Framing Your Online Course

Read time: approx. 13 minutes

This blog post is part of a series to help you build an online course quickly. It is for people who are preparing to launch their third trimester in course that they thought would be F2F but will begin instead as an online course, those looking ahead to intensive May terms, and those who had planned to teach in person in the summer or fall but now find their F2F classes will be online.

This post is the most important of the series because it shows you how to identify what is most important in your course and helps organize your online course to make sure you are doing the most important work.

Think of the work described in this post like framing a house—by the end, you will see the general outline of the house.

When you build a house, you have to think about how it fits onto the land, how the ground upon which it is built shapes the materials you use, how the needs of its inhabitants determine its shape, how the availability of building material determines what you can and cannot build, and more. In the same way, we must think about how the context of this course, the needs of its students, and our available resources shape what we build.

Above, construction workers raise a barn. Sterling College from Craftsbury Common, VT, USA / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0) CEphoto, Uwe Aranas.

To start, have the following on hand:

  • the description for the course from the course catalog
  • your program/major/department objectives (if they exist) and the way your course fits into them
  • any other department- or university-level mandates for the course. For example, if it is a General Ed course, it might have different obligations than an elective
  • for K-12 teachers, your pacing guide or other materials that inform how you teach
  • your university’s rubric for evaluating online courses (Email your instructional designer for a copy.); if your university doesn’t have one, this one might fit your needs
  • a sense of how many students you will be teaching in this class and in the overall semester, so you can be sure you aren’t assigning work you cannot quickly provide feedback to

Then, open a new document and turn it to landscape orientation. Save it; I use the name of the course and the word “Framework.”

I’m going to do this along with you for a course that I’ve taught in the past: Social Problems. At most universities, this is a lower-level course, typically required of sociology and social work majors. In the past, I’ve taught it with a significant service-learning component, but I don’t think that will work well during a pandemic.

Into your new document, paste your course description, plus any other reminders of what the course must do. Here’s mine:

Application of sociological theories and concepts in the analysis of contemporary social problems in the United States, including poverty, unemployment, racial and gender inequality, immigration, education, family, health, delinquency and crime. Cross listed as SW 2223. Fall, Spring, Summer.

 You’ll be coming back to these reminders over and over.

Next, insert a table with seven columns and as many rows as you have units in your semester, plus one. My class has seven units so I’m including eight rows. In the first row, put the following headers: Unit #, Topic, Thesis, Learning Objectives, Materials, Student Output, and Due Date.

You might decide to use different language or to add or delete a column later, but work with this for now.

Next, number the rows, one for each unit.

Then in column 2, give a keyword the captures the focus of the unit. Review your catalog description and other mandates that will shape your course. Do your units make sense, given what the course promises?

Unit # Topic Thesis LOs Materials Output Due Date
1 Intro
2 Poverty and Economic Inequality
3 Health and Healthcare Inequality
4 Alcohol and Other Drugs
5 Climate Change and Environmental Threats
6 War and Terrorism
7 Your Chosen Social Problem

Above, I’ve divided my Social Problems into 7 units: an introduction, 5 units focusing on different social problems, and a unit where they work on an additional social problem of their choice.

How your units divide will vary. What is most important is that each unit has internal coherence. Ideally, it will also be comparable to the other units, though the first and last units may differ a bit as these are places to introduce and wrap up the course. You may already organize your course this way in a F2F course, and this is one area where you can bring what you do there into your online course. If you are building a class online that you have not taught before, look to sample syllabi from friends or ones from digital teaching archives. Textbook headers can also provide a guide.

Next, look at column 3, Thesis. It’s where you articulate, in a single sentence, the key point of the unit. Your sentence can be complex, with lots of clauses or a series of items in a list, but it must be clear. This is what you will return to for each unit to remember your focus.

Unit Topic Thesis LOs Material Output Due Date
2 Poverty and Economic Inequality Poverty is socially constructed through a contested process, with different people suffering—and benefitting—from different definitions of the term and different attempts to solve (or leave unsolved) this “wicked problem.”

Above, I’m focusing on Unit 2 of this class in the illustration for this blog post.

 If you are building your course as you read this, pause here to write these statements; this might take a few hours, depending on how many units you are teaching, but the time will be worthwhile. If you have already taught a version of this F2F, you have probably thought about this even if you haven’t put the thoughts into writing. Or, if you are working with a curriculum that you are not creating (more common for K-12 teachers), this might already be done for you. (Look for “learning objectives” in the curriculum.)

When you have identified the thesis of each unit, state what you want your students to be able to do if they’ve successfully engaged that unit. Write imperative sentences that begin with a verb. Bloom’s taxonomy may be helpful in determining what we can expect students at different levels to be able to do. For example, we should be able to expect upper-level students in a major to create, which is at the top of Bloom’s taxonomy, in a way that we might not be able to expect novices to do. We should also expect students to be able to do more complex tasks as the semester progresses.

Columns 3 and 4 are most important to this document. Every decision that comes after them is easier because you’ve articulated your thesis and learning objectives carefully. After this, every time you add something to your course, begin by reviewing these two columns and asking yourself, “Does this assigned reading/lecture/quiz/paper/project/etc. allow students to explore this thesis? Does it contribute to their mastery of the learning objective?” All courses have to at least make sure that the course materials and assignments help students achieve the learning outcomes, even as we recognize that we do more for students than just help them reach learning objectives. But in terms of framing a class, precision about what is required is your first task.

Unit Topic Thesis LOs Material Output Due Date
2 Poverty and Economic Inequality Poverty is socially constructed through a contested process, with different people suffering—and benefitting—from different definitions of the term and different attempts to solve (or leave unsolved) this “wicked problem.” Define the scope of poverty in the US and worldwide.

 

Identify when and where poverty rates have increased and decreased.

 

Explain who benefits from poverty and why they may not want to address it as a social problem.

 

Identify solutions to poverty as proposed by political leaders and others.

Above, if a student is able to do all of the things listed in the LO column, would they have a good understanding of the thesis?

So far, we’ve laid the foundation, which tells us the shape of the house (what it’s broadly about, as articulated in the catalog description) and its size (how many modules). We’ve decided on what each of the rooms (units) will be for, and we’ve decided the kinds of activities students will be doing in them (learning objectives). Next, we get specific about how they will accomplish the tasks inside each room. Gas stove or electric? A bar or an island? The Materials column is where you list the content students will get to use as they learn, and the Student Output column is where you get to tell them what to make.

Splitting this into two columns is a bit artificial, because students don’t merely consume and digest materials passively. Reading, listening, and watching are creative processes, as students make meaning from the materials presented to them. You may decide, then, that other headers are better descriptors of what your students are doing. Perhaps if the materials students engage are all of a single kind, you could say To read, or if the knowledge they are producing is of the same kind, you could say To write. Or you could create a single column called Student Responsibilities that could list everything they have to read, watch, listen to, write, locate, share, build, etc.

 The work students must submit in an online class is often more frequent that what is required in F2F classes. In an in-person class, you provide feedback almost continuously to students. They show up late to class and you frown. You overhear them working well in a group and you interject a piece of praise. They ask a great question and you engage it with enthusiasm. All of these are ways of reinforcing good learning habits, connecting with students, and encouraging them. But feedback is easily lost in an online course. To prevent that, require frequent submission of student work for feedback, even if that is Done/Not Done, Pass/Fail, Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory for small assignments.

I’ll explain how to select materials for a class and how to determine which assignments are appropriate in another post. For now, know that this is the purpose of this second-to-last-column.

The final column is the due date. Students repeatedly indicate that a single, consistent, once-per-week due date is most helpful to them. Due dates that shift or that occur more than once per week are more likely to result in missing work, and that forces you into either enforcing a late work policy or to make exceptions, which introduces the problem of unconscious bias as we determine whose excuses we consider valid. I recommend Sundays at 11:59 pm, but what is most important is that it’s the same time each week.

Unit Topic Thesis LOs Material Output Due Date
2 Poverty and Economic Inequality Poverty is socially constructed through a contested process, with different people suffering—and benefitting—from different definitions of the term and different attempts to solve (or leave unsolved) this “wicked problem.” Define the scope of poverty in the US and worldwide.

 

Identify when and where poverty rates have increased and decreased.

 

Explain who benefits from poverty and why they may not want to address it as a social problem.

 

Identify solutions to poverty as proposed by political leaders and others.

Short lecture by me

 

2-3 magazine or magazine articles (TBD)

 

Read chapter 2

 

Read chapter 12

 

Watch “Two American Families” (1 hr 26 mins)

 

Watch “How Economic Inequality Harms Societies” (approx. 18 mins)

 

Quiz

Progress on final project, shared to discussion board

Feedback to at least 2 peers’ posts on DB

6/8

Above, I’ve selected most of the things they will read and watch for the unit and also decided that a quiz and a small contribution toward their final project, shared on discussion board (where they will give and get peer feedback) works well.

Deadlines that are longer than a week apart may allow students to wander away from class.

Sometimes, one unit=one week, but this depends on a lot, including the number of weeks your course meets. A 7-week course may have a major quiz every week (as my Social Problems course does), whereas a 14-week course may have one every other week with smaller assignments in the off weeks.

Because of this, you may need to split the cells into additional rows in your last two columns. If you have one unit per week, then all the work for that unit should be due on the same day if possible. (There will be exceptions, I know, especially for work that has stages or drafts.) If your units extend more than one week, just be sure that there is work due each. Below is an example of how I would do that if Social Problems were a 14 week, rather than a 7 week, course.

Unit Topic Thesis LOs Material Output Due Date
2 Poverty and Economic Inequality Poverty is socially constructed through a contested process, with different people suffering—and benefitting—from different definitions of the term and different attempts to solve (or leave unsolved) this “wicked problem.” Define the scope of poverty in the US and worldwide.

 

Identify when and where poverty rates have increased and decreased.

 

Explain who benefits from poverty and why they may not want to address it as a social problem.

 

Identify solutions to poverty as proposed by political leaders and others.

Short lecture by me

 

2-3 magazine or magazine articles (TBD)

 

Read chapter 2

 

Read chapter 12

 

Watch “Two American Families” (1 hr 26 mins)

 

Watch “How Economic Inequality Harms Societies” (approx. 18 mins)

 

Progress on final project, shared to discussion board

 

6/1
Quiz

 

Feedback to at least 2 peers’ posts on DB

6/8

Give yourself time to build this foundation well. You don’t want to have to come and make too many adjustments to it as you continue in this process.

One thought on “Framing Your Online Course

Add yours

  1. Ideally, when creating an online course, you’ve taught the “live” (face to face) version of the class several times, which makes this stage go a lot faster. This is because you will have a rough schedule in mind already.

    In my case, the course was MAT 242 at Arizona State, Elementary Linear Algebra. Not many students took this course until about ten years ago, when the engineering department decided that they didn’t really need their majors to know the theory.

    Many semesters, I taught all of the sections (usually 2 or 3), and was the coordinator by default. This also allowed me to try different orders of topics, and develop a powerpoint-type presentation, which eventually became a series of notes, and which some day might become another textbook. But I guess that’s another story.

    Like

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