backward design


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How can institutions support excellence in online education? The question is one of paramount importance to all institutions with online course offerings, but it may be a particular challenge to residential, research universities, which are not necessarily designed with online education in mind. But Julie Schell, EdD, Director of OnRamps and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin, is meeting that challenge. She is passionate about the way that course design can be used to foster excellence in online teaching and learning. First, she explains that it is important that institutions not “use technology to take old methods and [scale them up].” For example, she notes that many online courses such as MOOCs may take pedagogical methods that work in the face-to-face classroom and uses technology to scale it up to reach a (sometimes much) larger audience. “That’s not supported by research,” Schell says. Instead, she urges departments, faculty, and instructional designers to “think about who is the user and what…they need.” One big challenge, though, is that many institutions have embraced design trends from two decades ago. One of these trends is “backward design,” which emphasizes starting the design process with the creation of learning objectives that detail what the student should know, understand, and be able to do by the end of the course, then working backward to design a course that will teach those things. “People have adopted that, but online and face-to-face [each] require a different instructional design,” she says. However, she explains that using a different design approach may not necessitate a different pedagogy; it simply means that the thinking about design problems will yield a better result. The Design Thinking Process “Backward design is not innovative enough for online learning,” Schell says. Instead, she explains that her institution uses a method called the “design thinking process.” Originating at Stanford University, this process aims to help people solve “wicked problems,” which Schell defines as “contexts where there’s no routine and no predictability.” The Design Thinking Process website explains the process like this: The Design Thinking process first defines the problem and then implements the solutions, always with the needs of the user demographic at the core of concept development. This process focuses on finding, understanding, creating, thinking, and doing. At the core of this process is a bias towards action and creation: by creating and testing something, you can continue to learn and improve upon your initial ideas. The site describes the five-step process to use design thinking:
  1. “EMPATHIZE: Work to fully understand the experience of the user for whom you are designing.”
  2. “DEFINE: Process and synthesize the findings from your empathy work in order to form a user point of view that you will address with your design.”
  3. “IDEATE: Explore a wide variety of possible solutions through generating a large quantity of diverse possible solutions.”
  4. “PROTOTYPE: Transform your ideas into a physical form so that you can experience and interact with them.”
  5. “TEST: Try out high-resolution products and use observations and feedback to refine prototypes, learn more about the user, and refine your original point of view.”
(More information is available at the website listed above.) The importance of involving the research university Achieving excellence in the design of online education is particularly important for research institutions, Schell says, because of the overall mission of the research university. “We are training the innovators of the 21st Century; we need people to make progress toward problems that we don’t have answers to.” Using the Design Thinking Process allows an institution to prepare its graduates for the jobs that they will eventually hold in ways that are not typically considered “career preparation.” Graduates of research universities often go into positions that require the immediate ability to deal with ambiguity and solve problems without clear answers or clear paths to the solution. “We need students to have this skill set on day one of the job,” Schell says. This ability to deal with ambiguity can be a particular challenge for research universities, especially in departments dedicated to the sciences. By necessity, much education in the sciences is based on replicating experiments with known outcomes and learning to follow proven processes that lead to predictable results, in the hopes that, when the students tackle problems without known solutions, they will be confident that their process is sound. But modern problems are often of the “wicked problem” variety, filled with numerous shifting variables and very difficult to define and control. Students need to be able to handle these types of problems. And, as Schell points out, this need to handle the “wicked problems” of the world is not limited to the hard sciences; students in the arts, humanities, and social sciences need this ability as well. The University of Texas at Austin has used the Design Thinking Process to create classes that foster these critical abilities. Schell explains that the process has led to the creation of experiential learning activities and project-based learning, all of which are tailored to the online environment. Getting started Many institutions make the pursuit of excellence in their online endeavors a priority, but using tools like the Design Thinking Process may be new, especially for institutions who have embraced backward design and other methods of instructional design. For these institutions, Schell has several recommendations:
  1. “It’s doable,” she says first. Embracing this new design process “is not super high threshold,” she says, and it is something well within the reach of many institutions.
  2. It is critical, she says to “[think] about students and how they learn and what they need.”
  3. “Follow cognitive science.” One of Schell’s most recent endeavors is using cognitive science research to look at how flipped classrooms are designed.
  4. “Find ways to bring faculty together in collaboratives for education,” she adds. When faculty work together, they can truly support the development of excellence in online education. “Stop thinking of faculty as someone who needs to be developed, and give them frameworks to work within,” she says.
  5. Finally, use assessment as learning opportunity. “The power of online learning is more in assessment. Build an assessment framework to enhance learning, not just measure it.”
Schell notes that a popular saying in higher education that “it’s the pedagogy, not the technology” that’s important in a class. She would add that design comes even before that, as the structure that helps online education become truly excellent. Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is managing editor of Academic Leader and chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference.