An Inside Look at Online Curriculum: Interview with an Instructional Designer

What’s the difference between online and traditional curriculum? How do those differences impact students who are looking to take advantage of the benefits of online education?

We asked Scott Bulfa, an instructional designer, to provide his perspective on curriculum in higher education. In the following interview, he offers an inside look at what instructional designers do to enhance learning for online students. He also elaborates on what online students need to know to enhance their experience.

1. What does an average day as a curriculum designer / instructional designer look like?

Most of an (instructional designer’s) day can be divided into two basic sections: A) discussions/communication with instructors and program coordinators at the schools and B) project management and posting content sent by instructors in the course shells we’ve set up for them in the learning management system used by that particular school.

2. What are you responsible for overall?

We are trying to encourage and guide instructors into creating the best possible online experience for their students. While keeping in mind that the instructor we are communicating with is the subject matter expert of a particular course, (instructional designers) try to present best practices for online education. These best practices might include, for example, accessibility or Universal Design for Learning principles that might not have occurred to the instructor before our consultation.


3. What are you responsible for on a more daily basis?

On a daily basis, there is usually quite a bit of email communication with the instructors and program coordinators at my schools. Questions about when we should set up phone calls and meetings, questions about online education in general, specifics about how to set up assignments in learning management systems, questions about course orders, gathering material from instructors and posting that content in the course shells.

4. What are the major differences between online curriculum and traditional/face-to-face curriculum design?

I would say that one of the biggest differences between the two is the different type of engagement that students are likely to experience in online courses. As opposed to just the very basic level of engagement that seems inherent in a face-to-face classroom where you are literally sitting next to other faces, there can be more a more remote feeling between online students and instructors. This is one of the areas that we really try to coach instructors (on) who are new to the online environment. The potential lack of engagement can be countered, to some extent at least, by (the) use of student participation in discussion forums and more direct and individual instructor contact with students. The use of technology and student choice in assignments can also be used to increase engagement, for example allowing students to choose to fulfill an assignment by creating a video and posting it in a discussion forum for other students to view and comment on. Online courses, parenthetically, are often more conducive to the use of technology in these ways, where similar use in face-to-face classrooms might be harder to apply in individual assignments.

Also, we try to highlight the strong points of online courses, that are the generally unacknowledged weaknesses of face-to-face classrooms. Online courses can cater to students’ busy schedules. There is a flexibility to online course work that just can’t be duplicated in the classroom. Online courses, when designed well, lay out the week’s work clearly for students and give them the flexibility to get that work done at their own pace. Some students like to do the work on a daily basis, for instance, much like they would in a face-to-face class, while others may have a lighter schedule in one portion of their week, and these students can choose to do the week’s work in larger chunks of time at these more convenient times of the week.

5. From a student’s perspective, what are those major differences?

Again, a major difference involves the greater freedom in terms of time and flexibility. Students don’t have to show up for class at a certain time, or have such a set time for having assignments done on a specific day of class. They would, instead, typically have an assignment due by the end of the week, (and) they would determine when exactly they would do the work to make sure the assignment is done on time.

But the thing for students to keep in mind is that this greater freedom also entails more responsibility on their own part to keep up with the weekly resources and course work.

6. What do you think a student considering online classes should know prior to enrolling?

I would keep the points above in mind. There are differences between online and face-to-face environments, and there are pros and cons. Students should be aware of the differences and how different strategies as students might be necessary.

7. How do students become successful in an online learning environment?

Students should have knowledge of the differences between the online and face-to-face environments and plan their learning strategies accordingly.

If the online course is designed well, there will be more student choices, and they can pick their strengths as students and minimize their weaker points. In addition, a well-designed online course can cater to different types of students. Students might be able to take a practice quiz for a week’s lesson, for example, so they can gauge how well they’ve mastered that week’s objectives. If they find that they need some additional work to really grasp that week’s concepts, a well-designed course will have provided them with supplemental materials they can consult to give them more help.

8. What are a few tips to help a student ensure success in an online learning environment?

For the most part, they need to be able to navigate the differences between online and face-to-face environments and make sure that they realize that despite the flexibility and freedom, online courses will require them to do just as much work as they would in a face-to-face classroom.

9. What are the similarities between online classrooms and traditional classrooms?

The similarities are that there are equivalent amounts of course work and that there are expectations in both environments. There will be deadlines that have to be met and students should know that they should seek help if they find themselves falling behind those expectations and deadlines.

The Quality and Flexibility of Online Learning

Instructional designers like Scott Bulfa ensure that online courses meet students’ needs. That includes providing learners with a high-quality learning experience that teaches them the skills and knowledge need to pursue their goals. And, of course, all of that occurs in a convenient, flexible environment that enables students to learn while maintaining personal and professional commitments.

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