Dual Pathways in Online Learning

I’m slowly plugging away at developing my online class for the fall. In previous posts, I have talked about developing a story for my syllabus to tell (see Part 1 and Part 2). And while I’m still working on identifying readings, I am also exploring ideas about how to structure my course. Enter this fabulous article from Matt Crosslin over at EduGeek Journal. Matt’s article discusses customizable pathway designs, and that’s the idea I want to take a closer look at today.

What is a Customizable Pathway Design?

As I understand it, a customizable pathway design allows students to have some degree of freedom over charting their own way through the course. Notice I said some degree. The choices are constrained. Matt helps us understand how this works by using a garden as an example. He notes:

The main consideration for these possibilities is that they should be designed as part of the same course in a way that learners can switch back and forth between them as needed. Many ask: ‘why not just design two courses?” You don’t want two courses as that could impeded changing modalities, as well as create barriers to social interactions. The main picture that I have in my head to explain why this is so is a large botanical garden…There is a path there for those that want to follow it, but you are free to veer off and make your own path to see other things from different angles or contexts. But you don’t just design two gardens, one that is just a pathway and one that is just open fields. You design both in one space.

Things just clicked in place for me when I read this. It reminded me that I once tried to do something along these lines, but I was probably mediocre at best. The problem I had was I asked students to decide if they wanted to stay on the path as I had set it up OR if they wanted to chart their own course. Once they made the decision that was that.

What I understood from Matt’s post was that there was no need to be so final about it. Students could make decisions at certain intervals. For example, each week they could decide if they wanted to use the course of study I had planned or if they wanted to create their own. They could move back and forth between doing this as they needed or they could spend the entire course doing it as I had set it up or charting their own path. Any combination you can think of would work here.

What’s the Rationale?

What I took away from Matt’s post is that having options about how you complete a component of the course (choosing to do what the instructor has laid out or choosing from a list of options) allows students the opportunity to adjust the curriculum to better suit their needs. For example, one week a student might know a great deal about a given topic. That student could select options that would delve them into a more advanced or nuanced path and help them extend their learning. However, the next week the student might be a novice at what we’re discussing and might decide it’s better to use the path that I have set.

And of course there’s so much room for variation. Even if a student didn’t feel particularly strong about a topic, let’s say there was one item I had on the path that week that they didn’t need for whatever reason. They could simply remove that one item and replace it with something else. When they chart their own path, they don’t have to do it 100% from scratch. It could be as simple as swapping one item out.

Now, the next logical questions for me were:

  • How do we document this?
  • How do I know that students did what they said they would do?
  • How do I know what students are learning or need more help with?

In Matt’s post, as well as some email exchanges we’ve had, I was able to get some clarity on this. And that’s where we’ll be heading next week. So do come back.

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