Aristotle and Online Course Design
According to Aristotelian principles of rhetoric, there are three types of appeal that are necessary for a rhetorically balanced argument: logos, or logical appeal; pathos, or emotional appeal; and ethos, or ethical appeal. The ethical appeal is one that usually confuses my writing students. They often mistake its meaning by assuming that it means making an ethical, or moral, argument. This isn’t correct. Actually, in rhetoric, an ethical appeal is a type of evidence that establishes the credibility of the writer or speaker. In other words, it’s the way that you, the author, persuade your audience that you are worth listening to, that you’ve done your homework and know your business.
Skilled writers and speakers make ethical appeals in a variety of ways. Citing sources carefully is one important way; acknowledging ideas and language that are not your own tells your reader that you are a careful and conscientious researcher and thus helps add weight to your argument. Acknowledging your opposition is another important way to make an ethical appeal and establish your credibility: if your readers know that you are not ignoring the fact that there are legitimate counter-arguments to your own, then you have a much higher chance of winning their respect and maintaining their attention. One of the most important ways of establishing your ethos, according to Aristotelian notions of classical rhetoric, includes demonstrating an awareness of your audience and adapting your style and delivery for that audience.
It’s this last strategy that I have been thinking about lately. I’ve done a fair number of trainings over the past two or three weeks, and I’ve heard from more than one administrator that the faculty at his or her institution are difficult to persuade that course design matters. Many of these faculty, according to the administrators, seem to think that course design is akin to window dressing—it’s pretty if you have it, but the content of the course is what really matters, and if that content is strong, it doesn’t matter how it’s presented. I’m not sure how pervasive this notion is. I’ve conducted no formal studies, so most of my evidence is anecdotal and thus limited to my own personal experience. Based on the research I’ve conducted in online student retention and success, though, I know that lack of attention to course design can lead to disaster for both student and institution: the students end up frustrated, isolated, and unengaged; they withdraw from or fail the course. If the problem with course design is one that spans multiple courses across an institution, then the program itself is in jeopardy. Course design, in other words, is tied to the success of students in the online course environment. It has the potential to have a strong impact on both the success of the students and that of the institution.
Online course design should be approached like any other kind of presentation. The instructor is presenting content to the students, and thought must be give to how that presentation will be made. The first place instructors should begin when determining how they can most effectively present their content is the same that Aristotle tells rhetoricians to begin: audience. Consider your audience. Is the audience a group of traditional undergraduate students? If so, think for a moment about their expectations of online technology. These students are digital natives. They are extremely adept in using social networking tools and mobile technologies. Is the audience primarily non-traditional students—working adults with families and full-time jobs who are returning to school, possibly after a long hiatus? If so, your job may be harder; some of these students may be very comfortable technology, but others may not. (I teach non-traditional students, and I have some who have no difficulties at all with the technology required in an online classroom; other of my students still use their computers as you would a typewriter and create double-spaced papers manually by using a hard return at the end of each line of text.)
If you are working with the first audience, a group of traditional undergraduate students, you can be pretty creative about how you design your course—you’re probably fairly safe using a mixture of technologies and content presentation methods. You will, however, lose them completely if your courses are entirely text or if your course does not follow some fairly basic principles of web design. They will expect a polished, professional appearance to the course, and if they do not find it, they will judge your credibility accordingly. The second audience may be more intimidated by technologies that do not function seamlessly and intuitively. Think carefully about requiring them to download or install any special software (unless, of course, your institution provides really strong support for the students with such installation). These students may be more forgiving of a fairly basic content presentation, but they will still expect the course to be structured in a way that makes navigation effortless. They may become frustrated when things aren’t where they expect to find them—for example, if you refer in the syllabus to “assignments” but don’t explain what those assignments are, where and how they are to be submitted, and what the requirements are. Here, too, if the students do not find what they need, if you leave them with unanswered questions, if they have trouble simply navigating through the course and finding what they need, you will have lost all credibility with them. The bottom line: you must always anticipate your audience’s needs and questions as you design your online courses.
Jennifer Golightly, PhD
Academic Trainer & Consultant