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Radical rethink: how to design university courses in the online age

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: The rise of online and blended learning and the development of free online courses is set to transform the higher education sector. We’ve asked our authors how to remake the…

Online learning has shown a better way to design courses. University image from www.shutterstock.com

FUTURE OF HIGHER EDUCATION: The rise of online and blended learning and the development of free online courses is set to transform the higher education sector. We’ve asked our authors how to remake the university sector so it can best respond to this revolution.

For two weeks, we’ll be running a selection of their responses. The series will conclude later this month with a panel discussion in Canberra co-hosted with the Office for Learning and Teaching and involving the Minister for Tertiary Education, Chris Evans.


Time will tell whether Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) represent a tidal shift in the way students consume and experience education. But the free online courses have already spurred something very positive – teachers and academics are radically rethinking the way courses are designed and are looking to technology to see how teaching can be improved.

Even if in no other way MOOCs prove durable, these shifts in unit design should become the new standard, regardless of whether courses are taught online or face-to-face.

Traditional problems

MOOCs are courses available for free online from some of the world’s best known universities – they’re revolutionary in many ways but above all, they are leading the way in course design.

Traditionally, academic staff have designed courses within the construct of the semester system. In a 12 week semester, subject content is generally broken down into one or two face-to-face lectures per week that, depending on the discipline, may be accompanied by one or more tutorials or laboratory sessions.

So, academic staff generally design and develop 24 lectures at around an hour long. Each student encounters the same 24 lectures at the same pace, in the same sequence. The constraints of the lecture process means there is little opportunity for students’ exploration of the material; instead, students write, type or record the material presented and retrieve the material later when they are looking to study for the exam.

But there are problems with this approach. First, it assumes that the student cohort is all the same. But we know that different students bring different experience, intuition, discipline, motivation and ability to the table.

For any one or combination of these reasons, some students may struggle to comprehend a notion taught in week two that might be critical to understanding the material that follows, but the lecturer doesn’t necessarily get to see that lack of understanding until the final exam.

Figure 1: Traditional model for unit design and delivery. Open Universities Australia

Second, when the lecturer prescribes a textbook to reinforce and expand upon the material presented in class, the lecturer has no way of knowing whether students have bought the textbook, or taken it out of its packaging, or are reading it at the prescribed pace or in the prescribed sequence, or whether they understand the material contained in it.

As a result, in a traditionally designed course there are few signposts as to how a student is progressing.

A new way

Online delivery, though, provides the opportunity to take an entirely new approach. Instead of 24 lectures, great online lecturers prepare around 400 sessions, eight to 10 minutes long, ending with a short quiz. Students’ answers to those quizzes determine which part of the course they progress to next.

So, students doing the same unit will start at the same point, but their journey through the material will be entirely different; some will need to interact with every one of the presentations while others may need to interact with far fewer of them. And students may interact with the same number of presentations, but in an entirely different sequence.

In this mode, students' experience is completely personal and adaptive to the way in which they are learning.

Figure 2: Unit design in the online world. Open Universities Australia

Online, you also have the great benefit of more information about how an individual student is progressing. The emerging science of learning analytics means a unit designed in a particular way will reveal that, say, a student who fails to successfully complete a component by the end of week 3 is 65% more likely to fail than another student who has successfully completed that component.

Teaching and support staff can essentially pinpoint the moment before the student starts to fail and intervene to stop it happening. With appropriate resourcing, we can find out exactly what is preventing the student from being able to successfully progress through the material: is it motivation, work pressures, personal issues, or that the student just doesn’t understand the material?

In the traditional model, teachers wouldn’t know there was a problem until it was too late and the student had already failed the exam. But in this alternative model, much more information is available.

Seeing things differently

Changing course design also changes how we see the student. Students are not then just empty vessels into which we pour information on the assumption that it will turn into knowledge. But instead we can give individual learners, who learn in different ways and at different speeds and via different paths, a better chance at learning.

If implemented widely, this will lead to far better learning outcomes for a wider range of students (without compromising standards) and also – unashamedly – to far better financial returns for both the institution and the government’s investment in funding access to education.

Research vs teaching

So, why isn’t this already widespread? The answers are not straightforward, but part of the answer lies in the fact that for the majority of university staff it has been too daunting or challenging to radically change the design and delivery of units. And, importantly, the incentives to make these changes are, frankly, not there.

While research into online learning can help with the former, the issue of incentives is more complex. Remuneration and promotions are tied predominantly to research outputs, and teaching and learning are seen as being of secondary importance.

In such circumstances, it is difficult to see why lecturers would invest time and effort in developing content in a completely different way. This is the major challenge that universities, unions and the government will have to come grips with if we want to improve student learning.

We’d love you to take part: leave your comments, join the discussion on twitter.com/conversationEDU, facebook.com/conversationEDU.

This is part five of our series on the Future of Higher Education. You can read other instalments by clicking the links below:

Part one: Online opportunities: digital innovation or death through regulation?, Jane Den Hollander

Part two: MOOCs and exercise bikes – more in common than you’d think, Phillip Dawson & Robert Nelson

Part three: How Australian universities can play in the MOOCs market, David Sadler

Part four: MOOC and you’re out of a job: uni business models in danger, Mark Gregory

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36 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Savage

    Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

    Paul: You seem to be claiming that the methods you describe lead to better learning outcomes. If so, are you able to cite evidence for this?

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    1. Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

      Research Partnerships Officer at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Craig Savage

      I agree with Craig, I too would like to see the evidence. I am of the opinion (no evidence other than my own limited experience) that the answer will be more nuanced than any polarised propositions will allow. Tim's comments below and the link he provides are worth the effort in reading.

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  2. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    I second Craig Savage’s question and ask more particularly: how do the student progress rates of subjects offered thru Open Universities Australia compare with the progress rates of subjects offered conventionally?

    It should be possible to design a reasonably robust study because most universities which offer subjects thru OUA by on line and distance education techniques offer the same subjects on campus by conventional face to face techniques.

    It should be possible to match the demographics of students enrolled in each subject thru OUA with a selection of students enrolled in the same subject offered conventionally face to face.

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  3. Mark Smithers

    logged in via Twitter

    I'm sorry Paul but I have to take issue with your contention that MOOCs are leading the way in course design. I'm a supporter of open learning and I believe that open learning improves quality but having said that I see most xMOOCs (the ones generating most media attention because of their massiveness) as actually lacking in learning design. In fact I suspect that no learning designers have been anywhere near them. They perpetuate a traditional model of learning and are highly instructivist in nature…

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    1. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Mark Smithers

      Further, what Wappett calls dynamic online study was also done previously, in the 1960s by a technique then known as programmed learning or programmed instruction. While online learning retains its behaviourist antecedents as Bates (2012) pointed out, it should be more sophisticated than previous attempts.

      Bates, Tony (2012). What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs? Retrieved 22 Spetember 2012 from
      http://www.tonybates.ca/2012/08/05/whats-right-and-whats-wrong-about-coursera-style-moocs/

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  4. Mark Smithers

    logged in via Twitter

    As a general question to The Conversation. Can anyone tell me why the first four articles in this series have all focussed on MOOCs? I realise they are the topic of the moment but this is suppsoed to be a series on the Future of Higher Education. There are far greater threats to the current model of HE (or opportunities for improvement/reform as I like to think of them) than just MOOCs. I really hope that we can see some wider issues covered in the next posts.

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    1. Debbie Dickinson
      Debbie Dickinson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      External Relations Manager at The Conversation

      In reply to Mark Smithers

      Hi Mark - thanks for your questions and interest in our Higher Ed series.

      The articles have come from a call-out to our authors, many of whom wanted to specifically discuss MOOCs given its predicted impact on higher education. Next week we've articles on student experience, physical infrastructure of unis, and others.

      Happy to hear your thoughts on what you'd like to see covered in the series. We're going to be taking reader comments to the Canberra symposium with Minister for Tertiary Education Chis Evans, so do add your thoughts.

      Thanks for your feedback.
      Debbie

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    2. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to Debbie Dickinson

      Is this invitation open to us all?

      If so here is mine.

      Currently there is a bubbling underclass of autodidacts. It seems Universities do not want to know about them as their (our) standards are too low. Conversely, autodidacts do not want to know much about Universities because they are too regimented.

      So, one side denigrates the other as they do not do exams; the other side returns the compliment citing the piecemeal use of well written texts, unrealistic time frames and refusal to allow…

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    3. Debbie Dickinson
      Debbie Dickinson is a Friend of The Conversation.

      External Relations Manager at The Conversation

      In reply to Rob Crowther

      Thanks Rob for you comments, you raise interesting points.

      Yes, the invitation to comment and debate the ideas presented by the authors is certainly open to all. So thanks for getting involved. The Higher Ed series runs all next week too - so please do continue to contribute to the discussion.

      Best wishes,
      Debbie

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  5. Mandy Lupton

    Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

    I'm all for re-imagining teaching and learning approaches, but I'm a little alarmed about the assumptions made in this article regarding the design of 'traditional' university subjects. The model critiqued seems to be only one highly limited form of a traditional approach, in particular those subjects that are content heavy with a high stakes exam at the end of the semester.

    The alternative model advocated has students doing quizzes at the end of modules. But quizzes are limited in the level of learning they can measure. And it is possible that this type of approach could lead to atomistic learning. This type of model is certainly not desirable in subjects that are based on inquiry learning and work integrated learning.

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  6. Andrew Chambers

    logged in via Twitter

    Oh dear, back to the days of behaviourism and “computer based training”. What is being advocated is largely an alternative to face to face delivery (Mansy's comments noted). Despite the ability to adapt it to students (presumably undergrad) and “personalise it” and even track them it’s still a mechanistic approach involving lots of short lessons and quiz taking.

    I’ll have to assume the CEO of the OU knows better and it’s just been edited badly. I'm not so sure I’d want to do an OU course designed…

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    1. Mandy Lupton

      Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

      In reply to Andrew Chambers

      I couldn't agree more, Andrew. I teach 100% online subjects in a masters course. I use a combination of social media (Word Press blogs, Facebook, YouTube), web conferencing (Collaborate), cloud-based service (Evernote), and (reluctantly) the university LMS (Blackboard).

      I produce short lectures of 10-20 mins long accessible via YouTube, supported by discussion in Facebook, the class blog and a weekly Collaborate tutorial.

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    2. Andrew Chambers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mandy Lupton

      Great to hear. I note that you are teaching education (something I have also taught in the past). This often makes it easier to be creative and responsive to course design changes and to take advantage of new tech and educational models. And of course students, your program head and even the university often want to see you teaching using the latest and greatest techniques. (This is not a critique of what you do or have done, merely an observation).

      I do Ed Development for a Business masters program…

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    3. Mandy Lupton

      Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

      In reply to Andrew Chambers

      @Andrew, interestingly, the reaction of others at my university to my approach has been mixed. There is pressure from some quarters to only use the official LMS. Some of my colleagues have even asked me whether I am 'allowed' to use Facebook, for instance.

      @Kevin, I have enrolled in two MOOCs due to start next year - Intro to Sociology through Princeton and Intro to Improvisation through Berklee College of Music. Stay tuned for my response!

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    4. Andrew Chambers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mandy Lupton

      Mixed response is pretty "normal" from what I can see. Workload, research pressures etc are always the issue. How a university can work around this, well we shall see. Funding, resourcing etc are all paramount though... I know UNSW is looking at this issue over the coming months. I am hoping for a good outcome...

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    5. Mandy Lupton

      Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

      In reply to Andrew Chambers

      I should acknowledge that the response from students has been mixed as well. Some love the multi-modal, multi-tool approach, others would prefer it if I used only one tool (i.e. Blackboard).

      I've been teaching and learning online since 1999 (started with WebCT). I couldn't return to teaching using one mode or tool. For me, the affordances of the mix of tools makes for a diverse and rich experience.

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    6. Andrew Chambers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mandy Lupton

      We sometimes get similar responses here especially when things change. Change is hard. Plus multi-modal working can be hard. Often if there are too many different techs this challenges some students. Our students are often time poor as well. As long as the use is linked to the learning outcomes and into the assessments (isn't that an ugly word these days?) then problem can largely be overcome... Often the resistance is perceptual...

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  7. Comment removed by moderator.

  8. Tim Mazzarol

    Winthrop Professor, Entrepreneurship, Innovation, Marketing and Strategy at University of Western Australia

    Great to see this discussion. However, let's not get too carried away.

    Online course delivery is indeed a new and exciting possibility, but we need to approach it as another tool, another medium of communication. It has its strengths and weaknesses and should not be over stated in its ability to solve all problems or remove the need for more traditional learning modes.

    Not all courses are best taught online or online only. Assessment via short multiple choice tests does not suit all types of course material.

    For anyone interested in MOOCS, please read Sir John Daniel's paper: "Making Sense of MOOCS: Musings in a Maze of Myth, Paradox and Possibility", the link is here: http://sirjohn.ca/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/120925MOOCspaper2.pdf

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    1. Andrew Chambers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tim Mazzarol

      Tim, online course delivery is very old! It's been around since the 1980's. The problem is (as usual) everyone jumps onto the latest new fad and proclaims it as something majorly new and a "game changer". Problem is, they rarely are. We are still to see if MOOCs are a paradigm shift or merely a bump in the road or even an intermediary to a new model or perhaps most likely an interface that helps face to face teachers, admins and educators think about new models of delivery...

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    2. Andrew Chambers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Tim Mazzarol

      Just a note that I find the Daniel's paper a trifle one sided. Unfortunately it really only looks at xMOOCs (as sadly most papers, blogs, researchers etc do - I assume this is because they are perceived as the "real" threat that must be responded to). Also I have to ask if Daniels himself ever took a MOOC of any kind... Academic papers and commentary are welcome but they must these days also come from experience.

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    3. Gavin Moodie
      Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Adjunct professor at RMIT University

      In reply to Andrew Chambers

      Daniel and others are concentrating on xMOOCs because that is what the hype is about. Daniel, Bates who he cites, Laurillard and others have been writing about cMOOCs for decades.

      Daniel is expert in asynchronous learning as a teacher, scholar and senior manager. I don't know whether he has ever studied asynchronously, but I suggest that is not so relevant.

      We should try to escape the naive view that one has sufficient knowledge of a phenomenon only when one has experienced it directly. That would mean that one could judge teaching approach 1, 2 and 3 only if one has been taught by each approach. It is much more efficient and probably better to evaluate education by the techniques which are now well established.

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    4. Mark Smithers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      I hate to be chairperson of the pedant's society Gavin but Bates and Laurillard haven't been writing about cMOOCs for decades because the first MOOC (it was a cMOOC to use the later term) was in 2008.

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    5. Andrew Chambers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      Gavin said: "Yes, I wondered about that. More precisely, Bates, Laurillard and others have been writing about collaborative open online learning for decades." Could be extended too:

      Bates, Laurillard and others have been writing about collaborative open online learning for decades with MOOCs being a modern variation on this concept.

      (However I would question whether the word open belongs in this sentence, not sure what they talked about in the past is in the same league as what is happening…

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  9. Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

    Research Partnerships Officer at University of Melbourne

    Out of curiosity; how many of the commenters, commentators, designers have completed a MOOCS course to see first hand what the user experience is? I will declare my answer to this question is yes-at present trying out the "Writing in the Sciences" course from Stanford University on cousera.

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    1. Andrew Chambers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

      OK, I'll bite. Several cMOOCs completed or partly completed (some very successfully). Attempted some xMOOCs but found their approach appalling. I may have just chosen bad examples. However I am not fussed on the huge drop out rates, lack of facilitated support from teachers, reliance on quizzes etc... BTW I am also enrolled on a more traditional DE based Masters degree. From this experience as well I can say that all models of DE have their pluses and minuses. It is our job as educators to come up with working QUALITY models of delivery...

      Now I must be off to do some real work!

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    2. Mark Smithers

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Kevin Orrman-Rossiter

      Hi Kevin, I have undertaken both xMOOCs and cMOOCs. I'm also part of a group assisting the design and facilitation of a cMOOC on educational technology.

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    3. A/Prof Jenna Mead

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Andrew Chambers

      I'm currently one of 20K students in Writing in the Sciences too. Interesting experience: as Coursera and everyone else notes, the fit between Humanities subjects and online assessment programs isn't exact. BTw, I don't recognize anything of Paul Wappett's "traditional lecture" in what I do.

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  10. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    The only reason this discussion is happening is because of the perception (supported by a modicum of reality) that teaching in universities is generally shite. MOOCs have brought quite a bit of new and not so new research on learning and teaching together in a 'sensational' scale and scope of application but that might be the only new bit that they contribute. Most of the research on learning and teaching and design that is embodied in MOOCs has been around for a long time. The underlying research…

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    1. Rob Crowther

      Architectural Draftsman

      In reply to Dennis Alexander

      My son is doing engineering at present.

      Last year he did not waste his time with attending lectures with one unit in particular. His lecturer had such a thick Indian accent he was unintelligible. He would sit at home and download the lecture. He would replay it back in 6 or 7 word bites and attempt to piece together the oration. It would take him 4 hours to sit through a 1 hour lecture. He paid $1200 for that!

      There was another half dozen units where the lecturer was unintelligible to me but he managed mainly through lecture download. I personally do not know how he did it. There was one time where he came home hammering through the door all excited, Dad, Dad he said, I have an Australian lecturer. That insignificant little detail saved him dozens of hours – he did not have to download the lecture and sit through it a second time.

      Now, what was it you saying about perception, reality, and shite?

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    2. Dennis Alexander

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Rob Crowther

      Sorry Rob, one story doesn't generalise (anecdotal evidence fallacy) - which goes to my point of being supported by a modicum of reality. I've had Pakistani and Indian lecturers as well - they took a little tuning into and were mercilessly mimicked and mocked, but intelligibility is roughly related to the attitude of the hearer - if you expect not to understand, you don't, regardless of effort. For example, they subtitled the Castle in the USA! And a lot of shows with Scottish accents don't even make it to air here in Australia.

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  11. Jack Arnold

    Director

    The University of New England at Armidale NSW has almost 60 years experience in distance external education by print media and on-line. Indeed, the UK Open University visited UNE to learn how to run a distance education system back in the 1970s. Now many institutions including many staffed by UNE graduates in external education provide such opportunities.

    One of the best that I have experienced first hand is the Legal Workshop at the Australian National University delivering the Graduate Diploma in Legal Practice. This included an addictive 100% on-line course in Industrial Law.

    As happened in the above ANU example, lecturers will have to change from the traditional 'preach from the lectern' pedagogy to role modelling & dynamic interactive coursework to capture the imagination of prospective students & better satisfy the educational outcomes for the coursework.

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  12. Kate Bowles

    logged in via Twitter

    The stereotyping of "traditional" and "typical" course design here promotes the mass lecture + textbook + final exam + empty vessel strategy as the standard for all university teaching in all disciplines, which it isn't. And it sustains this startling assertion:

    "In the traditional model, teachers wouldn’t know there was a problem until it was too late and the student had already failed the exam."

    I'm an experienced online and face to face teacher, I've been in xMOOCs and cMOOCs and I'm in…

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