The Dirt Simple Online Course sequence consists of four blog posts containing text, screenshots, and short videos outlining what a minimal online course would look like and how to set it up, step-by-step. The Dirt Simple Online Course consists of:
Simple Word/Google Doc based assignments/tests
A general discussion forum for course-wide discussions
A weekly discussion forum for discussion/application of concepts
A weekly announcement telling students what they need to do this week, and giving any general course feedback or updates.
We say minimal, and people may think that’s a bad thing. But minimal can be good. It helps you focus on what’s important, and only seek out more complex technology when needed. Even when you’re a technology whiz, doing a thought experiment on how you might teach with just these tools will help you better understand what you aim to accomplish with the other tools.
Daniel Stanford, Director of Technology Innovation at DePaul University, talks about the matrix of online delivery as occurring along two axes: immediacy and bandwidth.
Bandwidth is bandwidth. The amount of bandwidth, usually provided by a cable or phone company, that a given technology requires to operate successfully. While many of us live in a post-bandwidth world, with enough bandwidth we don’t think about this as a constraint, between 20 and 40 million Americans don’t have access to stable broadband connections. Even those with usually stable internet access may find their neighborhood connections are periodically unstable due to increased neighborhood demand during stay home orders. So bandwidth is a scarce resource, both more generally and specifically now.
Immediacy is how much a given activity must take place at a given time. As Stanford points out, we’re used to thinking of immediacy as a good thing. And it can be good. But immediacy places demands on student time, forcing students build their schedule around specific events. If they are at home, they need not only to be available at a specific time, but to get hold of the family computer, find a quiet spot in the house, check that the internet connection is stable at that time.
Faculty are used to thinking of the costs of immediacy as already built into the class — in a face-to-face world, of course, students are expected to be in a certain place at a certain time. It may seem that synchronous online simply transfers that obligation to online delivery.
But there are major differences. When we have students attend a face-to-face class, we also provide them an environment at that time — the physical classroom — which is set up to guarantee a good space to participate in that event. The space automatically allows for multiple focus as well — students can attend to the slides, the instructor, classmates, or their own notes in a fluid way that even those with multiple monitor setups can’t replicate online. Most importantly, the cost of immediacy is offset by something we call “presence” in the educational technology literature. The physical presence in the classroom of both teacher and students is felt in ways that build a sense of connection with the teacher, students, and material. The cost of immediacy is offset by its benefits.
So let’s take a look at that chart again:
When we move students into the red zone we often:
Expect the student to supply a viewing/presenting environment at a given time to which they may not have access
Expect them to have bandwidth they do not reliably have
Push these new costs onto the student while providing decreased benefit around presence and decreased fluidity around delivery and consumption
I’m not against using video conferences in online courses — even with all their flaws they can still build connection. But they should be used intentionally, and, particularly now, sparingly. Most distance courses may not need them at all, except for study sessions and online office hours. Instructional designers will often ask instructors to explore the other quadrants first, since video delivery tends to incur many new costs on students with less benefit.
The blue and yellow quadrants are part of most modern online courses, and if we were building courses from scratch at the beginning of a semester I’d encourage you to pick at least one of the technologies in those quadrants to teach your course. (If you want to integrate one even now, we’re here to help!)
But it’s the green quadrant — the quadrant that Stanford calls the “underappreciated workhorses” that provide the foundation of most online presentation and interaction. And it’s technologies in that area we’re going to focus on in upcoming posts (with a smattering of focus on the two other non-red quadrants).
Current Lesson What Is Dirt Simple Online? Why Use It?
We’re going to show the simplest possible assignment in Blackboard (or Canvas, or whatever, but the specific steps will be Blackboard). The process is simple — this document is only long because we have gone through every single step of both a faculty member and student.
Create the Assignment Document
Open Microsoft Word (or Google Docs).
Give your assignment a title.
Write down what students should do before doing the assignment. Do they need to read a chapter of the textbook? Watch a video? Tell them what the assignment is about, and connect it to the reading or viewing they just did. Here’s an example:
By now you should have read chapter nine and watched the Misinfo Nation video. Both the video and the chapter show how market effects and microtargeting created new capabilities and incentives for the production and dissemination of online disinformation.
Put some questions in the Word doc with some space under them. Ask them to put their answers in there, and then submit it via Blackboard into whatever the assignment name is. Write at least a sentence on how you plan to grade the submission.
Add In Grading Criteria
There’s a long-raging debate about how one should grade student work. We’re not going to get into that here. But we will say this — you have to tell the students how you plan to grade their work. In this case, we’re just going to put that in the document too, inserting it between the description and the questions:
We’ve chose a simple grading scheme for weekly assignments here. We could get fancy and use a rubric, but we’re keeping it dirt simple. To get full points students have to:
Answer all questions in one to two paragraph answers.
Reference the assigned reading and videos where appropriate.
Demonstrate understanding of the assigned readings and video by correctly applying concepts from the readings to the examples below.
Even though I don’t have a formal rubric here, in my head I’ve got a rough idea of how this translates into points. A student that completes one and two but fails at criterion three would normally get a D (6.5 out of 10), but given the current emergency situation I’m more inclined to make that a C (7.5 out of ten). That’s for just doing the work.
A student who completes one and two and shows some understanding gets a B (8.5 out of 10) and a student that shows a reasonable understanding gets a full A (10).
Students who do the work but misunderstand elements get to resubmit.
There are many other grading approaches you can take; we’ve presented one here that we think many teachers could adopt. But there are other methods too: competency-based grading, student self-assessments, ungrading. If this wasn’t emergency online we could talk more about all of these. But we’ll save it for later.
One grading decision I’d encourage you to think about: adopting a non-zero policy for missed work. Generally faculty score missed work as zero, where completed work, even where shoddy, gets a higher score. This results in some absurdities. If I get an “A” on two tests but miss a third test I end up with a “D”, which is about the same grade as if I had done little work the entire semester.
Setting a higher number grade for uncompleted or missed work makes it easier for students to recover from the occasional emergency or bad week while still providing incentives for completing work. Some teachers set this grade at 50%, some as low as 30%. In the current situation, I would advocate setting it towards the higher side.
Make the Assignment in Blackboard
If you haven’t made an assignments folder, go ahead and make it. Normally we encourage faculty to organize content into folders by week, not type, but this is emergency online, and still a solid way of doing it.
To do that, click into Content (left menu), then create a content folder. Name it “Assignments” then submit.
Now click into your new assignments folder, and go to the “Assessments” dropdown to create an assignment.
We’ll show the rest in the YouTube file below. Give it the same title you gave your document. Copy the top description of the assignment into the form. Upload the document, set a due date, and submit.
What It Looks Like From the Student Side
Here’s what it looks like on the student side. If you want to share this with students to show them how to do this sort of assignment, go ahead.
There are a couple things students have to watch out for. They have to pay attention to where they saved it, they have to make sure they upload the right document. They have to enable editing on the document. But these are things that any college student should be learning more generally, basic technical skills one needs in the world of work and scholarship.
Students at WSU all have free access to Office 365, but some students may not have it installed on their computer. Again, it’s free, and I would encourage them to install it. But if they want to do it using the online Office 365, there’s just an additional step right after the download, like so:
After that, the process looks the same.
OK, so now the student has submitted. How do you grade it?
This video shows the steps. Some parts are a bit off-screen, but the steps are pretty clear. (Sorry, not every video goes exactly as planned!)
Word Document Assignments Are Flexible and Portable
OK, so Blackboard has a whole variety of assessments available. Why did we show you this one first? A couple reasons.
The first thing is it allows you to use the skills you have. I don’t know if you saw that Blackboard text editor when we were adding the assignment. It’s downright frightening:
How do you link something in there? Make a blockquote? A footnote? Link something? Paste in a photo or a graph? Worse yet, it the formatting goes haywire, how do you fix it?
There’s answers to all these questions, but the thing is you probably know all things you need to do already in Word. So why not just use Word? The same goes for your students: what if they want to paste an image into a question answer? A graph? A math equation? How do they do that? Again, if they are answering the question in a Word document they have the flexibility to do that, and it’s pretty straightforward.
Second, it’s what we call “worldware”. Word, Google Docs, or other document editors are something that students are going to have to master for the world they graduate into. So would you rather they learn how to insert an image in an LMS they’ll never use after graduation or that they learn to insert it in a document, an actual useful skill?
Third, it’s accessible. There’s even a little accessibility checking tool in Word that will let you know if you didn’t include an image description, or created a document that screen readers can’t read.
Finally, it’s flexible. You can add online video, charts, data tables — whatever you need. And honestly, you’re probably doing it the same way you would have made a paper test in the past, with the same tool.
There are some limitations. In particular, the potential for automatic grading is diminished, and in subjects where you are primarily testing recall or computation the lack of automatic grading may push you towards using a more rigid tool like Blackboard’s test/quiz object. And if you have time to create a more sequenced self-graded course, the automatic feedback provided to students can be a real help to them. But those sorts of courses take a lot of time to perfect. If you’re just starting out, you may find the flexibility of this model is what you need.
In the last section we talked about building simple online assessments using word processing documents. These assignments can be weekly write-ups, mid-terms, project papers, whatever you want.
Ultimately, however, you want your students to not only demonstrate their own understanding of material, but to interact with the rest of the class around it. Part of what makes an online class more than training software is that students take the course together, and benefit from each other’s presence. Online, a discussion forum is a simple, low bandwidth solution to fill that need.
First, Build a General Questions Forum
Before we build an assignment specific forum, let’s build a general forum where students can ask questions about the class. This can be a useful place to field questions you might normally get in office hours or at the end of a class about assignments.
Here, we’re going to build a “Discussions” folder and put a forum in it. Again, we generally encourage faculty to use a more weekly approach to this (folders as weeks) but we’re keeping this as simple as possible.
Next, Build a Weekly Discussion Forum
The next step is to build a weekly forum.
First, we have to think of a question for the weekly forum. Two things to keep in mind:
Forums can get pretty boring for students to read if everyone gives the same answer (and boring for you to read too).
Forums are one of the few places online where students get to connect with other students, so it’s good if students can give answers that show a bit of who they are or how they think.
This will vary by discipline, but in the humanities and social sciences a common tactic is to use the discussion forum for an application question that ties concepts to personal or professional experience, or one that requires the students to find an example of something that illustrates a concept.
In this case the chapter we are having them read is about how the digital advertising market fuels misinformation, so we could go a couple directions.
The policy question: We could ask the students, given what they have just learned, whether they would support certain government policies around a certain issue, and have them cite material from the reading to defend that choice.
The find-an-example question: We could have the students go online and try and find a piece of misinformation or disinformation and ask how either platforms or content creators might benefit financially from it.
The mini-research question: You can give the students a list of sites of traditional and nontraditional publications and have them compare what percentage of ads on each sites are of a particular type (talked about in the reading) called “chumbucket ads”, and reflect on whether what they found matched their expectations.
Let’s go with the “mini-research” option. We’ll make a Word document with a bunch of links to sites and ask students to go count the ads on each site and see if there are “chumbucket” ads.
Here’s our prompt:
We often think of dubious ads as a function of less reliable websites. But is that really true? For this question, go to the Media Bias/Fact-Check site. Pick one site from their “Questionable Sources” list and one from their “Least Biased” list. Visit each site and report
– How many ads were on each sites home page
– Whether each site had a classic “chumbucket”
Then reflect on the results. Did they surprise you? Next, look at what other students found, and choose one other student to reply to, saying whether or not their results were the same as yours.
Graded on honest effort, 1.5 points, but try to pick something from a random place in each site list so that we don’t see a lot of duplicated work.
OK, now let’s make this sucker.
Creating the Weekly Discussion Forum
As usual, the most confusing thing about the process of making discussions in Blackboard is first you create the discussion board, and then you create the link to the discussion board. Major decisions we have to make:
Can students see the threads of other students before posting (depends on the type of question — if this case they can ‘free-ride’, so we say no.
How many points for grading?
When’s it due?
We’ll also show you a couple of tricks to make your life easier.
Looking at it from the Student Side
You don’t have to student preview your discussion board every time you make a new question, but it helps to do it the first time. Here we show what the student side looks like.
Grading the Student Response
OK, let’s grade it. Here we show the different types of feedback you can give. The grade (obviously), private feedback to the user (most often about the grade if necessary) and public replies.
Some teachers reply to every single student comment every time — which is exhausting in a large class, especially without a TA. But you don’t have to do that. You can decide, for example, to reply to about a third of the posts each time. Just let the students know what your plans are, and why you choose to reply to some and not others (For instance, maybe you tend to reply to the students that answer earlier, but not the ones that submit right before the deadline. Or maybe you try to answer a certain amount of students each week, but you try to make sure over a few weeks that everyone has gotten at least one response. Or maybe you mostly grade the discussion forum, and only rarely reply (not recommended, but for a large class that might be what you can support). Just let them know in either your syllabus, your weekly announcements, or both.
In this lesson we’re going to show you how to create a weekly announcement.
Announcements are the bread and butter of communication in a simple online course. And weekly announcements are particularly important.
Why? Think about how you teach in a face to face class. You present students content. You have discussions. You run learning activities. But there’s one other important thing you do, so simple that you may forget you do it.
At the beginning of the class you tell the students what’s coming due in the next week or two. At the end of the class, you remind them again. And you say, “If you have any questions, ask me.”
If you want your students to be successful you need to replicate that online.
So let’s make a weekly announcement. We reach the announcements page through the main dashboard by clicking “more announcements”.
And we click this button to create an announcement.
We add a title.
I’ve actually composed our text separately in Notepad, and we’re going to paste it in here, then do a little formatting.
What goes in our weekly announcement? The same sort of things we would remind them of in class.
Read the chapter. Download the assignment template, fill it in and submit it. Answer the discussion question. Show up to the Zoom meeting if you want to discuss it more. Contact me with questions. (If you’re feeling adventurous, also invite them to post questions to your new General Questions forum).
In this case I’ve bolded things the students need to do. Some like to do this as a bulleted list. You can get fancy and highlight them with the highlighter tool. What’s important is that the student can look at the announcement and scan it to find out what they need to do, and after they have done it they can come back to make sure they didn’t forget anything.
When you’re done with the announcement, you can hit the red submit button at the bottom of the page, and the announcement will be published immediately. Many instructors wish to set these announcements up before hand, and have them come out after the last week’s assignments are due. If you want to schedule this, set a date and time for publication before submitting.
Again, this is the same thing you do in your face to face classes, you’re just doing it online. And by doing it here you’re actually providing the information most crucial to your student’s success. You’re telling them what they need to get done — not for the course as a whole, but now, this week. And you’re telling them where to find the things they need to get it done.
This seems so simple, but it can make a huge difference in the lives of our students. Like us, they are juggling many obligations. And every minute they spend sifting through the syllabus or clicking around the LMS to figure out what they need to do is a minute that they are not engaging with what your course is actually about. Even worse, because online learning lacks that reminder we get from face to face meetings, without such communication many students will simply lose track of what is due when, and slowly disappear from your course.
It’s a small hassle, putting this together every week, but it will save you time in the end, and will have a surprisingly large effect on the success of your students. Don’t forget your weekly announcement!
If you’ve been following these lessons in order, you’ve now learned how to:
Create and assess a basic Word-based assignment.
Create and assess a discussion forum.
Create and send a weekly announcement that reminds students what to read, watch, and do for the week.
If you remember the initial post, this is the “green quadrant” of digital teaching tools, with a simple low-bandwidth assessment thrown in for good measure.
These tools won’t serve every class’s needs. Lots of classes need Blackboard created online quizzes (and we’ll add a quiz tutorial to this in a bit). And most classes can benefit from a tool or two in the yellow and blue quadrants.
But despite the fancier tools available, it’s good to start by asking what you can solve with this smaller set of tools first, and look to the more complex stuff to fill gaps in the course.
Whether you’re presenting to students or sitting in a meeting, some simple tricks can improve your look on Zoom.
If you’re a presenter and have a newer camera, set your camera to use HD (High Definition).
Consider the “touch up my appearance” option.
Set camera level at eye level or slightly higher.
Make sure you are facing a natural light source, or, if that is unavailable, ditch the overhead light in favor of a fill light that shines at you rather than from above you.
We go through these tips in the video below:
Eventually, of course, we’ll have access to the Jetsons’ technology and put on our “video-conferencing face”. But, until then following these tips will dramatically improve the look of your Zoom sessions and maybe your recorded videos as well.
Keep in mind the guidance that we gave in our initial blog post — while Zoom can be a great tool for small group conversations, in the current environment it can be problematic for delivering required content. For delivering required content you may want to look at “asynchronous” models instead, such as Panopto recordings and narrated PowerPoint slides.
Some of you know me, and some of you may not. Among other duties, I work with Academic Services here in Vancouver to provide faculty support for teaching online. While we generally provide guidance either one-on-one or in workshop settings, the current situation is unique enough that over the next weeks I will be writing a number of posts providing guidance to faculty on how to teach online in the sort of emergency we find ourselves facing.
These are not directives, but they are based on over two decades experience with online and hybrid instructional design, working with institutions from Columbia and MIT to state institutions of various sizes. I hope they are helpful to you as you figure out how best to deliver your course.
Care at the Core
A friend of mine has a lovely phrase about teaching. Teaching, she says, is a profession with “care at the core.” Successful teachers realize that their students are whole people, of which we only see the tiniest sliver. That doesn’t mean we have to be the student’s therapist or life-coach. But it does mean we must structure our instruction around the complex lives of our students.
Never has that been so important. Consider the shocks to our student’s lives in the past week alone:
Primary and secondary schools have closed, and many of our students are now acting as caregivers to children, siblings, cousins. Their schedules and availability have changed.
As of this morning, tens of thousands of Washington workers in the service industry are out of work. Their financial futures are uncertain. They may be looking for other work to make ends meet, and are almost certainly spending time navigating the bureaucracy to get unemployment pay (often navigating child care concerns at the same time).
People’s houses and apartments, which may have provided a sufficient place to study in the past, are now filled with parents working remotely (who may need the family computer to do so), children home from school, other siblings home from college.
We are seeing reports in the media that many people with mild anxiety disorders (a very common disorder) find anxiety rising to unmanageable levels in the current environment, making it difficult to focus or function.
This is just a selection of current concerns. And it’s likely to get worse the further into the semester we get, with a significant portion of our students dealing with the illness or death of someone in their family or social circle.
I mention these things not as an expert on the pandemic, but because a fundamental principle of instructional design is it must take into account the situation of the students we wish to instruct. And once we see this situation clearly, a number of design principles become clear as well.
Focus on the Five Year Goal
Many faculty realize they are going to have to streamline their courses. But where do you start? How do you know what to remove or change and what to keep? I’d suggest you start with the Five Year Goal.
What it the Five Year Goal? The late educational theorist Grant Wiggins had an exercise to begin design of a class. “Imagine two students,” he said, “one has had your class, and one hasn’t. They both encounter a situation five years after you taught this class that is relevant to your course. How does the student that has had your class approach the situation differently? What insights or skills do they bring that the other student does not?”
Whatever that thing is? That’s the core of your course. That’s what you need to deliver on.
This is admittedly harder in highly sequenced material such as math, or many sciences (and more on that in a bit). But for many courses, focusing on that Five Year Goal, and not necessarily content sequences, can be clarifying and a bit reassuring.
As an example, I had an introductory sociology professor tell me once her five year goal was that students understand that “looking at a social problem structurally reveals things that can’t be revealed by looking at individual action and motivations alone.” In an ideal world, she would teach that through Baldwin, Benjamin, and Weber. But we are not in an ideal world. If the mandated outcomes of your course allow, consider alternate ways you might teach and assess that objective. You might choose, for example, to have your students apply their skills and disciplinary insights to questions around this current pandemic, and assess them via discussion board contributions or weekly writing rather than subject matter tests.
As I mentioned, many subjects make this harder because of necessary skill sequences, but if you have this flexibility, consider utilizing it. Metaphorically, our courses are in the emergency room with a broken leg, and we’re not going to run that marathon next month. But if we can focus on what’s most important, we might be up and about by semester’s end.
As mentioned above, our student’s lives have changed dramatically in the past few weeks, and the commitments they made at the beginning of the semester in terms of availability and study environment may be impossible for them to honor.
For this reason, it’s important to provide flexibility in instruction. As an example, requiring that students view a particular lecture at a given time is likely to doom our most vulnerable students to failure. That doesn’t mean you have to give up presenting at a certain time on Zoom. But it does mean you want to make sure students know how to view the recording, and that students are not disadvantaged by not attending the lecture online at a certain time.
In fact, if possible, we’d encourage you to think outside of lecture video altogether, especially if this is not an area in which you already have skill. In instructional design, we sometimes talk about the KISS Principle: “Keep It Simple, Stupid.” The idea here is because we’re never as smart as we think we are (and never have as much time as we think we do), when possible choose the simplest option. And the simplest option is often the most flexible.
For example, you can make a Word document that students can download that asks them to read or view certain content, then fill in answers to questions on the document, applying course concepts to new material. You can then supplement that with small and short Zoom discussions with students (10 mins, 5 students at time, done during segments of normal class time can get you talking to over 50 students a week), but also allow students who can’t make those times to submit additional writing as an alternative. To reduce burden on your grading, you can move as much of the grading as possible to an “honest effort” grading – do the work best you can, get the grade.
While an “honest effort” approach can work for much of the classes activities, professors will need to assess student knowledge of the course’s objectives in what we call “summative” ways. At some point, you’ll need to move beyond participation and to the question of whether students are grasping course content.
Again, subjects can be very different in their needs (and again, I’ll mention math and math-based courses which present particular difficulties). But if you can consider replacing an scheduled online exam that has to be taken at a specific time (we call this “synchronous testing”) with something the student can do on their own schedule, maybe even offline, please do. Outside the considerations we have mentioned above, we should anticipate that the sudden load on systems from Blackboard to proctoring services will result in periodic outages and glitches. Trust me, it will be far better to structure your exam as a Word document that students fill out and then submit (through email if it comes to that) than deal with an exam day server crash or Comcast outage at test time.
Again, the usefulness of these alternatives varies by discipline and course, and is also impacted by the number of students enrolled. If you need to do synchronous testing, that may be unavoidable. But think of such testing as a scarce resource we should be apportioning to the classes that truly need it.
Incidentally, this does not apply to low stakes non-synchronous testing. Meaning, if you have multiple little quizzes that students can take on their own schedule that don’t heavily impact their grade, that can be useful (and we can even help you with that). But I can guarantee given upcoming infrastructure demands, student life changes, and unexpected local and national events that tying any substantial grade to a student taking an online test at a specific time is likely to result in assessing a student’s life situation more than their competence in a given domain. We don’t know what the future holds, but we do know that each week brings us to a situation unimaginable a week ago. In such a climate, providing as much flexibility as possible is key.
More to Come (and an Invitation)
This first post has been a long one, and I apologize for that. I know how hard everyone is working, and I hesitate to add more reading to an already too-busy day. At the same time, if you work at WSU Vancouver and are interested in the ideas in this post, I invite you to email me at email@example.com and we’ll set up a Zoom meeting to go over how you might redesign your course to be more flexible and responsive to the current situation. And future posts will be shorter, I promise.