Designing Agile Courses: Five Takeaways from Teacher and Online Learning Coach Adam Lavallee
EXPLO Elevate recently hosted a webinar with Adam Lavallee, teacher at Episcopal Academy, former EXPLO faculty member, and Learning Design Coach with Global Online Academy, to discuss practical structures to help teachers develop flexible courses to be taught both online and face-to-face. His insights offer some key takeaways for teachers as they think about how to design courses for students that can work in a fully online learning environment or within a blended learning program.
Teachers should be asking the question, “What needs to stick with my students?”
In any classroom, whether virtual or in-person, there is often a chasm between what a teacher hopes to teach and what students actually retain. When a course toggles between face-to-face and online, there is an even greater likelihood that the chasm will be too hard to overcome. Adam suggests that teachers narrow the content of their courses by focusing on what needs to stick with their students (or in other words, what do I want to make sure my students learn?). This allows teachers to hone in on developing a student’s core skills in depth, rather than covering a breadth of topics, many of which may not stick one or two years down the road anyway.
Use synchronous time to make asynchronous time more valuable, and vice-versa.
Adam starts his course design by considering the question: “How can I be intentional about using our time together and our time apart?” Certain things, such as connection with students and simple explanations of concepts, can be done better synchronously and therefore should be prioritized for those times when the class is together. Logistics and directions are also better suited to the synchronous setting. However, other areas, such as reflection on a complex idea or topic, are better suited to the home environment. True learning for depth is when asynchronous time can really be ideal for students. A teacher’s 10-minute recorded video can be paused and rewound by students who need to hear the content more than once.
Students need to use their cognitive load for learning, not finding.
In a classroom, students may automatically know or quickly figure out certain structures that are actually “invisible” but really integral to a face-to-face course. For example: where to sit, how to read body language from teachers and their peers, and the expectations for how long an assignment should take may all be easily known or answered by a quick hand-raise. In an online setting, there are so many new norms that replace the ones that were implicitly understood. Interrupting a Zoom lesson is different than in an in-person class, for example. The result is that students may be using their cognitive load on “finding” these structures rather than on the learning that we want to take place. To help address this, Adam’s recommendation to teachers is that they be consistent – every lesson should have the same setup. Thus, students will always know what is expected of them and that clarity can help them to focus on learning rather than wayfinding.
In an online or hybrid learning setting, giving students smaller deadlines within a larger assignment helps to hold them accountable and also sets clear expectations for what they need to do. In a traditional face-to-face class, students may know that they have 45 minutes to work on a writing prompt, but that time could easily stretch in an online environment to working for three or four hours when there is no end signified by a class bell. Added to that is the challenge that there is no teacher or peer nearby to ask a question if the student is stuck. A micro-deadline of having students “send your opening paragraph by noon today to a peer” gives them a manageable task within a larger assignment and a deadline that can be met.
Ed-tech tools should not be the purpose, but should serve the purpose.
There are many exciting ed-tech tools out there, and probably one to fit any need a teacher has. However, the course design and content should not be retrofitted to the tool. Rather, the tool should amplify the course’s goals as well as the ways that the teacher wants to ensure the student gets feedback. EdPuzzle, for example, is a product that can help teachers track video usage, but only if it serves the purpose teachers need. If not, tech could be mostly a distraction, taking up students’ much-needed cognitive load.