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Crafting A Learning Framework, Part 2

A person looking at a computer screen

We continue our discussion of the core principles of SNHU’s College of Online and Continuing Education learning design framework below. As we noted in Part 1, these principles are meant to guide the efforts of our teams of expert faculty, instructional designers, and outcomes and assessment specialists as they create next-generation learning environments for our students.

Principle 5: Essential Questions – Course activities and learning outcomes should privilege a focus on the essential questions or conceptual knowledge of a discipline and/or profession, rather than static content knowledge.

Related to Principle 1 (Conceptual Frameworks), essential questions are useful in presenting content to students through relevant, deeply immersive problems. We follow Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins’ work in this area to define seven key characteristics of essential questions (“EQs”) that inform our approach. EQs are:

  1. open-ended (do not have a yes/no or simple answer)
  2. thought-provoking
  3. involve higher-order thinking
  4. involve transferable ideas
  5. spark further inquiry
  6. require justification rather than simple answers
  7. recur over time

Our courses and curricula should include learning experiences that ask our students to attend to problem-based scenarios rather than simply assess correct or incorrect responses to binary concepts. Even in the quantitative disciplines, essential questions help contextualize complex problems and support the purposes for applying specific computations or procedures. In this sense, students are encountering the “content” of our courses as a means to investigate appropriate and feasible solutions to a problem, rather than memorizing definitions and computations that likely won’t be retained.

There are a variety of ways we can integrate the use of essential questions. Much of this work comes out of problem-based learning and gamification. Take, for instance, the possibilities we have when engaging our students in an emerging problem or situation relevant to their professions and communities. (An excellent resource for project-based learning can be found at the Buck Institute for Education). I’ll have more to say about gamification in education below. Another possibility for us to engage our students in essential questions is to deliver these experiences through branching scenarios and open-ended strategy simulations. These experiences are particularly important in our STEM, healthcare and business courses (for example, we’ve been integrating the use of CapSim, an experiential learning simulation for business and marketing, in our undergraduate business capstones).

Principle 6: Authentic Performances – Students should encounter authentic learning scenarios that require adaptation, problem-solving, and creativity.

Deeply related to the above principle, we privilege the idea of creating “authentic” relevance in our courses by drawing from case studies, emerging news items and discipline-related scenarios. We know that authenticity (the idea that a situation should “feel” like it draws from real situations) and relevance (meaningful connections to one’s experiences or professional goals) are key elements for driving success in adult learning. Our learners draw from a wealth of experience in their own lives, and finding ways to connect them to the course content is critical to driving engagement, investment and self-efficacy.

The major challenge we face in our design model is extending this concept to our assessments. We seek to produce assessment activities that are targeted toward an audience and authentic to the discipline (rather than to the instructor for the sole purpose of evaluation). In this sense, students should be writing for an academic audience only when it is a key component of the learning outcomes of a course or program. Using authentic audiences in our assessments provides our students with skills that are immediately translatable into a variety of disciplines and professions.

Principle 7: Formative Preparation – Formative experiences should model essential performances required in summative assessments, rather than isolating individual components.

One of the major challenges we have in our learning design is finding ways to prepare our students effectively for the summative assessments (term projects) within a relatively short term structure. We have approximately nine to 10 weeks to get students from the foundational concepts in a course to demonstrating their mastery of key outcomes. The tendency in some of our early course designs was to “chunk” out our final assessments so that students were able to receive formative feedback throughout the course and structure their time during the term to prepare their final assessments. What we found is that having students identify a topic and write a beginning thesis statement or argument in Week 2 or Week 3 of a new course was resulting in poorly written projects and unfocused arguments. This should come as no surprise, but it was a difficult challenge to overcome.

Formative assessments can take multiple forms in the course, but we argue that these should not simply separate (“chunk”) components of a summative assessment into deliverable dates. In some cases, formative milestones for feedback might be necessary, but our primary efforts in design should be to engage students in modeled situations that inform their preparation for the holistic aspects of the summative assessment. Students should be provided with situations that maximize instructor feedback efforts toward essential learning experiences, rather than simple editing. In some cases, this means asking our students to engage early in a facilitated case study modeled after the summative assessment to help identify gaps in knowledge as they prepare a topic of research for their final projects.

Another tool our design teams are using to increase formative preparation and provide visible progress indicators for our students is to leverage the principles of gamification in our courses. Our teams are exploring the use of badges, progress bars and gaming achievements to increase students’ efficacy and engagement in the mastery of concepts.

Finally, we know the importance of providing students with visual models or “roadmaps,” checklists for submission and multimedia overviews that help outline our summative assessment requirements beyond the assessment prompts and rubrics. We expect that our students will become more and more proficient in reading and understanding a grading rubric, but this should not be the only tool we use to help articulate the requirements and expectations of an assignment. Our design teams are investigating creative ways to introduce these requirements to students, and we’re learning a lot from the patterns of submission and engagement in our current courses that will inform the creation of these tools.

Principle 8: Maximizing Effort – Learning experiences should maximize students’ time on task and reduce ancillary activities unrelated to the core learning outcomes.

I’ve used the metaphor of a glass vase filled with rocks with our design teams to illustrate how our students structure their weekly time commitments.  Our students come to us with “big rocks” that are not easily moved around in the vase – these are their caretaking duties with their families and their work schedules. Students may have a bunch of “little rocks” that take up additional space and are sometimes unpredictable – social engagements, community responsibilities, family emergencies, etc. Students expect that the flexibility and accessibility of online education will allow them to fill in the gaps among these other responsibilities. They want online education to be the sand or the water between the rocks that they can complete late at night after they put the kids to bed or on the train as they head to work.

If we design learning experiences as “big rocks” that require our students to engage in uninterrupted, extended efforts, we are asking our students to remove another big rock from the vase. We lose a large majority of our population through this, and while we know that education requires our students to sacrifice a significant portion of their time and efforts, we can do better to design learning experiences that maximize our students efforts in short sprints and bursts. Furthermore, related to Principle 2 (“Spaced and Varied Practice”), we know that spaced repetition (as opposed to “cramming”) leads to greater retention and memory retrieval.

As we extend the accessibility of education to more working adults, we have an opportunity to not only engage our students in efforts that reward the sacrifice of their time, but effectively leverage what we know about memory, learning and skill development to produce learning experiences that lead to greater mastery and proficiency.

Principle 9: Peer-to-Peer Engagement – Peer-to-peer engagement should be authentic to the learning experience and aligned to the performances expected in the learning outcomes.

When we talk about peer-to-peer engagement in online learning, discussion forums and group work are at the top of the conversation. Class discussions are a key component of our course design, but this is arguably the area where we have the most work to do – not only in the format, content and purpose of these discussions, but in how we integrate peer learning throughout the course design to support the learning outcomes of the course. It can be easy for us to say that discussions should be engaging and informative; however, we can craft a discussion forum that provides students with a vexing, controversial idea and still find that the discussion falls flat in the class.

Effective peer-to-peer engagement relies heavily on the tools we use to support collaborative learning and discussions, but it is more heavily influenced by the facilitation and use of these opportunities by our instructors and our students. Therefore, the challenge for our designers is to provide the right tools in the right places to maximize these efforts. Throwing discussion forums in a module to provide a space for collaboration and reflection will immediately be seen as ancillary “busy work” by our students and instructors, and it’s no surprise that a common criticism of online education is the lack of authentic collaboration and peer learning.

This is perhaps the most exciting principle for our design teams to explore, and the emerging technologies in the social media landscape are providing more and more possibilities here. Some of the tools we are investigating are peer-learning communities; collaborative workspaces; use of integrated, embedded social networking tools; and artificial intelligence (facilitation “bots”), among others. Regardless of the tool, our designers are being asked to continually defend and articulate how each of these experiences are tied back to the essential learning outcomes of the course. We know that peer learning in online education can be difficult for many of our students, particularly when it involves synchronous or group-based requirements. We seek deliberate and defensible efforts that increase our students’ proficiency in communication, collaboration and professional dispositions.

Moving Forward

As we seek to integrate these principles more fully in the design of our learning environments, it’s important to reiterate that the purpose of these principles is not to restrict creative or innovative efforts in our courses. Rather, we expect that our design teams will utilize these principles to continue investigating disruptions in online education that produce measurable improvements in learning, memory and engagement. This may involve greater efforts in multimedia tools, gaming in education, deeply immersive simulations or open-ended projects. We invite any and all input into this venture and hope to engage in a number of conversations with our internal and external colleagues as we move forward.