In 2006, I began teaching a graduate research and writing course online. It was my first fully online course. I had taught hybrid courses before, but never a fully online course. The first online course I taught was fairly basic in its design. I uploaded a Word document for my syllabus, created a threaded discussion for every unit, and then provided written lecture notes for my students to read in each unit. The course was very text-heavy. There were no graphics or images of any kind. As I continued teaching the same course—every quarter (sometimes in two or even three sections each quarter) over the past five years—I began to add improvements. Images were one of the first enhancements; color was another. A few pieces of multimedia followed in the form of short videos recorded using Jing to show students how to set scholar preferences in Google Scholar or how to remove the extra vertical space between paragraph in Microsoft Word. Nevertheless, the basic design of the course remained the same until the past year or two. My lectures remained text-based, largely because I didn’t have the time to update them to a more useable format.
I’ve known for quite a while that I needed to move my lectures from being purely textual to something offering multimodal learners an easier way to access the material. The largest problem I faced (and still face), therefore, when considering redesigning my online courses was not a lack of knowledge about what needed to be done to make the course more usable for students but a lack of time. Even a course “facelift” requires a substantial time commitment, and the demands of my (and most online instructors’) teaching schedule don’t allow me any “extra” time. I continue to teach two to three courses every quarter, and I teach every quarter of the year. Excepting the longest break between quarters, which occurs between the fall and winter quarters, I usually have a one-week space between ending one quarter and beginning the next. That week must include time for both final grades as well as the usual updates to my online course—dates in the syllabus, scheduling of announcements, and so on.
My research and experience with other online instructors tells me that my situation is far from unusual. Online instructors, especially those who are contingent or adjunct faculty, are often not afforded sufficient (or any) time for course development. Many are driven by the need to teach a large number of courses as frequently as possible to earn a living and risk (or think they risk) losing course assignments if they decline them for a term, even if they do so in an attempt to overhaul the courses they teach on a regular basis. But such course development and redesign work is an absolutely critical part of effective online courses and thus of student success in online programs more generally. Online courses date extremely quickly; a course designed a year and a half ago can both look and feel stale to the students. New technology in the form of online tools and software emerges all the time, and technology that was new two years ago may change in a way that will impact its functionality once it has been used in an online course (witness Xtranormal or Mindomo, both of which were freemium software a few years ago but have since changed their business model to one that offers much less functionality in the free versions).
Apart, then, from institutions allowing their online instructors, both full-time and adjunct, the necessary time to perform course overhauls—the most ideal situation but perhaps also the least likely to happen at many institutions—what can instructors do to make the process less time-intensive? First, request that you be provided with a master version of the courses you teach repeatedly. That way, any updates can be made to the masters on an ongoing basis during the term itself as you think of them. When the term expires, the new section of your course can be duped from the master course. Failing that, keep a list of changes you want to make and prioritize them. If you have a longer break between two terms, use that time to make the larger improvements that need to be made. Smaller changes can be made quickly over a shorter break. The main thing, though, is to be prepared for the fact that updates to online courses will need to take place on a consistent, perpetual basis in order for the course to remain fresh and effective for student success.
Jennifer Golightly, Ph.D.
Academic Trainer & Consultant