Critique of Online Course Design

Online learning course designers must take into considerations different learning strategies and address these in designing effective online courses, which may include simulations, video conferencing or lectures, online quizzes, discussion boards, collaborative projects and peer editing (Nash, 2006).   Horton (2011) identifies effective eLearning design as a critical path or succession of steps that incorporate learning objectives and theory.  When choosing a course of action for instruction, the principles of pedagogy and andragogy must also be considered, as not all learners are the same age or have accumulated the same amount of knowledge (Willems, 2011).  At the college level, undergraduate students have different learning styles than graduate students (Willems, 2011).  Designers should vary the design based on these needs (Liu, et al., 2009).  At the core of instructional design is the objective that learners will be changed (Horton, 2011).   Effective and successful design will include learning activities where the learner absorbs information, discovers through practice, and uses the information (Horton, 2011).
One of the instructional methods that designer’s use for effective e-Learning is to implement tasks rather than to focus on topics (Shank, 2011).  This can be difficult for educators who are more focused on subject matter, but in online learning, tasks are better at connecting students to the real world (Shank, 2011).  This design principle embraces the theory of connectivism, which identifies the need for other’s opinions as part of the learning process (Kinesh, 2012).  As an example, the online course offered at Cousera.org, titled, “Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World” (Cousera.org, n.d.) will be examined. In this course, students came from a broad range of abilities and backgrounds. The class was offered online as one of the massive open online courses (MOOC) from the University of Michigan. The professor was one of the full-time professors at the university and this was a course that is continually offered on a scheduled time frame at the Coursera web site.

Figure 1. Homepage for the Coursera course, Fantasy and Science Fiction:  The Human Mind, Our Modern World.  Reprinted [screenshot] by University of Michigan for  Coursea.org, n.d.

This is a screen shot of the course information page.  After a student has enrolled, the course page becomes assessable. The design of the homepage is clear and the sidebar contains the necessary links to complete the course.  It utilizes the task method of instructional design, as students must complete a task from the initial step through the final step.  The instruction was divided into modules of ten asynchronous video lectures, readings, writings, and peer editing.  Shank (2011) recommends that these modules be concise and relevant. This course followed the format for each module which made it easy to follow, progressing from the task of absorbing information through the video, actively reading the material, and writing or constructing information (Horton, 2011). The use of tasks helps learners stay engaged and focused while learning (Shank, 2011).  Online courses that have clearly defined tasks and intuitive navigational homepages encourage learners to complete tasks. The end result is that the student will have gained a better understanding of the material presented through activities that include Horton’s (2011) absorb, do, and connect activities. This course met the desired design for an effective online course.
The course syllabus is an important link on the sidebar that identifies the tasks to be completed. Each module or unit is based on this format. The student watches a short video presentation where the professor presents relevant information for the upcoming reading. One of the tenets of successful eLearning design is to remove any student frustration with the learning experience (Shank, 2011).  The information is presented in an easy to follow absorb activity (Horton, 2012) after which the student becomes involved in an activity of practice.  After watching the video, the student is directed to an assigned reading, in one case, the novel, “Frankenstein.”  Probably the biggest drawback was the timeframe to complete the readings.  Each module began on a Monday for the video presentation, the reading was to be completed and a review or essay written by the following Tuesday. This was the design for the entire ten modules, and some students posted on the discussion boards that they did not have enough time to complete the readings when they were long or required two books.  However, the discussion boards provided a place for connecting with other students and sharing ideas, fitting a learning theory of connectivism (Herrington, n.d.).  It should be noted that the course was available for enrollment several months before the start date and the web page provided enough information to begin reading ahead of time and the professor encouraged this as well. In fact, the initial page, which comes before the actual homepage for the course, contained many of the required chunks of information noted by Shank (2011).  

Figure 2. Introduction pages to the Coursera course, Fantasy and Science Fiction:  The Human Mind, Our Modern World.  Reprinted [screenshot] by University of Michigan for Coursea.org, n.d.

The following items were made available previous to the start of the course:  Date of the course and length of duration, workload hours required per week, a small paragraph about the course content, work expectations, course syllabus with a list of the ten books to be read, recommended background, suggested readings, reading advice (which included the advice to begin the reading early), course format, and frequently asked questions.  Also included was a short video, where the professor introduced the course. Navigation was clear and the sign up button clearly visible, addressing the needs to avoid frustration from the start (Shank, 2011 and Horton, 2011).
Another area that contributed to some frustration was the lack of knowledge about which students were writing English as a second language. This became more evident as the peer editing process began.  Although it was brought to the attention of the staff via online discussion boards, it was not timely to make changes, although it was acknowledged for a future course.  Students posted on discussion boards that they would grade fellow students differently if they knew that English was not their first language, especially when it came to grammar.  As eLearning becomes more global and the university is extended beyond the confines of a brick and mortar classroom, this area will need to be addressed. There are benefits to including a broad range of learners, as they will bring perspective and previous learning to the table of collaboration and connectiveness  (Herrington, n.d.).  From a designer’s perspective, this may increase the complexity of the project, but must be answered for an effective global eLearning platform (Shank, 2011). 
Shank (2011) recommends that instructional designers allow for learners to interact in such a way as to get to know each other, a type of roll call.  Another online course offered by Canvas Instructure, titled Social Media, encouraged students to post their bio and goals for learning on a discussion board. Then to increase the interaction and collaboration, the instructor required students to form groups based on interests.  One aspect of this course encouraged the learners to get fifty new twitter followers and follow others with similar interests.  The teacher became involved as well, retweeting students and sharing her experiences. She further shared with students that she became more familiar with collaboration through twitter while working on her dissertation. Through out her journey of research and writing she mobilized effort by using twitter. This effort increased her followers who anxiously gave her tips and encouragement throughout the process.

Figure 3. Introduction page to the Canvas Instructure course, Social Media.  Reprinted from [screenshot] from Canvas Instructure, by Canvas Instructure, n.d.

Figure 4. Course Module page to the Canvas Instructure course, Social Media.  Reprinted from [screenshot] from Canvas Instructure, by Canvas Instructure, n.d.

Figure 3. Discussion board page to the Canvas Instructure course, Social Media.  Reprinted from [screenshot] from Canvas Instructure, by Canvas Instructure, n.d.

In the Coursera course, effective instructional design utilized the method of absorb and do activities recommended by Horton (2011) and Shank (2001).  The initial asynchronous video lecture was given by the professor to provide a short background on the upcoming reading and writing assignment.   After watching the video, the student did the reading and the writing assignment, submitting it by a firm due date.  The next day, students had access to approximately five new video lectures for further exploration about the reading.  Peer editing would become available the following day, with students required to grade four essays based on a rubric, assigning a number from one to three, and an area to write a response. These graded writings became accessible the next day, showing the four reviews and grades.  Due to the varied background of the learners, the evaluations varied as well; with some students well versed in the English language and analysis process, while others not so well versed.  This sequence of activities, of absorbing and doing meets the demands of a constructivist learning theory, with students building upon their previous knowledge, the information provided by the instructor, the constructing of their own essays, and grading of peers (Kinesh, 2012).  Effective eLearning courses must embrace learning theory as well as effective instructional design.  ).  In the Canvas course, the modules were more visual, and the sidebar offered a checklist that automatically kept track of the student’s progress. The professor in the Coursera course could no longer interact with students due to the size of the class and this was a disappointment.  The Canvas course was more successful in connectivism, and the instructor was readily available through online discussion boards, facebook, and twitter.  She was also more effective in utilizing the theory of constructivism, as she encouraged goals that were set up as tasks, such as the twitter goal and facebook social network.  Effective eLearning courses must embrace learning theory as well as effective instructional design.


Canvas Network. (n.d.). [Screenshot.] Social media. Retrieved April 5, 2013, from https://www.canvas.net/courses/social-media

Coursera. (n.d.). [Screenshot.] Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind Our Modern World. Retrieved April 5, 2013, from

FitzPatrick, T. (2012). Key success factors of eLearning in education: A professional development model to evaluate and support eLearning. Online Submission, Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=eric&AN=ED537174&site=eds-live

Herrington A., & Herrington, H. Authentic mobile learning in higher education. Retrieved from http://www.aare.edu.au/07pap/her07131.pdf 

Horton, W. (2012). E-Learning by Design. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer 

Kinash, S., Brand, J., & Mathew, T. (2012). Challenging mobile learning discourse through research: Student perceptions of blackboard mobile learn and iPads. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 28(4), 639-655. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=77978502&site=eds-live

Koenig, R. J. (2010). A study in analyzing effectiveness of undergraduate course delivery: Classroom, online and video conference from A student and faculty perspective. Contemporary Issues in Education Research, 3(10), 13-25. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=61252685&site=eds-live

Shank, P. (2011). The Online Learning Idea Book, Proven Ways to Enhance Technology Based and Blended Learning. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer Retrieved from http://www.scribd.com/doc/61199678/The-Online-Learning-Idea-Book-Proven-Ways-to-Enhance-Technology-Based-and-Blended-Learning

Willems, J. (2011). Using learning styles data to inform e-learning design: A study comparing undergraduates, postgraduates and e-educators. Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 27(6), 863-880. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ehh&AN=77923944&site=eds-live

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