The OU College of Professional and Continuing Studies has been serving distance learners for more than 60 years. As its role has evolved along with technology to serve learners in an online environment, the college has stayed one step ahead by creating courses specifically designed for its online learners.
Designing relevant courses that meet the demands of PACS students is the responsibility of the PACS Curriculum Services Team. The team, which was formed last year to maximize the learning experience for PACS faculty and students, is comprised of instructional designers and academic technologists who work relentlessly to deliver course development, support and revision.
“In general, this team is responsible for the development and deployment of curriculum for our courses,” said Jason Hall, associate dean for curricular and faculty resources. “They work with content consultants and faculty to design and build courses, as well as noncredit learning opportunities in Canvas.”
The team also provides technical and educational support for faculty and students as they navigate courses, Hall said.
An evolving field
Michele Haynes, director of curriculum services for PACS, said while PACS has been developing online courses for many years, the field continues to evolve.
“The needs of students continue to become more focused and sophisticated,” Haynes said. “Our faculty are seriously dedicated to the growth of their students, and this includes creating a curriculum that is interactive, engaging and challenging. Because so many of our faculty are practitioner-educators, they tend to easily spot gaps, lags and opportunities in the curriculum, both within courses and across programs.”
Haynes said faculty are typically the ones who initiate ideas for new courses and updated content. The development phase takes several months and begins by pairing a curriculum consultant with a one-to-one instructional designer.
“Luckily, we have brilliant faculty at PACS,” Haynes said. “Their ideas for online learning are phenomenal.”
“Our goal is to focus on the needs of our students to set them up for success as they enter the workforce. We’re data driven in our instructional design practices, and we look at course evaluation data to see what students enjoy, what gaps are present and where students feel their best experience could improve."
Creating engaging courses
Morgan Myers, an instructional designer for PACS, said the process begins with faculty submitting a request for a new course or a course redevelopment. Once the faculty member provides the content, her team makes sure the content is delivered in an instructionally sound way. This includes verifying that outcomes are measurable and aligned to learning activities and assessments, ensuring content is accessible for students and copy editing the content.
“In general, our goal is to emphasize the importance of authentic, universally designed courses so that our students can succeed academically and then as practitioners,” Myers said. “When the faculty member and instructional designer are happy with the content, our academic technologists do the technical work of building or updating the course in Canvas, making it functional and aesthetically pleasing.”
The other half of the Curriculum Services Team includes the instructional technologists. Instructional technologists mold technology to fit the needs of the college, said Will Poillion, an instructional technologist for PACS.
“We extend Canvas in many ways beyond its base functionality, develop and integrate external software into the platform, and provide a help desk specifically for PACS students to get assistance,” Poillion said. “We’re constantly watching the latest online technologies, measuring the merits and pitfalls of each and figuring out the best to implement for PACS.”
Dedicated to student support
Poillion said one of the challenges of the instructional technologists is maintaining quality and consistency in an ever-changing online environment. His team has developed a theme for all PACS courses that provides an interface that is both consistent and easy to navigate. It also allows the team to update and manage the system efficiently, he said.
“The speed at which we are able to adapt is the most important aspect of delivering excellent courses in an online environment, because in an online environment excellence changes daily,” he said. “We are constantly evaluating new tools to build or integrate into our systems, not only to provide more options for our faculty, but to do it in a way that’s scalable and maintainable without sacrificing quality.”
While the Curriculum Services Team is still getting its footing as a new entity, it’s in the process of creating comprehensive checklists and how-to-guides for best online instructional practices, as well as consulting regularly with faculty to get their input and expertise. Haynes said the team hopes to eventually offer instructional design webinars for faculty that provide tips and tricks for effective online teaching.
Preparing students for success
Myers said that although PACS is recognized as one of the top schools in the nation to get an online degree, her team’s focus isn’t necessarily to benchmark against other online schools.
“Our goal is to focus on the needs of our students to set them up for success as they enter the workforce,” she said. “We’re data driven in our instructional design practices, and we look at course evaluation data to see what students enjoy, what gaps are present and where students feel their best experience could improve. We stay steeped in the literature on best practices for promoting engagement for students in online programs, with our most recent research and discussions being centered around the effective use of discussion boards. All of this informs the way we develop courses. We have a culture of continuous improvement and always seek to be collaborative with our faculty.
“As a team, we’re really excited about the restructure of the college,” she added. “Having Assistant Dean Hall as an advocate while remaining student-centered in his leadership really empowers our team to focus on both students and faculty as we develop curriculum.”
As working adults, students with family commitments and service members continue to choose online degrees to fit their schedules, an effective Curriculum Services Team is imperative to create the best experience possible for students.
“As a part of our mission, our team is always looking for opportunities to introduce new technologies or practices into our learning environment to improve our student experience and faculty effectiveness,” he said.
You can learn more about the online programs the PACS Curriculum Services Team helps support by visiting pacs.ou.edu.