Saturday, August 23, 2014

Building an Online Course: Resilience, Teamwork, and Organization

Over the past several months, as I have sunk deeper and deeper into the morass of issues around the development and deployment of an online course, I've spent a lot of time ruminating on the particular personality traits and skills that such an undertaking requires.  Working in this world is really nothing like the work that most faculty--especially liberal arts faculty--do as researchers and instructors.  Administrators who are urging faculty to take on these projects likewise seem to have only a tangential sense of what it takes to produce and deploy a high quality, scalable, asynchronous online course in a reasonable amount of time and without running tens of thousands of dollars over budget.  For a complex project like an online course to be successfully developed and deployed, three qualities seem to me to be the sine quibus non: resilience, ability to delegate, and strong organizational skills.

Far and away the most important quality that any project leader for online course development needs to have is resilience.  This is still a brave new world.  Universities are, on the whole, not well-positioned or equipped, either with adequate technical resources or clear policies and procedures around this mode of course production and delivery.  In addition, different parts of a university (e.g. the provost's office vs colleges vs departments) can be (often are?) at odds on matters of policy, including essential issues like who bears the responsibility to staffing these courses (paying instructors but also processing appointments).  I have spent much of the past 8 months feeling like a YoYo, being jerked in every which way and having to work very hard to stay calm and focused.

To give just one small example (with major consequences): I found out in mid-August that the oversight for online course development in my college was moving from one dean to another.  Exactly a year ago, the exact opposite move was made.  The move itself made a certain amount of sense in terms of course development: it was returned to the college unit that oversees instructional technology.  As well, this unit is responsible for producing the SMOC courses (Synchronous, Massive, Online Courses that are filmed in studio and live-streamed to students).  Unfortunately, for a more traditional online course, this move introduced an incredible amount of chaos just as we were pressing to finish development and working to get everything in order to appoint instructors and open the course to registration.  Thankfully, my home department of Classics stepped in and picked up all the many dropped balls (including a pressing visa issue for one instructor).  Still, it has been an incredibly stressful two-week period caused, apparently, by a lack of awareness of all the different aspects involved in course deployment.  Perhaps the most difficult part in all of it was that I was responsible for other people.  Sure, I could have just pulled the plug on going live with the course this fall--I certainly had plenty of reasons to do so.  But, had I done that, I would have been leaving members of my team in the lurch.  This meant that I had to remain calm, focus each day on what needed to be done/who needed to be talked to/what form needed to be signed, and try not to let my frustrations with the lack of institutional infrastructure (or even, clear understanding of what was needed) get in the way.

The second major lesson of this project: it's a team effort and every team member needs to be used to his/her full capacity.  Hire good people, preferably people you know and trust to deliver a quality product on time.  Hire people with different skill sets.  Developing an online course requires a tremendous range of skills: content expertise, creativity, ability to navigate technology, good written/oral communication, a sense of the aesthetic, ability to respond to constructive criticism; willingness to wrestle with challenges.  If classroom teaching has long been the provenance of the individual instructor, high quality online course development is and will always be a team effort (and, incidentally, it causes one to rethink the idea that traditional classroom teaching ought to be done by professors working in isolation).  No single person can do everything--even if they had all the skills.  The workload is simply too high.  As we get ready to go live with Online Rome, I realize that the workload of preparing this class is akin to writing a scholarly book, not to preparing a new course for the classroom.  I was fortunate to have an outstanding team of recent PhDs, a current PhD student, and an undergraduate working with me all summer.  This fall, one of these recent PhDs will continue to work closely with me as an instructor of one of the sections of Online Rome and also in the capacity of a postdoctoral researcher.

Deployment of the course required a whole other team of people: our department's executive assistant to process instructor appointments, including the paperwork for a visa; the course coordinator; the undergraduate adviser.  I hope that, now that these online sections are "on the books", it will be less hectic to open them for enrollment each semester.  But, each semester, decisions will have to be made about how to staff the courses.  Someone will have to process those appointments.  Likewise, the different sections of the online classes will likely need to be coordinated in some manner, and updated.  At present, there is no infrastructure in place to ensure this sustainability.  It is not part of my teaching load and I am receiving no compensation for all the work I've done (and will continue to do this fall) to ensure that the online courses run smoothly.  I am hoping that a good amount of this can be delegated to my post-doc, however.  And that's the other major lesson: delegation is essential--as is knowing what to do yourself and what to delegate.

Finally, when working with a team, it is essential that the team-leader (which, in online course development is likely not the project manager but instead, the faculty leader) have a clear vision, an operative sense of the big picture, and an ability to work a few weeks ahead of everyone else.  It is not necessary for each team member to be aware of issues that don't affect their work (e.g. I handled the vast majority of "project management" issues without the involvement of any of my course development team).  It *is* essential that the faculty leader not simply rely on a project manager to run the show (more on this point in a different post).  The faculty leader is the content expert and they are the person who, in the end, needs to provide that clear editorial voice that will give the course fluency and coherency.  They also need to remain aware at all times of who is doing what, how well they are doing it, whether they need extra help, etc.  Team members need to have firm deadlines for producing work and also need to have a clear sense of how their part fits into the bigger whole.

Even more importantly, when working with graphic designers and technologists, it is crucial that these partners know what you will need them to do well in advance of deadlines.  Problems inevitably come up (we've had several on the technology front); time has to be built in to deal with those problems.  Likewise, it helps these non-academic members of the team if they can plan their own workflow.  I found that I was able to get good results when I communicated needs and deadlines several weeks in advance.  Of course, it is still the case that we are scrambling to finish all the "packaging" of the modules.  Yet, because we've been talking about design specs and vision for final look and student experience of navigating the course, we aren't trying to make decisions and implement them at the same time.  The decisions were made long ago--now it's just a matter of having enough hands on deck to do the work.

Faculty often hear that they are the obstacles to innovation, particularly on the teaching front.  We are the ones who resist adopting new classroom technologies or experimenting with new modes of course delivery.  Some of this is certainly true.  Yet, in reality, I think many faculty are eager to experiment, particularly in developing digital assets that could be used to blend/flip a course or even convert a traditional classroom course into a fully online course.  However, for this to ever happen on a large scale, institutions need to build infrastructures that support these faculty efforts; they need to understand all the complexities of developing and deploying digital content and ensure that these efforts are adequately incentivized and supported.  They need to create and implement clear policies so that it is as straightforward to get an online course approved as it is a classroom course.  We faculty who are diving into these projects are learning a lot about the sorts of support that needs to be in place in the future.  Administrators who are advocates of online course development would do well to learn from our experiences--the good, the bad, and the ugly. 

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