We recently spoke with James Keck, a Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University, about designing and instructing distance learning courses. Keck teaches in-person and distance learning courses focused on safety and security issues, so he understands how the online medium helps and challenges law enforcement and security instructors. During the discussion, we asked him to offer some advice to new distance learning designers and instructors, and he stressed these two main points:
1. Design is the most essential component of a successful course. When putting together a course, instructors must identify learning objectives, tasks, and expected outcomes. They must consider these factors, and then project how a student is likely to react to the experience, engagement, and material that the course presents. If the projection results in the expected outcome, then the course’s design is appropriate.
In his comments on design, Keck is really saying that a good course requires planning, consistency between the material and the results of the material, and methods of determining that students are retaining information. When you plan your course, this starts with identifying specific course objectives. These objectives, which you can usually capture with three or four bullet points, describe what a student will take away from the course. Here’s a good way to craft your objectives – write your course introduction paragraph and, for the last sentence, include this: “After completing this course, students will be able to:” then list the top few things your material will enable students to accomplish. This list is likely your learning objectives. Once you’ve identified those objectives, you’ll have to design your course to make sure you broadcast enough information for students to understand, analyze, and apply those objectives. According to Keck, this starts with experience, continues with assessment, and ends with practical application. In most circumstances, this means you must provide material to your students, test them on their comprehension with quizzes and other academic exercises, and then give them application opportunities.
2. Instructors must keep students engaged in order to successfully transfer information. Books alone can present information – instructors must maintain students’ attention and keep them engaged. Using real examples of experiences students can relate to is a great way to connect material with students and increase the chances they will retain information.
Engagement is another hugely important piece to a successful course. In instructor-led offerings, ‘engagement’ typically refers to student-instructor interactions, student-student interactions, and student-content interplay. To foster engagement in your instructor-led offerings, consider integrating live events, asynchronous discussion boards, and other opportunities to encourage direct video- or text-based interactions between participants. Additionally, think about how you can design your assignments and content to draw from the personal experiences of your students; as Keck stated, connecting your material with the personal experiences of your students is a wonderful way to inspire learning, and using your assignments, discussions, and content to pull from students’ lives helps make this connection. This may be as easy as assigning students to complete some course materials and then, for an assignment, charging them conduct some real-world activity and return the results in the form of a paper, project, or video. Additionally, consider using the asynchronous discussion board as a means of inviting commentary, sharing, and analysis from the student population. Crafting discussion topics that enable students to discuss personal experiences and connect those experiences to the material can accomplish the connection Keck discusses; to do this, think about discussion topics such as, “Write about a time you (conducted some activity) and analyze your actions in light of (current course material).” At the most basic level, this will connect students’ past actions with your content and use their experiences to assist new learning.
As we move forward with this blog, we’ll draw upon the insights and experiences of different law enforcement and security professionals and return frequently to the topics of engagement and course design. As you build or revise your distance learning course or consider the benefits of distance learning for your organization, take a look at the free How to Create a Law Enforcement Learning Course offering in our marketplace. That course provides content development and design tips and gives you a variety of tools you can use to help plan and build your course. Finally, take a look at Dr. Britt Watwood’s blog, Learning in a Flat World. He’ll be one of our guest contributors on the blog, and he’s always broadcasting interesting learning, design, and development content. Good luck as you begin your design process, and please post your ideas, questions, and thoughts here.