As educators and instructional designers, one of our tasks is to create online learning environments that students can comfortably use to complete their course activities effectively. These platforms need to be designed in such a way as to minimize extraneous cognitive load and maximize generative processing: that is, making sure that the learners’ efforts are spent on understanding and applying the instructional material and not on figuring out how to use the website or app. Research and practice in User Experience (UX) design – more specifically, usability – can give us insights that we can apply to improve our course page design and organization.

Getting Started: General Recommendations

Steve Krug, in his classic book Don’t Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability, explains that, in order for a website or app to be easy to use, the essential principle can be stated as “don’t make me think” (Krug, 2014). That may sound like a strange principle in an educational context, but what Krug referred to is precisely the need to avoid wasting the users’ cognitive resources on how a particular platform works (thus reducing extraneous cognitive load), and to make them feel comfortable using that product (enhancing generative processing). When looking at a web page or app, it should be, as much as possible, obvious what information is on there, how it is organized, what can be clicked on, or where to start; this way, the user can focus on the task at hand.

Krug (2014) provided a few guidelines for ensuring that the users effortlessly see and understand what we want them to:

  • Use conventions: Using standardized patterns makes it easier to see them quickly and to know what to do. Thus, in online courses, it helps to have consistency in how the pages are designed and organized: consider using a template and having standard conventions within a program or institution.
  • Create effective visual hierarchies: The visual cues should represent the actual relationships between the things on the page. For instance, the more important elements are larger, and the connected parts are grouped together on the page or designed in the same style. This saves the user effort in the selection and organization processes in the working memory.
  • Separate the content into clearly defined areas: If the content is divided into areas, each with a specific purpose, the page is easier to parse, and the user can quickly select the parts that are the most relevant to them.
  • Make it obvious what is clickable: Figuring out the next thing to click is one of the main things that users do in a digital environment; hence, the designer must make this a painless process. This can be done through shape, location or formatting—for example, buttons can help emphasize important linked content.
  • Eliminate distractions: Too much complexity on a page can be frustrating and impinges on the users’ ability to perform their tasks effectively. Thus, we need to avoid having too many things that are “clamoring for your attention” (Krug, 2014, Chapter 3). This is consistent with the coherence principle of multimedia learning, which states that elements that do not support the learning goal should be kept to a minimum and that clutter should be avoided. Related to this, usability experts recommend avoiding repeating a link on the same page because of potential cognitive overload. This article from the Nielsen Norman Group explains why duplicate links are a bad idea, and when they might be appropriate.
  • Format text to support scanning: Users often need to scan pages to find what they want. We can do a few things towards this goal: include well-written headings, with clear formatting differences between the different levels and appropriate positioning close to the text they head; make the paragraphs short; use bulleted lists; and highlight key terms.

Putting It to the Test: A UX Study in Higher Education

The online learning field has yet to give much attention to UX testing. However, a team from Penn State has recently published a book chapter describing a think-aloud study with online learners at their institution (Gregg et al., 2020). Here is a brief description of their findings and implications for design:

  • Avoid naming ambiguities – keep wording clear and consistent, and use identical terms for an item throughout the course (e.g., “L07”, “Lesson07)
  • Minimize multiple interfaces – avoid adding another tool/platform if it does not bring significant benefits.
  • Design within the conventions of the LMS – for example, avoid using both “units” and “lessons” in a course; stick to the LMS structure and naming conventions as much as possible.
  • Group related information together – for example, instead of having pieces of project information in different places, put them all on one page and link to that when needed.
  • Consider consistent design standards throughout the University – different departments may have their own way of doing things, but it is best to have some standards across all classes.

Are you interested in conducting UX testing with your students? Good news: Gregg et al. (2020) also reflected on their process and generated advice for conducting such testing, which is included in their chapter and related papers. You can always start small! As Krug (2014, Chapter 9) noted, “Testing one user is 100 percent better than testing none. Testing always works, and even the worst test with the wrong user will show you important things you can do to improve your site”.

References

Gregg, A., Reid, R., Aldemir, T., Gray, J., Frederick, M., & Garbrick, A. (2020). Think-Aloud Observations to Improve Online Course Design: A Case Example and “How-to” Guide. In M. Schmidt, A. A. Tawfik, I. Jahnke, & Y. Earnshaw (Eds.), Learner and User Experience Research: An Introduction for the Field of Learning Design & Technology. EdTech Books. https://edtechbooks.org/ux/15_think_aloud_obser

Krug, S. (2014). Don’t make me think, revisited: A common sense approach to Web usability. New Riders, Peachpit, Pearson Education.

Loranger, H. (2016). The same link twice on the same page: Do duplicates help or hurt? Nielsen Norman Group. https://www.nngroup.com/articles/duplicate-links/

Image by Benjamin Abara from Pixabay 

My family and I were preparing for a move. We packed up some of our things, removing extraneous items from our walls and surfaces and preparing our house to list and show. Not willing to part with these things, we rented a small storage unit to temporarily warehouse all this extra “stuff.” Well, as it turned out, we ended up not moving at all, and after a few months went to clear out the storage unit and retrieve our extra things. The funny thing was, we could hardly remember what had gone in there, and as it turns out, we did not miss most of the items we had packed away. We ended up selling most of what was in that storage unit, and shortly thereafter, we did even more “spring cleaning.” One of the bedrooms, which also doubles an office, needed particular attention. The space was dysfunctional, in that multiple doors and drawers were blocked from fully opening. After a little purging and reorganization this room now functions beautifully, with enough space to open every door and drawer. I have been calling this process “moving back into our own house,” and it’s been a joy to rethink, reorganize, and reclaim our living spaces.

Course Design Connection

As I have been working with more instructors who are redeveloping existing courses, I have been trying to bring this mindset into my instructional design work. How can we reclaim our online learning spaces and make them more inviting and functional? How can we help learners open all the proverbial doors and operate fully within the learning environment? You guessed it: While our first instinct might be to add more to the course, the answer might lie in the other direction. With a little editing and a keen eye on alignment, we can very intentionally remove things from our courses that might be needless or even distracting. We can also rearrange our pages and modules to maximize our learner’s attention.

Memory and Course Design

Our working memories, according to Cowan (2010), can only store 3-5 meaningful items at a time. Thus, it becomes essential to consider what is genuinely necessary on any given LMS page. If we focus on helping learners to achieve the learning outcomes when choosing the content to keep in each module, we can intentionally remove distractors. There can be a place for tangential or supplemental information, but those items should not live in the limelight. To help get us started on this “cleaning process,” we can ask ourselves a few simple questions. Are there big-ticket items (assignments, discussions, readings) that are not directly helping learners reach the outcomes? Are we formatting pages and arranging content in beneficial and progressive ways? Might we express longer bodies of text in ways that are more concisely or clearly? Can we break text up with related visuals? Below are some tips to help guide your process as you “clean” up your course and direct your learners where to focus.

Cut out the Bigger Extraneous Content

It is simple to assume that for your learners to meet the course outcomes, they must read and comprehend many things and complete a wide variety of assignments. When planning your learning activities, it’s crucial to keep in mind the limits of the brain and also that giving learners opportunities to practice applying content will be more successful than asking them to memorize and restate it. For courses with dense content, lean into your course outcomes to guide your editing process. Focusing on the objectives can help you remove extraneous readings and activities.  This will allow your learners to concentrate on the key points. (Cowden & Sze, 2012)

Review Instructions

For the items you choose to keep in your course, reviewing assignment instructions, and discussion prompts is helpful.  Consider inviting a non-expert to read these items.  An outside eye might help you to simplify what you are asking your learners to accomplish by calling to your attention any points of confusion. You may be tempted to add more detail, but try to figure out where you can remove text when possible. Why use a paragraph to explain something that only needs a few sentences? Simplifying your language can enable learners to get to the point faster. (For more on this, see the post by intern Aimee L. Lomeli Garcia about  Improving Readability). When reviewing your instructions and prompts, think about what learners want to know:

·       What should they pay attention to?

·       Where do they start?

·       What do they do next?

·       What is expected?

·       How are they being assessed/graded?

(Grennan, 2018)

Utilize Best Practices for Formatting

Use native formatting tools like styles, headers, and lists to help visually break up content and make it more approachable. Here are some examples:

If I were to list my favorite animals here without a list, it would look like this: dogs, turtles, hummingbirds, frogs, elephants, and cheetahs. 

Suppose I give you that same list using a header and number list format. In that case, it becomes much easier to digest mentally, and it looks nicer on the page:

Julie’s Favorite Animals

  1. Dogs
  2. Turtles
  3. Hummingbirds
  4. Frogs
  5. Elephants
  6. Cheetahs

Provide High-Level Overviews

If an assignment does need a more thorough explanation, and your instructions are running long, you can always create a high-level overview, calling out the main points of the page. You could place this in a call-out box or its own section (preferably at the top). This is where learners can quickly look for reminders about what to do next and how to do it. Providing a high-level overview alongside detailed instructions will cater to a variety of learning preferences and help set up your learners for success.

Module Organization

Scaling up beyond single pages and assignments to module organization, consider the order you want learners to encounter ideas and accomplish tasks. Don’t be afraid to move pages around within your modules to help learners find the most efficient and helpful pathway through your material (Shift Elearning, n.d.).

Wrapping It Up

The culture of “more is better” is pervasive, and it’s almost always easier to add rather than to remove information. In online learning, when we buy into the “culture of more” we can impede the success of our learners. But more isn’t always better; sometimes more is just more. Instead, don’t be afraid to dust off that delete button and start reclaiming and reorganizing your course for ultimate learner success. Sometimes less is best. For more on the art of subtraction, see Elisabeth McBrien’s blog post from February of 2022.

References

Cowan, N. (2010). The magical mystery four. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 19(1), 51–57. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721409359277

Cowden, P., & Sze, S. (2012). ONLINE LEARNING: THE CONCEPT OF LESS IS MORE. Allied Academies International Conference.Academy of Information and Management Sciences.Proceedings, 16(2), 1-6. https://oregonstate.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://www.proquest.com/scholarly-journals/online-learning-concept-less-is-more/docview/1272095325/se-2

Grennan, H. (2018, April 30). Why less is more in Elearning. Belvista Studios – eLearning Blog. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from http://blog.belvistastudios.com/2018/04/why-less-is-more-in-elearning.html

Lomeli Garcia, A. L. (2023, January 17). Five Tips on Improving Readability in Your Courses. Ecampus Course Development and training. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2023/01/17/five-tips-on-improving-readability-in-your-courses/

McBrien, E. (2022, February 24). Course design challenge: Try subtraction. Ecampus Course Development and training. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://blogs.oregonstate.edu/inspire/2022/02/24/course-design-challenge-try-subtraction/

Parker, R. (2022, June 30). Why less is more for e-learning course materials. Synergy Learning. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://synergy-learning.com/blog/why-less-is-sometimes-more-when-it-comes-to-your-e-learning-course-materials/

Shift Elearning. (n.d.). The art of simplification in Elearning Design. The Art of Simplification in eLearning Design. Retrieved April 4, 2023, from https://www.shiftelearning.com/blog/the-art-of-simplification-in-elearning-design

University of Waterloo, Queen’s University, & University of Toronto; and Conestoga Colleg (n.d.). Module 3: Quality course structure and content. In High Quality Online Courses . essay, Pressbooks Open Library, from https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/hqoc/chapter/3-1-module-overview/

Online writing support center appointment options. 50 minute Zoom or written feedback via email

Ecampus students have access to a number of online resources to support their academic success at OSU. Receiving guidance and feedback on their writing assignments can be helpful across courses, throughout their planning and revision process. In this post, we will share more information about the current writing resources available to students, no matter where they are located, along with resources for faculty.

OSU Writing Center

The OSU Writing Center supports any type of writing project, during any stage of the writing process. Instructors can share this resource with students, or even integrate the writing center’s support as a step to receive guidance and feedback from a consultant in coordination with a class assignment.

Online Writing Support (OWS)

According to the OWS website, both written feedback and virtual support (held over Zoom) are available to all OSU community members, including Ecampus students.

Any OSU community member can submit writing for written feedback or schedule a Zoom appointment. This includes students, faculty, staff, and alumni. However, graduate students working on dissertations, theses, IRB applications, grant applications, manuscripts, and other advanced graduate projects should connect with the Graduate Writing Center for support.

Students can choose one of the following appointment types when they submit their request online:

  • Consultation (50 minutes, Zoom)
  • Written Feedback (Replies are usually within 24 hours, Email)
Image of the appointment options on the OWS website. One is a writing consultation over Zoom and the other is written feedback via Email.
Scheduling options for Online Writing Support (OWS)

The Writing Center’s website includes answers to common questions. Here are some of the responses to questions students might have about this resource:

  1. How often can I use Online Writing Support?
    • You can request written feedback on up to three writing projects (or three drafts of the same project) per week. You can make Zoom appointments as often as you like. We welcome repeat writers as we enjoy being a part of your writing process. You cannot schedule an appointment more than two weeks in advance, but we invite you to work with us often. 
  2. What kind of writing can I submit for written feedback?
    • You can submit any kind of writing, as long as it doesn’t exceed 25 double-spaced pages (around 6,250 words). Ideally, for longer projects, you should be prepared to request several written feedback consultations, each focusing on a different section of the project.
  3. How can I provide my instructor with confirmation that I used Online Writing Support?
    • All OWS consultations will receive an email confirmation after the appointment occurs or after the feedback has been sent to you—usually the next morning. If your instructor requests confirmation that you sought assistance from the OWS, you may forward or capture a screen shot of the confirmation email.

For more information about the type of support the Writing Center provides, please see their overview video below.

An overview of the resources provided by the OSU Writing Center and how to submit requests via the website

Academic Success Center – Writing Resources

Student Resources

  • Academic Success Workshop Series – Each term the ASC hosts a series of workshops on a variety of topics. Their remote series is available for online registration and hosted via Zoom.
    • For the Spring 2023 term, the workshop schedule is listed below and features a writing-focused workshop in Week 6.
    • The details of the workshop series, along with links to register, are available on the Remote Workshop Series website.
  • The Learning Corner – The learning corner provides a number of online tools, such as guides and fillable worksheets, to support students in reaching their academic goals.
  • Services & Programs – Supplemental Instruction (SI) is available for certain courses via Zoom, as well as academic coaching support.

Faculty Resources

A number of faculty support options are offered on the Faculty Resources page, including an optional Canvas module, PowerPoint slides, and a sample Syllabus statement. The Online Writing Support group and Academic Success Center partner with faculty to collaborate on assignments and course-specific tips for implementing writing support for their online students.

Instructors can email writing.center@oregonstate.edu to discuss ideas for implementation in their course.

In the 1980s, The Walt Disney Company rebranded its Disney Parks engineers as “imagineers,” and I think “instructional imagineering” would be a great rebranding of instructional design (if not for the copyright issue) because I often feel that the work I do is closer to engineering than design. Instructional designers are problem-solvers, but the work we do is not just problem-solving. It’s creative problem-solving, with each new project having new and specific challenges that often need a little imagination to solve–and a little improvisation.

The history of the pedagogy of improvisation is traced back to the work of two women, Neva Boyd and Viola Spolin, working in Chicago in the 20s and 30s. Boyd was a sociologist doing social work with poor immigrant communities at Hull House. She published a theory of play based on her work, which highlighted the positive socialization skills learned by children during games, and theatre or storytelling games in particular. Spolin was a student of Boyd’s, and developed a full drama pedagogy inspired by Boyd’s theories for her own teaching practice.  Spolin’s son, Paul Sills, grew up in this environment and was one of the founders of The Second City in 1959.

In 2015, Kelly Leonard and Tom Yorton from The Second City published Yes, And: How Improvisation Reverses “No, But” Thinking and Improves Creativity and Collaboration–Lessons from The Second City, which was when I first learned about the workplace applications of improvisational comedy. There are a lot of videos and articles out there that also demonstrate improvisational comedy gamers as teambuilding exercises, but what I liked about The Second City’s approach is that it’s not just about the games. In 2018, Kelly Leonard and Anne Libera gave a presentation at Recode’s Code Conference on how the principles of improv can help foster better communication in the workplace. The presentation is just under twenty minutes, but it’s filled with insights from the very start, one of my favorites being, “Improvisation is practice in being unpracticed, which is how we all walk through the world.”

Two Second City directors show how improv can be used the workplace | Code 2018

Innovative business leaders desiring to tap into creativity have adopted the phrase “yes, and” mindset approach to teamwork and collaboration, but still face the challenge of how to implement and leverage improvisational thinking into everyday practice.  Carrie Freeman, Co-CEO of SecondMuse, Forbes Councils Member, and the author of The Power Of A ‘Yes, And’ Mindset To Solve Complex Problems, puts it in these terms: “The ‘yes, and’ approach lets us tap into potential far beyond meeting the immediate needs of a problem.” She concludes that, “It is likely that in broadening our search for ‘yes, and’ solutions, we will discover synergies heretofore undiscovered.”

The course design process is a problem-solving process, and it is a process dependent upon conversations and dialogue between multiple parties. These conversations all offer opportunities to practice the improvisational mindset. The first conversation, between the instructional designer and course developer, is an opportunity to set the tone of the development process. It’s when I ask the most “yes, and” questions. Each successive response from either myself or the course developer offers an opportunity to either follow up or change direction. That conversation can also lead to conversations with the media teams, which are also opportunities to set the tone using “yes, and” mentality to further creativity and collaboration. Kelly Leonard, in the 2018 Recode presentation, states that “Improvisation is yoga for your social skills,” and like any yoga practice, it must be practiced. It’s a kind of mindfulness; a way of being in the moment, listening to the ideas of others, and creating a space for imagination and collaboration.

One final note is that, like improv, you never know who you will be working with on a given project. Some improv games are more fun than others. But leveraging the “yes, and” mindset depends upon not going into a situation with expectations, assumptions, or predictions, even when it might involve people you’ve worked with before. I’ve been watching Ryan Stiles and Colin Mochrie on “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?” for twenty years, and while they are consistently funny, there are some scenes that are more memorable than others (see: 15 Times Ryan AND Colin Owned “Whose Line Is It, Anyway?”). But what keeps me watching is that you never know what scene will end up as part of the next greatest clips compilation, because they never know what’s going to happen next either. 

Word cloud with words of encouragement

There is a lay phrase that goes somewhat like this: “it is more important how you say it than what you say”. This phrase relates to the fact that the tone we use to communicate with others matters. Tone might be easier to identify in oral discourse; however, tone might be more nuanced when the communication is in writing. Oral discourse can be characterized by intricate grammar (e.g., long and spread-out clauses), discourse markers (e.g., to indicate pauses or change of ideas), or the use of non-verbal gestures; whereas written discourse has more embedded and complex clauses (e.g., more tightly connected clauses). While there is not an absolute difference between spoken and written discourse (Biber, 1988), communicating in writing might need some more context and clarity. Because the proximity between the writer and the reader is non-immediate, clarifications about meaning do not occur at the moment. Therefore, when communicating in writing, one needs to be more explicit, convey clear information, and choose words that the reader will likely understand within the specific context where the information will be handled. This is even more necessary in asynchronous online teaching and learning environments where most of the content is provided via written text. 

While reviewing some of the instructional materials for a few courses in the past year I have come across several pieces of content, including instructions in assignments and lectures, criteria in rubrics, and descriptions in the syllabus that signal an authoritative and punitive approach. The instructor does have authority in the course and can convey this throughout the course and in the communication with students. Why then is the tone and choice of words problematic? The fact that instructors have authority does not preclude them from using tone and words that are welcoming, student-focused, and that signal they care about students. Tone and choice of words are important to create more inclusive learning experiences. As written elsewhere, Oregon State University is committed to fostering a culture of inclusivity through more inclusive and affirmative language to denote respect for others and contribute to developing a sense of belonging.

How do we recognize that the tone and choice of words may not be adequate for students? First of all, we need to become more aware of how the college student population is likely changing and becoming more diverse. For example, undergraduate enrollment in higher education shows an increase between 2000-2016. Hispanic student enrollment increased by 134% from 2000 to 2016 and Black student enrollment increased by 73% from 2000-2010 (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2019). Second, since the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated growth in online learning or a combination of in-person and online learning, more students are showing a preference for these modalities (Kelly, 2021). Third, Oregon State University Ecampus offers educational opportunities to veterans and employees, extending access to education to a different group of potential students. With this educational landscape, our online students are likely to come from different backgrounds and it is safe to assume that the written communication sent to these students will be perceived and interpreted differently. Therefore, we should all strive to write learning materials that acknowledge, respect, and value the individual differences of students.

Considering that language can be a powerful tool that can “draw us closer together or drive us further apart” (Akbar, 2021, p. 3), the words we use in written (and oral) communication matter. If we truly want to create welcoming and psychologically safe spaces, we need to stop for a moment and revisit the written messages we craft. Let’s look next at some examples of tone and choice of words that could elicit negative interpretations from students.

Example 1: Instructions on an Assignment

Original:

You have to complete this assignment by Friday at 5:00 pm with no exceptions. If I see an assignment is late, I will dock 10% of your grade. If you don’t complete the assignments on time or it is of poor quality, you will hear from me via email.

What is the problem in example 1? The tone of the instruction might be perceived as threatening. Students may interpret it as if they will be scolded via email. 

Improved:

In assignment instructions: “Complete this assignment by the due date (Friday 11:59 pm) and read the rubric carefully to see how the assignment will be graded.” 

In the syllabus: “All assignments should be submitted on time by the due date indicated in each assignment page in Canvas. If you have a personal experience that prevents you from completing your assignment on time, please email me before the due date or as soon as possible.” 

Note that while a “personal experience” could prevent a student from emailing them before the due date, the tone and choice of words indicate respect and empathy for the student.

Example 2: Instructions in Lecture Slides

Original:

In this assignment, you will work in teams. The team leader needs to contact the pack and manage the herd to complete all stages of the project on time.”

What is the problem with example 2? The use of the words “pack” and “herd” might be interpreted as offensive. While it might sound informal or fun, this choice of words could be interpreted in its literal meaning leading students to wonder whether they are compared to a group of cattle or goats. 

Improved:

  • Team assignment:
    • A team effort: Each member is responsible for completing the project stages. 
    • Managed by team leader: The team leader should contact the team members (in the Group discussion board) to discuss the tasks, roles, and deliverables to be submitted.” 

Example 3: Instructions in Group Project

As a team, you are responsible for catching bad errors such as bad spelling, grammar, and content that does not match singular and plural gender-specificity. For non-English students, you are !!!STRONGLY!!! advised to turn in well-written materials. English native speakers are not free from sin; you have not reached a good level of writing yet and need to ensure your materials are proofread and grammatically correct.”

What is the problem with example 3? Many. First of all, the use of capital letters and exclamation marks may be interpreted as if the instructor is shouting at students. Second, singling out students whose first language is not English and calling those students whose first language is English “native” could send a negative message, diminishing the cultural background of these students. Third, equating writing mistakes to an immoral action and transgression that comes from religious perspectives may be considered not only offensive but culturally inappropriate. 

Improved:

The success of the team is the result of collaboration, individual accountability, and collective responsibility for turning in the project report to meet the assignment expectations. I highly encourage each team to make an appointment in the Writing Center for assistance with the development and structure of ideas (ask for an email confirmation of the consultation and submit it with your report). 

Your team should submit a report that has been proofread and revised for grammatical errors (e.g., spelling, subject-verb agreement, conventions of the citation style MLA).”

Taken together, tone and choice of words characterize communication of instructional content in more constructive and respectful ways. Using a friendly and welcoming tone and choice of words in instructional content and materials could be one step towards supporting students in how they see themselves, the value they have, and how they are respected in the class. 

I would be interested in learning your comments about instances where tone and choice of words could be misinterpreted.

Note: This blog post was written entirely by me (a human) and peer-reviewed by one of my colleagues (who is also a human).

Note: This was conducted using the Jan 9 Pre Research Preview version of ChatGPT.

Introduction

ChatGPT has been featured everywhere recently, with some educators being particularly worried because of its ability to craft essays, provide answers to quiz questions, and bypass plagiarism detection software. Teachers are trying to find ways to detect AI generated content, but are we being too hasty to associate AI in education with academic misconduct? Could the tool being used to cheat on courses actually help build them? I put this to the test by asking ChatGPT some questions.

Note: The purpose of this was to see how much of the course development process could be generated by the chatbot.

How to begin?

Let’s start at the beginning: how do we design a course? Well, keeping the process brief for this post, we want to start with some course learning outcomes, align them with some assessments, and generate some activities to help practice for those assessments. I have a background in linguistics and language education, so I wanted to see how this chatbot would respond to some prompts to create a generic English language course.

Chat Transcript

The following is the chat transcript from ChatGPT verbatim. Screenshots of the conversation are available below. Anything under the “ChatGPT” was written by the AI, with my comments in the “Comments” subsection under that.

Question 1

Gathering the learning outcomes

Could you generate 4-5 course learning outcomes for an intermediate English as a second language course?

ChatGPT Answer

  1. Students will be able to understand and use complex grammatical structures in spoken and written English, including verb tenses, modals, and conditional sentences.
  2. Students will be able to participate in discussions and debates on a variety of topics, using appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.
  3. Students will be able to read and comprehend authentic English texts, such as news articles, short stories, and literary works, and be able to analyze and interpret them.
  4. Students will be able to write clear, well-organized, and grammatically correct essays, using appropriate transitional words and phrases to develop their ideas.
  5. Students will be able to give presentations in English, using appropriate pronunciation, intonation, and stress to convey their message effectively.

Comments

These are standard course learning outcomes for an ESL course. As I simply asked for learning outcomes with no context, the chatbot has no idea how detailed they should be, or how long it will take to achieve these outcomes. Though that was tested in the next question.

Question 2

Basic weekly topics

Using those outcomes, what would the topics for a 10-week course look like?

ChatGPT Answer

  1. Week 1-2: Review of basic grammatical structures, introduction to verb tenses, including present perfect and past continuous.
  2. Week 3-4: Introduction to modals, including can, could, may, might, must, should, and will. Practice using them in context.
  3. Week 5-6: Conditional sentences, including zero, first, second, and third conditionals. Practice using them in context.
  4. Week 7-8: Vocabulary building and idiomatic expressions. Practice using them in discussion and debates.
  5. Week 9-10: Reading comprehension and analysis. Practice with a variety of texts and interpreting them.
  6. Week 11-12: Writing skills, including clear organization, development of ideas and use of transitional words and phrases.
  7. Week 13-14: Presentation skills, including pronunciation, intonation and stress.

Note: These topics might vary depending on the level of proficiency of the students in the class and the specific course design.

Comments

Interestingly here, the chatbot gave me 14 weeks of topics rather than the 10 I asked for. I believe this is because of the structure of my question, because this is fixed in a later question. This was the only glaring mistake during our entire “conversation”.

Question 3 

Assessments

What kinds of assessments could be used for these outcomes and topics?

ChatGPT Answer

  1. Grammar and vocabulary quizzes or tests to assess students’ understanding and mastery of grammatical structures, verb tenses, modals, and idiomatic expressions.
  2. Oral presentations, debates, or discussions to assess students’ ability to participate in spoken interactions using appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.
  3. Written assessments such as essays, short answer questions or summary writing to assess students’ ability to understand, analyze and interpret texts and convey their ideas in writing.
  4. Reading comprehension quizzes or tests to assess students’ ability to understand and interpret authentic English texts.
  5. Writing assessments such as essays, reports, or research papers to evaluate students’ ability to organize their thoughts, develop their ideas and use appropriate transitional words and phrases.
  6. Oral presentations or speeches to assess students’ ability to convey information effectively using appropriate pronunciation, intonation, and stress.
  7. Self-reflection or peer-evaluation could be used as well to evaluate students’ progress and areas of improvement.

Comments

A fairly wide range of skills being tested here – which is also down to my extremely generic requirement of ‘intermediate english language”. I thought the assessments here contained enough that someone designing a course could pick a few of them from each set provided.

Question 4

Alignment

Can you map the above assessments to the previously mentioned course learning outcomes? How would they align?

ChatGPT Answer

Sure, here’s how the assessments could align with the previously mentioned course learning outcomes:

1. Grammar and vocabulary quizzes or tests align with the outcome of being able to understand and use complex grammatical structures in spoken and written English, including verb tenses, modals, and conditional sentences.

2. Oral presentations, debates, or discussions align with the outcome of being able to participate in discussions and debates on a variety of topics, using appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic expressions.

3. Written assessments such as essays, short answer questions or summary writing align with the outcome of being able to read and comprehend authentic English texts, such as news articles, short stories, and literary works, and be able to analyze and interpret them, and also the outcome of being able to write clear, well-organized, and grammatically correct essays, using appropriate transitional words and phrases to develop their ideas.

4. Reading comprehension quizzes or tests align with the outcome of being able to read and comprehend authentic English texts, such as news articles, short stories, and literary works, and be able to analyze and interpret them.

5. Writing assessments such as essays, reports, or research papers align with the outcome of being able to write clear, well-organized, and grammatically correct essays, using appropriate transitional words and phrases to develop their ideas.

6. Oral presentations or speeches align with the outcome of being able to give presentations in English, using appropriate pronunciation, intonation, and stress to convey their message effectively.

7. Self-reflection or peer-evaluation align with the outcome of evaluating students’ progress and areas of improvement.

It’s important to note that the assessments should be designed to be both formative and summative, in order to provide ongoing feedback to the student and help them to track their progress and identify areas for improvement.

Comments

Alignment of assessments to outcomes is one of the most important parts of designing an online course. I was impressed with the combination of outcome to assessment as explaining why an assessment is being given to students is quite common.

Question 5 

How could multimedia help students?

Can you think of how multimedia could be used in this course to promote effective language learning?

ChatGPT Answer

There are several ways that multimedia could be used in an intermediate English as a second language course to promote effective language learning:

  1. Video and audio recordings of native English speakers can be used to expose students to authentic English, including different accents and dialects. This will help students to improve their listening comprehension and pronunciation skills.
  2. Interactive online exercises and activities, such as quizzes, games, and simulations can be used to provide students with opportunities to practice and reinforce their grammar, vocabulary, and idiomatic expressions in a fun and engaging way.
  3. Online discussion boards, chat rooms, and virtual meetings can be used to provide students with opportunities to interact with their classmates and teachers in real-time, thus promoting their speaking and writing skills.
  4. Online videos, documentaries, and TED talks can be used to expose students to a variety of interesting and engaging topics, and to provide students with opportunities to practice their listening comprehension and critical thinking skills.
  5. Online flashcards, quizzes, and other tools can be used to help students to memorize and retain new vocabulary words, and to improve their spelling and word recognition skills.
  6. Online or offline multimedia-based learning materials, such as interactive e-books, mobile apps, and podcasts, can be used as additional resources for students to explore and practice their language skills on their own time.
  7. Online resources such as subtitles for films, TV shows or podcasts can be used to improve students’ listening comprehension, vocabulary and grammar skills.

Overall, multimedia can be a great tool to make language learning more interactive, engaging, and personalized, and can be used to support the traditional teaching methods and assessments.

Comments

The multimedia selection here is fairly common in ESL classrooms. Selecting a combination of these would enhance the learning experience. It is also helpful that an explanation of purpose is given for each item on the list.

Question 6

Diversity and inclusion

Students on this course will be from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Can you anticipate any topics that would best be avoided?

ChatGPT Answer

When teaching students from diverse backgrounds and cultures, it’s important to be sensitive to cultural differences and to avoid topics that may be offensive or controversial. Some potential topics that might be best avoided in an intermediate English as a second language course include:

  1. Religion: It’s best to avoid discussing religious beliefs, practices, or controversies, as they can be deeply personal and may offend some students or create unnecessary tension among the class.
  2. Politics: Avoid discussing or debating controversial political issues, as they may be divisive and could create tension among the class.
  3. Cultural stereotypes: Avoid making generalizations or negative comments about any particular culture or group of people, as this can be offensive and perpetuate stereotypes.
  4. Racism and discrimination: Avoid discussing these topics in a way that might make any student feel targeted, uncomfortable or offended.
  5. History: Some historical events can be sensitive and can cause discomfort to some students. It is important to be aware of different perspectives and be sensitive.

It is important to remember that every student is unique and has their own personal experiences and perspectives, and topics that may be acceptable for one student may not be for another. It’s best to use common sense, and if you are unsure, it’s always good to ask your students if they are comfortable discussing a particular topic.

It’s also important to create a safe and inclusive environment, where all students feel respected and valued, and where they can express themselves freely without fear of judgement or discrimination.

Comments

I included this question because of the importance of diversity and inclusion in the classroom, and with an ESL course in particular, students will be from diverse backgrounds. It was good to see that the chatbot could provide not only a list of topics to answer my question but also to give additional advice on the learning environment.

Question 7

Converting this into an online course

How could everything mentioned so far be developed as an online, asynchronous course? Student interaction might be limited to discussion boards as they are likely to be in other countries with different time zones.

ChatGPT Answer

An intermediate English as a second language course can be developed as an online, asynchronous course by using a variety of tools and resources to create a self-paced and interactive learning experience. Some potential strategies include:

  1. Use a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Canvas, Blackboard, or Moodle to create a centralized location for all course materials, assignments, and communication. This will provide students with easy access to all the resources they need to complete the course. Use video and audio recordings, as well as interactive online exercises and activities to provide students with opportunities to practice and reinforce their grammar, vocabulary, and idiomatic expressions in a fun and engaging way.
  2. Use discussion boards, chat rooms, and virtual meetings to provide students with opportunities to interact with their classmates and teachers in real-time, thus promoting their speaking and writing skills. These tools can also be used to create a sense of community among the students, despite their geographic distance and time zones.
  3. Create and provide online multimedia-based learning materials, such as interactive e-books, mobile apps, and podcasts, as additional resources for students to explore and practice their language skills on their own time.
  4. Use online quizzes, tests and assessments to evaluate student’s understanding, and use the results to provide them with feedback and guidance on areas where they need to improve.
  5. Use Self-reflection or peer-evaluation to evaluate students’ progress, and areas of improvement.
  6. Provide detailed and clear instructions for all assignments, activities, and assessments, and make sure that the deadlines are flexible enough to accommodate students in different time zones.
  7. Encourage students to take an active role in their own learning by regularly checking in with them, providing them with feedback, and giving them opportunities to reflect on their progress and set goals for themselves.

Overall, an online, asynchronous course can be designed to be flexible, interactive, and engaging, and can provide students with opportunities to learn and practice their language skills at their own pace and on their own schedule.

Comments

I work in the field of online and hybrid learning, and often adapt existing in-person courses to online versions. I wanted to see if the chatbot could also do this, given that all of the previous answers were based on the assumption of an in-person class. This was not the fault of the ChatGPT – I never specified whether I wanted it to be an online-specific course. An important lesson here is that imprecise input will not result in precise output (see: GIGO for more information, or this article on tailoring your prompts for ChatGPT).

Still, given the updated prompt, it was able to provide both synchronous and asynchronous activities to accommodate for differences in time zones and locations.

Question 8

Asking directly for an opinion

Can you think of anything else that might be important to consider when building this course?

ChatGPT Answer

Here are a few additional things that might be important to consider when building an intermediate English as a second language course:

  1. Assessing students’ prior knowledge and language proficiency: It’s important to assess students’ prior knowledge and language proficiency before the course begins, in order to tailor the course content to their needs and to ensure that they are placed in the appropriate level.
  2. Differentiating instruction: Since students in an intermediate English as a second language course will have varying levels of proficiency, it’s important to differentiate instruction and provide multiple means of representation, expression, and engagement to meet the needs of all students.
  3. Scaffolding and modeling: Provide students with the necessary support, guidance and modeling to complete the activities and assignments.
  4. Provide opportunities for students to practice and apply their language skills in authentic and meaningful contexts.
  5. Encourage students to use English as much as possible: Encourage students to use English as much as possible, both inside and outside of class, by providing them with opportunities to interact with native speakers, read authentic English texts, and listen to English-language music and podcasts.
  6. Use technology to enhance language learning: Use technology to enhance language learning by providing students with access to online resources, such as grammar exercises, vocabulary lists, and pronunciation guides.
  7. Provide regular and constructive feedback: Provide regular and constructive feedback on students’ progress and areas for improvement. This can be done through formative assessments, individual conferences, or through online tools such as rubrics and self-reflection.
  8. Be flexible and responsive: Be flexible and responsive to students’ needs and be open to suggestions and feedback to improve the course.
  9. Cultural sensitivity: Be culturally sensitive, and be aware of the cultural backgrounds of the students and make sure that the course content is inclusive and respectful of different cultures.
  10. Keep in mind that the course is not just about language, but also about culture. Provide students with opportunities to learn about the cultures of English-speaking countries in order to help them to understand and appreciate the language and its context better.

Comments

For this question, I wanted to see if the chatbot could provide additional considerations for teaching and learning. These are all great suggestions, which is probably why the AI selected them – they likely appear in many examples of educational content that it had been trained on.

Question 9

Rewriting course learning outcomes to be more measurable

Can you take the aforementioned course learning outcomes and rewrite them with strong, measurable verbs? For example, “understand” is not easy to measure.

ChatGPT Answer

Sure, here are the course learning outcomes rephrased with strong, measurable verbs:

  1. Students will be able to identify and use complex grammatical structures in spoken and written English, including verb tenses, modals, and conditional sentences with 80% accuracy on grammar quizzes and tests.
  2. Students will be able to initiate and participate in discussions and debates on a variety of topics, using appropriate vocabulary and idiomatic expressions with 70% accuracy on oral presentations, debates, or discussions.
  3. Students will be able to read and comprehend authentic English texts, such as news articles, short stories, and literary works, and analyze and interpret them with 80% accuracy on reading comprehension quizzes or tests.
  4. Students will be able to write clear, well-organized, and grammatically correct essays, using appropriate transitional words and phrases to develop their ideas with 80% accuracy on writing assessments such as essays, reports, or research papers.
  5. Students will be able to give presentations in English, using appropriate pronunciation, intonation, and stress to convey their message effectively with 80% accuracy on oral presentations or speeches.

These objectives are now specific, measurable and have a clear criteria of success. They are also aligned with the assessments and activities that you have previously mentioned.

Comments

I conducted an experiment which mimics the process that instructional designers routinely encounter when designing online courses. There are often a set of learning outcomes given at the start of the development process which regularly use verbs that are heard to measure such as “understand” or “know”. This makes it difficult to align assessments to outcomes because what does it really mean to “understand” something? How can we apply a rubric or grade to it? 

Note that, in a real development beginning from scratch, we would want to design the course learning outcomes to be measurable from the start before anything else. In practice, however, I usually work with faculty on courses with predetermined outcomes that are either modified to more measurable ones, or linked to more measurable weekly learning outcomes.

ChatGPT modified the one verb I called out – “understand” – but left “comprehend”. Perhaps this also required a specific mention in the initial question, and is another example of how your initial prompt influences the results. 

Question 10

Creating a weekly schedule

Can you make a weekly schedule, from week 1 to week 10, with an overview of activities for that particular week, incorporating the aforementioned assessments where appropriate and aligning all of it with the course learning outcomes?

ChatGPT Answer

Sure, here’s a possible weekly schedule for an intermediate English as a second language course:

Week 1:

  • Overview of the course and introduction to the course learning outcomes
  • Assessment of students’ prior knowledge and language proficiency
  • Introduction to verb tenses, including present perfect and past continuous
  • Interactive online exercises and activities to practice verb tenses
  • Vocabulary building and idiomatic expressions

Week 2:

  • Review and reinforcement of verb tenses
  • Quiz or test on verb tenses
  • Introduction to modals, including can, could, may, might, must, should, and will
  • Practice using modals in context

Week 3:

  • Review and reinforcement of modals
  • Quiz or test on modals
  • Introduction to conditional sentences, including zero, first, second, and third conditionals
  • Practice using conditional sentences in context

Week 4:

  • Review and reinforcement of conditional sentences
  • Quiz or test on conditional sentences
  • Vocabulary building and idiomatic expressions
  • Practice using vocabulary and idiomatic expressions in discussions and debates

Week 5:

  • Reading comprehension and analysis
  • Practice with a variety of texts and interpreting them
  • Writing skills, including clear organization, development of ideas and use of transitional words and phrases

Week 6:

  • Review and reinforcement of writing skills
  • Writing assessment such as essays, reports, or research papers
  • Presentation skills, including pronunciation, intonation and stress

Week 7:

  • Review and reinforcement of presentation skills
  • Practice oral presentations or speeches
  • Self-reflection or peer-evaluation
  • Vocabulary building and idiomatic expressions

Week 8:

  • Reading comprehension and analysis
  • Practice with a variety of texts and interpreting them
  • Writing skills, including clear organization, development of ideas and use of transitional words and phrases

Week 9:

  • Review and reinforcement of all language skills
  • Final assessment, which can include a combination of quizzes, tests, essays, oral presentations, or other forms of assessment.
  • Feedback on final assessment

Week 10:

  • Review of key concepts and skills
  • Feedback on the course, and suggestions for improvement
  • Final self-reflection or peer-evaluation

Note: This is just a sample schedule, and it can be adjusted depending on the specific needs of the students and the course design. Also, it’s important to remember that the assessments should be designed to be both formative and summative, in order to provide ongoing feedback to the student and help them to track their progress and identify areas for improvement.

Comments

The language I used in this question yielded the correct number of weeks from the AI. Each week is structured to include a review of the previous week’s content, which is a common teaching technique. This is asking a lot from the chatbot! It managed to incorporate most of my requests though, which again is impressive. 

Question 11

Academic Integrity

What measures could be taken to ensure academic integrity in the online version of this course?

ChatGPT Answer

Academic integrity is a critical aspect of any course, and it’s important to take measures to ensure that students are completing their work independently and honestly. Here are a few measures that could be taken to ensure academic integrity in an online version of an intermediate English as a second language course:

  1. Use plagiarism detection software: Use plagiarism detection software, such as Turnitin, to check students’ work for originality. This will help to detect instances of plagiarism and ensure that students are completing their own work.
  2. Provide clear guidelines on academic integrity: Provide students with clear guidelines on academic integrity, including definitions of plagiarism, cheating, and academic dishonesty.
  3. Monitor online activities: Monitor online activities, such as discussion board posts, chat room conversations, and virtual meetings, to ensure that students are participating in the course honestly and independently.
  4. Use proctoring software: Use proctoring software, such as ProctorU or Respondus Monitor, to monitor students while they take online quizzes, tests, or exams.
  5. Use randomized questions: Use randomized questions, or different versions of the same test to prevent students from sharing answers with each other.
  6. Encourage self-regulation: Encourage self-regulation, and make it clear that the students are responsible for maintaining academic integrity in their work.
  7. Create a culture of integrity: Create a culture of integrity in the class, by emphasizing the importance of honesty, trust, and responsibility.
  8. Have clear consequences: Have clear consequences for academic dishonesty, and communicate them to the students.

Overall, it’s important to establish clear expectations for academic integrity and

ChatGPT froze here, the servers were experiencing high volumes of traffic.

Comments

Again, these are solid solutions which are used in both in-person and online courses. A quick web search would yield similar results as these are shared across most educational institutions.

Thoughts on further usage

It is clear that AI is set to change the way we interact with technology in education (or already has depending on how much you are using it). For this test, I simply provided the most generic input to see what the chatbot would generate. For an intermediate (however that was interpreted by the chatbot) ESL course, the learning outcomes were solid, once measurable outcomes were requested, and I was impressed by the generated weekly schedule including high level overviews of activities and assessments.

With more precise input requirements for course content and outcomes, one would expect an even more accurate output.

There are many ways that this kind of technology can be used to enhance courses – and I can see it being a very useful tool for quick questions such as potential assignments for certain learning outcomes, or figuring out if an assignment prompt might result in unintended consequences. For example, see the following:

Bonus Question

What could go wrong?

Can you think of any potential negative consequences of using the following prompt in a classroom?

“Make a presentation on current events in your country.”

ChatGPT Answer

There are several potential negative consequences of using the prompt “Make a presentation on current events in your country” in a classroom setting:

  1. Bias: Students may only focus on certain events or perspectives, leading to a biased understanding of current events.
  2. Limited perspective: Students may only present events happening in their immediate community, leading to a limited perspective on current events in the country as a whole.
  3. Inappropriate content: Students may present on sensitive or controversial topics that may be inappropriate for a classroom setting.
  4. Lack of critical thinking: By only presenting current events, students may not develop the critical thinking skills needed to analyze and understand the underlying causes and consequences of the events.
  5. Limited access to information: Some students may not have access to current events information, especially if they come from low-income or marginalized communities.

It’s important to consider these potential negative consequences and take steps to mitigate them, such as providing guidance on how to present information in a balanced and fair manner and encouraging critical thinking and analysis of current events.

Watching for potential bias

During my “conversation” with the bot, I was impressed with the response to the diversity and inclusion question I posed. The points it presented were, like most answers in this experiment, fairly common and expected responses for such a course (‘don’t talk about politics, religion, etc. etc.’). A phrase that kept cropping up is ‘it is important to…’ followed by a value statement. Those presented in this conversation were benign, and actually good advice from an educational standpoint (e.g. every student is unique, you should create a safe learning environment, and so on). It seems a lot of work has been done to minimize bias – responses from the bot on many issues have disclaimers and things that are ‘important to remember’. It is also, however, important to remember that biases can creep in and to keep an eye out for it, especially when taking advice from AI.

Copyright Issues

Obviously the chatbot is pulling this information from somewhere (more info on this is contained on the Wikipedia page for ChatGPT), and even though it is generative AI, one has to wonder how much this will be an issue in the future if content is too similar to an existing program or course – not to mention all other subjects it is capable of generating.

References and Sources

  1. ChatGPT‘. Wikipedia. [Accessed Jan 19 2023].
  2. ChatGPT Jan 9 Version Just Released: Learn What’s New!‘ ChatGPT. [Accessed Jan 19 2023].
  3. ChatGPT Success Completely Depends on Your Prompts‘. Forbes. [Accessed Jan 19 2023].
  4. Garbage in, garbage out‘. Wikipedia. [Accessed Jan 19 2023].
  5. Lee, J. W. (2023). ‘A new tool helps teachers detect if AI wrote an assignment‘. NPR. [Accessed Jan 19 2023].
  6. OpenAI: ChatGPT [Accessed Jan 19 2023].

Conversation Screenshots

Announcements are among the most basic yet effective ways to communicate with students, whether in person or online. In our Ecampus asynchronous online courses, announcements are often the primary way instructors pass on important information to students and can be a formidable tool for fostering instructor presence. They can be used to welcome and orient students, summarize and reiterate key concepts, and remind students about upcoming assignments, projects, and exams. Some instructors send out weekly announcements that reflect on the prior week and provide general feedback on student performance, while others only use announcements for course related logistics such as schedule changes or instructor unavailability. No matter how you use announcements, the following suggestions can help ensure you are leveraging the power of the announcements feature in Canvas. 

Best Practices

  • Keep announcements concise. Students have a limited amount of cognitive capacity and lengthy announcements may not be read in full.
    • Consider your purpose before composing and resist the urge to rehash what you have written elsewhere. 
    • If you need to remind students of an assignment, consider linking to the instructions rather than rehashing them in the body of the announcement. 
  • Send announcements on a regular schedule. If you plan to send weekly announcements, do so on the same day of the week and general time if possible.
    • Sending out a recap of the prior week and preview of what to expect in the upcoming week is most valuable if sent at the beginning of the week. If you start your course week on Monday, send your announcements on Monday mornings. 
  • Give announcements meaningful titles to reflect the content of the announcement. Labeling announcements as “week X update”, “Important date change for assignment X”, or another such descriptive title will help students find the correct announcement if they need to revisit it.

Canvas Tips

  • Delete old announcements from imported course content. Old announcements from previous courses or instructors copy over when a Canvas course is copied and are visible to students in the announcements tab unless deleted, including your own prior term announcements or those from a previous instructor. This could be very confusing for students as some instructors provide the class with quiz or test answers or information about exams in announcements that may be disadvantageous for current term students to read. 
  • Schedule out your announcements in advance using ‘delay posting’ (see image below). If you do want to reuse announcements imported from a previous term, be sure to open each message, edit the content for the current term, and choose when you would like to post each one. New announcements can also be scheduled to post on whatever day and time you choose.

  • You can set up your homepage to show recent announcements at the top of the page, ensuring students see them when logging into the course (see below). Go to the main Settings menu item at the bottom left course menu. From there, scroll down and click the “more options” link at the bottom. You’ll then see further course options- click the box next to “Show recent announcements…” and then choose how many to display. Don’t forget to save your choices by clicking “Update Course Details”.

Image of a black chair in an empty room

Have you implemented office hours in your online course, with few students taking advantage of that time to connect? This can often seem like a mystery, when we hear so often from Ecampus students that they desire to build deeper relationships with their instructors. Let’s dive into some of the reasons why online students may be hesitant to attend and identify a few ways we can improve this in our courses. 

Who are our learners?

To help us address this question, let’s first consider who our learners are. The vast majority of Ecampus students are working adults who complete coursework in the evenings and on weekends, outside of regular business hours.

Ecampus learners reside in all 50 states and more than 60 countries. The people who enroll in Ecampus courses and programs consist of distance (off-campus) students — whose life situations make it difficult for them to attend courses on Oregon State’s Corvallis or Bend campuses — and campus-based students who may take an occasional online course due to a schedule conflict or preference for online learning. Here is a student demographic breakdown for the 2021-22 academic year: Approximately 26% of OSU distance students live in Oregon. The average age of OSU distance students is 31.

Data shared from Ecampus News

Considering this data about our online population, along with qualitative survey data and insights from our student success team, we can also deduce some additional factors. Our students are:

  • Working professionals, balancing family and personal commitments
  • Concerned about time
  • Often feel stressed and overwhelmed
  • Seeking flexibility and understanding
  • Located in a variety of time zones, with mixed schedules
  • From a number of cultural backgrounds and perspectives
  • Looking to identify the value of tasks/assignments and seeking how their education will benefit them personally
  • May experience self-doubt, imposter syndrome, or hesitancy around their ability to successfully complete their program

Identifying the barriers

Now that we have a better understanding of our online learners and some of the challenges they face, let’s consider how they approach office hours. The slide below, shared at a TOPS faculty workshop in 2020, outlines some of the self-reported reasons that students may not be engaging in support sessions or reaching out for help.

Slides shared from TOPS presentation, February 2020, by Brittni Racek

Students may have the connotation that office hours are for ‘certain types of concerns’ and not see it as a time to connect with their instructor on other areas of interest (i.e. graduate school, career planning, letters of recommendation, etc.) They may also see it as a sign of weakness or fault, rather than a strength for being able to utilize that time to build a relationship or increase their learning. Students may have also had past experiences, at OSU or elsewhere, that have formed an understanding of what office hours entail and what is allowed at these meetings.

Student feedback

In the Ecampus Annual Survey (2020), when asked about faculty behavior that made them feel comfortable attending office hours, students shared that instructor friendliness, promptly answering student questions, providing accessible and flexible office hour options, and demonstrating strong communication throughout the course were specifically helpful in encouraging use of office hours. (Ecampus Annual Student Survey)

Those who had not taken advantage of office hours shared reasons that generally fell into four categories:

  1. Office hours conflicted with life and were not accessible to them
  2. The student had not yet needed to use office hours
  3. Using other forms of communication to ask for help
  4. Lack of awareness of if or when office hours were offered

Alternative approaches

Rename and reframe ‘office hours’

To help students identify the purpose of your Office Hours time, and to make it a little less intimidating, you might consider renaming these hours. Some ideas include Student Hours, Homework Help, Ask Me Anything Hours, Virtual Coffee Chat, etc. Some instructors separate times for course related questions from times that are more for connection and talking about outside topics such as current industry news, future planning, etc.

It’s important to be clear with students what they can discuss with you at these times, and to also encourage their participation and welcome it. You could do this by choosing intentional wording in the way you share your hours, and also sending reminders by announcement or direct message.

Offer flexibility

To help make your hours accessible to a variety of students, you might consider offering a number of different times throughout the term, staggering when those are available (i.e. morning, lunch, evening, or a weekend day). You can also offer the option to request office hours by appointment.

Another strategy would be to survey your students at the beginning of the term to see when the best times are for the majority of the class. You could also leverage this survey to ask about topics of interest or to see if they have any concerns or questions starting off the term.

Consider the tools

For synchronous virtual meetings, we would recommend using Zoom as most OSU students are comfortable with this tool, and everyone has free access to it. Zoom links can be shared, and also integrated into your Canvas course using the tool in the Canvas menu. For asynchronous questions, you might create a Q&A forum for each week or module of the course (and subscribe to ensure timely notification). If you are using Canvas messaging, we recommend outlining that in your communication plan so that students know the best way to reach you.

Some instructors have also experimented with outside tools, such as Gather. Gather is a platform for building digital spaces for teams to connect at a distance. It is free to use for spaces that allow up to 25 users at once. You can chat, enable your mic and camera for audio/video interactions, and create specific areas for small group conversations.

Demonstrate care and community

One of the best strategies for encouraging students to utilize your meeting hours or to reach out for help in other ways, is to demonstrate care throughout your course. This can be done by using welcome and inclusive language in your Syllabus and written course content, having a warm and friendly tone in your media (i.e. recorded lectures and videos), and reaching out proactively to students who may be low in participation or struggling academically.


Resources

  • Office Hours for Online Courses – This guide was created by our Ecampus Faculty Support team, and provides a great overview for best practices and implementation.
  • Office Hours Explainer – This PDF was designed by OSU’s Academic Success Center, as a student-facing resource on Office Hours. It explains the variety of topics available, steps to take, and preparation for the student. There is a specific section about online courses, but the majority of the guide is applicable to Ecampus students.
  • Effective Office Hours – This faculty guide, created by the Center for Academic Innovation at the University of Michigan, offers some ideas for how to leverage virtual office hours, including specific strategies from an instructional perspective.

The idea that students learn best when they have the opportunity to apply what they are learning to real-world contexts is the basis of Experiential Learning Theory (ELT). Learning by doing is at its core, and as a high-impact practice, there is increasingly more emphasis on experiential learning in higher education. There is plenty of evidence that supports the benefits of this type of learning. It affords students an opportunity to connect knowledge to authentic situations and increases learner autonomy, motivation, and overall satisfaction (Kolb and Kolb, 2018). Many OSU Ecampus Courses feature such experiences. In fact, OSU’s Honors College requires all courses to include experiential learning components, and this is increasingly the case across disciplines at OSU. 

What does experiential learning look like? 

Kolb's Cycle of Experiential Learning
The Experiential Learning Cycle, image by Izhaki via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0

Many of us may think of community engagement, project-based learning, or practicums when we consider what constitutes an experiential learning experience. While these are solid examples of ELT in practice, experiential learning can take many forms across learning environments. David Kolb describes experiential learning as a four-stage process in his cycle of learning (Kolb and Kolb, 2018). According to Kolb, learning is a process where knowledge is created through the transformation of experience. Students can engage with the cycle at any point in the experience as long as they engage with all four stages. The flexibility of hybrid and online learning presents rich possibilities for incorporating this process. The four stages of Kolb’s experiential learning process include:

  • Concrete learning: engage in a new experience or critically interpret a past experience. 
  • Reflective observation: use experience and background knowledge to understand the relevance or meaning of the experience. 
  • Abstract conceptualization: gain a new understanding of the experience by adjusting thinking based on reflection. 
  • Active experimentation: engage experimentally by applying new insights to the situation in a practical way.

Kolb’s theory is not without limitations in that it does not provide clear answers about how collaboration between learners affects reflection, and it doesn’t account for learning that occurs without reflection (Psychology, 2022). While his model isn’t the final word on all of the ways learners make sense of the world, it does provide a good starting point for understanding and designing effective real-world learning opportunities. 

What makes a good experiential learning experience? 

Regardless of the activity, both the experience and the learning are fundamental in experiential learning scenarios, and the ongoing engagement of both the instructor and the student is critical. In experiential environments, students take ownership of their learning process by taking a more active role such as in posing questions, experimenting, and constructing meaning through their persistent participation in the experience. The role of the instructor, on the other hand, is to ensure that the experience is of high quality and in alignment with the stated learning outcomes while also supporting the learner to develop autonomy in using the principles of experiential learning as defined by The National Society of Experiential Education (NSEE)

Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities 

  1. Intention: the activity is structured around a formal process and the purpose and rationale for why the activity was chosen is transparent and clear to students.
  2. Preparedness and planning: students understand expectations for engaging in the learning experience and have the necessary background knowledge and preparation to participate in the planned learning with support throughout the process. 
  3. Authenticity: the learning experience is relevant and designed in response to an authentic context or situation in collaboration with those affected by it. 
  4. Reflection: the experience is transformative and allows for knowledge discovery through a process of making and testing decisions around expected or observed outcomes and through consideration of assumptions and implications related to prior and present learning. 
  5. Orientation and training: learner support and guidance include sufficient background preparation needed for successful achievement of learning outcomes. 
  6. Monitoring and continuous improvement: students receive continuous feedback and support to enhance the learning experience and ensure achievement of learning outcomes. 
  7. Assessment and evaluation: students receive helpful and timely feedback from the instructor and any external facilitators, and monitoring and adjustments to process are made as appropriate to ensure achievement of outcomes.
  8. Acknowledgement: All students and external stakeholders or facilitators are recognized for their work, progress, and contribution to the experience. 

Experiential Learning in OSU Ecampus Courses 

The following examples illustrate a small selection of the many creative experiential learning opportunities OSU faculty developers have incorporated into their online and hybrid courses in collaboration with Ecampus instructional designers. 

  • Build a community of writers online. Students read, critique, write, edit, revise, and share original pieces of creative writing. An activity modeled after the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and implemented in a creative writing course.
  • Discover and Promote well-being in an Online Community. Students in a philosophy class engage in activities in their local community and online to talk about topics around well-being. They then reflect on those experiences and dialogue before compiling a “happiness toolkit” and sharing it with peers. 
  • Explore health and fitness assessment techniques used to measure cardiovascular health. Through a series of hands-on labs, students monitor volunteers’ exercise regimes and calculate cardiovascular fitness values to make recommendations based on the data collected. 
  • Collaborate in a team to study and analyze management case studies. Students work through complex and ambiguous problems to solve a workplace challenge and find solutions before participating in an authentic human resources simulation.
  • Write and perform music. Students in a performance-based music course write and perform original pieces of music.
  • Examine poverty and its effect on students’ local communities. Students complete a public health scavenger hunt guided by specific questions, reflection, and peer collaboration. They then create a guide describing public health issues and potential solutions.
  • Investigate the necessary conditions for designing effective teams and work groups, including best practices and processes needed for maximum productivity, strategies to resolve common issues in teams, and methods to evaluate team performance. Students then apply their learning by leading a team in real life. 
  • Analyze and conduct research on a local public health issue. Students partner with community organizations in their area to identify needs and apply principles of public health to authentic contexts.

The list is far from exhaustive. New courses featuring experiential learning are currently in development across disciplines. Faculty interested in learning more about how to get started learning by doing in hybrid and online courses can learn more by checking out the Ecampus experiential learning resources page.

Resources

Eight Principles of Good Practice for All Experiential Learning Activities. (n.d.). Retrieved January 19, 2023, from https://www.nsee.org/index.php?option=com_content

Inside Higher Ed, Roberts, J., & Welton, A. (2022, August 3). The foundational best practices in experiential learning. Inside Higher Ed. 

Kolb, AY & Kolb, DA 2017, The experiential educator: Principles and practices of experiential learning, EBLS Press, Kaunakakai, HI.

Kolb, A., & Kolb, D. (2018). Eight important things to know about the experiential learning cycle.

Proposing Experiential Learning Opportunities (ELOS). (n.d.). Center for Integrative and Experiential Learning, Revised March 2019.

Psychology, P. (2022, December 6). Experiential Learning (Definition + Examples) | Practical Psychology. Practical Psychology.

Learning outcomes (LOs) are used in instructional design to describe the skills and knowledge that students should have at the end of a course or learning unit, and to design assessments and activities that support these goals. It is widely agreed that specific, measurable outcomes are essential for planning instruction; however, some educators question the benefits of explicitly presenting them to students. I have been asked (and wondered myself): “What is the point of listing learning outcomes in the course?” “How do they help learning? “Do students even read them?”

So, I went on a quest for research that attempted to answer such questions. I was particularly interested in unit/module-level outcomes, as those are the ones that directly steer the content, and students see them throughout the course. Here’s a brief summary of what I found.

Note: the studies use the terms “learning outcome”, “learning objective”, or “learning goal” – they all refer to the same concept: a specific and measurable description of the skills and knowledge that students are expected to have at the end of a learning unit/period of study. At OSU we use the term “outcomes”.

What Does the Research Say?

Armbruster et al. (2009) redesigned an Introductory Biology course at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, using active learning and student-centered pedagogies, leading to increased student performance and satisfaction. One of the strategies used was to include explicit learning goals in the lecture slides, and labeling exam and quiz questions with the related goals. Students’ attitudes towards the course were assessed via a questionnaire and comparison of university-administered student evaluations. Students were asked to rank lecture components in terms of helpfulness to learning, and the authors found that one of the highest-ranking elements was the inclusion of explicit learning goals.

Simon and Taylor (2009) surveyed 597 students from computer science and microbiology and immunology courses at the University of British Columbia, where instructors presented learning goals at the beginning of each lecture or topic area. The questions were open and the answers coded into a number of categories, which helped them identify several values of goals. The main value was “knowing what I need to know”: students reported that the goals showed them how to focus their efforts and felt that the goals “allowed them to organize the information more effectively and be more expertlike in their approach to the class” (Simon & Taylor, 2009, p.55). The authors did not find any difference between presenting the goals before each lecture versus at the beginning of the unit/topic area.

Brooks et al. (2014) examined students’ views of learning outcomes at the University of Leicester, UK. First, they surveyed 918 students taking Biological Sciences, English and Medicine courses. They found that 81% of participants agreed or strongly agreed that learning outcomes are useful learning aids. Additionally, 46% found LOs more useful as their courses progressed, and 49% reported that they engaged more with the LOs as the course progressed. The authors also investigated when LOs are most useful, and found that the most common answer (46%) was when reviewing the material. Moreover, 49% of students reported that LOs can only be fully understood at the end of a module. The researchers followed up on these results with a focus group, which confirmed that students use LOs in various ways and at various points during the course.

Osueke et al. (2018) looked into students’ use and perceptions of learning objectives at University of Georgia. 185 students in an undergraduate Introduction to Biochemistry and Molecular Biology course took part in the study. The instructors included instructions in the syllabus, which they also stated on the first day of class: “Focus on the learning objectives. The exams will assess your accomplishment of the learning objectives. Use the learning objectives as a guide for what to focus on when you are completing assignments and studying for exams.” Students completed two assignments requiring them to explain their use of the LOs. The researchers found that many students (33.8%) reported they had been instructed on how to use LOs to study – these instructions ranged from passively “look over” to using them as a study guide. The ways students used the LOs were: as questions to answer (47.4%), as a resource for studying (24.1%), as a self-assessment tool (14.3%), and passive use (13.5%). When asked why they find the LOs helpful, students said that they help them: narrow down the information (57.1%); organize their studying (23.3%); communicate information (5.3%); monitor their understanding (4.5%); forced them to study (1.5%).

Sana et al. (2020) conducted three experiments aiming to find to what extent presenting the LOs improve retention of information. Participants were asked to read five passages on a neuroscience topic, and then they were tested on comprehension and retention. The experiments took place at McMaster University, Ontario and employed different participants, methods, materials, and procedures. They found that: interpolating LOs throughout the lesson (as opposed to all LOs presented at the beginning) improved learning compared to not including LOs, especially when students’ attention was explicitly directed to them; converting LOs into pretest questions (that students attempted to answer) further enhanced performance; multiple-choice and short answer questions were equally effective; and withholding feedback on pretests was more effective than providing feedback – the explanation proposed by the authors for this last finding was that students may be more motivated to seek the correct answers themselves, which causes further processing of the material.

Barnard et al. (2021) investigated students’ and academics’ perspectives on the purpose of learning objectives and approaches to assessment preparation. They conducted focus groups with participants from an undergraduate Psychology course at the University of Nottingham, UK. The students reported that LOs are useful for guidance, as they “use them to create direction for some of the learning and revision strategies” (Barnard et al., 2021, p. 679).

Conclusions and Recommendations

Good news! The findings of these studies suggest that many students do appreciate clear LOs and use them to guide their learning. The LOs help them understand what they are expected to know – thus, students use them to focus their study, to review for an exam, and to self-check their knowledge.

As instructors and instructional designers, what can we do to help students take full advantage of LOs? Apart from having specific and measurable LOs, make sure that the LOs are well aligned with the activities, and make this alignment explicit. It may also be helpful to offer some guidance on how to use the LOs, for instance by prompting students to recap their learning at the end of a unit based on the LOs. Finally, we could turn the LOs into questions and use them as a pretest.

For more on creating and using LOs, check out the CBE—Life Sciences Education website, which has an informative guide, including a section on student use. 

Do you have any other ideas or resources on how to use learning outcomes to improve students’ experience and study habits? If so, we’d love to hear from you!

References

Armbruster, P., Patel, M., Johnson, E., & Weiss, M. (2009). Active learning and student-centered pedagogy improve student attitudes and performance in Introductory Biology. CBE Life Sciences Education, 8(3), 203–213. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.09-03-0025

Barnard, M., Whitt, E., & McDonald, S. (2021). Learning objectives and their effects on learning and assessment preparation: Insights from an undergraduate psychology course. Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education, 46(5), 673–684. https://doi.org/10.1080/02602938.2020.1822281

Brooks, S., Dobbins, K., Scott, J. J. A., Rawlinson, M., & Norman, R. I. (2014). Learning about learning outcomes: The student perspective. Teaching in Higher Education, 19(6), 721–733. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2014.901964

Osueke, B., Mekonnen, B., & Stanton, J. D. (2018). How undergraduate science students use learning objectives to study. Journal of Microbiology & Biology Education, 19(2). https://doi.org/10.1128/jmbe.v19i2.1510

Sana, F., Forrin, N. D., Sharma, M., Dubljevic, T., Ho, P., Jalil, E., & Kim, J. A. (2020). Optimizing the efficacy of learning objectives through pretests. CBE Life Sciences Education, 19(3), ar43–ar43. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.19-11-0257

Simon, B., & Taylor, J. (2009). What is the value of course-specific learning goals? Journal of College Science Teaching, 39(2), 52–57. Retrieved from: https://www.colorado.edu/sei/sites/default/files/attached-files/what_is_the_value_of_course-specific_learning_goals.pdf