What is flexible design?
A flexibly designed course can easily shift between online and in-person learning. At its core, it means designing online components that can be used regardless of how a course is taught. The best way to do that is to think in terms of modules. You probably already do that to some extent, but a modular approach requires smaller sets of learning goals and explicit instructions that students can follow regardless of whether they are in the classroom or at home.
Here’s an analogy to help: Think of your course as a series of blocks, with each block representing an element of learning. (See the accompanying graphic or a PDF version.) In a typical semester, students work their way through each block, sometimes in class and sometimes out of class, ultimately reaching the overall goals you set. If you teach in person, you may not think about day-to-day goals as much because they are built into activities and assignments. Especially in classes they have taught before, experienced instructors may not need feel the need to prepare every detail of a class session. They know what material they will focus on and what activities they will use. Then they adapt to the circumstances.
Design for online
Flexible design, just like online course design, requires you to do more planning. You must articulate smaller goals for each module, class period, and assignment. That’s because students may not be in a live class session to hear your instructions or you may not be in class to give instructions. So you need to explain to students what they will do, how they will do that, and what goals they are trying to achieve. Essentially, you should design each course element for an online environment, even though you may plan to use that material in person. That way, students who miss class for a day or a larger part of a semester can still complete the work. This approach requires more time upfront, but that upfront time will save you time and grief later in the semester. It is almost always easier to transfer online course material to a physical class session than to transfer classroom material online, especially at the last minute.
Draw on universal design
The concept of universal design for learning can help in this process. Universal design is an approach that gives students options for completing an assignment. Thomas Tobin of the University of Wisconsin-Madison calls this a “plus one” approach. That is, each assignment or each class period may have a preferred means of achieving goals. Not all students may be adept at the methods you prefer but can still meet the goals in another way (the plus one). For instance, if you assign a paper, you might consider allowing students to complete the assignment by creating a video or a podcast instead. You should also consider this approach with course content, as well. (See the Designing for Accessibility section of this guidebook for more.)
The best process for designing for flexibility will involve reflecting on the core purpose and essential outcomes of your class, and using that to frame your thinking about how to adapt. For online classes, this will involve thinking about how to provide students with the practice and feedback they need through asynchronous and synchronous online activities. For courses that have some face-to-face time, you will need to consider which learning activties are best done in person and what can be done online. The Step-by-Step section of this guidebook will walk you through this process.
Build flexibility into the course schedule
Structure and deadlines are important for scaffolding student time on coursework, but many students will also need some flexibility in the timing of deadlines. One way to do that is to build in assignment choices or "release valves" that are available to all students while still holding them accountable for learning the material in those assignments. For example:
- Require students to write four essays but give them six or eight choices of subjects.
- Have students complete 10 out of 12 weekly discussion board posts during a semester.
- Drop the lowest grade in a set of repeated low-stakes assignments (e.g., weekly reading quizzes or problem sets). You might allow students to opt out of submitting one or two such assignments by the deadline as long as they complete the work before a unit assessment.
- Provide opportunities for students to redo assignments to improve their learning and their grade.
- Offer an "amnesty week" during which students may submit assignments they missed earlier.