At the University of Arizona, Graduate Teaching Assistants (GTAs) are routinely asked to design and teach fully online courses yet often lack the experience and tools to do so effectively. In response, the Office of Digital Learning (ODL), with funding from UITS and the IT Student Advisory Board, worked to create an Online Course Development Boot Camp. Five GTAs worked with an instructional designer to create an online course that will support GTAs in creating their own online courses.
Graduate students often have jam-packed schedules: course work, research, internships, personal lives, and more. Add assistantships and teaching into their schedules and it’s easy to see that they don’t have much time to spend doing things outside of their student responsibilities – including learning how to design and teach the online courses they will be responsible for. As a way to support their students and increase the quality of online teaching, some departments offer a “course” to their graduate teaching assistants (GTAs), to fill in some of the gaps.
As part of this, the Office of Digital Learning (ODL) was asked by a some of these departments to stop by and share some tips and tricks for online course design. In those meetings, ODL team members talked to a few dozen graduate students – and were surprised to hear some of their opinions about and experience with online learning. Even though many of these graduate students would be teaching an online course the next semester, most had never taken an online course. Several believed that there was no way to make an online course engaging. And some didn’t think that online courses could compare – academically – to a face-to-face courses.
The pervasiveness of these myths and misconceptions about online learning is nothing new. But hearing them from graduate students, many of whom would be teaching their own online course in just a few months, was a wake-up call: clearly, there was a need for some basic information and education about online learning and how to design online courses that support students. It is one thing to know the content you are teaching, but this content knowledge does not necessarily transfer seamlessly to online environments without any professional development or support opportunities.
When the Information Technology Student Advisory Board (ITSAB), a sub-committee that provides student feedback to University of Arizona, opened a call for grant funding for IT-related, student-focused projects, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for ODL to find a way to support these graduate students. As one of the fellows, Nicole Schmidt, recalls, “I jumped on this opportunity right away. After teaching my first semester of undergraduate composition as a fully online course, I had so many questions about my teaching strategies and techniques. This seemed like a great way to get answers while helping other GTAs.”
With the help of the ITSAB grant, ODL was able to fund five graduate students to design a workshop for graduate students who would be designing and developing some or all of their own online course. These graduate students, with guidance from ODL, had full reign of the curriculum, the content, and the development of the workshop. By letting the graduate students decide what the curriculum would look like and what the course would include, many of most common questions that graduate students in similar positions might have are addressed.
This direction – an emphasis on collaborative learning and teaching – is something that meshes with the Arizona Online mission, as well. According to Vincent Del Casino, Jr., Vice President for Academic Initiatives and Student Success, “What is so exciting about the work we are doing with graduate students through the Office of Digital Learning, is that this new program parallels our campus approach to teaching online, which is to develop peer-to-peer relationships. Having graduate students design a program for other graduate students simply doubles down on this philosophy.”
In the end, the workshop closely resembled much of what is covered in ODL’s online course design primer for faculty. It includes information about:
- Myths and misconceptions in online course design
- Develop course goals and learning objectives
- Creating engaging activities and content
- Developing content
- Using technology
- Accessibility and accommodations
- Best practices in online course design
The online course design boot camp workshop supports graduate students by taking them through the entire course design process. It begins by showing them how to examine and address common myths and misconceptions in online learning. Then, it walks them through evaluating (and creating, if needed) goals and objectives for their course. After that, there are modules that cover finding, using, and creating content, as well as information on some common instructional technology tools they may want to consider using.
Finally, it addresses creating engaging activities that not only help students actively learn, but also demonstrate that they are meeting the course objectives. Couse accessibility, best practices, and ideas to end the course as strongly as it began it are also included.
In November, staff and administration from ODL, as well as two of the graduate students who worked on this project, attended OLC Accelerate in Orlando, Florida to present their work. The panel, which included Vin Del Casino, Vice President for Academic Initiatives and Student Success; Angela Gunder, Director of Instructional Design & Curriculum Development; Kristen Chorba, Curriculum Development Specialist, and Nicole Schmidt and Janelle Moser, both doctoral students in the SLAT program, discussed the curriculum development process and the content of each module, as well as some of the tools used to create content.
The initial run of a facilitated version of this workshop – the GTA Online Course Design Boot Camp◥ – will be offered this summer, to a cohort of graduate students.