Necessary Research for Building an Online Course

From E-Learning Faculty Modules


Contents

Module Summary

Too often, people who start building online courses skip a critical first step: research. They do capture information about the following:

  • the state of the art for online teaching and learning (pedagogical and andragogical techniques and technologies),
  • the most recent research and thinking in the subject domain,
  • the available open-source digital learning objects and resources in the subject domain,
  • the available hosted simulations (both proprietary and open-source),
  • the possible outside guest speakers for the course, and other aspects.

This module highlights some basic research that should be done for building an online course and addresses how long such work may take.

Takeaways

Learners will...

  • consider the importance of conducting research prior to building an online course
  • review the state of the art for online teaching and learning (pedagogical and andragogical techniques and technologies)
  • study the updated research in the domain field
  • review the open-source digital learning objects and resources in the subject domain
  • explore the hosted simulations (both proprietary and open-source)
  • identify potential guest speakers for the online course
  • consider how long such research may require

Module Pretest

1. Why is it important to conduct research prior to building an online course? Why is it important to review the state of the art for online teaching and learning techniques and technologies?

2. Why is it important to understand the updated research in the domain field? How is this information relevant to the building of a new online course?

3. Why is it important to know what is available in terms of open-source digital learning objects and resources (imagery, articles, data tables, maps, and others)?

4. Why is it important for online course developers to know about available hosted simulations, both proprietary and open-source ones?

5. Why is it important to identify potential guest speakers for the online course, both from on campus an in the world?

6. How long could such pre-design and development research take? Why?

Main Contents

1. Why is it important to conduct research prior to building an online course? Why is it important to review the state of the art for online teaching and learning techniques and technologies?


Prior to building an online course, it is important to conduct “environmental scan” research in order to be fully informed before making important design and development decisions. The research may cover the following topics:

  • the most up-to-date technologies used in online learning; the most up-to-date pedagogical (and andragogical) techniques;
  • the state of the domain field (with a focus on its latest research findings and thinking);
  • available open-source resources for teaching and learning;
  • available hosted simulations;
  • potential guest speakers, and others.

This information is necessary because design and development draw a fair amount of resources. There is no point in “reinventing the wheel” if usable resources already exist. There is no point in using defunct technologies and online teaching and learning methods that are not seen (empirically) to be effective. There is no point in teaching contents that are no longer seen as relevant.

Sometimes, online instructors are so busy with their research, writing, teaching, and learning…that they go right to the work instead of taking a few days to evaluate the space and to use that information to inform their design and development. This module suggests that taking a few days to evaluate the space may be helpful.


2. Why is it important to understand the updated research in the domain field? How is this information relevant to the building of a new online course?


Usually, an online course build lasts at least a year or two. Depending on staffing (which is often sparse), an online course may keep its basic form and structure for much longer. Because a university course is built to build knowledge and skills in learners, the best information should be used in its design. An online course should not already be dated the moment it’s created. Further, all online courses should be updated regularly to integrate new research.


3. Why is it important to know what is available in terms of open-source digital learning objects and resources (imagery, articles, data tables, maps, and others)?


If there are open-source resources that are of sufficient quality and accuracy (and which align with the online instructor’s approach to teaching), these should be included in the course design and build. These pre-created digital learning objects and resources (photos, podcasts, video, maps, simulations, and others) may be used in lieu of self-created contents. These will not fully supplant a need for in-house design and development, but they enable focus on other work. Whatever is adopted has to be identified and acknowledged as a third-party resource. For many objects released under Creative Commons and other types of licensure releases, acknowledgment of the original creator has to be given. There may be other limitations as well—regarding whether and how much an original work may be edited, whether it may be deployed for commercial use, and so on. As mentioned earlier, it is important to read the fine print, document the resource (its URL, its creator, its terms of use, its date of creation, and so on), and follow the guidelines to the letter.

(It is also important to note that contents not expressly released by its actual creator and / or owner for use is assumed to be under copyright, according to U.S. copyright laws and the Berne Convention. Use of copyrighted contents is not allowed on a continuing basis under “fair use” but only the first use. Thereafter, an online instructor has to contact the copyright holder to request legal rights to use the contents.)

If there are “orphaned” photos found without ownership claims, the images should be uploaded into a reverse image search to try to identify ownership.

Of course, the online instructor has to present a clear learning context for all adopted third-party materials.


4. Why is it important for online course developers to know about available hosted simulations, both proprietary and open-source ones?


Even if simulations are hosted on another server, and even if the code is actually proprietary, it is fine to share a link or to include an embed link (using an inline frame to host the contents to learners in the online course). (This is in the U.S. context. There are debates over link sharing going on in Europe.) Many sites that host simulations (such as the Wolfram Demonstrations Project at http://demonstrations.wolfram.com/) are highly encouraging of sharing but may also require downloads.

In terms of selecting simulations, these

  • should be as accurate as possible (without being misleading),
  • should enable exploration by learners,
  • should be as accessible as possible, and
  • should be hosted by a robust and trusted organization or entity.

Ideally, an online course designer would not want the dependency of going to an outside source to make learning contents available. However, if the source is trustworthy and well maintained, then it may be worth the extra small bit of risk to include this content. (Such links should be tested at the beginning of each learning term to correct against link decay / unavailability. Such resources should also be tested for performance fairly regularly. If the code is open-source and free, and the online course designer has server access, then it is possible to have more local hosting of the contents for a greater sense of control…but if the resource is updated, then he or she should update the local code as well.)

Of course, the online instructor has to present a clear learning context for all adopted third-party materials.


5. Why is it important to identify potential guest speakers for the online course, both from on campus an in the world?


It is important to identify potential guest speakers to a course for multiple reasons. First, guest speakers help raise learner interest. They create a sense of occasion or event if they engage in a live presentation and Q&A with learners. These presentations may be recorded (with presenter and participant permissions) and used in later contexts as well. Second, presenters may be centers and sources of knowledge, and they can provide a richer point-of-view for learners. Third, guest presenters are centers of their own “ego networks” and have professional connections that may benefit learners in the long run.

Too often, online instructors do not reach across institutional lines to make connections and to collaborate. This opportunity to have invited guest speakers (with small gratuities or simply thanks) may provide a chance for positive connections.

Do note though that for live events, the online instructor should make some accommodations for accessible access.


6. How long could such pre-design and development research take? Why?


Depending on the facility of the online instructor, this environmental scan may take a few days up to a few weeks. An initial environmental scan may be done fairly efficiently, but capturing the contents and citing the contents and reaching out to the potential guest speakers will require more time and effort.

Examples

Internal examples of environmental scans for online course development may be available to respective faculty in their local contexts. These are not usually shared publicly.

How To

The steps to conducting an environmental scan prior to the design and development of an online course will be sequentially different depending on the local needs of the project.

Possible Pitfalls

In terms of possible drawbacks, making an environmental scan will take time. If done right, it will likely change initial design plans (but should save time and energy in the long run). Of course, it is important to have a clear strategy in the environmental scan. The online learning designer needs to (1) access the correct resources; (2) read the fine print for the uses of various resources (and then follow through on the requirements to the letter; (3) be able to conduct the environmental scan without getting mired and not focusing on the necessary work.

Experienced online instructors should easily be able to identify which sources are the “go-to” and respected ones.

Module Post-Test

1. Why is it important to conduct research prior to building an online course? Why is it important to review the state of the art for online teaching and learning techniques and technologies?

2. Why is it important to understand the updated research in the domain field? How is this information relevant to the building of a new online course?

3. Why is it important to know what is available in terms of open-source digital learning objects and resources (imagery, articles, data tables, maps, and others)?

4. Why is it important for online course developers to know about available hosted simulations, both proprietary and open-source ones?

5. Why is it important to identify potential guest speakers for the online course, both from on campus an in the world?

6. How long could such pre-design and development research take? Why?

References

Extra Resources