Deliberate Design Decisions in Higher Ed Online Teaching

In an inter-university discussion group that was spawned, and is coordinated by, Jason McDonald at BYU, we recently grappled with the notion of design decisions made unconsciously. We came to understand this as options never considered. Through our discussion, graduate students and faculty from UTK, Purdue, Arizona State, and BYU, came to see unconscious design decisions as an oxymoron. How can you make an unconscious decision? If you haven’t considered options, no decision could have been made because the option was unknown. Another way to discover if a term is self-contradictory is to look for its opposite (Fanselow 1987). What would be the opposite of an unconscious decision? Wouldn’t that be a deliberate decision? Deliberate decision-making in designing an online activity would be something like what I observed in some clients I worked with as a faculty fellow. Some instructors made deliberate choices from among several options. I came to think of this teaching behavior as deliberate, in the sense that decisions were made by deliberating upon options. I wanted to write up this example because of how much deliberation and planning that I observed in a single lesson by Erin Hardin, faculty in Psychology.

Erin’s assignment contains dozens of deliberated pedagogical decisions. I highlighted 8 of them but could have found more. In coaching instructors, I’ve noticed that when decisions like these are made deliberately as she has done so here, the experience of online teaching becomes enjoyable.

Deliberate decision-making was not the norm. In my role as a faculty fellow, I witnessed seasoned instructors new to online learning and worried about it. For those who were worried, the modality seemed to strike them amorphous and elusive, a minefield of unexpected pitfalls. Often, they did only what came to mind first. I think the modality may have had those moments for everybody, but other seasoned instructors faired far better. The act of slowing down and making deliberate decisions had significant impact because seasoned instructors could transfer their skills quite smoothly into the online space if they stopped their planning and considered more options. Often as I witnessed panic and debilitating worry. Not debilitating as the kind that prevented them from teaching; rather, debilitating in preventing them from teaching at the level they were accustomed to expecting from themselves. Others who deliberated options provided me an enriched experience. Observing instructors’ development strategies afforded me the opportunity to collect a battery of different developmental strategies. Specifically, I learned a lot from Erin.

I have deconstructed one of Erin’s products from our talk to show how her process resulted in real changes to strategy, how her instruction became more technologically adroit, yet still retained the flavor of her teaching. I have written out the entries here to align with the numbers and make it a little easier to read.

  1. Erin brought a desire to create something blog-like, but we explored wikies, google docs, and other collaborative spaces before she settled on this genre of media.
  2. She wanted a productive media option where students could write extensively. These were targeted learning outcomes. She had a frame to work with—she wanted “Engaged Inquiry” which entailed three characteristics: (1) reflective learning (2) forms of collaboration and (3) would result in a non-disposable final product. Something the learner would carry out of the course.
  3. By selecting a public blog which was persistent even after the completion of the course, she captured design feature of the non-disposable final product requirement.
  4. We discussed the dynamics of small verses large online groups, and how impersonal large groups can be, and how that matched with media choices.
  5. The design decision not to pre-select the software choice, but rather only the constraints of the genre, was a result of extensive deliberation. Media choice has consequences; she could be tipping the scales against those who were unfamiliar with what she chose. Her choice not to select media puts the consequences on the learner to choose familiar media is they like. It takes the focus off media and avoids turning her psychology class into a technology tutorial.
  6. Her assignment itself acts as a teaching scaffold by asking questions she remembers asking when she previously taught learners the same content in other settings. By being pro-active, placing her teaching into the assignment itself, the designing becomes deliberate. This was also part of our discussion. This fore-warning heads off potential complications and simplifies the learning process.
  7. We talked about the length of the task itself becoming burdensome. Her solution was to hypertext some content into cloud storage. This hypertext declutters learning materials and moves these support resources elsewhere, clearing the way for the student who does not need the support and offering it to those who do.

The technological decisions made here were deliberated to carefully construct a task that met the learning objectives while staying within the supported technology of the school. By making these decisions deliberately, Dr. Hardin expressed her rationale and won buy-in on the part of her learners, allowing them freedom of choice at appropriate times but also keeping within the institutional restrictions we needed to follow. All this effort makes the task look straightforward. These deliberations helped her make online learning look easy, even though it required just as much thought as an in-person design.

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