Quick! How do we put this course online?

If you’re at all involved in higher or further education, in the last couple of weeks you’ll have heard the above question being asked numerous times and with increasing urgency. You may well have asked it yourself. The COVID-19 pandemic has meant face-to-face teaching needing to be replaced with online delivery, and from a standing start it’s a very hard thing to achieve.

If you do, as we are all conditioned to in such circumstances, a Google search for “how to make online learning” or similar, almost every result on the first page will be about tools – authoring tools, delivery tools, quiz tools, video creation tools. But the creation of online learning is not about tools. It is about establishing an effective pedagogy based on, or substituting for, activities and components that are as applicable online as they are on campus.

Other advice about delivering teaching online focuses on lecture streaming or capture.  In our 25+ years in distance learning we have never successfully used lecture capture or streaming; though there is certainly a place for video communication, both in peer-to-peer and tutor-led sessions.

Eventually you will end up choosing tools to deliver your pedagogical design; but let your design define what tools you need, not the other way around. Tools are the far end of the chain.  They have nothing to do with pedagogy, but they can restrict it.  Define your pedagogy first, then if a tool cannot support your needs don’t consider it. Too many learning environments dictate and restrict what you can do rather than embrace the ambition you may have. So make your tool choice the last part of your design process, not its starting point.

So much for what not to do! What about what we think you should do? Well we’d always recommend that any accredited course design should start with a clear definition of what students are expected to learn. This seems an obvious point, and many institutions will have module descriptors setting out that detail, but too often that’s as far as its influence goes – as a formal tick box rather than the basis of course design.

We’ve written a lot in the past about key learning objectives – and if you have time that briefing paper is worth a read – but the summary is basically: build everything you need around your learning objectives and you won’t go far wrong. Select the right publication types to build around your key learning objectives, whether that’s study plans, self-assessments, reference texts, digital workbooks or whatever suits your course. Make every topic consistent to ensure students aren’t blind-sided by unexpected new demands half way through. And when you’ve found a definition that works, replicate it across a whole programme or department.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution, but the key thing is that you arrive at a rich, repeatable pedagogy for online and distance learning – and when you do you’ll find you have created a fantastic resource for face-to-face teaching too.

So don’t let the answer to “How do we put this course online?” be a tool or a VLE which will restrict what you can do and limit your ambitions. Give your students the best learning experience possible. And let us know if we can help.

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