Every Learner Everywhere
Achieving the Dream

How This Online Professional Development Course Centers Equity Through a Backward Course Design Framework

Faculty eager to center equity in their classrooms may struggle with the limited time and resources available for course design. With that in mind, Achieving the Dream (ATD) created an online professional development course for faculty and instructional designers that uses a backward course design framework to incorporate equity principles without requiring significant additional institutional resources.

ATD recently led 35 participants from 13 higher education institutions in Michigan through the course in response to a request from the Michigan Center for Student Success, which provides support to the leadership and faculty of the state’s 28 community colleges.

The ATD course offered six modules that guide faculty through the backward design planning framework, a methodology based on starting with the learning outcome goals for a course and then mapping backward through assessments, practice activities, and the lesson materials that lead to those outcomes. In other words, in the backward design planning framework, while students experience the course from start to finish, faculty and instructional designers using this methodology develop it from finish to start.

The ATD professional development course used the backward design planning framework as an opportunity to center equity for minoritized students by, for example, using culturally affirming pedagogy, exploring real-world problems of social justice in the discipline, and developing authentic assessment that invites students’ lived experience into the assignment.

Susan Adams, Associate Director of Teaching and Learning at Achieving the Dream, was a facilitator of the course and is co-author of two recent resources that include sections on the backward course design framework: The Adaptive Courseware Implementation Guide and The Caring for Students Playbook.

“The backward design planning framework is where we started the course,” Adams says. “But within that, when we’re writing our course-level objectives, we’ll ask, ‘What opportunities are there in your course to assess and build on students’ prior knowledge?’ When we’re thinking about an assessment, we’ll ask, ‘How can we create a work of value beyond the course that in turn becomes relevant and meaningful to the students? Where can we bring authentic and relevant content to a multiple-choice exam?’”

The value of peer-to-peer feedback

Participants in the Michigan cohort of the ATD course told Adams that by far the most valuable piece was the time spent reflecting on what was presented in course maps that helped them identify gaps, and then talking through that work with their peers.

ATD designed the class in such a way that participants must first tackle the essential questions of the course they are designing: For example, what knowledge in the course will students transfer and apply to the outside world? What meaning and understanding will students leave the course with? And what skills will they acquire?

Next they used a series of worksheets that walked through developing or re-examining course level objectives, mapping course content to align with those objectives, and preparing content for the learning management system by building a blueprint for the course. The worksheets were in a shared document, so even after the class or if someone took the course asynchronously, the feedback and conversation continues.

The Michigan faculty and instructional designers told Adams they liked how efficient the framework was; it gave educators an organizational process to consider culturally relevant teaching methods and identify gaps in the content or flow of the course.

They also told Adams they appreciated that the course gave them tangible strategies for considering equitable teaching practices whether it was fully online, hybrid, or a face-to-face. course.

“We noticed people were inspired because they got to go into breakout rooms and have their peers give them feedback during live sessions,” Adams says. “Then they also got feedback from us as facilitators live and on their worksheets. The ‘a-ha’ moment for me was the impact of contextualized and personalized feedback to each participant witnessed by their peers.”

Sharing challenges and solutions

Adams says the participants identified some common challenges they have in creating equity-centered, culturally relevant gateway courses.

For example, many of them, in learning about backward design, discovered the course-level objectives they currently worked with weren’t specific or measurable. Others felt limited by their institutions in that they weren’t allowed to change established or standardized objectives.

ATD led discussions on solving those issues by re-articulating the objectives. “For the students, and for yourself, it’s a great exercise to rewrite them, to think about verb choice and articulation,” Adams says.

“Well-articulated objectives on a syllabus communicate to the students that what they’re doing has value. Continually articulating how a course element such as an article, an assessment, or an equation applies to the real world gives students the agency to be part of their own learning process, and it also more effectively guides faculty in the course development process as they continually ask themselves, does this meet my learning objective?”

Participants also learned how more thoughtful assessment design is part of centering the student in their learning. For example, Adams offered examples of calculus lessons built around the social justice implications of conditions on a campus or in the local community. One, teaching the gini coefficient, which measures unequal frequency distributions, reframed illustrations and problem sets around income inequality.

Sharing the lessons of the backward course design framework

ATD aimed to develop a course that supported faculty’s existing course development efforts while giving more space for equitable assessments, activities that are culturally responsive, and collaboration at their department level. Participants can share what they learned and initiate a strategic process that takes the backward design planning framework to scale. ATD facilitators can also support the process, says Adams.

She also recommends that faculty find out what course design support resources already exist at their institution since many participants continued to share that the backward design planning framework, in the end, saved them so much time.

“As they continue to be inspired about designing a course this way, they often seek out their peers to be thought partners with them, realizing they do not need to do this in a vacuum which leads to students’ success across their department,” Adams says.  “Don’t forget that there are colleagues out there — even one person — who could support the review of your course.”

Read more on backward course design in the  Caring for Students Playbook