If You’re Teaching Online in the Summer, Part II: What the heck is a module?

This message to all faculty, deans, directors, and department heads has been approved by Dr. Sally McRorie, Provost and Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.

Congratulations on making it through a semester like no other. Thank you for your flexibility, your dedication, and your compassion for your students. We hope finals will be relatively painless for both you and your students, and that the close of this rocky semester is as smooth as it is welcome.

Last week, we began a series of tips about teaching remotely in the summer. We discussed the first step in any course design process: thinking about what students will learn during your time together. After you’ve set goals for their learning, we explained, the next step will be to divide the online course into a sequence of modules, through which students can make progress toward those goals.

If you’ve never taught online before, you may not be accustomed to thinking in terms of modules—to dividing your material into conceptual chunks, or to sequencing ideas and assignments so explicitly—but when students are learning remotely, they need added structure, and it helps if you can provide it through the way you organize the course. A module (or unit, week, project, or whatever term seems right in your context) is really just a carefully organized section of a course. When we’re teaching online, we need to break the course into parts that students will be able to readily move through and understand, because it can be a challenge for them to keep up and stay on track.

For example, let’s say your course is six weeks long, and students will take three exams. You might make each module a week long. The first two weeks/modules would provide materials, practice, and feedback designed to help students do the learning that will be assessed on the first exam. Maybe the first week/module would end with a quiz, so that both you and your students could get a sense of their progress so far before they start the second week. Or if your students are doing projects (instead of exams), maybe each module is two weeks long and ends with a final paper or presentation due. Those two weeks could be spent going through a writing process that includes research, brainstorming, drafting, feedback, revision, and editing.

The best way to divide up the modules, and the goals for those modules, will vary based on the course, but all effective modules have a few things in common:

  • They are organized and clear for students. If you can organize them in a consistent way (so all modules in the course have the same structure), that will help students, especially younger undergraduates, stay on track and know what to expect. ODL has created a Module Overview Template that you can use, so you don’t have to start from scratch. Ensuring that all of the introductions, explanations, instructions, assignment labels, etc. that you write are clear and consistent will help students to understand your expectations and navigate the course.
  • They begin with an introduction that welcomes students to that part of the course, lets them know what they’ll be learning and doing, and explains why they’re doing it. (Understanding the purpose of the coursework helps students to see value in it.) If you are including a list of objectives, try to write them in language students can understand and value, rather than the language you’d submit to an accrediting body.
  • They have a logical sequence of learning activities that familiarize students with concepts and examples and provide opportunities for them to get practice and feedback. These activities might include reading, writing, listening, discussion, analysis, interpretation, peer review, problem-solving, collaboration, reflection, playing an instrument, doing an experiment, or whatever is relevant in the discipline. Many of the activities we already use can be translated into an online environment. The order and the timing of the activities are important to think through, though, even more so than when teaching face-to-face. Once you’ve settled on a sequence of activities through which students can build their skills over time, you can write instructions with clear steps and due dates/times so that students can keep up. (Be careful not to overload them, or yourself, a common challenge in compressed summer courses.)
  • They include opportunities for both you and students to get feedback on their progress. In other words, they include some kind of assessment, whether formal or informal. This might mean students turn in a work-in-progress at the end of some modules, and a completed work at the end of others. Some modules might end with a quiz and others with an exam. The assessment strategy will vary by course, class size, and by what kinds of progress you’re trying to observe or measure. There is no one right way to assess students’ learning, and your approach may need to be adapted to work well in an online class. The key to keep in mind is that both you and your students should be able to gauge their progress through assessment, evaluation, and feedback. It is also beneficial to include opportunities for students to reflect, self-assess, and articulate what they’re learned.

If you would like support as you think through designing your summer course—sequencing the modules, selecting the assessments, or creating the activities—you can contact us at pro-teaching@fsu.edu. We look forward to working with you.