Why resilient course design?

20 July 2020
By Melissa Eblen-Zayas

Even before spring term wrapped up, the LTC and AT team started thinking about how to support faculty in preparing fall term courses. We knew that fall would look different than spring for two reasons: 1) there would be more time for planning, but in a context where uncertainty made planning challenging if not impossible, and 2) faculty had learned a lot of lessons from the experience of teaching online. If you look at the LTC website, the LTC is using a resilient course design framework to support faculty in preparing for fall term. Here I share some of the questions we’ve gotten and the thinking that went into our decision to employ this framework.

Why did we choose to focus on resilient course design? 

We were trying to prepare for fall in advance of knowing what decisions the administration might make about bringing students back to campus. In addition, regardless of what decisions were made, the public health environment is changing rapidly and that will be the case for the  foreseeable future. Faculty need to be able to plan their courses in a manner that doesn’t require them to completely redesign their courses if circumstances change, and the resilient course design framework allows that. 

We also recognized that different faculty members had different comfort levels with online and face-to-face teaching, and we wanted each faculty member to make course planning decisions that felt right for them and their courses. Resilient course design doesn’t mandate a particular mode of delivery, but it does encourage faculty to consider what aspects of their courses are most likely to be disrupted by changes in the circumstances due to COVID-19 and then to redesign courses so as to minimize the potential for disruption and consider, in advance, how to make adjustments if the circumstances require it. 

Finally, whether online or in a physically-distanced classroom, faculty won’t be able to rely on their traditional pedagogical toolbox in the same manner as they did in the pre-pandemic era. For example, even teaching face-to-face, faculty won’t be able to circulate the classroom or read expressions on students’ faces easily because of physical-distancing and mask requirements. Even though we may not be able to use our usual teaching approaches, faculty still want to find ways to build community and foster engagement, as that is central to teaching & learning at Carleton.  Resilient design helps faculty prioritize synchronous engagement (either in-person or online) for activities that benefit most from interaction, and helps faculty plan their courses so that potential disruption takes a minimal toll on opportunities for engagement with each other and with course content. 

Where does this framework come from? 

I first became aware of the concept of resilient course design, as conceived for fall 2020, from Josh Eyler, faculty development director at the University of Mississippi and author of How Humans Learn. (Here is a summary of Eyler’s perspective.) Many in faculty development found this framework to be appealing because of its flexibility and the control it gave to faculty, and subsequently there were a number of efforts to develop the concepts of resilient teaching.

The resilient course design framework builds on existing recommendations for course and assignment design, including CAST’s universal design for learning guidelines and the Transparency in Learning and Teaching resources. In developing the resilient course design framework for Carleton, we have been mindful of the AAC&U research that indicates collaborative assignments and projects are a high impact practice that provide students with important opportunities to learn to work and solve problems with others and to listen seriously to each other’s insights. Faculty in spring term found that collaborative work opportunities, when thoughtfully organized, played a valuable role in building community in the online context. Designing opportunities for collaboration is a key element of preparing resilient courses. 

Doesn’t this type of course design require a lot of work from faculty? 

This approach does require more work than if we were simply preparing for our traditional fall term courses where we could all gather in classrooms without concerns about physical distancing or potential coronavirus outbreaks, but it requires less work than some other types of course design. Resilient course design focuses on flexible design, and puts power in the hands of instructors to determine how to deliver course material. Other models, such as the hybrid flexible (or HyFlex) model, require preparing materials for delivery in three modalities (online synchronous, online asynchronous, and in person) at once, with students having choice as to what modality to engage at any time throughout the course. Resilient design focuses on course materials and activities that can be adjusted for delivery depending on the circumstances, but faculty have more autonomy and it does not require preparing materials for multiple types of engagement simultaneously. 

Have you considered bringing in outside experts to help faculty prepare?  

There are faculty development facilitators with a focus in online teaching, and Carleton faculty had the opportunity to participate in programming with one such expert, Flower Darby, author of Small Teaching Online, through LACOL. Her book offers many valuable suggestions for those who were not able to attend the LACOL programming. 

However, research about best practices for online teaching primarily occurred in a pre-pandemic era where many online students were working adults who chose online courses to accommodate their schedules. The design principles for online courses in that context are somewhat different than planning an online course for students who have chosen to learn in a residential environment where they can focus intensively on their studies and be in close proximity with peers and professors. Hence, we have distilled recommendations from the online teaching literature in developing resources about resilient course design, but we have done so keeping in mind the experiences and lessons learned at Carleton in spring term. 

While some faculty will be teaching online, all faculty need to design courses in a manner that builds relationships and places value on learning in community, and that does so in a manner that will be able to adapt if needed. Rather than trying to develop separate programming for each different type of delivery, we are trying to foster an approach to thinking about fall term that allows faculty to talk with colleagues about their approaches and share ideas even if they aren’t teaching in the same mode. 

As with any framework, the resilient course design framework has its limitations, but Victoria and I find that this approach seems to fit well given the uncertainties about fall while giving faculty choices and flexibility.