By Bonita Bray, Lead, E-Learning Professional Development and Consulting, Academic Information and Computing Technologies, University of Alberta
The original intent of the Blackboard Exemplary Course Program (ECP), formerly called the Blackboard Greenhouse Program, was to articulate standards and practices essential in designing and facilitating high-quality online courses, along with encouraging instructors and instructional designers to implement these standards and practices.
The competitive process of the ECP worked to identify exemplary courses that met these standards and to reward the instructors and designers of these courses. Over the past six years, the project has succeeded in these goals. The evaluation rubric – along with the one created by CSU Chico – has become something of a touchstone for assessing online and blended courses.
For the past seven years, the Professional Development Team of E-Learning Services at the University of Alberta has reviewed courses submitted to the ECP. The review process is definitely time-consuming and a significant time investment by our group. However, we’ve built in some immediate return to our unit by using the process as a professional development opportunity for both our instructors and professional development staff.
U of Alberta instructors were quick to see the benefits of using the ECP rubric. Whether they were working with our e-Learning team to review courses submitted to the project, preparing to submit their own courses, or reflecting on their courses as part of their end-of-term wrap-up, they reported the ECP rubric was a great tool for self-assessment. With the ECP review process, instructors are able to look at their courses and reflect on how they stack up against the standards. Frequently the elements identified in the rubric provided instructors with insights into new strategies for enhancing student learning.
Our professional development staff members also found the ECP review process worthwhile for a number of reasons. First of all, it provides an excellent opportunity – on a scheduled, annual basis – to sit down together and talk about standards and issues. Reviewing for the ECP rubric and courses provides a venue for general discussions on changing standards, issues, strategies and approaches, and new technological developments.
The ECP review process also provides an opportunity for focused discussions, so all members of our team are “on the same page,” using the same criteria and emphasizing the same issues. Prior to reviewing the courses as individuals, the group reviews a course together as a way to “calibrate” the process. During the round-table discussion we frequently find various members of the team are using different criteria and standards. Without this calibration step, each team member could provide different – perhaps conflicting – information or recommendations to instructors. The “calibration” process also provides us the opportunity to reinforce group approaches to standards and issues, and to get new members up to speed on the elements we need to address. The group review, then, focuses our attention on course quality and is invaluable in helping us create effective new courses and modify existing courses.
This group review also provides insight into the new interests and expertise that individual members have recently developed. This growing expertise on the part of individual team members may involve exploring new strategies or approaches such as ways to enhance interactivity in large classes or it may involve enhancing student engagement with new technologies such as wikis or podcasting. This new expertise enhances the team’s pool of experience and knowledge and, as a result, increases the team’s effectiveness.
Reviewing courses also gives our professional development team a chance to see how faculty members at other institutions design and deliver courses. This provides an excellent learning activity since it provides concrete elements to observe and discuss. Questions about whether an innovative approach worked or did not work – and, in either case, why? – motivate us to explore and rethink traditional approaches. This in turn helps the team explore alternatives and improve our practice.
Finally, the review process also helps team members develop effective ways to deliver critical feedback. After all, it is difficult to tell someone that they have “missed the mark,” and most team members feel uncomfortable identifying areas that need significant improvement. During the review process, each team member completes their own evaluation form and writes their individual comments. In the process, team members learn how to present criticisms, suggestions and feedback in a positive but effective way. Whether this activity reinforces and polishes a previous skill or helps to develop a new one, it is an extremely useful payoff for reviewing courses.
During the past seven years, we’ve found reviewing courses for the ECP project provides some excellent opportunities for professional development. We hope this year to increase the “pay-offs” by working more closely with colleagues across our campus and perhaps involving graduate students in disciplines such as education. We’d also be interested in learning the benefits you see in the ECP project and hope you’ll send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.