As you design your course based on your desired learning outcomes, it is important to think through what parts of your content are critical to support student achievement of those outcomes and what parts are less critical. By continuing the process of backward design, the foundational content should directly support students as they complete activities and assessments. Content that doesn’t directly support activities and assessments (which were developed to provide practice and show mastery of learning outcomes) is supplemental content and would be prioritized behind foundational content. Supplemental content can include additional in-depth materials for advanced students, related inter-disciplinary content, or review of basic knowledge and skills for students without the prerequisite abilities for the course.
More Than Just a Reading List
In a face-to-face course, content includes not only your textbook(s) and other reading materials but also material you present in class and any publisher-provided resources such as videos or interactive tools. In an online course, the same range of content is important to make your course engaging and to motivate your students to learn what is needed to meet the desired learning outcomes.
When you described your desired learning outcomes for the course, you began to make a road map for your content. When you developed your assessments and practice activities, you filled in more spaces on that map. Now you can look at the map you have created and see what content is needed to fill in the remaining spaces and support student success.
Focusing the Content
One of the keys to supporting student learning is to carefully define the scope of each module, unit, or learning event. You will often have more content than can or should be included given the desired outcomes and the amount of time available. To keep the scope of the content manageable, it helps to clearly describe the prerequisite knowledge students need.
By returning to the question “What do the learners need to do?” and the related question of “Is this content necessary for the learners to be able to do what they need to do?” you can avoid information overload.
Avoiding information overload can be difficult, especially when using Canvas extensively where it’s often easy to keep adding resources through links to other websites or documents. You may hear instructional designers talk about “chunking” content, a term from cognitive information processing which emphasizes that the average human being can hold only so much information in short-term memory before it either “falls out” or gets pushed into long-term memory. Chunked instruction is designed to limit the amount of information presented at any given time to an amount that learners can handle in short-term memory, process, and integrate into long-term memory. A good chunk is something that can be understood as a whole; it should be able to stand alone but also link to other chunks. This paragraph is a good example of a chunk.
Because instructional resources come in a variety of media and because there are so many ways to present content, the selection or creation of content-rich resources can be overwhelming. The question of creating your own resources or using existing ones (or a mix of both) can also be a challenging decision. Whichever route you decide to take, the most important thing is to provide a variety of resource types. Even if your assessment is a written exam, you can still provide content in multiple forms including print, but also images, interactive tutorials, audio, and/or video.
Keep in mind that content resources are a means to the end of learning and not an end unto themselves. If your beautifully crafted PowerPoint presentation isn’t helping learners learn the material, try adding a video, a diagram with audio, and/or a live video conference with you or another professional in the field. And don’t be surprised if some learners love video while others prefer a PowerPoint presentation, and still others will only want a PDF of the presentation with the text of the narration. Learners are different, which underscores the importance of offering multiple resources. The more options you have, the more likely learners will find something that will engage them.
It is also important to provide various perspectives on the content if possible. This is especially true if you’re working with ill-structured problems such as simulations or case studies. Problem-based learning offers rich opportunities for discussion and debate when learners can see multiple perspectives on the situation. For example, a simulation where learners take roles and make decisions about a business venture would be well supported with resources showing the perspectives of an accountant, a marketing manager, a sales manager, a production manager, a representative from the support staff, a representative from the manufacturing staff, a representative from legal counsel, and an information technology consultant. These resources would highlight differences in priorities, values, and outcomes that learners see in the real world. These kinds of resources would also be valuable when an individual learner is independently working through a case study.
Producing your own content
Audio and Video
While it may be tempting to simply record yourself lecturing for an hour and post the videos for your class, research shows that this is not an effective strategy. Traditional-aged students do tend to engage with video more than adult students; however, studies show that shorter video is the key to getting any students to watch. One study found that <6 minutes is optimum for student engagement. The average YouTube video is around 4 minutes, and analytics show that viewing still drops off significantly around halfway through on these short segments. Even TED Talks tend to stay under 15 minutes. While there is no definitive research showing increased learning from shorter videos, if the students don’t watch the video, they can’t learn from it. While you may be convinced that your students are different, it is a good idea to start out with a solid mix of content types and review the analytics from your videos before deciding to go all in. Plus, it is easier to re-record a short video than a long one when you need to update content. Making Your Own Videos in the Multimedia Module goes into more detail if you are interested in recording your own video.
Many faculty use PowerPoint presentations in their classrooms to guide students through a review of the key points in the written material. If you are considering taking those PowerPoint files as they are and recording audio over them for any online activities, there are a few caveats regarding this strategy for online classes.
In addition to just in class interaction, some faculty prefer to talk to their students online through audio only in a podcast/audio book style. If your video or presentation has no important visual elements, an audio-only version can be a good option, especially for students who prefer to listen while they commute, exercise, or other activities that don’t allow for full visual attention. You don’t need to create the next Stuff You Should Know or RadioLab to be successful but scripting and eliminating audio distractions such as umms and uhhs, unconscious tapping, or loud computer fans can help keep listeners from becoming distracted and losing the train of thought you are trying to convey.
If you’re not a fan of video, it’s easy to fall back on printed resources such as textbooks and lecture notes when you start to design a class. However, keep in mind that in a face-to-face class you can explain and expand on the printed material your students read to help them understand difficult concepts and focus their study. The printed material used in a face-to-face class will never be sufficient for online activities by themselves. If they were, why would anyone come to an in person class? Both in person and online, students need you to further explain, expound, answer questions, and give examples. That said, don’t feel like you have to write or present the next great treatise on your subject. If you have a good variety of content sources using a mix of media the need for additional written resources may be smaller than you think.
Looking at the materials you are planning to provide to your students, where are the gaps? If you have taught this class before you’ll know where students commonly have difficulty. It may be a matter of providing bridging explanations, additional examples, a Frequently Asked Questions page, or a glossary of terms they struggle with. When you write for students to read it is best to write in a conversational tone, not like you are writing a journal article. This can be difficult at first but it’s really all right to use first and second-person pronouns. Also, running your writing through a Readability Checker is very helpful to catch prose that you think is fine – because it’s fine for you to read – but is actually at a higher level than your students’ reading ability.
For example, the previous two paragraphs have a Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score of 62 which is good, about the level of a BBC website. However, the Gunning-Fog score (which weights things a bit differently) is higher at 12, which is about the level of the Harvard Law Review.
The content found here was designed by Indiana University and adapted for use by the Institute for Faculty Development at Vanguard University. This material is offered under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial Share Alike license and should be considered under this license unless otherwise noted. The original content was imported from “Designing and Teaching for Impact in Online Courses” from within Canvas Commons.