Teaching For-Credit, Teaching Online: An Interview with the Experts from OSU Libraries (Karen Diaz and Brian Leaf)


The Teaching and Learning Office of the Ohio State University Libraries has been teaching 2 online credit courses for over 10 years.  These courses were 4-week mini courses that ran in the middle of a 10-week quarter.  Because the university switched from the quarter to the semester system in 2012, EVERY course and program on the campus got a face lift, redesign or some sort of re-engineering, including ours. The semester system allowed for short 7-week sessions (two within the 14-week semester) as one option for course work and we opted for that approach as the “mini course” option was an important tactic in attracting students to this elective.

Because we moved from 4 to 7 weeks we knew we had to make the courses more engaging than they had been in the past, create more frequent deadlines than we’d had in the past and of course, have more content than we’d had in the past. Beyond that, the possibilities for what direction to take were vast, determining the scope of the class was challenging, and the opportunity for trying new approaches, new concepts, and new technologies was intriguing.

Fortunately for me, we hired Brian Leaf in the summer of 2011. He came to us with a variety of design skills, some teaching experience, and a newly minted MLIS.  Brian was given a number of tasks as well as professional development opportunities, but high on the list was redesigning our courses for the first fall semester in which they’d be taught. Most of the effort to date has been in the course now called “Arts & Sciences 2120: Information Search, Evaluation and Use.”  We address this course in the interview below, and have also made the ASC 2120 syllabus available.
-Karen Diaz

Karen: When you were given the task of redesigning an online course taught at OSU, what did you do to prepare for this task?  What was the background work required before putting “pen to paper”?

Brian: I don’t feel like I’ve ever stopped preparing! Maybe responding is the more accurate term now, but I think my journey started with two things—or two things that stick out in my mind:

First, the researchers behind the Citation Project had just been interviewed in the Project Information Literacy (PIL) Smart Talks series, and they were exploring how students engage with sources as a way to examine plagiarism. Their research (coupled with what PIL has been doing for several years already) influenced my thinking about the scope of information literacy instruction.

Second, the University Center for the Advancement of Teaching (UCAT) runs a Course Design Institute every term, and they happened to offer an intensive week-long institute in August 2011 that I attended. Their approach was based on the backward design framework that I was somewhat familiar with, but had never applied in practice. This institute gave me the chance to go through the process in a controlled setting.

Both the PIL Interview and the UCAT institute launched a flurry of research in addition to what I was already doing. Later on, I would also participate in Writing Across the Curriculum reading groups that significantly impacted design of writing assignments. And of course, there was and continues to be a lot of invaluable input from you and many other individuals.

Karen: One thing that I’ve noticed with you is that as you learn concepts from other disciplines, you have brought that terminology into our discussions of information literacy. Our teaching program is expanding its vocabulary, and consequently experimenting with new boundaries of information literacy. Can you explain what you mean by “students’ ability to engage with the sources”, and how have you addressed this in the course redesign?

Brian: Well, the Citation Project found that students might not be trying to be intentionally deceptive in their writing, but instead they are potentially lacking the skills to properly summarize, paraphrase, or synthesize their sources. If this is the case, I wondered if it also spoke to a larger misunderstanding of how research is understood by students. Do they perceive research as a dialogue? Or are they explicitly taught the larger landscape of research? If not, then their problems in representing sources could be attributed in part to not understanding the significance of doing so. That’s my theory at least, and while the new course doesn’t directly address the issues, we do include texts that try to help them see research in this light.

We also partially address the Citation Project findings (subsequently pushing the scope of the course a little). Students are asked to take a look at a Wikipedia article and examine how cited sources are used in the article by identifying one of several writing methods. Students are also asked to determine if the source was accurately being represented and revise it if it didn’t seem well-represented or properly used. This turned out to be a compelling and educational experience for students; unfortunately, it might be phased out in order to allow us to focus on other issues that have emerged in the course.

Lastly, I want to plug a related idea along the continuum: rhetoric-based information literacy. This approach focuses on how sources are used in the context of an argument. Librarian, author, andall-around rock star Barbara Fister was an early proponent of this type of approach. It didn’t have a clear place in this course, but it will be taught in the next course in the sequence and is also representative of how I tend to think about being engaged with sources.

Karen: You also mentioned the “backward design framework” earlier. Can you briefly describe what that is and how you used it, if you did?

Brian: I’m still using it! It’s a process that’s iterative and has personally resulted in a lot of reflection and re-discovery. The basic idea of backward design is to determine where you want your students to go before figuring out how to get them there. Or:

1.            Identify desired results

2.            Determine acceptable evidence

3.            Plan learning experiences and instruction

More than just covering content or being engaging, what does it mean for your students to actually learn something and how will you help them get there?  There’s not a single right way of doing things, but there are plenty of opportunities (and constraints).

Take search, for instance. If your big goal for students by the end of the course is to have them strategically apply search techniques, what does that strategy look like? Is it being able to select the correct answer out of a set of alternatives about the function of a NOT statement? Or can you climb Bloom’s ladder and have them write narrative (plus justification) of their process when they do a real search? And then how do you grade those narratives or give feedback that will help them improve?

Research helped me figure out what best practices are (or ideas for new ones), but it took a lot of creativity and re-evaluation after the fact to make things happen. And the process never stops. As you know, we’re constantly trying to use student data to figure out if they are truly learning or demonstrating that they understand core concepts, and then revising it all again.

Karen: I can attest to your comments about how it is not as easy as it looks and that it never stops.  I remember how painful those early meetings were, trying to use the information literacy standards to define some sort of scope for what we wanted students to know, and exactly what we meant by what we said we were going to teach. Some of the standards were as solid as Jell-O and felt like they could be interpreted in a variety of ways.

I note that your description of backward design doesn’t actually include creating a syllabus. When do you get to the point of building a syllabus and can you tell us about how your choices translated into the syllabus that folks have available to them here?

Brian: You bring up a good point. Backward design isn’t a comprehensive, step-by-step program for creating a course—it’s a framework for developing experiences that truly prioritize learning goals. When a syllabus should be written isn’t prescribed, but personally I think it’s something that can be started at any point of the process. It can help with establishing goals and objectives or getting ideas for engagement (especially when writing that introductory description of the course that typically comes in a syllabus).

But admittedly, I started a little later in the design than I would have liked. Even having already figured out outcomes, there are many ways to market any product. Do we emphasize the use of Wikipedia in the overview? Or do we try to capture the student’s attention with a compelling question about their research habits? Asking these questions through the various drafts I write helps me think about the course in new and subtle ways that would aid in writing course communications or feedback for students later. It can be time consuming, but it’s a crucial document that can affect different facets of the design, and of course, instruction.

Karen:  The syllabus certainly helps students understand the point of the class, and also helped those of us who brainstormed with you see where things were headed and how you were shaping the assignments to accomplish the goals we discussed.  Are there any last comments you would like to make about the syllabus, the course or its design?  Anything I haven’t asked?

Brian: I didn’t talk too much about the actual content of the syllabus in my last response, so I’d like to address that: In the ALAO presentation back in October, we had discussed an ongoing writing assignment (I casually referred to it as a “narrative” earlier) that was really the linchpin for student learning. I mentioned that our Writing Across the Curriculum program influenced my thinking, and I think those influences do emerge in the syllabus in the design of the grades and the Critical Responses assignment.

While writing is difficult to teach and evaluate, it provides a way to capture how a student understands concepts and thinks through problems (and subsequently, try to correct misunderstandings). The Critical Response is our early attempt to get students to describe their search and evaluation behavior. You’ll notice a heading for Evidence in which we describe our expectations for how they “prove” their claims. Not surprisingly though, it proves to be challenging to get students to articulate their process when so much of their other work is focused on creating some product. Therefore, grades are scaffolded a bit; students aren’t penalized severely for early mistakes or misunderstandings, and so there’s an opportunity for a little more formative assessment.

And plenty of other pedagogical decisions I could talk about. But it seems like we’re running out of time, so I’ll just end by saying what an informative experience this has been! It’s taken a lot of grappling with a lot of different ideas to get to this point, and yet I’m quite sure we’re still at the beginning.

I appreciate your patience with my often non-linear approach. It’s only been with that support that I’ve been able to tackle all of this, and I look forward to continuing to collaborate with you to constantly improve upon this work and share it with our larger community. Thank you.

Karen: Thank you Brian for all your hard work!  Your evidence-based and creative approach to course design has made our course so much more engaging for students, and we are seeing in their survey responses that they are beginning to see how the skills they learn here will translate to their other courses!  This has always been the goal – to prepare them their life as informed citizens and for their college life as capable student researchers.  It’s exciting to see that happening.

Blog post by Karen Diaz, Associate Professor, Research + Education and Brian Leaf, Instructional Design Librarian Resident of The OSU Libraries

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