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Every Learner Everywhere
Association of Public and Land-grant Universities

Flexible Course Design: Adapting to an Uncertain Fall 2020 and Investing in the Future

As COVID-19 began spreading across the country, most postsecondary institutions were forced to close or to move into emergency remote learning. Now we’re past that immediate crisis and approaching a fall semester with a lot of uncertainty. How can university and college instructors design courses that can stand up to that uncertainty?

The effect of COVID-19 on our schedules and classroom spaces is unpredictable, so the ideal course should be designed to be adaptable. Karen Vignare, Ph.D., Executive Director of Personalized Learning at the Association of Public Land-grant Universities, advises instructors to consider multi-modal flexibility, particularly what’s often called flexible design.

“There are likely universities that will open in the fall,” she says. “Others will not, and they’re designing their classes online. There’s a likelihood that even those that open will practice social distancing or de-densifying, with fewer students coming in contact with each other.”

Flexible design provides the adaptability needed for those scenarios.

A guide to help instructors in response to COVID-19

Every Learner Everywhere and its network of partner organizations recently published Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID-19, a faculty playbook that encourages flexible course design and related concepts. Each topic covered in the playbook is organized around three stages of development:

  • Design provides foundational information and resources for developing an online course, and provides guidance for moving courses online in emergency situations.
  • Enhance provides information to either continue quality course development, or to improve the initial elements of a course moved online unexpectedly.
  • Optimize offers resources for designing a course in alignment with the highest-quality recommendations and best practices, as well as for evaluation and maintenance.

The playbook helps you think about flexible course design principles by starting with your learning objectives, then aligning instruction and assessment with your objectives.

The playbook helps identify what works better online, and how you can optimize that experience for students.

Plan for multiple scenarios

Vignare and her colleagues at APLU are working with instructors this summer to “think thoughtfully about how they would design their course, always keeping a digital version in mind.” Even if teaching is happening on campus, she sees several possible scenarios that require flexibility and the ability to do some work online.

  • There may be fewer students on campus due to social distancing, and you may not be able to hold face-to-face office hours with them.
  • You could go “back to normal” but only temporarily. “You may get six weeks into the semester,” Vignare says, “and suddenly we have a virus resurgence in a hotspot.” Then it could be like March 2020 all over again.
  • After you are back in the classroom, one student may let you know they cannot come to class for two weeks because their child has the virus.
  • You may be exposed to the virus and have to isolate at home while students can continue meeting on campus.

This is where flexible design plays an important part in planning for an uncertain future. Vignare advises preparing for multiple scenarios, depending upon public safety. She counsels instructors when planning your face-to-face course, to also plan a digital version of it.

HyFlex Model and backward course design

Two strategies that promote flexible design include the HyFlex Model and backward course design.

  • Educause defines the HyFlex Course Model as course design that enables students to attend sessions in either the classroom or online or both. In this flexible course structure, students can change their mode of attendance by week or by topic, depending upon the need.
  • Backward course design, developed by Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe in their book, Understanding by Design, recommends designing courses by first defining goals for student learning and then choosing how to assess progress toward those goals and what instructional methods and learning activities will promote progress. This model may be effective for any type of course development including in classroom, online, and blended.

“Using either model,” Vignare says, “you would have carefully thought through your objectives whether it was an online course, an in-classroom course, or a blended course.”

Ongoing benefits of flexible design

Vignare advises that “if you get the luxury of face-to-face instruction, it will still be useful to include digital tools in the classroom. You may find that you want to carry this modality forward, post-COVID.”

Vignare cited an example where digital learning gave students an advantage when flexibility was suddenly required. She has been working with chemistry professors at the University of Toledo where some — but not all — were using adaptive courseware and other digital learning tools. When COVID-19 forced everyone to remote learning, the students who were already working with adaptive courseware had a shorter gap to bridge, since they had already been doing some work online. Some of those digitally confident students offered help to other students new to online learning.

“We have high evidence that using adaptive courseware works well in face-to-face instruction,” Vignare says. “And we have good evidence that it helps students when they work in an online environment.”

Design for universal access

Flexible design can also make courses more accessible for all over the long term. The resources section of Delivering High-Quality Instruction Online in Response to COVID-19 includes guidance on designing for students with varying types of physical disabilities.

“Because you had to move your class online quickly, you might not have been aware of the best methods for addressing specific disabilities,” Vignare says. “Instructors are now being asked to think about how to improve accessibility.”

She also suggests consulting with your school’s Disability Office for guidelines on accessibility.

Flexible design now will pay off in the future

Essentially, flexible course design is imagining how faculty can effectively promote learning when some unknown set of students may not be able to attend class for some indefinite period of time.

In that sense, flexible course design is an investment in the future, because the pandemic is not the only barrier to access. It helps faculty in the coming year prepare for the consequences of COVID-19. And it helps design courses that work over the long term, serving student populations with increasingly diverse needs.

If you’ve planned effectively for this fall, “you’ve done yourself a favor by thinking ahead on how to be more flexible,” Vignare says. “It’s a unique opportunity to rethink your course.”

Resources and related reading