Course revisions are an exciting time in the life cycle of a course. Faculty reflect upon the past offerings and look for ways to improve the student experience. I recently talked with Dr. Rich Freese (DMA) about how he approaches the revision process. Rich facilitates courses for our UW Independent Learning program and I’ve worked with him on a course revision (U660206 – Legendary Performers) that won the 2018 ADEIL College-level course award. For this issue of IDigest, we talk about Rich’s secret sauce for cooking up award-winning course revisions.
A course revision can seem like a daunting task, so it is important to have a strategic approach when starting one. Rich starts by looking at what already exists within the previous version of the course. He asks himself questions such as what are the core competencies that students need to demonstrate? What assessments went well? Is there one assessment (or part of an assessment) that students are having difficulty with? He also considers if the topics are engaging and if there are new ways to bring new life to older topics. For example, in a previous version of Appreciation and History of Music, we turned the unit on the Baroque Era into an opportunity for students to practice researching and then reflect on their experience. Students first researched a Baroque composer of their choice using general sources like Google searches and Wikipedia, then research them using more academic tools such as Google Scholar and JSTOR. This allows students to learn about the composer, evaluate different tools, and determine what makes sources reliable.
The first big thing is to look at what already exists and what is going especially well.
After surveying the existing material, Rich identifies what should be kept or changed. When considering possible changes, it’s helpful to consider new assessment types. Does the course have a variety of assessments that challenges students on multiple levels? If not, are there new assessment types that can be used in the course? If Rich had concerns arise from his review of the existing course, he addresses them. If an assessment didn’t quite work the way he envisioned, he tweaks it so it can be more valuable to the students. Sometimes clarifying the assignment prompt by more clearly explaining to students what you’re looking for in their answers is all that’s required to help students succeed.
How can we make this course well-rounded and try to meet a wider variety of students where they are at?
Rich also reviews student evaluations of past versions of the course to see what students thought went well and what was challenging. Student feedback can let an instructor know if something they tried in past courses resonated with students. That said, Rich noted that it is important to consider student evaluations with a grain of salt. For example, if a student had a bad experience in the course, the course evaluation may not be completely accurate. The same point is also true about positive reviews; sometimes a student may make a strong connection with a particular topic, but if other students don’t feel the same way, an instructor shouldn’t change the direction of the course toward that topic.
Rich has also found value by thinking ahead to upcoming revisions, which saves time once the revision period arrives. He can start immediately on the revision work because he has notes and ideas already documented. He recommends keeping a running file of notes while you are facilitating a course; a Microsoft Word or Google document works well for this. Whenever you have a thought that you don’t want to forget or have an idea of something you’d like to change, it’s easy to document it. Some of the key areas that Rich tracks include new content, grading trends, the alignment of assessments compared to objectives, and the content that students find exciting.
When I’m not sure if the course objective and this written assignment and textbook are aligned like I thought they would be, I go to my Google document and make a note for the next revision.
We also talked about one of the biggest challenges that come from revisions: defining scope. As with new course developments, revisions are limited by the practical aspects of development. Even though it is fun and exciting to work on revisions, it requires a balancing act because we only have so much time to dedicate to the revision. It’s important to be realistic when determining what the scope of revision should be so the instructor and instructional designer can stay within the development timeline. During this time, an important thing to consider is the course’s history. For example, if this is the first revision after the course’s development or if Rich didn’t author the course, he will have more revision work to complete than he if the course had already gone through multiple revisions or if he’d authored it himself.
One of the biggest challenges is that there is only so much time. I love the creative process and crafting and developing course content, and there is no end to creative things that we can do, but things need to get done. How do you work the balancing act? How much time do I have to dedicate to the revision, how much time does Instructional Design and Media have available?
Because of the time constraints, Rich finds ways to improve his time management when he is working on a course revision. He uses Google Drive to collaborate in real-time with other members of the design team and looks for open time in his schedule to work on particular course segments. He also leverages existing resources, such as Open Educational Resources (OERs), to him to help save time. If you are interested in OERs, you read our previous blog post, OERs – A Curators Perspective, for more information.
At the end of the day, it can be difficult to determine what is good enough, but it’s helpful to know that no course is perfect. Fix and improve what you can, and if anything needs to be changed after the deadline, that’s what the next revision is for!