How to Build an Ethical Online Course

Jesse Stommel

The best online and hybrid courses are made from scraps strewn about and gathered together from across the web. We build a course by examining the bits, considering how they’re connected, and creating pathways for learners to make their own connections.

The design process is what distinguishes online teaching most from traditional on-ground teaching. When we teach an on-ground class, the room in which we teach has been built for us in advance. Usually, it’s in a school, on a campus, has chairs, desks, tables, windows, walls, a door. Sometimes there’s a computer, a projector, a screen. Hopefully, the desks and chairs are moveable and there are chalkboards on multiple walls. When we enter these rooms, we still make (or, rather, should make) intentional design decisions. How will the chairs be arranged? What direction will we face? Will the blinds be open or closed? Where will the teacher’s desk be? Will the room have a front? Will we re-arrange from day to day or maintain a consistent configuration?

All of these decisions require careful contemplation and experimentation. Letting the default configuration of a classroom dictate how we’ll teach is to allow the bureaucratic (and in this case architectural) trappings of schooling subsume our pedagogies. I’ve taught in many classrooms where the desks were arranged by default into rows, each student forced to stare into the back of another student’s head. This is not a prime configuration to encourage active engagement, critical thinking, collaboration, interaction, making, doing, or discussing, all of which are (in varying degrees) essential for learning. I would say, though, that any arrangement is problematic if it’s fixed permanently in advance. The learning space should be constructed intentionally from one activity to the next and preferably by or in consultation with students.

When we teach online, we have to build both the course and the classroom. A good learning management system is a tool that can help with this process; however, we should never let its design decisions — its architecture — dictate our pedagogies. We should also not blindly follow our institution’s choice of learning management system. Certain tools work well for building certain kinds of learning experiences, but there’s no universal solution. Teachers should be instrumental in making decisions about the technologies used in their classrooms (virtual or otherwise). And a single course should leverage several solutions and configurations, given the specific needs of the day, activity, or student.

Hybrid classes demand an even more complex architecture, requiring consideration of the physical space(s) we’ll work within, the virtual space(s), as well as the various ways we’ll move between the spaces. When we build a hybrid class, we must consider how we’ll create pathways between the learning that happens in a room and the learning that happens on the web. A hybrid strategy can be as simple as a single but powerful hyperlink embedded in an e-mail or as complex as replacing the syllabus for a course with a multi-author WordPress installation.

In “Online Learning: a Manifesto,” I offer a series of tenets, which I describe as “points of departure to encourage a diversity of pedagogies.” Here, I want to drill down a little deeper into the nuts and bolts of online and hybrid course design, exploring more specific strategies for implementing several of the tenets from my earlier piece:

The best online learning should engage us in an immediate and physical way.

For an online or hybrid course, I create activities that ask students to venture out into their communities. As often as possible in my courses, I use tools that play well with mobile devices, like Layar or WordPress, to allow us to do our work in the world and not just behind a desk. The best tools make themselves as invisible as possible, serving not as a distraction but as a way of extending the landscape beyond its bounds. So, I might ask students to blog about Thoreau’s Walden while on a hike, including pictures from their adventure. And if students tweet their post with geotagging activated, they contribute to a humongous archive of location-tagged tweets. By sharing and interacting with this kind of work online we bring each other into a shared sense of physical space. Rather than merely redistributing learning, a hybrid pedagogy asks us to reflect on and make connections between learning that happens in classrooms, online, at a desk, aboard a bus, on a mountaintop, by ourselves, and in conversation.

The openness of the internet is its most radical and pedagogically viable feature.

I’ve taught hybrid classes since 2001 and fully online classes since 2007. Almost every class I’ve taught has been an open course, but few have been massive. Designing for openness means giving careful thought to both what registered students can do inside a course and what passersby can do. I began by putting all of my syllabi online, but I’ve increasingly asked students to do public work and to have online discussions in open fora. For me, openness means allowing access to all or a significant portion of a course without registration. Some of the best learning opportunities are ones we fall haphazardly into. A certain amount of immediacy is lost when we are forced to trade personal data for access — to pay for our entrance into a course with personal information (which is what makes most MOOCs decidedly not free).

I’ve built course sites from scratch, but I’ve also found WordPress and Canvas to be extremely robust tools for designing open courses. Both allow entirely open components but can require registration or password-access at various points to enable different levels of engagement. Unlike most other learning management systems, any page in Canvas or WordPress generates a unique hyperlink, creating multiple points of entry to a course. There are a number of LMS plugins for WordPress, although most put far too much emphasis on grading and assessment for my taste. Don’t put the cart before the horse, so to speak, by choosing an LMS because it offers a convenient gradebook.

Academic rigor shouldn’t be built into a course like an impenetrable fortress for students to inhabit. Rigor has to be fostered through genuine engagement.

When I design an online course, I start by thinking about the nature of the learning community I hope to foster. Most learning management systems offer tools for engagement, but they are usually closed asynchronous forums, which can be valuable, but only for a very specific kind of interaction. One of the drawbacks of these systems is that students usually don’t retain access to their work once the course is over. Using tools like Twitter or Disqus for online discussion gives students more direct control over their own data, allowing them to delete, archive, and (in some cases) edit their contributions at will.

I’m of the mind that we can’t make our courses “academically rigorous” by design, especially at the level of content or assessment. Rather, rigor arises through the development of a critically voracious learning community. This can’t be compulsory, but has to be encouraged through intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation. In other words, making participation worth points does not help build community. (Handing out a grade to every person talking at a party would not encourage them to talk to us. In fact, probably just the opposite.) Rather, build or leverage a space that encourages open contribution and trust learners to navigate the space. The single best tip I have on this front is to avoid the ping-pong ball effect, in which the teacher responds to every (or nearly every) comment made by students with immediate correction or affirmation. This very quickly reinforces a hierarchy in which students are constantly looking to the teacher for approval. Ignore any “best practices” or “quality assurance” measures that encourage the teacher’s voice to dominate online discussion. Model thoughtful engagement and responsiveness with several well-placed comments/questions and leave space for the learners to follow suit.

Don’t wield outcomes like a weapon. Online learning activities should not be overly designed or too-strictly standardized.

Courses should be designed by individuals or small groups of collaborators not by committees. We should also not use systems that etch curricula into stone. This means supporting (financially and culturally) course development and frequent course redevelopment. It also means eschewing altogether stock courses. Where possible, students should guide the curriculum and create course content. This means using or enabling tools that give students at least some measure of control over design. With a small group of students, this might mean building the course site together in a wiki or multi-author WordPress installation. With a larger group of students, where administering permissions for each student might become cumbersome, embedding Google docs or allowing comments on course pages can foster and facilitate student collaboration.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to online education. Learning is not neatly divisible into discrete chunks (like courses).

Online and hybrid course design should be motivated not by cost savings but by the pedagogical benefits of learning that happens and persists beyond the classroom. Online and hybrid models should not replace classroom instruction. We should design courses that actively reconsider when and where learning happens. One of the benefits of online learning, for me, is that I can have a local group of students collaborating with people elsewhere in the world, disturbing the notion that learning happens best in a single course, at a single institution, or within a single country. Social media allows us to bring together teachers and students working in similar courses around the world to create collaborative “textbooks” using curation tools like Pinterest, ScoopIt, Reddit, or Delicious. There are ways to make learning massive and accessible that don’t involve stuffing 100,000 people into a closed-room MOOC.

Content-expertise does not equal good teaching. The internet already has lots of experts in all manner of things. A good pedagogue, rather, relies on a variable mixture of content-expertise and careful thinking about teaching practices.

We won’t figure out online and hybrid learning — in higher education, at least — until we truly value faculty development and pedagogical training. The minimal top-down efforts I’ve seen toward this end have been largely ineffective. We need to start at the grassroots level to weave pedagogical work into our research and publishing. If teaching is indeed 40-90% of our jobs (depending on the type of institution), then the sessions at our disciplinary conferences should be 40-90% about teaching (or at least make explicit connections between our research and teaching). Pedagogy is not the domain solely of Schools of Education and should be a respected specialty or sub-field in every discipline. And departments developing online and hybrid courses need to start by hiring full-time or tenure-track faculty who specialize in online learning and/or digital pedagogy.

Most importantly, educators at every level must begin by listening to and trusting students. This means building space in every course for students to reflect upon the course’s pedagogy — an ongoing meta-level discussion of learning with student voices at its center. Teachers stand to learn more from students about online learning than we could ever teach. Many students come to an online or hybrid class knowing very well how to learn online. It’s often our failure to know as well how to learn online that leads to many of the design mistakes in this generation of online courses. Recognizing this demands a culture-shift — demands that we acknowledge the diverse expertise of students as tantamount to our own.


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An Urgency of Teachers Copyright © 2018 by Jesse Stommel is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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