Course Cartridges: Are your students still hungry?

Wed, 9 May, 2012     course cartridgescourse designinstructional designpedagogy

Course design is a hot topic in e-learning environments. Basically, how are you going to get the information from your head to the student's head? Speaking from experience, far too often faculty members in the online and blended environments rely heavily on a course cartridge as their main method of knowledge transfer. For example, PowerPoints, test banks, and notes designed by the publisher are dumped into an empty Blackboard shell. These are the same PowerPoints that your most boring lecturers and instructors used to "teach" you. Do you remember being excited in those classes? Of course not! The classes were not engaging and didn't satisfy your hunger to learn. Throw the course cartridges out!

What is wrong with using the course cartridges? Students don't learn by lecture and reading alone. Of course not all students learn the same, but shouldn't we try to incorporate as many different learning styles as possible? Nothing (per say) is wrong with course cartridges. Course cartridges can be supplementary or review material - just not the primary course content. Remember you are still the instructor: an online class is not an independent study.

How can you design a course that satisfies your students' hunger for knowledge? The first thing that a course cartridge fails to address is a good layout. Sure the publisher organizes the content by chapter, but is that enough? Often times the cartridge is broken into PowerPoints, lecture notes, and supplemental material. Would you enjoy sitting down for a dinner only to find out that you had to keep going to different rooms to get the different parts of your meal? Absolutely not. Your students don't enjoy it either. Is each lesson within the course clearly defined? Do your students know what they should be digesting during the lesson? Do they know when they should be digesting the material? Students like to enter a Blackboard course and know where they should get their material for that lesson. For this reason it is often advantageous to organize a course by week, module, or lesson. In other words, contain all the items needed for the week, module, or lesson in one central spot. Course cartridges typically include PowerPoint presentations that faculty like to use as their "lecture." What is wrong with this? This is our first meat. A plain, medium well, chuck steak. Chuck steak isn't bad but we all know that chuck steak by itself can get mighty boring-almost repulsive after too much of it. Now some true lecturers (very few) are like filet mignons. By themselves and cooked to perfection, they are wonderful. Folks "ooo" and "ahhh" over them. But let's be honest, they are few and far between. What could we do to ensure that the meal is satisfying rather than plain and uninteresting?

Applying a seven course meal approach is one way to approach course design. This kind of formal meal consists of a very satisfying portion of food chunked into much smaller segments to allow time for digestion and enjoyment. Isn't this what we want to happen with the material that we feed our students? Allow time for digestion and enjoyment? Where is the menu? The menu tells you what you are eating, in what order, and at what time. Good course design incorporates this philosophy. As an instructor, we provide a syllabus with Student Learning Outcomes that students should know once they have completed the course. The syllabus, though, is not like a menu. The syllabus tells you what is happening for the entire semester. Shouldn't your students know what to expect at each meal rather than telling them at the end of the semester you will have eaten pig, tuna, and cow? Give your students a breakdown of learning outcomes for each lesson or week. Set the expectations of what is to come and base your lessons upon those expectations.

Let us begin by adding an appetizer to signal the beginning of the lesson. What can you do to grab the audience's attention? Is there a fact that will shock them? A question that will make them think? A relevant picture to get them thinking about the lesson to come? A website that will help them familiarize themselves with the new lesson? What can you do to signal to your students that you are transitioning to a new lesson?

Your students are now primed and ready to quickly absorb knowledge (like the soup portion of a formal meal). The soup is nutritious, light, satisfying, and comforting. This is the point in the lesson that you can give some quick step-by-step instructions or maybe engage the students in a guided discussion about the topic. You might also find or create an appropriate short video clip or audio clip. Ease into the material.

Don't forget the salad. Sometimes it is rough but it is good for you: Now most folks think of the meat as the main portion of the meal but I like to think of the salad as one of the more important parts of the meal. Why? Most folks forget how much nutrition the salad has. We are not only talking vitamins, but protein as well. But a lot of folks would just skip the salad because it just isn't as exciting as a filet mignon. What building knowledge does your student need to continue in this lesson? What are some of the forgotten items that must be discovered before the main point of the lesson? Is there some supplemental material that will aid in the understanding of the main points?

Just before the first meat, you have to give students some time to digest, enjoy, and ready themselves. A sorbet is a traditional method for clearing a palette prior to the meat portion of the meal. This is a time for students to engage in the material learned thus far. Some faculty prefer a quick self-assessment (low or no stakes grading), while others may have a quick simulation or video clip to tie the lesson together thus far.

What if I told you that you could have two meats instead of one, both prepared a different way? Wouldn't that be exciting? Absolutely! Students want the same thing. Students have different learning styles and sometimes instructors only satisfy one. Why not aim for at least two? This is where a course cartridge fails. A course cartridge takes care of visual learners. Those students that can look at a slide show and learn solely from it. But that isn't most students. Most students need several different styles met to learn the material. Remember you have visual, auditory, read-write, and kinesthetic learners. Give them two meats instead of one!

Save the best for last. Dessert can be one of the most exciting times of a meal. You know you are really too full to continue but you do anyway because you know that the reward is great. Often the best part about learning is being able to apply the learning. Relating the experience to real life through application. Are you missing the dessert in your course? At the dining table we can enjoy each savory bite as we take in a little bit more substance as well as interacting with our company. We must remember that the same applies to e-learning. Students need to ingest slowly and in manageable chunks to fully absorb, retain, and experience e-learning. When you design or re-design your next online or blended course, make sure you create a course that satiates their need to learn.

Katherine Spradley
Director of Distance Education
Campbell University