When you design a face-to-face course, you probably start by asking questions. Who are my students likely to be? How large is the class? How many credits does the course carry? You may not be able to collect all the relevant information, but it’s a good idea to find out what you can or make your best guess. Why? Because the answers to these questions will shape the way you design your course.
Course context is equally important in online courses, though slightly different issues apply. Three important ones to consider are your students, time, and space.
Think about who your students are, what motivates them, and how you can leverage their motivations to enhance their learning. Perhaps your students are working professionals who want to enhance their qualifications or undergraduates who cannot easily relocate to pursue a degree program. In either case, the flexibility of online courses is part of the attraction. Consequently, building self-paced activities and limiting synchronous requirements is important.
Your students may also enjoy the opportunity to interact with students in other parts of the world. Thus, you might consider structuring activities and assignments that build these collaborations.
Also give some thought to how you can use what your students know to enhance learning and motivation. For example, if your students have considerable workforce expertise, you may want to design assignments that ask them to connect what they’re learning to their professional experiences.
Although a traditional class has a set time (e.g., 80 minutes twice a week), an online course does not. The absence of conventional time constraints provides a tremendous opportunity to rethink the organization and content of your course.
At the same time, it’s important to be conscious of students’ time and not overload your course with content simply because you can. Both instructors and students sometimes assume that online courses are easier, but in fact, research indicates that they often require more time and intensive work. Keep your standards high, but be careful not to overwhelm your students, because this can erode motivation. Also remember that too much content can compromise deep learning by reducing the opportunities students have to process and apply it.
In a physical classroom, the space itself often limits the types of activities you can do. Not so in a virtual classroom! Teaching online allows you more flexibility (now you can attend that conference without having to miss class!), and it also introduces new possibilities for learning. After all, your students are in different locations; think of how you might use these different environments to enhance the learning experience.
For example, in a course on environmental policy, you might ask students to produce a video documenting environmental policies that their own communities need to implement or enforce. In a course on immigration, you might ask students to interview a family member or friend who emigrated from another country and analyze the interview using course concepts. Think about where your students are located, and get creative!
This is by no means an exhaustive list of contextual issues to consider, but it’s a start. Knowing your course’s context will not only help you in designing and facilitating it, but also prepare you to give your students the best experience possible.