How to Design an Innovative Course

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There is a lot of pressure these days on faculty and instructors to be 'innovative' in their teaching. Indeed, many faculty are highly innovative - see Contact North | Contact Nord's Pockets of Innovation for more than 90 examples.

But exactly what does being innovative mean? And how on earth would you go about designing and implementing an innovative course?

There are some steps that can help faculty and instructors approach the issue of innovative teaching in a systematic way, although in the end, the innovation will depend on the imagination and expertise of the faculty or instructors involved.

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM YOU ARE TRYING TO SOLVE?

Doing something in a different way is not necessarily innovative. For instance, just moving your face-to-face lectures online as recorded lectures is not particularly innovative. The delivery method may be more convenient for students - and for you - but the teaching is exactly the same. Now if you use the classroom time differently, that becomes more innovative, but a mix of lecture and discussion, for instance, has been done many times before in both classrooms and online.

Real innovation results in doing something differently that leads to major changes in how students learn, resulting in better learning.

In particular innovative teaching should result in solving some challenge or problem you are facing.

What might these problems be? Here are some examples:

  1. My class is so large that there is very little interaction with individual students.
  2. I spend a lot of my time doing routine activities, such as standardized marking, or repetitive activities, such as demonstrating boring but necessary practical work, which doesn't make the best use of my talents as a subject expert or teacher.
  3. Many of my students have major difficulties in understanding the subject matter.
  4. There is too much material to get through in the time available.
  5. I have very different students now than in the past; their English or math competencies, for example, are not up to the necessary standards.
  6. We need to reach out to new target groups (adult learners, new Canadians, Aboriginal students) that we have not taught in the past, and who have different needs.
  7. Employers are asking us for graduates with competencies or skills that we don't directly teach or that are hard to define.
  8. I don't have enough time for research and/or professional development.
  9. Our program got a terrible external review, and we really need to do things differently.

Many other examples could be given, but the point is that innovation addresses some challenge or problem. So, as a first step, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What are the main challenges or problems I am facing as an instructor?
  • What changes to my teaching might help me meet these challenges or resolve these problems?

Innovation for its own sake is hard to justify – instead it can lead to better student performance, however you wish to define that.

THE POWER OF THE GROUP

It is possible, but unlikely, that your challenges or problems are unique. So the first thing to do is look around to see how other teachers or instructors are dealing with similar issues. This is not as easy as it sounds. Teaching is still a mainly private process. Particularly if other instructors are struggling with the same problem, they may not be willing to discuss it, at least publicly, since it may be seen as a weakness. It may be worth discussing your concern first with colleagues on an individual basis and then raising it in a faculty meeting, to get a working group of colleagues to help address a shared concern.

Innovation often is most successful when people with different knowledge and skills work together on a shared concern. Two heads are better than one, so getting several instructors involved, as well as instructional designers, enables brainstorming and a broader critical analysis than would be possible with a single instructor going it alone. Instructional designers, in particular, can be very useful because they often work across a number of courses and usually have a good understanding of different teaching methods and what technologies can do well. Having people participating from a number of different perspectives is an important ingredient in coming to innovative solutions.

Students themselves may also be a useful source of information and ideas, so bringing students into such discussions is worth considering, although care needs to be taken, as students themselves are not yet subject experts so may not always be aware of the particular demands of a subject area.

There are also many other ways to identify how others are dealing with a particular challenge, such as attending conferences on teaching within the subject area, tracking social media on the topic, and research publications. These will all suggest some ideas, but the trick is to adapt them to the particular circumstance in which you are working, rather than blindly following what others have done. Innovation isn't usually a huge leap, but a series of small steps, so if you can tweak what someone else has done that can be just as valuable as any completely new approach.

WILL TECHNOLOGY HELP?

Too often, attempts at innovation start with a particular technology, which is then forced to fit the situation. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are a good example. Lecture capture allows lectures to be recorded relatively easily and cheaply and the Internet allows them to be broadcast for free around the world. However, it was only after they were invented did people make claims that they would democratize education and solve the educational problems of the developing world. This is not to say that MOOCs have no value, but they were not designed to address the problems that some claim they will resolve. Unfortunately, the application of new technology is often assumed to be innovative in itself, but unless it successfully addresses a particular problem, it is just another way of doing things.

At the same time, technology, when applied appropriately, can be extremely valuable in enabling you to teach not only differently, but better. If we go back to the original list of problems and challenges, we can look at some ways in which technology might help. In each case, though, it needs some original thinking combined with a knowledge of technology that offers a potential solution or improvement to a defined challenge or problem.

  1. Large class (180 students), no interaction/difficulties in understanding subject matter.

Divide the class into six groups of 30 students. Move the delivery of content to a learning management system, and build in computer-based tests (ungraded, but with correct answers given) for assisting student comprehension. Set up online, asynchronous discussion forums for each group in the LMS. Ensure discussion topics are related to end-of-course assessment questions. Meet face-to-face twice a semester with each of the six groups in the times you would have been lecturing and ask students to come with prepared questions for you. The groups can work online to agree on the questions

  1. Employer-defined competencies or skills/too much material to cover in a course.

Change course objectives/learning outcomes from an emphasis on content comprehension to development of skills such as knowledge management, critical thinking, problem-solving and evaluation. Provide a guide to appropriate online sources of content, and criteria for evaluating reliability and validity of sources. Students have to find, evaluate, analyze and apply information to solve specific problems, by working in teams, and by creating individual and group e-portfolios, which are then assessed/graded (no traditional written exam). Students seeking employment can make their e-portfolios available to employers.

  1. Repetitive demonstration of procedures/new target groups.

Partner with employers to deliver apprenticeship training in the workplace to reach those working who started an apprenticeship at college, but dropped out, or unqualified trades people who need apprenticeship qualifications, especially in locations where there is no convenient local program. Theory or foundational work is done online. Correct procedures are demonstrated in the college workshops and video recorded. All material is mobile compatible for smart phones, tablets and PCs. Student apprentices practice the procedures in the workplace under the supervision of qualified journeypersons. Students come to the college for the last three weeks of the semester where their practical skills are assessed, and they are given any extra practical training needed.

All these are real examples that have been implemented in Canadian post-secondary institutions. It is important to note that, as well as the use of technology, teaching methods also changed in these examples. The innovations are as much pedagogical as technological. Also, in all these cases, there was a team of people involved in the design.

EVALUATE AND DISSEMINATE

If you do something new or different, there is always a risk. Some parts of the innovation are likely to work well, and other parts not so well. This means you need to build evaluation and adaptation into the design from the start.

First, be clear on the intended outcomes from the start. What are you trying to improve? How can this be measured?

Second, monitor progress on the first offering of the course and be prepared to make changes. It may be useful to get some extra time to work on revisions during the first iteration of the course, so that it remains dynamic rather than static. It may be too late by the end of the course to make changes, if it goes badly wrong.

Finally, measure the outcomes at the end of the course (grades, completion rates, new skills), but also do a post-mortem, in which students, instructors and others involved in the course can frankly discuss what went right and what needs to be improved. In particular, identify if there are any unintended consequences, such as student overload of work, faculty overload of work, or learning outcomes that were not anticipated, but may be welcome.

When the evidence is in, hold presentations or workshops on the innovation, if successful, so that it inspires others to adapt what you have done, or to try something different themselves. You could even offer it as a case for Contact North | Contact Nord's Pockets of Innovation, so everyone in the province can benefit!