Back to Front

We have to redesign our courses

Good online course pedagogy requires rethinking and redesigning each course from back to front.1

Yes, back first. Because it is time to articulate the measurable learning outcomes for each course that we offer in our schools. If we start with the end in mind, we will have a much better idea of how to redesign the course as a whole. It seems like a tedious exercise. A teacher might say: “Why should I have to do this? I know what I am teaching!” But then a reasonable response might be: “What could possibly be wrong with making a list of what you want your students to know when you finish the course you are teaching them? You are an expert in this subject, so it should not take more than half an hour.”

The magic happens when you have that list.  Because then you can divide the individual outcomes by the amount of time you have, and apportion it to each outcome, and then think about how to measure whether your students have achieved that learning outcome while the course is progressing. And that leads to multiple assessments, preferably ones that are “formative” or encourage learning through the course, not just measure it at the end.

Also, when you have articulated your list of learning outcomes, you can share it with your students. This helps them to understand what you are teaching them, and what these formative assessments are for. They will have a better understanding of how they are doing during the course and have the opportunity to correct their trajectory before it is too late.

What this all leads to is a fundamentally different approach to course design. In this approach, you decide what the outcomes are, you divide the material into digestible components, and place them into an order that makes clear to students what they are learning and why. Each step or component of the newly designed syllabus has an optimal length of time assigned to it, and a companion assessment. When this “chunking” of the syllabus is complete, the transition to online and hybrid instruction can take place.

Because then—and only then—the teacher should look to select the learning activity that will best deliver the learning objective. Will it be an asynchronous lecture component on that topic, with an embedded quiz? Will it be a short live (synchronous) lecture on the topic, with some group work? The professor should select the assignment or activity to meet the learning goal, which means that the online modalities will vary throughout the semester. To suggest that you should make live (synchronous) teaching the default with tape available to students who could not be “there” (whether in person or online at the particular time you offered it) is to lose the opportunity to leverage the best teaching technology to optimally meet the learning outcome you have identified. Put another way, if a course design uses all the same modality (for example: live lecture on Zoom or all asynchronous lectures, etc.) then you have a pretty good idea that it was not redesigned from the back to the front. And it is likely not using the optimal activity and technology to meet each of the myriad learning outcomes for the course. It is, unfortunately, trying to replicate the traditional classroom experience with one teaching modality, and squandering the opportunity that online learning affords us to teach in a more effective multi-modal manner.

So, what is needed, in many cases, is a hybrid learning environment that includes a mix of online and in-person instruction. One that leverages learning technologies to advance learning goals that can be effectively achieved online, and that maximizes the precious in-person time by reserving for those classes instruction and group work that can be most effectively delivered in that context.

Further, the interesting question is: what is it about each teaching modality that made it a better choice for a digital solution, and what is still better in an analog form? Then apply that test to the hybrid learning environment for every course.

It seems more than possible that not every moment spent in lecture in the traditional in-person classroom pre-Covid was optimized for that precious resource (the in-person time). It is possible that we took in-person class time for granted—teachers and students alike. But we also noticed over the last decade (or more) that our students were occasionally tuning us out and surfing on their laptops. This dreaded discovery led to some teachers banning laptops in their classrooms. Another possible response might be for us to look for those places where students were tuning out and selecting a teaching method that would engage them instead. A hybrid teaching environment can help us do this.

So, in addition to redesigning your course from back to front, and including assessments, you might spend some time thinking about whether the particular topic you are coming to next would be more effectively taught using a short video lecture with diagrams and followed by a quiz. That sounds difficult, but another great development of the last decade is that our law schools have terrific, and sadly often underutilized, tech staff members who can do much of this with instruction by the teacher on the learning goal. Then, the precious in-person class time can be used to revisit, rediscover, and emphasize particular points or hypotheticals.

A hybrid learning environment is optimally designed with the maximization of the in-person time, as well as the utilization of the best technology to teach and embed a particular concept of law in our students. As we make these decisions in our courses, we will learn how to use the correct teaching modality in service of the planned learning goal for the particular course that we teach. And we will share this learning as it develops in conferences and papers, as we always do.

Letters of Recommendation

Having extolled the virtues of online and hybrid instruction, I think it is important to admit that there are certain things that just do not work in such an environment. I was reminded this week that there is no substitute for a choir singing beautiful music together - doing that in a hybrid environment just does not work (although perhaps one day there will be technology to support even that). Of course, a beautiful performance of singers singing together can be captured and enjoyed online, such as this performance of Gabriel Fauré’s Requiem. At a time when we are mourning so many lost lives in this country, sometimes the only thing we can do is pause and sing.

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Quote from the late poet Richard Wilbur:

I feel that the universe is full of glorious energy, and that the energy tends to take pattern and shape, and that the ultimate character of things is comely and good. I am perfectly aware that I say this in the teeth of all sorts of contrary evidence, and that I must be basing it partly on temperament and partly on faith, but that’s my attitude.


Today’s newsletter is a lightly edited excerpt from an article I recently published in the St. Louis University Law Journal: Elements of Effective Online Instruction in Law. If you would like to read the entire article, you’ll find it here.