How to Make Your Course as Durable as Mario Kart: Future-Proofing Online Educational Content
When I think of highly effective digital experiences that walk you through a progression of learning modules while balancing the need for accessibility of future audiences I think of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. At any point in time, as long as you have your own SNES, you are able to pick up a Mario Kart cartridge, slap it in the machine, and start playing. It needs only five basic things: a game console, a game controller, a game cartridge, a TV, and electricity. You have those five things and you can start throwing bananas.
What happened? Why isn’t the content we design in 2020 as robustly as Mario Kart? Well, the Internet happened and we got carried away with it. Platforms grow and change. Websites rise and fall. We’ve forgotten how to make things just work in lieu of the fancy bells and whistles that come with the modern web capabilities.
My mission, in this article, is to argue that we need to design course systems and materials that are future-proof. Courses that allow for multiple generations to come to have access to the hard work we’ve dedicated to their creation.
To be clear: I’m not arguing that we need to ignore the advances of Internet technology when constructing courses, nor that the content won’t need to be revised as we create new knowledge or as beliefs and attitudes change. I am speaking from the point of view of the course designer. As you review the principles outlined below you will see that I’m arguing for compartmentalization and modulation of content so that we can better anticipate the needs of future audiences.
In 2012, when I started designing my first massive open online course (MOOC) New School Creation, my team and I gave no thought to creating a course that would be relevant eight years later.
Guess what? Eight years later, it is still relevant. We just re-released New School Creation (https://hthgse.online/newschoolcreation/) as a self-paced MailChimp course last month and we are working to create a sequel to the original course later this year.
So what happened? Why wasn’t I able to predict that the information would still be relevant in 2020 when we released in 2013? At the time, I and other early course designers were still trying to grapple with what MOOCs were.
Like many course designers for virtual audiences, our thought was to take a graduate course that Larry Rosenstock had taught in-person for years and translate that experience to an online course that people anywhere in the world could remotely complete. We thought the course would be offered once, and then, just like an in-person course, it would be over.
That’s not how it turned out.
The course stayed online, and people continued to access it. Periodically I would get emails from folks who were trying to access the course materials, and links were broken or whole sections of content just would not load. On top of that there was language within the courses that had dated the content in a confusing manner, such as instructions to turn assignments in at dates that had long since past. Although there was a continued audience of people who found value in the course, we were not thinking about their experience when we designed it.
I hate the idea that I unknowing facilitated a frustrating learning experience for these course users, but the course itself had been funded by time-sensitive grant money. That money was gone and we had not allocated funding towards the course for routine maintenance and upkeep.
After this experience and others just like it, I began working on a set of design principles for designing online course structures and materials that will ensure these are durable and “future-proof”. The concept of future-proofing is more commonly used in industrial sciences and the world of electronics, but it is relevant for thinking about how to be thoughtful educational designers for online spaces. Future-proofing is the process of designing products or systems that can be used in the future, even if the technology changes. Below you will find a list of concepts that will support you to create future-proof online learning experiences.
As more learning experiences move to online spaces, we need to make a plan to manage the course design so that it has more long-term viability. I recommend that this plan is developed in adherence with the following future-proofing design principles:
- Closed-Loop System. A closed-loop system is an automatic control system in which the process is regulated by feedback. This is an ideal system for online learning platforms because there is some degree of interaction with the learner, which is motivating for the user and useful for the organization in terms of collecting user data to understand the user experience. The closed-loop system is easily maintained and requires no live interaction from the organization.
- Modularity of Content. Think of the components of your course as individual building blocks, rather than as a finished complete product. This is the difference between buying a kit to create a model car versus buying a set of Legos. The pieces for the model car can only build the car, where the Legos can build a car, a house, or any number of things. Design your online courses to have discrete components that can have multiple uses, which supports more usability and adaptability of the content for the future.
- Platform Agnostic. Design courses to exist on multiple platforms. We know that every 5–10 years platform requirements will change, which is especially true with continual technological advances. Descriptions for courses can be revised as needed to include platform-specific language.
- Evergreen Content. Evergreen content means that the content should feel timeless and relevant, regardless of when it is accessed by the user. The original HTH MOOCs were developed as synchronous learning experiences, which now makes the content feel dated even though much, if not all, of the content maintains its value for professional learning.
- Plan around Long Term Responsibility for User Experience. Outward-facing, globally accessible products represent your organization and brand. Prioritize taking responsibility for the experience of users interacting with the virtual educational content. This means taking a thoughtful approach about how this experience looks and feels, and making sure that the experience reflects your organization’s vision and mission for education. Identify someone who can maintain online courses and plan for current and future participants to get the support they need for a quality learning experience.
- Consistent & Accessible Usage of Field or Time Specific Terminology/Jargon. Give context for time and field specific terminology as terms may change over time or be different from one population to the next. This also applies to making references to current events, which can be written with additional context so future audiences will be able to understand their relevance.
- Flattened Media Filetypes. Plan to consolidate all the course materials in one place and minimize variations in file formatting. For example, videos should be in the same file format (i.e. convert everything to .mp4). If necessary for larger files create multiple versions of the same file so you have the original, high resolution source file, as well as a compressed version that can be easily loaded by distance learners with low bandwidth. We use Handbrake for compression. Choose how to display images within your system and be consistent. We display all documents and images in .pdf format. You could choose to do so in .jpeg. The most important thing about your system is to be as consistent as possible with how you name and organize files. Fewer file types allow for ease of content/media translation.
- Redundant, and Simplified, Course Organization & Backup System. Plan to store your course in its entirety in at least three different locations: the cloud, in physical storage, such as on a USB thumb drive or hard drive, as well as on your course’s learning management system (LMS).
- New School Creation 1.0 (Google Course Builder, 2013)
- Get A Grasp! A Primer Course for Getting Your Comic Started (Google Course Builder, 2014)
- How To Teach Us 1.0 (Coursera, 2014)
- Learning Mindsets & Skills 1.0 (Coursera, 2015)
- How To Make A Comic Book (Coursera, 2016)
- Launching Innovation In Schools (edX, 2016)
- Gradcommx (MITx, 2017)
- Gradcommx The Game: Inspace Attack (MailChimp, 2018)
- Exhibition Online Course (MailChimp, 2019)
- How To PBL Online (MailChimp, 2020)
- New School Creation 2.0 (MailChimp, 2020)
- How To Teach Us 2.0 (MailChimp, 2020)
- Learning Mindsets & Skills (MailChimp, 2020)
- How To Make A Comic Book 2.0 (MailChimp, 2020)
- Exhibiting Student Work (MailChimp, 2020)
- Exhibiting Student Work in Virtual Environments Micro-Course (MailChimp, 2020)
- The Pinocchio Effect: A Deeper Learning Micro-Course (MailChimp, TBA)
- Listening To Talk: A Deeper Learning Micro-Course (MailChimp, TBA)
- The Perfect Brainstorm: A Deeper Learning Micro-Course (MailChimp, TBA)
- With Our Powers Combined: A Deeper Learning Micro-Course (MailChimp, TBA)
- Who’s The Boss: A Deeper Learning Micro-Course (MailChimp, TBA)
- I Think I Can: A Deeper Learning Micro-Course (MailChimp, TBA)