Nicholas Jones

Freedom through Focus

Blog Post created by Nicholas Jones on May 28, 2019

I was so excited by this month's blogging challenge - and now that the school year has ended, it feels like the right time for reflecting and cleaning up. Everyone has a few beliefs or assumptions as starting points for how they design, and those beliefs will color how we answer these questions. Here are some of mine:

  • The reason we design and plan courses is to create the best possible learning experience for students.
  • The best possible student learning has students consistently applying the concepts in a course with accountability.
  • Evidence-based decisions are critical to making effective design choices.
  • Every course subject has the potential to be relevant to the life of a student.

 

With that in mind, let me try to answer these questions!

 

Share how you approach course design. How do you organize content so it’s efficient for both instructors and students? What tips and/or tools can you share?

 

I approach course design with clarity for students first and foremost. Your course only exists so that students can take it and learn. To that end, I use Modules in Canvas heavily, and I like to think about it as you would a theater. The Modules area is like the stage. It's visible to everyone. It's where the set pieces and props come out at the right time to make the magic happen. Most other parts of Canvas are "backstage." You don't want your audience to see all the actors running around, props being shuffled, and the visible nails and paint splatters. Generally, I hide as much of the course navigation as possible. I want everyone's eyes on the stage.

 

I have a couple strategies that instructors have found helpful. One strategy is to have an "instructor notes" page in each module. It is always unpublished so students can't see it. This is a place where instructors can make notes for TA's, jot down ideas for what they want to change or what didn't work - pretty much anything related to to that module. That way they aren't trying at the end of the semester to remember months of ideas. Another strategy is to build as much as possible directly in Canvas. I have seen again and again instructors get overwhelmed with multiple copies and revisions of documents they build, only to upload them into Canvas once, twice, maybe three times. Most of the time, what you're building will translate directly to a content page or the instruction box of an assignment. Save your students the extra click of downloading a file, and save yourself the headache of redundant copies of your materials.

 

Explain how you structure course flow. How do you keep content and learning experiences “tidy”? Does it make a difference for learners? If so, how?

 

I try to structure course flow to have students applying concepts as quickly as possible. I take a constructivist approach to learning, which basically means that knowledge is something we create, not something we receive. I resist the usual format of starting with first principles in a discipline because I don't think that accurately reflects how we learn. As children, we learned whole words before we learned the alphabet. It can feel chaotic, but I think its ultimately more effective at creating lasting learning.

 

This has two implications for me. First, I use a weekly module format that I keep as consistent as possible. A predictable, highly consistent course structure can enable learners to be messy and courageous in their learning by giving them a solid foundation to fallback on. Second, I obsess over the course objectives and how they get translated into module objectives. I think objectives need to be tied to specific actions you expect learners to be able to perform. If learning is an active process, we need to conceptualize what they're learning as active, too. Building the course with a laser-like focus on your learning objectives helps ground the rest of the design process. 

 

When closing a course, do you have any rituals like reflection or reorganization? How do you make sure you only “keep what brings you joy”?

 

For me, it all comes back to course objectives. I don't believe you can make strategic decisions about what is or isn't working in your course unless you clearly define for yourself what students will learn (and by learn, I mean be able to do) by taking your course. There's a saying I've heard about screenwriting for film: No line is worth the scene. That means that there is no line you could write for an actor that justifies keeping a scene that doesn't benefit the film. It could be the most poetic, sublime, incisive look into the human experience condensed into a few sentences, but if the scene it's in detracts from the rest of the movie, you need to cut it.

 

We have a tendency to be precious about our work, and course design is no different. You may have designed an inventive activity or resource. But if you have to twist your course in knots to accommodate it, you need to cut it. And this is why spending time on your objectives is so important. Those objectives are your roadmap for what you should and shouldn't keep. What brings me joy in course design is when all the parts of the course are working harmoniously together toward the same goal.

 

But, hey — that's my take. I can't wait to read what other folks think!


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