Making a Silk Purse out of a Sow’s Ear: Strategies for Improving an Inherited Online Course
By Douglas F. Parham, PhD, CCC-SLP
Two aspects of university teaching appear to be on the increase: online courses and faculty turnover. An unintended consequence of these two factors is that faculty—often new, non-tenured instructors—might be asked to teach an online course that someone else built. If the course is well designed, then the transition process should be seamless. If the course is lousy, then the instructor who inherits the course can be in for a long haul.
I teach an online course (HP 325F) every semester that focuses on critical issues related to health care ethics. Most participants in the course are undergraduate students in the College of Health Professions, but the course attracts students from across WSU. The course enrollment averages around 70 students in the Fall and Spring semesters and around 40 in the Summer semester.
I was an assistant professor when I accepted the course in the Fall 2010 semester because no-one else with more teaching experience in the College of Health Professions would take it over. The previous instructor was well-meaning but lacked both the focus and the skills needed for the delivery of online content. The course I inherited was an example of the aphorism “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It was an online nightmare: disconnects between readings and quizzes, irrelevant content, errors of content, broken online links, incorrect quiz answers, misspellings and grammar errors that would make an English instructor retire in disgust, and the lack of an underlying purpose for the course. Add to this mess an incompatibility between Blackboard and a separate, unreliable software system that housed the assessment portions of the course on a support person’s computer.
Imagine that you are a student enrolled in such a course. You would be either so lost that you wouldn’t know where to start, or so frustrated that you would demand your tuition money back for having wasted so much of your time.
I admit that I naïvely stepped into teaching this online course. I wanted to help. I had zero experience teaching online. I didn’t have time to change this disaster of a course before I taught it the first time. I took the mud pie that I was given and survived the first two of semesters by sending frequent conciliatory and apologetic emails to worried, confused, and sometimes angry students. I was too busy with other university responsibilities to do what needed to be done to improve the course. To make matters worse, the support person “helping” me in the first semester changed my email address within the system without my knowledge. I have no idea how many emails never reached me until the problem was resolved.
I was ready to give up the course. A non-tenured faculty member at the time, I worried about the course’s teaching evaluations. Beyond that concern, I knew after the first year that the course was neither functional nor fair to the students taking it. Resolved to avoid repeating the same mess, I spent the summer completely redesigning to course to make it better.
The fixes actually turned out to be simple, even if they were time-consuming. First, I took full responsibility for the course. The previous instructor was the “instructor of record” in name only, relying on the support person to run the course. I removed that person’s role and became the sole instructor of record for students. Now, I was both responsible for the course and in full control of all its aspects. I also created a Blackboard-specific assessment platform, making obsolete the external software links that were incompatible. All of these changes took time, but they consolidated the materials into a more coherent and efficient course and eliminated extraneous moving pieces that obscured the course’s focus. Day-to-day course operations began to run smoothly.
Second, I made a conscious, purposeful effort to own the content and its delivery. The previous instructor lost the forest for the trees. I believed early on—and still do—that the purpose for such a health care ethics course is to help students develop a bigger picture of what is important so that they can subsequently examine individual cases within a decision-making framework. I redesigning the course Blackboard shell to make it consistent for the students. I applied the concept of “alignment” described by the Quality Matters™ Higher Education Rubric, which matches measureable module objectives with measureable course-level objectives, and links these objectives with course assessments, instructional materials, activities, and course technologies. When this linking occurs correctly, students better understand both the tasks and the rationale in online learning.
Finally, I put myself in the role of a student in the course. I wrote the syllabus as if it were a contract. The previous instructor threw open the course without describing the online landscape for the students. I tried to remove any ambiguity by walking students through the different parts of the course. For example, I instituted a mandatory “syllabus quiz” that highlighted the questions most frequently asked in the early semesters by students who started the course without reading the syllabus. Lo and behold, those questions disappeared.
Do I still have students who fail the course? Yes. Because of the self-paced nature of the course, there is always a handful of students who wait until the final days of the semester to start the assignments and inevitably run out of time before the course closes. I do not offer extensions or “incompletes” for a course that is 100% online and 100% self-paced from the first day of the semester. I know that I have done everything I can throughout the semester to inform them of the responsibilities and consequences of the course.
Inheriting a poorly designed online course from another faculty member is difficult. The trick is to make the course one’s own. With some effort, this can be achieved by owning the course from beginning to end, aligning the most important aspects of the course to each other, and rethinking the course from the students’ perspective.