Designing for an Uncertain Fall Semester
By Kristin Powers
July 18, 2020
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Will this coming school year be in-person, hybrid, online, hyflex, remote, or a mix of some or all of these? Preparation mixed with uncertainty is a challenge without the right tools and guidance. Bonni Stachowiak of the Teaching in Higher Ed podcast talked to Coursetune Inc. CEO Maria Andersen about designing for the uncertain fall semester. 

“I think the hardest thing is that we are planning literally for the unexpected,” Maria shared. “As creatures of habit, we are so used to knowing what is going to happen when and setting our schedules around those expectations. It is hard to adapt to being thrust into a position of so much uncertainty. Because even though schools are announcing their plans now, it is highly unlikely they will stay and happen that way.”

Quality remote teaching practices were just made more prominent by the need to adjust to the pandemic. Car troubles, weather, health issues, or family demands can all keep a student from succeeding. In the podcast, Maria shows how when we carefully design courses (COVID or no), “it’s about finding new ways to let students participate if they have barriers in their life.” Adding something like a synchronous Zoom room to a class gives those students an opportunity to be engaged, no matter what the external problem is that prevents them from physically attending. 

Intentional planning in course design can easily allow for the flexibility instructors and students need during this uncertain time. Andersen encourages faculty to plan for a variety of possibilities. Visual mapping using a digital design tool can let you pivot quickly rather than being stuck in a rigid design for each potential modality. Listen to the full podcast to hear examples that can help you feel confident in your course design. 

Flexibility in Design to Facilitate Learning

There are a lot of tricks to getting good flexibility in the course: for the students, the course itself, and even within the structures of the course. Maria gives an example of how to solve this challenge. 

Use a Virtual Meeting Room – All the Time

Whether you meet in-person, with some of the class in-person, with the instructor remote, or with everyone remote, always have a virtual meeting room ready to go and use it. Assume that at least one student will not be able to attend and record the sessions. Do not plan to use these long-term, but have the recording available for the students in the class during that term.

Digital Submissions

Teach the students to turn in every assignment in a digital format from Day 1 of the course. Use a low-point “Practice Assignment” to give the students a chance to practice with the format before it feels more high stakes. Using formats like scanned PDFs (phone apps will help with this) or video demonstrations (use Handbrake to lower the file size) can make things flow smoothly even if you have to rapidly shift from in-person to remote or online with no notice.

Flexible “Exploration” Assignment

Use a regular, repeating assignment called an “Exploration” or “Active Learning Activity” to give the course structure a recurring assignment each week that will touch on concepts, but with a lot of flexibility in the type of assignment from week to week. The assignment could be an in-person discussion, a structured discussion on a discussion board, a synchronous meeting to solve problems, a Kahoot, a digital simulation, or a digital exploration activity. 

Revisit the Learning Objectives

When you are shifting a course to have a fully online format (or partially online format), you are already taking the course through a redesign process. This is the ideal time to re-examine why content lives in this course and how deeply you really intend to teach it. This means you need to take a deep dive into the course objectives and learning objectives of the course. 

Courseplan Activities

Organize your activities and learning objectives for flexibility by using CoursePlan.

Using software like CoursePlan, you should start by outlining the five to seven skills that a student should have when they leave the course and see if your ideas for the most important course skills actually match what the course objectives are (if they don’t, it’s time to begin a conversation with your colleagues). Then look at the existing learning objectives (LOs) for the course (the more granular learning goals).

Ask yourself, “Does this learning objective actually correspond to a course objective?” If the answer is “no,” ask yourself a serious question, “Does this learning objective need to be here?” Because most of our classes already have way too much content in them, and we need to make careful choices right now. Everybody’s a little bit stressed and anxious (faculty and students). Many of these courses were over-full to begin with, and we made judgment calls all the time.

The future of education will continue to evolve; having the foundation of an aligned course that’s intentionally designed will allow you to deliver quality learning no matter what modality. For digital course design, making thoughtful decisions about objectives and organization early in the process saves time and stress later. Try Courseplan for free at

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