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

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

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,

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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