Seeing Red: Learning to Design with Green Light in Mind

“Would you be interested in teaching online next semester? We think you’d be great for it.”

With no idea of what I was getting myself into, I spit out, “yes.” My theory as a Graduate Student in English was to say yes to every opportunity. I had no idea where I was headed after graduation and desperately needed a developed resume. I walked back to my office and reflected. Would I be great for online instruction? At the very least, I thought, I had always been comfortable with the Blackboard LMS. It was used in my high school, and I was always good about uploading my syllabus for my face-to-face students. I knew it as a student and an instructor. We had a great rapport and history, Blackboard and I. I left the building that day feeling pretty confident and self-important.

Over then next couple of months, my stress level began to rise. When I asked for some examples of online courses, the director of composition sent me a few broken links to online orientation areas. He was, admittedly, not very comfortable with Blackboard and would not be a great resource for me. I quickly realized that an orientation to teaching online was going to be self-inflicted. Close to the start of the Fall semester I incorrectly imported an older course shell into my course, overwhelming myself with confusing and broken content—my course and I were in a total mess.

I assumed that the stress would dispense as I began teaching; that always seemed to be the way it worked with my face-to-face students. I would spend weeks stressing about lesson plans and course content, but once I stood in front of my students, everything seemed to fall into place. Unfortunately, online teaching just seemed to get worse and worse. My students didn’t have the resources they needed, the tools I choose to execute assignments were unreliable (turns out I wasn’t using them correctly), and I always felt like I was running to catch up with this course that I had completely fallen out of my control. I was seeing red.

Needless to say, that semester was horrible. I did my best with what I had, but looking back on my course and my instructional methods makes me cringe now. There was a silver lining to those terrible few months. Luckily, that semester provided some of the most valuable lessons about online instruction and design that I’ve ever received. Many of them still influence how I help faculty create, edit, and maintain courses.

A few months later, I was interviewing for a full-time position as an Instructional Designer at Wichita State. Before I interviewed, I reflected on those times that I saw red. I considered the lessons that I had learned and how I was changing my style and my design in response. When I began at WSU as an ID, Carolyn told me about a design theory that she was developing: Green Light Design. As she discussed the five-step LEARN Model, I couldn’t help but think about my first semester as an online instructor. I realized that those times I was seeing red taught me to design with Green Light in mind:

L (Listen)

This was perhaps my biggest struggle as a new online instructor. Rather than listen to my own needs and preferences as an instructor, I was preoccupied with what I thought online classes should be rather than what I needed my online class to be. For example, I had always valued the discussions I would have with my students in face-to-face courses. Because I believed that discussion boards were not an adequate substitute in an online setting, I had eliminated them from my instruction model and my online course. I missed that connection with my students and saw that my student’s learning was damaged by my choice not to listen to my own preferences.

Now, as an Instructional Designer, I encourage faculty to express what they love about teaching. Rather than think about what can’t be done or what should be done in an online class, think about what could be done for that faculty member’s course. This idea is expressed in WSU’s theory of boutique design, where class “reflect the teaching style and personality of the person who is teaching the course.”

E (Envision)

Before teaching online, I had limited experience with the Blackboard LMS. I had used it before as a student and instructor, so I considered myself an expert. But as I’ve learned over the past year as an Instructional Designer, there are so many tools and experiences that you can create within and outside of Blackboard for your online students. My ability to envision my ideal course was certainly limited by my experience, but it was also limited by my own prejudice.

When I work with faculty new to teaching online, I recognize this prejudice towards online learning and the general unfamiliarity with the LMS. Part of my design challenge is to introduce tools and options that can expand a faculty member’s vision of the online learning environment. When we expand our imaginations together about course work, course organization, and course content, everyone involved with the online course benefits. While the faculty member might lack technical knowledge or Blackboard vocabulary, that does not mean that they don’t have the ability to envision their ideal course. Talk with them and recognize that they are the experts on their own teaching style.

A (Adjust) 

When I began teaching online, I assumed that the choices you made before the course launch would determine how you would teach that course forever. I thought small about course design; I often chose the easy way out. I didn’t recognize that teaching online was a cyclical process that allowed for adaptation.

The A of the LEARN Model doesn’t mean choosing the easy way with a faculty member or course, it means choosing the most reasonable way. A lot of faculty come into online learning in the same way I did—by chance. Sometimes, these faculty members have no experience with online education at all. Take some time to envision a perfect course with them, then adjust the course to their current ability and skill set. Teaching online is a learning process in and of itself, so rather than set them up with tools that can quickly spiral out of their control, start smaller with the intention of growing, expanding, and…

R (Revise)

Revising. When I began teaching online, I had only been at the head of a classroom for a year. I was still learning about myself as an educator. On top of that, I had yet to teach the same course for two consecutive semesters, so I had not yet experienced the luxury of revising a course based on previous experience. When I began teaching online, I never once considered how revision might play a key role of the course of the semester.

In my opinion, this is the most important aspect of the LEARN model. The work of an Instructional Designer is never done. Perhaps the faculty member quickly adjusts to new tools and content, so why be satisfied with entry-level content and tools in an online course? Perhaps a tool or organizational style you had originally chosen for a course isn’t as appropriate as you originally thought. A lot can happen over a day, a week, a semester of a course, so you should always be ready to revise until both the students and faculty member are satisfied. There is no such thing as a finished course, so never approach one as such.

N (Negotiate):

After the stress of my first semester teaching online, I was finally able to take a deep breath, reflect on my experience, and look forward toward a new semester of teaching. In Spring 2015, I finally had the opportunity to reteach a course. The course also happened to be my online course. After a few months of mistakes, I had learned a lot about Blackboard, online WSU students, and teaching online. It was time to think about what came next. A lot of that process came from working my way back through the course, negotiating with myself about what worked and what didn’t work, and thinking about what would be up next for a better developed course.

As an ID, I often encounter a similar negotiation with faculty members. When I talk with them about what they hope to do next, we often reflect on what they have already done. In order to know where they’re going, it’s important to know where they’ve been. Negotiation also means that the faculty member can reassess their skill set. It is likely that they’ve become more confident with certain aspects of teaching online. The negotiation stage of the LEARN model gives you and the faculty member the opportunity to use those strong skills to develop a better course. Revisit the goals and dreams that you developed together in the “envision” stage of the LEARN model. Ask yourselves about what ideas can you move forward with and what it will take to accomplish them.

Teaching and designing online courses can be a daunting process, but with each mistake comes an opportunity to learn. For myself, the learning experience lead me to the LEARN Green Light Design model because it accounts for our mistakes and encourages us to grow from them. While I might have been seeing red only a few short months ago, it feels like now all I can see is green.

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