Four Ways to Improve Your Online Course

When looking to improve your online course, you may be tempted to do a complete redesign—start over and change nearly everything. Before you do that, consider an incremental approach that uses action research to continuously improve your course. This will enable you to make progress without discarding effective course elements or taking on the inordinate amount of work involved in a redesign.

Action research is instructor-led assessment aimed at course improvement and can be both formative and summative. “It’s vital that the teacher is part of the process, and the trick is making sure you have a formal enough process that you can take out some of the instructor bias,” says Joan Thomas-Spiegel, a psychology instructor.

Thomas-Spiegel offered the following advice on conducting action research in an online course:

  1. Start with SLOs. Focus on the course’s student learning outcomes (SLOs). To make an action research project manageable, start with a single SLO and look at where in the course that SLO is addressed and how students do on that particular SLO. “When I design my courses I make sure that my design matches the student learning outcomes. For example, if a big student learning outcome is that the students understand the scientific method and can apply it in psychology, one of my assignments is for the students to develop an idea for an experiment and explain their methodology, the ethics involved, and each of the steps of the scientific process. And the assignments, quizzes, and discussions align with the SLO. I can go through and say my SLO number one on scientific method also aligns with discussion four and discussion six on ethics,” Thomas-Spiegel says.Considering a single SLO and how it is addressed throughout the course might indicate areas in the course that could be improved. “In order to take action you have to do your own research. It might be that you haven’t addressed the strengths of all your students. Some students have a terrible time with reading for whatever reason. Maybe there’s a great video or an interactive site you can send them to. You can build these in as part of the activity for the students. Or perhaps you could tweak the lecture or reword your discussion to emphasize something. Ask, ‘What tools did I give students to get them to the right place?’ And that gives you your clue where you might tweak one thing—not three things—to help students understand this concept a little better,” Thomas-Spiegel says.

    One indication of a problem area in a course is when semester after semester discussions on a particular subject go off topic or you find students posting messages that are not what you’re looking for. “Is there a discussion where I always scratch my head and wonder how students got there? Is there a discussion that I hate grading because I know that I’m going to get a lot of bizarre answers?” Thomas-Siegel asks.

  2. Work with colleagues. When looking at one’s own course, it’s a challenge to be an objective researcher. An alternative is to work with colleagues. These can be colleagues who teach the same course or even colleagues from a different discipline. One issue with doing action research is the small sample size. By working with colleagues teaching the same course, you can increase your sample size or try different solutions to a common problem to see which works best.“Action research can open up nonthreatening dialogues among faculty.” For example, a faculty member might approach the topic by saying something like, “Here’s an area I would like to improve. What are you doing in your course to address this?” This can lead to colleagues collecting data and researching the same question, or they might simply check each other’s research to guard against instructor bias.

    In some cases an instructor may not be aware of problems in his or her online course that would be obvious to another instructor. This can result from the instructor not remembering what it’s like to experience new concepts for the first time or simply not being able to detect his or her own confusing content or overlooked omissions.

    Here are some questions to ask a colleague as you’re considering your course: What do you think is the most important thing that students get out of this class? If you had to name one thing, what would that be? How can you help students think about that?

  3. Make use of data. “There’s a certain amount built into an online classroom that isn’t in a traditional classroom setting because we have all our data in digital format. I can go back several years and ask, ‘How did students answer this particular question in their quiz or their final, or how did that assignment go over in several semesters with several classes?’ If I decide that I want to take a look at the difference between how students are grasping the concept of independent and dependent variables, I have built-in data that’s easy to grab online. In fact, within our online systems, when we do quizzes we have not only the percentage correct, but we can even see what kinds of questions they answer incorrectly and the most common incorrect answers. A lot of our data that’s available online is so easy and built into the system, but we don’t always think to use it,” Thomas-Spiegel says.
  4. Implement small changes. Once you identify a problem, you might be inclined to change everything you think is contributing to it. Resist this temptation. You could put in a lot of work changing multiple elements without improving learning, or you could change several things when one small modification would have been effective. “The trick is to make tiny changes. Adding an assignment or setting up an extra slide in a presentation is [often] enough,” Thomas-Spiegel says.Keep in mind that results from changes made to your course may not be apparent in a single semester due to a small sample size, so you may want to gather data across several semesters to determine the effect of any changes.

Excerpted from Use Action Research to Improve Your Online Course Online Classroom, 12.9 (2012): 4-5.