Pandemic Pedagogy – Redesigning for online teaching, or Why learning objectives aren’t a waste of time

This post is part of History UK’s Pandemic Pedagogy project. For more about the initiative, follow HUK’s blog and Twitter feed.


In this post I want to spend a little bit of time thinking in quite general terms about the process for turning face-to-face teaching into an online or blended format. I’ll suggest that rethinking learning objectives with the concept of ‘constructive alignment’ in mind might be one way of helping us to think through this process. I’ll then outline some ideas about how this might be put into practice for those redesigning their teaching for 2020-21.

So, the problem (pandemic aside). One of the main problems that faces many lecturers as they start to rethink their teaching for online or blended delivery is that the way educationalists and ed-tech specialists (= the people we’re looking to for support and advice right now) speak about teaching and learning isn’t always very well aligned with how academics think about it.

Learning outcomes are fundamental to educationalists – they are supposed to drive learning, to inform assessment and to structure how courses actually run. They operate at the level of the programme, the module and, in some instances, individual teaching sessions. However, unfortunately, the language of learning outcomes is alienating for many academics.*

Despite these issues (and I’m certainly not suggesting that the fault here lies entirely with educationalists), I’ll now suggest that reimagining learning outcomes within the framework of ‘constructive alignment’ could help us with the redesign process as we move our teaching online.

Alignment is all

First, I’ve found it helpful to think about LOs in relation to the concept of’constructive alignment’. For a short and helpful introduction to constructive alignment, watch this YouTube video:

Constructive alignment is based on the sensible premise that students learn best when all of the elements of the teaching that they receive are synchronised – that the learning activities, objectives and assessments are pointing in the same direction.** Now, it may seem that this is blindingly obvious, but it’s surprising how often this doesn’t happen, for whatever reason. A good example of misalignment might be using an exam to assess a module on which the learning outcome requires that students develop research skills or their writing skills.

I think of it as the triple-A approach to designing learning. AAA: Aims (= LOs), Activities (= what you and the students do), and Assessments (and feedback = how you evaluate what they have done and help them to improve) should all be in alignment.

So, first tip as you’re considering what to change when shifting online – have a good think about whether all of these elements are actually lined up with one another. If anything isn’t in line, then think about changing that first of all.

Language

Second, it’s important to understand that learning outcomes are (or should be) really just a statement of what you want to students to get out of your module, your seminar (online or otherwise) or whatever it is that you’re asking them to do. Try to make LOs specific, not generic edu-speak, and in language that the students can understand (e.g. what does ‘critical thinking’ actually mean, in practice?). If you don’t really know what the LOs mean, then how can you expect the students to do so?

Second tip: ideally, rewrite them as you refocus for online delivery and make them meaningful for teacher and student; if that’s not possible because of institutional administrative processes (the forms had to be filled in 3 years ago to make a change for next semester) or whatever, then provide explanatory notes for your students, or make a little video to explain what the generic LOs really mean. Maybe don’t even mention LOs, but just tell them what they will get out of it. 

Less is more

I’m struck by how long the lists of LOs are on some modules (even on relatively low credit-bearing courses). If your LOs look like you’re trying to train an 18-year-old into professional historian in 10 weeks, then you’ve probably got too many. You and the students need to be able to focus on what is really important. For a 15-credit module, can you realistically expect anyone to master (rather than touch upon) more than 3 (or maybe 4) key take-aways in any kind of depth?

Tip no. 3: ideally, pare the LOs back to represent what you really think is important for the module; use this to help you focus for online teaching. Again, if institutional structures don’t allow this, then do it informally. 

Some other key (possibly slightly repetitive) considerations

  • WORK BACKWARDS – Think about what you want the students to get out of any session/ block of interactions/ module (= your Aims/ LOs) and then consider whether Activities and Assessments are helping you to achieve those goals.
  • BREAK IT DOWN – Focus on individual session/s as well as the course as a whole because it can otherwise become detached from the actual delivery and to some extent the assessment. In online teaching this may become even more of an issue.
  • INPUTS AS WELL AS OUTPUTS – Put yourself in your students’ position as you think about all of this. How will they (not you or you when you were a student, but them) react/ experience what you’re asking them to do?
  • TESTING, TESTING, TESTING – Related to the last point, test everything A LOT, and do so from a student perspective. If possible, get a colleague to look through and offer constructive criticism.
  • THINK BEYOND ACTIVITIES – In my opinion, activities include learning resources (e.g. reading lists, handbooks, handouts, etc.) and support mechanisms (e.g. office hours, personal tutoring). Think about how these support (or not) the overall construction of the module.

I hope that this might be helpful to at least some of you as you think about redesigning learning for online delivery. Basically, we’re stuck with learning outcomes, they can be helpful, so why not just use them to our advantage!?


*Criticisms might include any or all of the following: (1) that they encourage a mechanistic/ instrumentalist approach among students and teachers; (2) that they are underpinned by quality-driven box-ticking processes; (3) that they are so jargonistic and abstract that they don’t have much to do with the actual discipline that’s being taught; (4) that they are about generic skills (= careers and employability) rather than disciplinary practice; (5) that they are so detached from the actual practice of teaching and learning as to be meaningless (= e.g. they operate at the administrative level of the module rather than the pedagogic level of the classroom).

**Sidebar: for me, constructive alignment is also a nod to the idea that students learn best when they are actively engaged – i.e. doing stuff, including reading and thinking – rather than passive consumers of educational experiences.

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