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The Keys to Designing Successful Open Course Experiences

To improve the student experience in online courses, we need to focus on community-building, sharing and peer support.

As more universities develop open courses, instructional designers and faculty members are experimenting with how to design environments that are compelling and valuable to participants.

Curt Bonk, Ph.D., who teaches psychology and technology courses at Indiana University, has done a lot of thinking about the student experience in open courses. The author of The World Is Open, Bonk is conducting research in the field of self-directed open learning environments and online motivation. "The MOOC [massive open online course] is just one idea of many that are causing us to reflect on changes in higher education today," he said. "There are a lot of derivatives of MOOCs, and there will continue to be more. Community-building, sharing and peer support are three key aspects of success in building new types of course experiences."

Bonk recently participated in a Future Trends Forum video chat hosted by consultant and futurist Bryan Alexander to talk about trends in the design of open courses.

Bonk began by reminding the audience that he is not only a researcher on open education and distance learning but a product of it as well. Earlier in his career, he was a CPA and corporate controller. In the 1980s he took correspondence and television courses through the University of Wisconsin Extension and Outreach Department and later obtained his Master's and Ph.D. degrees in educational psychology from UW.

He said the courses would have been better face-to-face but he was working full time, so distance learning was the best option available. He is interested in studying the motivations of people responding to similar situations with the technology available today. "There are Syrian refugees taking open courses at universities in Germany because they can't get access to the education system for a year. What are the opportunities they are provided that they couldn't get previously?" Many people are studying informally through open courses and then moving into formal education. Understanding the motivational side will help improve instructional design, he said.

Bonk noted that the open education movement is forcing us to ask new questions: "We can now start asking who is benefitting from it; for what purposes are we offering this content; and how we design effective environments for self-directed online learning." In the future, the majority of our learning is going to be informal and self-directed, he said. "Yet the conversations continue to be around formal learning. The funding from the Department of Education and states continues to be about formal aspects of instruction. There is not enough attention paid to adult learning and informal learning. That has got to change as part of this conversation about how to design environments for learners."

To begin that conversation, Bonk is collecting stories of people whose lives have changed from open courses. He has been interviewing a range of learners, from 15-year-olds who get excited about physics and decide to major in it in college to 75-year-olds who have retired and started a new business through open education.

"These are the stories we need to start emphasizing," he said. "And one story should be about design. How do we design the environments for these self-directed learners, to create a large contingency of the population that aspires to self directed learning, feels confident as self-directed learners and shares with each other about self-directed learning experiences, so we can find out what worked and didn't and refine the systems?"

Professional development, said Bonk, could be what changes the discussion around open education and MOOCs. "This could be for doctors, dentists, lawyers and physical therapists. They could take modules in the summer at their own leisure as part of a cohort that does community-building. That is the game changer. That allows us to open up the university, get outside the fences and boxes we contain ourselves in — the 15 weeks, the transcripts — and allows us to do what we do all the time but with improvements in access and timeliness."

As an example, he pointed to an eight-week MOOC for teachers called "Supporting English Language Learners Under New Standards" that involved a partnership between Stanford and Oregon State University.

Coincidentally, one of the instructional designers from Oregon State, Tianhong Shi, was in attendance at the forum, and said a key element of the course's success has been incorporating a face-to-face component for teachers to meet and discuss their work. Bonk applauded that development of a space for community-building. "There has to be some kind of embedded system for support and discussion and sharing of resources," he said. When students are providing each other with resources, it elevates their identity. If someone is relying on your expertise or can benefit from it, you are more likely to continue and thrive in the environment, he added. Personalization is important, too, he said: "Use people's names and create moments where they can respond and get involved."

Another instructional designer from Cornell University described her challenges. She and her colleagues are working with other universities on open professional development courses for K-6 teachers teaching STEM topics. The goal is to increase teachers' confidence and make the topics more engaging for students. They initially thought MOOCs were the obvious answer, she said, but as they interviewed teachers about their pain points with professional development, they realized that teachers face a wide variety of challenges, ranging from varied support from leadership to time constraints and different understanding levels on the part of students. It is forcing them to delve deeper into design thinking for MOOCs for this space, she said.

Bonk responded by saying it is important to create support structures and mini-cohorts. Building interactions between participants is the most important aspect of open learning environments, he said. "The observations can't just come from the instructor in a course or you will die. Getting students to meta-reflect on what they are doing is the most important part of the whole project." As an example, he pointed to a course at the University of Houston in which students who help design MOOCs reflect on the instructional design process all along the way.

In a MOOC primer he co-authored, Bonk came up with a list of key design considerations or guidelines for open courses. Among them: community-building, sharing and peer support. Another is having at least a weekly resource recap of what has been shared so far. "People who have been offline might benefit from it, and can find a place to go to that might be a warehouse or a resource portal for them," he explained. And another is being willing to change midstream. "The MOOC I did for Blackboard on designing a new learning environment about four years ago didn't go well the first week. Blackboard didn't have the tools set up for a MOOC. After the first week, we redesigned it and it went splendidly well. So be prepared to change and redesign along the way."

Another forum participant asked Bonk for recommendations on how to get technology-phobic faculty members to see the advantages of open.

Instead of focusing on the technologies themselves, he said, focus on what the faculty members want to do to foster feedback, goal setting, relevance or autonomy. "Start with the psychological principles and a framework and with quick-hit kinds of activities you can do that are simple and instructors can try out," he said. For instance, rather than checking out videos from the university media center, try embedding video clips from CNN and the BBC. He said that for a course he created on learning theories, he included online videos to allow students to see how theories are applied in the real world. "We are moving from an age of Wikipedia to Videopedia," said Bonk, "and if you doubt that, go to my web page and click on web resources I have indexed 70 portals of video online from sources like TED Talks and YouTube. So think of simple things you can embed in the training of instructors to get them to shift over."

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