning and effective teamwork before beginning their course work, which I think is a great idea, but whether to do that or not, depends on the learning goals in the course, of course. I still don’t really understand what the learning goals in this course are, but I know where the focus of my own learning was during the course: in the PBL group work. The content of the course coincided with that process to some extent but not fully, which means that some of the course content most likely passed me by completely. And again, that makes me wonder about the course goals and the thought behind the design of the course.  

As I already mentioned in the last post, Capdeferro and Romero (2012) point out all the issues that we struggled with in our PBL group: time, effort, prior knowledge, volume and quality of work. Now, after the fact, I realize that we all had unrealistic expectations of the volume and quality of work that we’d be able to produce because we didn’t explicitly establish any common goals: “establishing common goals is part of the construction of common grounds since actions cannot be interpreted without referring to (shared) goals, and, reciprocally, goal discrepancies are often revealed through disagreement on action” (Capdeferro & Romero, 2012). One way to establish common goals is by writing a team agreement and according to Thomson and Ku’s (2006) results, what is important in that process is to keep the discussion of the team agreement alive during the whole course so that the original agreement that is established at the beginning of the course can be revised continually based on the challenges and problems the group encounter during the course. A team agreement was used in this course, but since I missed a couple of meetings at the start of the course due to illness, I was not involved in the process of formulating the agreement. Also, we didn’t revise the agreement during the course. Another factor that an active team agreement most likely enhances is the level of trust in the group, and the level of trust in a group has been shown to have a strong positive relationship with both team performance and teamwork satisfaction (Tseng & Ku, 2011).

So, after this brief odyssey into what I’ve learned about online course design, let’s go back to the course design process. A model of learning that I’ve found very useful is Knowles, Holton & Swanson’s (2005) model of adult learning that they call andragogy which is a term that reflects the fact that pedagogy in Greek means “child-learning” whereas adragogy means “man-learning”. The main idea of the model is that adults are self-directed and expect to take responsibility for their decisions and thus, courses that are intended to cater to adult learners – as are all university courses – need to accommodate for these aspects. 

(Knowles, Holton & Swanson, 2005)

The model states that the goals and purposes for learning need to take into account individual and situational differences and needs to be based on six core adult learning principles. The first principle states that the learner needs to know the why, what and how of the learning, which is why I wrote earlier that the way to start the course design process is to ask questions. And the best place to start is to start with the “why”. Why would a learner want to learn the content of the course? – the answer to that question is the most important one and it needs to be crystal clear for the course designer and they, in turn, need to be able to communicate the answer to their course participants. My experience is that if this step is successful, there are rarely any problems with motivation – neither to learn nor to complete the assignments. Then there are the two questions concerning the “what” and the “how” of the course – what is the content of the course supposed to be and how is the learner supposed to learn it. The “what” depends on the goals and purposes of the course which may be more or less pre-determined, but the “how” is usually flexible. When considering the “how”, it can be a good idea to revisit Brindley, Blaschke & Walti’s (2009) strategies, and especially strategies two, five, and six:
2. Establish a healthy balance between structure (clarity of task) and learner autonomy (flexibility of task).
5. Make the group task relevant for the learner.
6. Choose tasks that are best performed by a group.
(Brindley, Blaschke & Walti, 2009)  
These strategies work just as well when designing courses that aren’t based on collaborative learning since a balance between the clarity and the flexibility of the task is most often preferable in all learning situations and to create tasks that are relevant for the learner is paramount in all course design. And, finally, if group work has been defined as a course goal or has been determined to be the most beneficial way to learn the content, take special care to create suitable and relevant group assignments. When you have the answers to the why, what, and how of the course, you have a solid structure to build on. 

It is true that I didn’t feel inspired by this course, but attending the course re-ignited the fire of inspiration in me about course design. It reminded me of how incredibly important it is to invest time, care, and effort in the design process, and for that I am truly grateful! 
Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M., & Walti, C. (2009). Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online Environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 10(3). doi: 10.19173/irrodl.v10i3.675.

Capdeferro, N., & Romero, M. (2012). Are online learners frustrated with collaborative learning experiences? The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 13(2), 26-44. doi: 10.19173/irrodl.v13i2.1127.

Knowles, M., Holton, E., & Swanson, R. (2005). The Adult   Learner – The Definitive Classic in Adult Education and Human Resource Development. Amsterdam, Boston, Singapore, Sydney: Elsevier.

Swan, K. (2001) Virtual interaction: Design factors affecting student satisfaction and perceived learning in asynchronous online courses. Distance Education, 22(2), 306-331. doi: 10.1080/0158791010220208th.

Thompson, L., & Ku, H-Y. (2006). A Case Study of Online Collaborative Learning. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 7(4), 361–375.

Tseng, H., & Ku, H.-Y. (2011). The relationships between trust, performance, satisfaction, and development progressions among virtual teams. Quarterly Review of Distance Education, 12(2), 81-94.

Design, design, design! Topics 4 and 5