Re-envisioning Online Course Revision

Woman sits on chair with computer laptop with chalkboard behind her of arrows, question marks and a light bulb

The events of 2020 have highlighted the benefits of change-adept teaching in higher education, particularly online.  Change-adept teaching involves skill in changing one’s approach to meet students’ needs and flexibility in responding to changing circumstances.  Faculty can become change-adept by engaging in an iterative cycle of preparing, creating, and revising their online courses, which we call the Change-adept Course Creation Process (Barber et al., 2020).  Although it can be tempting to avoid or postpone thinking about revision until after an online course has been taught, we encourage instructors to resist this temptation by re-envisioning course revision as an essential, ongoing aspect of their online teaching.

To facilitate online course revision, we recommend that instructors create a course revision plan that involves gathering and using feedback from students to improve the course.  Although the instructor’s observations can inform course changes, a course revision plan goes beyond one’s own impressions and makes the revision process more explicit, consistent, and objective.  An effective course revision plan includes both formative feedback, which is gathered during an online course to make changes to a course in progress, and summative feedback, which is gathered at the end of an online course to improve the course the next time it is taught.

Formative feedback and revising an online course in progress

Although instructors are sometimes reluctant to revise an online course in progress, responding to changing circumstances shows flexibility and awareness of students’ learning needs.  To identify needed modifications, faculty can gather formative feedback from a variety of sources, such as the following:

  • An orientation module survey on students’ impressions of the general course appearance and navigation
  • Baseline quizzes (for participation credit) to assess students’ foundational knowledge
  • Questionnaires about students’ experiences with specific course activities
  • Student performance on early assignments
  • A general survey about the course two to three weeks into the semester and again mid-semester
  • Informal discussions and correspondence with students

For example, we routinely include a student survey early on in our online courses.  After students complete the survey, we analyze the data and share a summary of the results with students.  Importantly, we also tell students what changes we are making to the course as a result of the feedback.  If some changes cannot be made, we explain why.  This transparency shows students that we have read their feedback and take it seriously.

Other revisions that occur while the online course is in progress may be necessitated by the instructor’s awareness that students have not learned important concepts that need to be reviewed, thus requiring a change in the schedule.  Alternatively, the instructor may realize that an assignment or activity is not working as expected.  One of us experienced this recently when grading papers in a graduate-level course.  The rubric we had created was so strict that all of the papers were graded below the students’ actual level of writing proficiency.  This realization prompted us to build in an additional opportunity for students to improve their grade by showing growth in their writing skills.  Such a change-adept response demonstrates attunement to students’ needs without sacrificing rigor.

Additional examples of revisions that may happen while teaching a course include the following:

  • Adding digital resources for students who need foundational instruction
  • Updating course documents, re-posting them to the learning management system, and alerting students of the change to ensure that they have downloaded the correct version of the resource
  • Changing the virtual meeting platform to one that best meets the students’ and instructor’s needs
  • Modifying due dates in the course calendar
  • Providing an additional virtual review session
  • Adding self-reflection questions on why certain test items were missed and what actions students can take to improve their performance, which reinforces student metacognition

An instructor’s willingness to make necessary changes while an online course is in progress lets students know that the instructor values students’ ideas, listens and responds to their suggestions, and is interested in their learning.  

Summative feedback and revising a course between terms

More substantial online course revisions usually occur between terms once the instructor has had a chance to evaluate additional feedback data and determine what changes are needed.  This is a good time to take stock of the online course as a whole and reflect on these questions:

  • Does the course learning environment welcome and include all students?
  • Are opportunities for self-reflection and discussion provided?
  • Do activities provide opportunities for realistic, relevant, and meaningful application of knowledge?
  • Are students achieving the goals of the course?
  • Is the workload reasonable for both students and the instructor?

To answer these questions, instructors can gather summative feedback from end-of-course evaluations, dialogues with colleagues (including those who teach the same course), and student performance on individual assignments, as well as in the course as a whole.  Obtaining summative feedback from a variety of sources is critical for depth, breadth, and credibility (Lincoln & Guba, 1985).  Furthermore, major course changes should be most closely linked to direct measures of student learning (Wehlburg, 2006).  If most of the available feedback only provides one type of data (e.g., numeric or comment-based), then building in additional feedback sources can provide complementary data for a more complete picture of how an online course is working.

Based on the summative feedback, sometimes online course revision requires a complete overhaul.  However, even an online course that has elicited positive feedback can benefit from revision, particularly when there is a shift in enrollment, a change in the student population taking a course, or a curriculum change.  For example, we have modified a course on writing and research numerous times to address the evolving academic needs of our student population.  We have also shifted from individual student conferences to team conferences when enrollment numbers were high and time was limited.  Attention to change and openness to addressing such changes benefits both faculty and students.

Conclusion

Gone are the days of ignoring problems with an online course and sweeping errors under the digital rug.  In this new era of world-wide remote learning, change-adept faculty re-envision course revision as an ongoing process and embrace the opportunity to improve their online courses.  Using a course revision plan and building in multiple student feedback strategies allows instructors to assess students’ cognitive, social, and emotional responses to an online course.  Such information on the many aspects of student learning helps instructors prepare to respond quickly and effectively to students’ learning needs and to the ever-changing landscape of higher education.


Catherine R. Barber is an associate professor in the School of education and human services at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.  Janet K. McCollum is director of QEP and core assessment at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.  Wendy L. Maboudian is senior instructional designer at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.  The authors have recently published, The New Roadmap for Creating Online Courses: An Interactive Workbook (2020), available from Cambridge University Press.

References

Barber, C. R., McCollum, J. K., & Maboudian, W. L. (2020). The new roadmap for creating online courses: An interactive workbook. Cambridge University Press.

Lincoln, Y. S., & Guba, E. G. (1985).  Naturalistic inquiry. Sage.

Wehlburg, C. (2006). Meaningful course revision: Enhancing academic engagement using student learning data. John Wiley & Sons.