Life by Design

Archive for March 2015

Online learning and blended learning environments have received much criticism in recent years as being ‘ineffective’, ‘unsuccessful’ and not as ‘good’ as a face-to-face traditionally designed course.  Yet, there is very little specific information offered with this criticism that can help to improve these new forms of educational delivery.

I grant you that scanning a syllabus, including a title to a textbook and throwing up a PowerPoint into a course management system instructing students to read it all before coming to class, constitutes the worst of the worst.  This effort is known as ‘flat design’ and reinforces a negative impression of this style of learning.

However, with a good design rubric in hand and thoughtful measures taken to ensure an engaging learning space both online and in the corresponding face-to-face experience, blended learning environments can be more successful and effective for student learning.

So, how does one know if their proposed course design will work and meet the stated learning objectives?  I enjoy using the ‘Quality Matters’ rubric for course design as a way to be sure all the best practices for course design and student satisfaction are met.

“The Quality Matters™ Program ( is a research-centered approach to quality assurance and continuous improvement for online learning. The primary components are a set of standards (or Rubric) for the design of online courses and the online components of blended courses, a peer review process for applying these standards, and related professional development for faculty. The Quality Matters Rubric, with versions for continuing and professional education, educational publishing, secondary education, and post-secondary education, is based on recognized best practices, built on the expertise of instructional designers and experienced online teachers, and supported by distance education literature and research. The goal of the program is to enable faculty to increase student engagement, learning, and satisfaction in online courses by implementing better course design. ” (Quality

In backwards design methodology, reflecting on the rubric first helps to design a course with best practices built in as part of its DNA.  All the considerations are built to create a tightly integrated course that delivers results and meets the needs of varying learning styles as well as the need for accessible course elements.

Another feature I enjoy building in includes student surveys.  I design surveys to assess online learner readiness to take at the beginning of the course.  Then a second survey to assess student satisfaction is administered about 3 weeks after the opening of the course to gather formative feedback that might inform the remainder of the course. This also insures a higher retention rate as an instructor can quickly see students that are either struggling or are highly dissatisfied with the course.  Finally, a third survey is administered at the end of the course to again to capture a final look at student satisfaction and measure how attitudes and skills have changed since the inception of the course.

There is an art and science to designing good online courses and especially blended learning environments.  A good instructional designer has an ‘eye’ or a ‘feel’ for good design and relies on the science of educational research to ensure a good mix of the subjective and objective.


Quality Matters website ( Quality Matters research and related documents may be found at  Extracted:  March 23, 2015.


One of the challenges in creating a blended learning course is being certain that there is a tight integration of learning activities and content flow from the online side of the course to the face-to-face session.  When a blended course is integrated well, the user experience is seamless.

There are tools available to help the instructor (or the instructional designer) create a balanced approach to the blended learning course.  A tool that I’m particularly fond of is the “mix map”.  I first learned about this tool when I visited with Cub Kahn, coordinator of the Hybrid Course Initiative supported by ECampus at Oregon State University last year.  This is the tool that he advises faculty to use as they begin to reimagine how their content can be used in this new delivery format.

The value of creating a mix-map is that it forces the designer of the course to list all content items, assignments and assessments and create a lively interplay between the online and f2f environments to ensure that it is all done in an engaging manner.

To see an example of the mix map, please click here: .

Here are some additional tips for creating a consistent whole while developing a blended course:

  • “If students know that they can always find the details of the assignments introduced in the last class session by turning to the online modules or that they will always submit assignments via a particular online tool, students are likely to perceive the course as one consistent whole.” (BlendKit Reader2015)
  • Plan an integration chart showing the course objectives, how they will be measured, where the learning activities and resources will be found and exactly how the online and f2f components will integrate. This big picture view is wonderful for planning purposes.

I tend to think that a seamless integration looks much like a lively tennis game with the ball being hit back and forth between the online segment and the f2f meetings, both sides scoring points!


BlendKit2015 – The BlendKit Reader is edited by Dr. Kelvin Thompson as part of The Blended Learning Toolkit prepared by the University of Central Florida and the AASCU with funding from NGLC.

A key component of effective blended or hybrid courses is an a assessment that can accurately gauge the depth of student learning.  It is often customary for instructors to assume that assessments delivered in a traditional face-to-face course will be applicable in a blended or hybrid course.  This assumption is not always correct.  Riley et al. (2014) suggests that faculty ask themselves:  “How well does your course make connections between learning objectives, course activities, and selection of site tools to accomplish the assignments?  How well do face-to-face and out of class time learning activities complement each other?”  I would add an additional question, “How can I design assessments that will provide a practical application of the material that is relevant to the students’ life outside the classroom?” In the spirit of student-centric design and supporting students in becoming independent learners with well-developed critical thinking skills, assessment choices need reevaluation.

The area of authentic assessments and performance assessments is gaining ground and works well in both online and blended course environments.  The premise of these forms of assessments is that the student engages with the material and then finds a way to practically apply the information in a way that is measured.  For example, in an online Mandarin Chinese course I designed, the majority of the content was online and students participated in an asynchronous fashion.  However, when it came time for the assessment, students got online and connected via Google+ with a language coach who evaluated their spoken language proficiency in an oral demonstration of skill.  I designed a special rubric to measure not only growing language proficiency but skills necessary for effective performance.

The world of authentic and performance assessments opens up a whole range of possibilities for measuring student understanding in new and creative ways that tap a student’s intrinsic motivation.  For example, in a new course I’m designing that is an online course, instead of a weekly quiz, students will be writing up a critique of an element or resource that is utilized in their final project.  This effort guided by a carefully crafted rubric will measure skills such as inquiry and evaluation.  The student is free to select the resource (which is broadly defined) to perform their analysis upon.

in a different project, I’m working on, the design is a flipped model for a workshop designed for professional development.  The final assessment will be a project delivered to the class that shows direct, practical application of the material that will easily translate to the office when they return from the workshop.

If the content in a blended or online course is not made relevant to the students’ lives and work lives there is little chance that the material will be remembered or incorporated into one’s general understanding of a topic.


Riley, J.E., Gardner, C., Cosgrove, S., Olitsky, N., O’Neil, C., and Du, C. (2014)  Implementation of blended learningfor the improvement of student learning, In A. Picciano, C. Dziuban, and C. Graham (Eds.), Blended learning:  Research perspectives, volume 2, NY:  Routledge.

As more and more research comes out on blended learning, clearly student interaction is a topic that cannot be ignored.  Without sufficient quality and quantity of student interaction, any form of online learning, especially blended learning models, have little chance of success.

Dziuban, Hartman, and Mehaffy (2014) observe that:

Blended learning, in all its various representations, has as its fundamental premise a simple idea:  link the best technological solutions for teaching and learning with the best human resources….encourag[ing] the development of highly interactive and collaborative activities that can be accomplished only by a faculty member in a mediated setting. (p.322)

In creating a blended course model, here are recommendations I have to maximize student interaction.

In the online component of the course, have these activities planned:

a.  Syllabus review with a discussion board activity where students weigh in on the syllabus and their own

learning goals

b. Student profile creation which facilitates student-to-student interaction

b.  Readings

c.  Video viewings

d. Quiz or application of learning (This could be the evaluation of a learning object needed to complete the final project of the course)

e.  Reflection writing

These activities in the online component of a course demonstrate the following:  “In the best of circumstances technology allows professors to offload responsibilities that can be taken up by technology.” Dzuiban, Hartman, and Mehaffy( 2014).

In the face-to-face component of the class:

a.  Have a synchronous weekly chat that centers around the main topic of the week and allows time for questions

b.  Have a final face-to-face meeting where students (or groups) deliver their final presentations for the course with an opportunity for peer review

The face-to-face components of a blended course tap into interaction as a human need which is closely tied to intrinsic motivation.   Synchronous activities and meetings can provide a sense of community and the necessary connections that hold an online (or blended course together).  In this community setting, it is important to consider who the students will be expressing themselves to in their presentations.   Students should be prepared to make their case, express their opinions and answer questions from peers and instructors.  Not only are these skills valuable in an academic setting where students are working toward a degree, but they can also be considered part of what it means to be career-ready.

Whether activities are online or face-to-face, it is very important to provide clear instructions, expectations and exemplars of good work. Creating rubrics for each different kind of activity gives students a roadmap toward defining their learning and achievement goals.


Dzuiban, C.D., Harman, J.L., and Mehaffy, G.L. (2014).  Blending it all together, In A. Picciano, C. Dzuiban, and C. Graham (Eds.), Blended learning:  Research Perspectives volume 2. NY: Routledge.