How-to ‘Retrofit’ an Online Course

Without continual growth and progress, such words as improvement, achievement, and success have no meaning. Benjamin Franklin

If you’ve ever been a homeowner you know about improvement projects – the endless list of items that need fixing, painting or restoring. If you lived in a place long enough you may have gone further and replaced original parts of the home with newer and [presumably] better ones, maybe fixtures, wiring or windows. In this instance you’ve graduated from upgrading your home to retrofitting.

This phenomenon parallels the revision process for an online course. With the pace of new educational tools and technologies – retrofitting is a given. I’ve just finished working with several professors at my workplace to redesign their courses, but I’m looking forward to the next phase of retrofitting several other courses in need of an update. In this post I will outline a 5-step strategy for retrofitting an existing online course. To put this post in context, the retrofit or upgrade I’m addressing here are modifications to pedagogical practices with additions and/or replacements of tools or applications within an existing online course.

Note: This retrofit exercise is different from a course redesign. A redesign is a significant overhaul of a particular course or an upgrade to courses within an institution collectively. If you are interested in pursuing an in depth redesign path, I suggest visiting the National Center for Academic Transformation. This organization offers Quality Matters (QM), a comprehensive program for a systematic overhaul or redesign of an Institutions’ curriculum strategy.

Why Retrofit?  [Re-tro -fit: modify something with new parts]
The pressing need to modify a course is driven by the newness of the online learning environment. Teaching a college course online via the Internet is innovative by traditional education standards. In a F2F course when an instructor teaches a newly developed course for the first time, he or she will likely modify his or her materials, format, and/or style over a series of class sessions until it feels ‘right’. In turn, this is a similar process needed for an online course – yet the added layer of complexity is the dynamic nature of the Web where the course lives and breathes. Add to this the new educational tools and platforms that seem to emerge on a daily basis and one can see the glaring need for adapting and revising an online course. Retrofitting then becomes not a nice-to-do but a need-to-do.

Where to Start?  Step #1: Gather and Analyze
I consider this step, gathering and analyzing data the most critical of the five steps I outline further in the post.  To that end, I will review how to complete step one in detail more so than any of the other steps. Step one comprises two phases. In phase one the course instructor and/or developer gathers data, both qualitative and quantitative information about the course. Information pieces considered on their own may appear to be of little value and pointless to consider. Yet together these pieces can tell a story about your class – both good and bad. The data should come from a variety of sources and ideally be gathered from as many course sessions as possible.

Gather: Gathering data about the course is critical. I equate this phase to a needs analysis’, a term often used when designing training programs. In this context we want to evaluate the needs of a given course, the need for change. Below are examples of data to collect:

  • Feedback/ questions from students via past emails or phone calls
  • Questions/comments on Q & A discussion forums/boards
  • End-of-course student feedback forms
  • Enrollment and drop-out numbers
  • Mid-course formative assessment feedback
  • Patterns of participation available through the course learning management system (activity reports)

Analyze: The analysis phases does not need to be a formal coding exercise or statistical exercise but by reviewing, reading and considering the data collectively, themes and patterns will emerge. I suggest taking time to consider the information, to look at the data objectively. Look for patterns. Priorities will become apparent.

5 Steps to an Online Course Retrofit

  1. Gather and analyze data from the course. Analyze and identify themes and patterns within the data that suggest what tools, content or delivery methods that may need improvement or replacement.
  2. Review course objectives and identify the: 1) content, 2) learning activities and 3) assessment(s) which support each one next Identify gaps, where the content, learning activities or assessments may not be effective in supporting each goal. In other words, based upon the analysis done in step 1 and 2, it may be clear that something ‘is not working’. Make a list of possible upgrades/additions to address the gap. For example: 1) a method or exercise to promote interaction, 2) improved communication of assignment instructions and expectations, or 3) principles and guidelines to support a higher level of interaction with course content, etc.
  3. Prioritize: choose the top three areas within the course that need to be addressed to close the gaps identified in step 2.
  4. Identify how you will update the areas identified in step 3 – in other words how you will close the gap. What new method, tool or content vehicle can you add? What options are available? Do some research. Evaluate. If considering an Ed tech tool or application – review the  5 Step Ed-Tech Integration Model, as described in a previous post. An image of the model is displayed above right.
  5. Plan for Implementation. Implement the changes you want to make, but first create a plan, an instructional strategy.  Ensure when designing/writing and planning for the changes to: 1) provide detailed instructions and rationale if implementing a new learning activity, 2) include instructions for a tech tool or application and build in time for learning. Don’t assume students will know how to use a given tool, 3) if using new content, ensure it is accessible for all students, 4) have a colleague and/or student review the changes, 5) consider using a formative assessment half-way through the first session of the updated course to solicit student feedback. Keep the questionnaire short – 3 open-ended questions can be effective, 6) plan how you will evaluate the changes you will make.

Finally
The retrofit process may seem daunting to some. On the other hand, the instructor/designer may eagerly begin the process but without a thoughtful and strategic plan. With either approach the course will be at risk – it may fail to engage and motivate students, fail in communicating the course content or fail to provide a learning community where students can students learn and construct new knowledge.

The above mentioned 5-step process is a good starting place for retrofitting an online course. Designing a strategy that is based upon an analysis of the needs of a given course, with carefully considered ‘retrofits’ will result in an online class that is unique and effective. Retrofitting is an opportunity to make it personal, highlight strengths of the delivery method and embrace the innovative educational technological tools that make the Web the amazing learning place it is.

Resources

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