Providing Multiple Paths for Learning

Students come to an online course with different interests, prior knowledge, and preferred learning styles. This is something that Stephen Holland, chair of the English department at Muscatine Community College and online learning and training associate at the Eastern Iowa Community College District, takes into account whenever he creates or seeks to improve an online course.

As a former journalist, Holland knows how to engage both serious readers and casual scanners and to meet their diverse needs and expectations. In newspapers, this is accomplished by providing multiple entry points, something he learned many years ago when USA Today came on the scene with its innovative design.

“Whether you hate it or love it, USA Today offers readers multiple entry points into the copy—sidebars, subheads, photos, captions, et cetera. The idea is to get readers into the story however you can,” Holland says.

A sidebar or graph might encourage readers to read the main article, or these might give them just enough information to suit their purposes. This same concept is at the core of Holland’s approach to course design: Provide multiple entry points and offer additional information to those who need it.

Diagnostic quizzes
Holland incorporates quizzes into nearly every lesson in his online courses, which helps him and his students know which concepts students understand and which they need more help with.

Text poppers
Holland uses Softchalk to incorporate some of these design principles into his courses. One feature that he finds useful is “text poppers”—highlighted words on the screen that display additional information when the learner rolls his or her cursor over them. These are small bits of information that are optional—they appear only if the learner wants to know more, and they do not take the learner to another page, which could be distracting.

Softchalk also enables Holland to link back to previous course material, for students who need to review. This provides them with the information they need, when they need it, and they don’t have to search for it.

Audio and video
Holland also incorporates audio and video into his courses to create a personal connection with his students and to supplement information conveyed via text. He decided to limit each clip to approximately five minutes after he realized that his students typically did not take the time to listen to longer clips. Holland also encourages students to add their voices to the course. He might ask them to read exemplary work and provide a link to the text of that work for students who would like to follow along.

Linear to a point
Holland does not intend for each student to access every single course element. Rather, he tries to anticipate concepts that give students trouble and to provide additional resources to help them. “I’ve got lots of links to websites with lots of audio to support them. I think it’s important that that’s available to them, but I think it would be crazy to be assigned to do every one of those things,” Holland says.

As a result of the supplemental materials Holland provides, students might take different paths through the course, but this does not mean that the students are free to explore the courses however they want to. “There is still a linear aspect to it, but I believe there are lots of ways to get there,” Holland says.

Excerpted from Designing a Course with Multiple Entry Points, Diverse Paths, Online Classroom, September 2009.