In general, there are two typical assignments in the online classroom: discussion board posts and papers.
But are these the best ways for students to learn?
As instructional designers with the Johnson & Wales University (JWU) College of Online Education, Heather Myers and Maya Ott, Ed.D., work with faculty to bring learning to life in the online environment—and they both agree that there are additional, out-of-the-box options that require little to no writing.
“Students are always assessed on writing,” said Ott. “That’s good if that’s your strength—but if it’s not, you could have a bad educational experience.”
For this reason, Myers, Ott, and the entire JWU instructional design team are working with online instructors to infuse alternative assignments into the curriculum.
What does this look like?
Perhaps a timeline that illustrates the history of the Civil War or a visual essay that uses both pictures and text—either would show that students understand the concepts without pages and pages of writing. “I’ve assigned infographics and asked students to analyze a supernatural creature,” explained Myers, who teaches an undergraduate senior-level elective course called Things That Go Bump in the Night.
There’s also a section of Exercise Physiology that asked students to take a photo of something in their community that illustrated the obesity epidemic in lieu of a discussion post. Students responded with pictures of fast food, advertisements, work spaces, and cars. From there, the class discussed their pictures as a twist on the typical week’s prompt.
The Benefits of Alternative Assignments
It’s easy to understand the appeal of this new curriculum approach—it’s not exactly a Catch-22 for an online student enrolled in a Cultural Anthropology course to decide between writing a five-page research paper on their personal ethnography or completing the same assignment as a digital story—but are there additional reasons why it should be considered?
According to Myers and Ott, absolutely. Here’s why:
- It challenges students to think creatively in a new way.
- Visuals can lead to better recall.
- It’s almost impossible to plagiarize such original assignments.
- From the faculty point of view, it takes the focus off of the nitty gritty of grading for spelling, grammar, and formatting, and places more emphasis on whether or not the class grasped the concepts.
In addition, it speaks directly to the heart of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), a concept launched by a Harvard professor in the 1990s that is now a best practice in education design. “It’s important to make learning accessible to all learners,” said Myers, referring to one UDL principle. “For example, some ESL students may not be able to express their ideas easily in writing, even if they understand the material.”
Ott added another UDL pillar, which emphasizes tapping into students’ strengths to get them more excited about course content. “Choice is a best practice,” she said.
Innovation at JWU Online
Online students enrolled in the JWU College of Online Education may have already experienced alternative assignments in action. Myers said, “We’ve been working with faculty to identify different ways to approach subjects and start asking themselves, ‘What other ways can I achieve the same learning goals?’”
Ott said that case-based/scenario-based learning and discussion boards that have a social media look and feel, as well as increased video content, are either already embedded in courses or in the works.
Making these so-called alternative assignments more mainstream hinges on faculty buy-in, which is why Myers and Ott presented their ideas as part of the 2019 Transformative Approaches Expo at the Johnson & Wales University Providence Campus.
The title of their section? “A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words”—and it will indeed be exciting to how this new picture of online learning develops from here.
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