• Theresa Capra

Course Objectives in Online Courses: Who Cares????

Updated: Oct 1

Do academic standards, or student learning outcomes really matter? They accumulate on course outlines, but students tend to ignore them while instructors fail to leverage them. It doesn't have to be this way--and online learning makes their relevance even more pronounced. #remotelearning #onlinelearning #distancelearning #technology #theresacapra #teachingtips #Covid19

Why are learning standards so confusing and stressful? Conceptually, they are designed to make planning and teaching easier. Yet they make new educators feel apprehensive and seasoned instructors feel numb. For students, they invoke anxiety because standards usually mean a standardized exam is lurking around the corner.

There are perfectly good explanations for this. The standards and accountability movement, which exploded in 1983 after Nation at Risk castigated public schools for their casual, mediocre approach, compelled many states to beef up their standards. Because standards were already teacher-centered lists of information to be covered, more beef simply meant more of that. With immeasurable terms such as understand to express desired student behaviors, early standards weren’t much better than following the table of contents of a textbook.

Over the years, there have been improvements and the Common Core standards, though controversial due to testing and curriculum, are more user-friendly featuring fewer, deeper, measurable benchmarks.

Higher education has not been insulated from the standards syndrome. Efforts to align K-12 with higher education through college readiness initiatives have led some professors, who typically have very little experience with pedagogy, to perceive them as elementary.

Institutions may require them on course outlines but oftentimes it becomes a mechanical chore that does not trickle down to the classroom. The consequence, in many cases, is a sprint to cover material with little thought about the role of the students beyond receiving agents. Although skilled instructors can breeze through standards while teaching making them seem moot, they are not about the instructor--they are about the students.

Research has demonstrated that virtual learning environments make the need for well-crafted, engaging student learning outcomes urgent because students are active learners from the start. The North American Council for Online Learning developed uniform standards for quality instruction of online courses. Quality Matters, a nonprofit organization that leads the industry with online course evaluation, developed a widely used rubric that focuses on the integration of course objectives and outcomes. Getting a course certified by QM is a whole process in itself, but you don’t have to be at that point in order to design a standards-based course that will help your online students be more successful. Here are a couple of strategies to make this both simple and meaningful.

Less is more (yet again)

Course outlines typically list dozens of student learning outcomes, which instructors copy and paste onto a syllabus, post in the course shell, triggering students to scroll past to the assignments and grading. A simpler approach should be employed. Identify five or six course level objectives tied to the discipline, but not solely based on content--what should students be able to do during and after the course?

Consider the skills relevant to the course as well--communication, analysis, research, etc. For example, students will be able to discuss or explain the causes of World War I is not an impactful objective. Moreover, if you design them in that nature you’ll end up with dozens of shallow ones. Instead, that objective could be swept up with skills and connected to the content for the entire course, not just one topic: explain, evaluate, and compare and contrast world conflicts during the early 20th century to modern times; identify evidence of their impact today.

Such an objective assumes students will have to learn facts, but it does not rest on them. Skills such as evaluation, and analysis tap into the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, which are especially important for online learning due to the increased need for individual cognition.

Continuing with this example, lessons about the Treaty of Versailles, the League of Nations, isolationism, the Red Scare all support the outcome with a focus on student abilities to arrive at conclusions while comparing and contrasting past and current events. Such an objective facilitates deeper learning and is perfectly suited for online courses. Why? Well, because a discussion board would be an ideal tool to assess that learning outcome because it requires evaluation as well as research that can be shared with classmates. Every student must participate during online discussions unlike in a traditional classroom where only a few may volunteer. In light of this, an easy start for the creation of deep pedagogy in online courses is a handful of higher-level objectives.

Watch your language!

Students do not care about course objectives, learning outcomes, standards, blah, blah, blah. Students already have a clear objective when they enroll in an online course: to complete whatever is required to pass the course and ideally learn along the way. A shift in jargon could change that for the better, especially with fewer, focused outcomes. Consider calling course objectives ‘course purposes’ and tie each one to the activities and assessments in a direct way. Guide students to use the course purposes as a self-assessment prior to engaging in a graded exercise. Build rubrics into the course that circle back to the objectives so students can hone in on the skills that are a big take-away from the course.

Educators know that helping students connect to our courses on personal levels is good business for us. It may require more planning in virtual formats, but it certainly doesn’t have to be complicated. A fresh look at student learning outcomes can go a long way.

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