What can you really learn in an open, online course?

As an instructional designer, I like to believe that anyone can learn anything in an online course. It is my bread and butter after all. But lately I’ve found myself wondering more and more about what we can actually, realistically achieve in online courses. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want a doctor or pilot who only learned online! 

Thankfully, most online courses and training programs are less life and death. In most open, online courses or training programs it is assumed that someone has met the learning outcomes if they manage to read through all of the material in a course or if they pass a series of multiple choice tests. But how do we know if people are actually meeting the learning outcomes? How do we know they are learning what the instructors said they would learn?

One of the ways to ensure that your learners are actually learning what you want them to is to focus on constructive alignment. 

The idea behind constructive alignment is that your learning outcomes, the presentation of your materials, and the assessments that you choose all match (hence ‘alignment’). 

Here’s a silly example:

  • The goal for my course: learners will be able to cook Thai curry.
  • The content I might provide: written recipes is one way, but recipes and a video of someone cooking a Thai curry is better!
  • So how do I assess if they are able to cook a Thai curry? Sure, I could have them take a multiple choice quiz about the ingredients and steps. I could even have them write out the steps in their own words. But ideally, I’d have them actually cook a Thai curry & have someone eat it to provide feedback! 

Obviously this is an exaggerated example, but it does make you think about what goals you set and the types of assessments you can reasonably include in an online course. (Consider how much more difficult assessments can be in asynchronous online courses with thousands of students with no start/end dates!)

Part of the problem is defining realistic learning outcomes: what can you reasonably and realistically expect your learners to know or be able to do by the end of a short online training program or open, online course? 

Many online training programs use multiple choice questions to check for learning since they are easy to build, quick to grade, and rarely require lengthy feedback from instructors. Unfortunately, most multiple choice questions test for basic understanding confirming if your learner can recognize, define, or identify concepts. We might be able to get learners to compare two concepts or classify them, but it’s hard to go beyond those lower levels of thinking on Bloom’s Taxonomy with a standard problem type.

So how do we get beyond list, define, and identify to higher order thinking in online education without requiring more input from instructors or lengthy assignments from learners? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. Let’s discuss! 

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