woman teaching an online course
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“Human life, however varied, consists in the performance of specific activities. Education that prepares for life is one that prepares definitely and adequately for these specific activities. However numerous and diverse they may be for any social class, they can be discovered.” — Franklin Bobbitt

American writer and educationist Franklin Bobbitt argued a curriculum is the collection of experiences in our daily life — through education, socialization, practice and profession — which shape our existence and bring it value and meaning. It is a unique combination of individual and shared events brought together and best understood within the realm of learning.

In our digital age, where experiences may be found well beyond the traditional media of engagement, a curriculum or instructional design for learning must account for and fully encapsulate those experiences to benefit learners and support the ultimate goal of learning. This article will discuss the elements of educational design used to create a curriculum for an online learning environment. We'll also look at the most common limitations of instructional programs and suggest how to adapt to maintain the integrity of the original design and to improve the course experience in perpetuity.

Instructional / Curriculum Design

Curriculum is best understood as something planned and guided. Arguably, the fundamental prerequisites for designing a curriculum are to:

  • Define the goals.
  • Define the objectives.

Further factors to consider when designing a curriculum include:

  • The entrance level skills of the learner, as their skill level will to a large extent determine the content of the course.
  • The length of time in which the course material is taught, as there needs to be enough time for them to comprehend and master the material. There will be some learners with little or no experience who may need more time.
  • Prioritizing the learning topics.
  • Incorporating the learning topics into manageable units for study.
  • Selecting training methods.

Yet even in an online learning setting, not everything is equal. Learners come from a wide variety of cultural and economic backgrounds and, more importantly, have different professional experiences related to the subject. Curriculum design should therefore not take a one-size-fits-all approach, but rather, consider the unique needs of the learners. Instructional design must also consider any limitations, both from a technological point of view as well as in the availability of resources to assign reading, analysis and discussion.

Flexibility is important with curriculum design as it may be necessary to change a course's pace to deal with problems as they arise. For example, a class might have more trouble grasping a concept than originally predicted. Flexibility allows the teacher to spend more time on this topic rather than racing on to the next subject and leaving students confused.

Good curriculum design should include:

  • The opportunity for learners to think and act critically at all times.
  • Mechanisms to encourage conversation and dialogue between all of the participants in the class.
  • A clear understanding of the roles and expectations of the instructor and his/her learners.

A curriculum is more dynamic than static by design and is an active process from beginning to end.

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Facilitating Online Discussions

The "experience" of teaching online has to be different from the one designed for a physical classroom. Methods used to encourage active participation and active learning in a physical classroom will need to change for the online world. In a remote setting, variety truly is the spice of life and is an effective way to engage learners and maintain interest and participation throughout the duration of the webinar, lesson, course, etc. The following activities encourage this style of collaborative interaction with all participants:

  • Polling or brainstorming: Pose open-ended questions about some course issue or topic and asked participants to brainstorm possible answers or solutions. The brainstorming rules require simple, non-evaluated responses that can be entered quickly. This sets the stage for more involved evaluative discussion later.
  • Constructive debates: Ask one small group to take one view on a course issue and a second group another. They then use the conference as a means for debating the issue. The facilitator's role becomes one of posing the issue, doing occasional weaving and providing some sort of summary remarks at the conclusion of the debate period.
  • Same-time discussion: The asynchronous nature of most conferencing discussions has both advantages and disadvantages. On occasion, the instructor can establish a specific time period, usually one to two hours, when all participants agree to be active in the conferencing environment at the same time. Although such conversations are not totally synchronous, they are a close proximity and often generate considerable discussion and new interest.

The interaction between the instructor and learners must be sticky, a meaningful experience created via readings, knowledge transfer, knowledge exchange and general discussion. Especially in an online format, the instructor must make an extra effort to engage the learners via email, online forum or if needed, phone. It must be an active process and a fair forum for interaction. I use these opportunities to educate students on advocacy, a fundamental support system that is needed in all disciplines, especially for information specialists in non-traditional settings. Advocacy here is the opportunity for learners to realize they can educate and teach executives, co-workers and colleagues about the subject and its benefits to their organization.

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Bring Active Learning Into Remote Work

A curriculum is neither a physical thing, nor a one-time event, but rather the interaction of instructors, learners and knowledge intersecting and connecting at different intervals over a predetermined amount of time. Remote work succeeds when organizations take a holistic approach, which includes active learning. Consistent interaction between instructors and learners is even more important in an online environment in which communication becomes paramount. The instructor is responsible for providing an environment in which good communication may take place and ongoing discourse is encouraged and respected. The instructor must also promote critical thinking and challenge students according to their varying levels of skills and experience. As an educator and practitioner in an online remote world, I want to be part of an experience in which change takes place — real change in the behavior and practice of learning. Now that’s a good learning experience!