What are flexible courses and why prepare faculty to teach them?
If you work in higher education, then chances are good that you’re aware of the growing trend toward creating and teaching flexible courses. Some of you may be asking, “what’s a flexible course?” When our campuses closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, we all moved our courses online. Now that we’re tentatively returning to campuses, many faculty and students are teaching and learning across multiple course delivery methods at the same time. These multimodal courses, or “flexible courses,” come in many flavors involving different combinations of in-person learners; real-time, remote learners; and asynchronous, online learners.
Reasons for creating and teaching flexible courses vary. Some campuses are looking to flexible courses to help keep the student density low. Others want to offer students with a choice of how to participate in classes. Still others want to make sure they can maintain instructional continuity if campuses have to close again. Regardless of their reasons, teaching flexible courses requires hard work by the instructor and as much support as staff can provide. It’s challenging to do two or three things at once, and to do them all equally well. If campuses ask teachers to teach flexible courses, then it’s important that they help them get ready.
Creating the Flexible Course Experience Institute
Along those lines, throughout spring 2021 collaborative leaders from the California State University Chancellor’s Office had gotten numerous requests for help preparing faculty to teach flexible courses. Very few Cal State campuses had the resources to create a whole new set of training materials. To respond to those requests, the Chancellor’s Office team commissioned the Flexible Course Experience Institute, a four-part workshop series followed by open labs for answering questions and building community. The institute would serve staff across the system who needed to train faculty at their local campus, as well as faculty who wanted to get a head start on preparing for the fall.
Through a survey, faculty and campus staff across the Cal State system reported what challenges faculty face in teaching flexible courses. They identified a range of challenges like creating equivalent learning experiences for students participating at different times and places, managing multiple technology platforms, engaging students in different environments, and managing workloads. To address those challenges and others, the institute provides practical strategies for making courses more flexible for students.
The table below shows the institute’s basic outline. Aligned with the backward design model, the workshop series explored increasing flexibility in 1) our course outcomes and structure, 2) how we assess achievement of those outcomes, 3) how we engage students, and 4) how students review course materials. In each of those four workshops, we used micro-lessons to investigate how we can increase flexibility, how we can support students, and how we can manage different environments. See the final section below for more details about the course, its modules and micro-lessons.
To model effective teaching practices, the institute follows the Transparency in Learning and Teaching framework—that is, it provides the purpose (why), the task (what) and criteria and resources for success (how) for each topic. Following Universal Design for Learning principles, the institute also provides materials in multiple formats, including live and recorded videos that are captioned and have text transcripts, slide decks with lecture scripts in the notes fields, and text-based content pages in Canvas. Staff members can use the course as an “institute-in-a-box” that’s ready to go, use the slides and scripts to conduct their own training, or scrap it for parts to supplement professional development that they’ve built themselves.
Facilitating and participating in the institute
The institute itself was, and is, a flexible learning experience. We conducted live sessions via Zoom and recorded them for people to learn on their own time. We facilitated activities that could be completed as a group in real-time or by individuals later on. Like our students, the participants wanted flexibility—faculty were on summer break or teaching summer classes, staff had their day jobs that sometimes prevented them from attending live sessions. We used the Canvas forums and a Slack channel to communicate in between sessions.
It was important that everyone walk away with concrete strategies they could use right away. Faculty worried about simultaneously trying to pay attention to students in the room and students on Zoom were happy to hear about strategies that asked their own students to help, such as “chat jockeys” or “remote buddies.” Faculty grappling with how to plan a multimodal class meeting appreciated reviewing “Run of Show” examples that outline classes of differing lengths, and then creating their own outline using the run of show template. Staff who work with faculty liked the startup and shutdown checklist of tasks that instructors should consider when they enter a classroom. As we discussed each topic, we left time for participants to share what they were doing or planning to do to make courses more flexible.
Some campuses took advantage of the ability to download the entire institute course from the Canvas Commons. Campuses that use Moodle, D2L, Blackboard or some other LMS could download the Institute as an IMS Global Common Cartridge. Some installed the course in their local learning management system and used it like a “textbook” for their local training sessions to get faculty ready for the fall. Overall the feedback has been extremely positive. The next step will be to meet early in the fall to share what has worked and what people still need help doing.
Brief showcase of the Canvas course
Now that we’ve launched it as an open course, you and your colleagues can go through the Flexible Course Experience Institute on your own. You’ll start on the home page, which has links to each module, as well as a QuickLinks menu to jump to any micro-lesson, lecture or activity. For most activities the link goes to a Google doc that you can download as a local file (e.g., Microsoft Word or Excel) or that you can create a copy in your own Google drive folders.
Here are a few other relevant details about the institute:
- Each workshop is contained within a Canvas module.
- Each workshop begins with an overview and a “Check in With Yourself” survey that you can use to identify strength areas (strategies you already use) and growth areas (strategies you want to explore).
- Each workshop contains three micro-lessons that follow the same format—a 10-15 minute lecture followed by a 15-minute activity designed to help you make some part of your course experience more flexible.
- During each workshop, we stopped and restarted the Zoom recording at the end of each micro-lesson, so you and other asynchronous participants can jump directly to the 30-minute chunk you want to see. No one needs to scroll through a 90-minute Zoom recording, right?
- Each workshop ends with a Take Action activity where participants identify at least one strategy they want to use to make their course more flexible.
- Each workshop includes a Keep Learning page with links to additional resources for further exploration.
I hope that you’ll take the opportunity to explore flexible courses and share your own strategies and questions in the comments below.