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Planning content for online courses: The search for SPOC

By DAVID P. BURNS & ANYA GOLDIN | October 18, 2016

Over the last two years the department of educational studies at Kwantlen Polytechnic University (KPU) has been attempting to push the limits of what a small department can do to create compelling online courses and digital resources. As part of this experiment our popular first year transitions course, Introduction to Higher Education, was offered in two formats: entirely on campus (with the usual forum postings on the course website) and entirely online.

Over the course of the year, seven classes were offered entirely online, and some of our early conclusions and ideas were sketched out in a subsequent article in Times Higher Education. The key issue in that first year, and in the article about it, was ensuring online didn’t necessarily mean distant. It was centrally important for these students to know – and they were reminded constantly – that taking a course online didn’t mean they couldn’t be in direct contact with each other and the instructor (sometimes in person).

After the first year of this digital pilot project had concluded, we (the first author being the designer of the course, and the second author being one of its first graduates) began presenting and writing about the experience. While the effort to make the experience personal was crucially important in both of our perspectives, we were surprised at the extent to which people reacted to the many small technological choices that were made in the background. This essay is about those choices. If you are looking to build a digital course for your students (a small private online course, or SPOC), or are looking to augment your on-campus course with digital material, what kind of choices do you need to make? What tools should you use?

The first and most foundational choice is what we call the “collect or create?” problem. Good teaching is tailored for, and responsive to, students. In the rush to build Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), many universities have allocated their resources to the building of generic and static content – typically a series of videos technologically analogous to a YouTube channel. YouTube videos don’t respond to your needs as a learner, and MOOCs don’t connect to local context, learner diversity, or many of the other key variables typically identified in conceptions of meaningful learning. It is inadequate, then, to build a course entirely around the collection of good resources from the Internet.

A series of excellent MOOC resources, TED Talks and podcasts can be stimulating, but it can’t be fully responsive in the way an educator needs to be. On the other hand, the average university instructor cannot be expected to be an audio-visual producer, a programmer and a scholar. Even if such broad expertise and time commitment were possible (and it is more possible than is often assumed, we believe), the production value of professional videos and podcasts is high enough that you would sometimes justifiably use a professional video before your own. So, when should you create something of your own and when should you link to the TED talk or podcast? We find it helpful to divide digital resources into three categories:

  1. High production
  2. Medium production
  3. Low production resources

These are not prescriptive (in the sense that we do not claim others must come to the same conclusions), but the way in which we divide these categories might be conceptually helpful to others engaged in similar work.

One quick note: It is our current practice to create one high production value resource each term and several medium value resources. Low production value resources should be produced on an ongoing basis.

High production value resources

These require extensive investment in both time and equipment. The highest value resource we created was a 30 minute animated YouTube video lecture that took approximately four to five days.

  • Purpose: To provide critical input (“the material”) on a generalized level, and/or to provide a more compelling or entertaining way of engaging with content.
  • Use cycle: Should be collected in most cases. Creation of high production value resources is only justifiable if useful for several years. It is justifiable to collect all high value resources required for a course
  • Media Examples: TED talks, professional quality YouTube videos (such as those by the Khan Academy), sophisticated and animated infographics, advanced HTML or course software modules or widgets.

Successes and failures of high production value resources
There were several high production value resources in the pilot version of this course. Three of these were videos we produced by using a smartphone camera to record drawings on a whiteboard setup on a desk. Once the video was taken and edited, the instructor recorded a voiceover in line with the images. This takes several days for each 30-minute video. The most common comment posted in the first few weeks of class was that these videos were interesting, and that they kept the students tuning in for what might be done next week.

Because these videos were posted via a YouTube channel embedded in our course software, we could see that these comments were made in earnest – most students did indeed watch most of the video right away. The time investment in these videos was, thus, generally justifiable. The second semester this course was offered, however, we made a change to an assignment that was discussed in one of these videos. We soon realized that we had made the mistake of creating a high production value resource that included a small amount of material better suited to a simple handout or blog post. Since that small amount of material was spread throughout the video (ie. reference to that assignment was made many times), the entire four-day production cycle needed to be repeated.

Medium production value resources

These may be produced by individual instructors with normally available university equipment or personal equipment. These should take only one or two days to produce. One of our in-class podcasts, for example, takes 1 day to produce (neither of us has any previous recording experience).

  • Purpose: To provide well-produced resources that are responsive to local contexts, news or interests, or to engage students in the creation of resources.
  • Use cycle: May be collected or created in equal measure. Each term should involve the creation of at least some medium production value resources. This time investment is only defensible if the resource can be used more than once, so whatever you are producing can only be specific to the kind of students you typically teach (not the students you are teaching right now).
  • Media Examples: Professional podcasts are excellent resources because they are cheap to produce (and, hence, are available on an enormous range of topics) and can be produced quickly. The gap between a professional podcast and an amateur one is, however, quite small. We can, thus, have a conversation about a particular topic that came up in a discussion forum and have the podcast posted by the next week.

Successes and failures of medium production value resources
In the second semester of our pilot we recorded a series of podcasts (four episodes). With a basic laptop, a $200 microphone, and some attention to how your office furniture is arranged, you can make a podcast episode sound very close to professional in about one day. In one of the episodes we discussed the stress that students experience about getting into a particular program in the future (in this case, whether or not a student will be able to go to law school with a particular GPA). This is an incredibly personal sort of dialogue, so we needed to have an actual student at our university who is actually feeling these things come to discuss it. The result was wonderful. Many people referred in their writing to that podcast (which was embedded in the course page alongside the readings) and expressed solidarity with the student’s experience. This is, in our view, a paradigm case of the medium production value resource. It won’t always be useful, but for a few semesters we can use an earnest interview with a person from the cohort currently at the university.

On the other hand, however, the podcasts made by the instructor more directly (essentially recorded lectures), were much more poorly received (as observed by reviewing how often those lectures were referred to in related writing and postings). Those lectures were general and generic, and would be better served coming from a well-produced video from an external or internal source. Our students don’t want 30 minutes of impersonal speech – what they want is 30 minutes of dialogue they can relate to. The lectures didn’t belong on the podcast.

Low production value resources

These can be produced on a day to day basis.

  • Purpose: To quickly provide responsive and individual content.
  • Use cycle: Should be created anew each semester, and should be created several times a week (in a fully digital course). These resources should respond to both your current class and the individuals within it.
  • Media Examples: Blog posts, emails, tweets, vlogs (lightly edited videos) that allow you to respond directly to your students. If you have a presentation file (in Powerpoint or Keynote), you could also narrate and post that presentation with minimal additional work.

Successes and failures of low production value resources
Microsoft recently created a program called Sway that allows you to put a number of different kinds of Microsoft Office content into a single presentation that is then posted to the Sway website. The content is then accessible on essentially any computing device (including phones). One of its features allows you to post an image comparison, wherein you post two images and the user can slide a bar back and forth to reveal more of one image or the other. We took a piece of text the class was examining (we only tested this with a single, smaller group), and posted a clean version and a version with the instructor’s comments and highlights. Students could then click on the link, read the text, and then reveal the digital pen markings and thoughts of the instructor. This was very well received by the students, who wanted to read the article on their own, but who also wanted to see what the instructor found valuable or salient. It took less than an hour to create, and thus could be done every week.

We found, however, that some of the class needed to log in to their Microsoft account every time they opened this link, while others didn’t. We spent about as much time supporting students having this problem as we did creating the original resource. We were once told that the key to educational technology is using the simplest tool that will get the job done. While Sway itself might have been improved since we tested it, the simplest thing to do was to create two PDF files and post them together. The sliding bar effect was ultimately superficial. We used a more complex tool than was needed, and caused unnecessary confusion.

As you can see, understanding when to create a piece of content, and what kind of content you need to create for a given purpose, is crucial. A course comprised only of collected, high production value material is much less a university course than it is a video channel or computer program. A class comprised exclusively of low production value material is, on the other hand, less polished and engaging, and fails to take advantage of the many sources of rigorous digital content available to a modern educator. While each new test or tinkering entails a certain degree of failure, we have found that the enormous changes in consumer technology over the past decade have made it very much possible for instructors to create medium and high production value material unthinkable in previous generations.

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