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This content was published: November 5, 2018. Phone numbers, email addresses, and other information may have changed.

Sustaining your online course: Do online course materials “expire?”

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expiration date on a jar of medicineThe goal of this blog post is to pose a sequence of three questions with regard to best practices and online teaching:

  • Do online course materials have an “expiration date?”
    • If so, how do we know when they’ve “expired?”
      • What do we do about it?

With regard to the first question, I’m going to answer this briefly, and emphatically, with yes. Technology changes. Our student demographic changes. Curriculum changes. We as faculty grow, and although the changes we make to our teaching are often small and incremental, over time they add up to this: we change, too.

To answer the second two questions briefly, I suggest this cycle:

  • If something seems “off,” identify what isn’t working. This may be something that’s worked well in the past.
  • Make a small change. It’s generally helpful to consult other online colleagues, your faculty mentor, or technology support staff. Asking students can be helpful, too.
  • Assess the impact of your change.
  • If your change made the improvement you wanted, you’re done (for now). If not, restart the cycle.

To put this cycle into context, I’m going to end by sharing an example from my own course.

The problem:

There were these quizzes I used—10 quizzes with 10 questions each. And each question had 4 similar versions to help alleviate cheating concerns. And each of those had 5 multiple choice answers. That’s 400 questions total, and 2,000 answer blanks. I could go on for a really long time about how much work I put into both creating and revising these quizzes (on multiple occasions), but I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just get to the main point: After investing so much time and energy in these quizzes, I used them well past their expiration date. They were originally a really well thought-out component of my course. Combined with a weekly worksheet, they provided students with a maximum amount of feedback while minimizing their time spent completing assignments. But I had a series of interactions that made me genuinely question whether these quizzes were worth keeping. I realized that very few students still typed their answers (due to evolutions in both technology access and expectations). A colleague looked at my course and had an initial reaction of, “Both a quiz and a worksheet every week? That’s a lot!” A student, coincidentally, said that they wished they could focus more on just the worksheet and that having both made it hard to focus their attention. And finally, an interaction with a student who was retaking the course (to change their B grade to an A grade) made me come to the distinct realization that they were able to answer the multiple choice quiz questions on a specific topic but lacked any conceptual understanding.

That last interaction pushed me over the edge, and I decided to cut them. Entirely. And it was great.

The change:

I eliminated the quizzes, and added 1-2 more questions to each worksheet. The problems I added focused on conceptual understanding. Given that quizzes had taken up about 1 hour each week, I was able to ask either more questions or more challenging questions on the weekly worksheets without increasing student workload. I also focused on helping students connect problems they’d missed with problems from their “practice” homework (a larger set of problems done either from their textbook or online) by writing comments on their worksheets and/or emailing them, a connection that was easier to make without both a quiz and a worksheet.

The assessment:

I deemed this change “great,” and my measurements for this are based on four things:

  • Student worksheet submission rates
  • The proportion of students who attempted each exam
  • Student exam scores
  • Performance on specific conceptual topics

Each of these were noticeably improved from years past. But I’m going to disappoint anyone expecting data, and withhold specifics. For one, this wasn’t anywhere near a random sample. And second, there was a giant lurking variable: Our placement test changed shortly after I implemented my change. So strong conclusions are statistically tough. And given how many things constantly change in higher ed, this is often the case. I can say this with certainty though: I addressed notable concerns. Students were asked more conceptual questions more frequently. And student success definitely did not get worse. So no restarting of the cycle is warranted–for now.

Do you have any examples of successful updates/changes you made to your course? Share them below–it’s always great to hear more examples.

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x (Comment #33452) by bryan 4 years ago (Comment #33452)

I can’t imagine creating that many quiz questions, Ann! Impressive!

I do something that all gardeners will understand … I go through a module or an entire course and “weed”. Besides digging up weeds, I pull off dying pieces off my kale, snatch any fat slugs I see waiting to eat my food … and in general, just do a thorough going over of a part of my garden. I could never do the entire garden all in one day. My life doesn’t allow for such a luxury. So, how would that translate to on-line teaching? I do a read over of all documents. Does the wording still make sense? (Did it ever?) Is the wording even accurate any more? Is there a discussion that just hasn’t been eliciting thoughtful responses in recent times? If so, I put it to bed for a while. maybe I delete it for good. I give every thing the once over. I make sure the quiz questions still match up with the lectures, I make notes of which lectures need redoing when I have the energy. I delete optional documents that I no longer think are compelling to have in the course, etc. I think you get the point. It feels soooo good to do this weeding! We call it “garden hygiene”!

x (Comment #33454) by Ann Cary 4 years ago (Comment #33454)

That’s such a great analogy, Bryan. And is sure to stick with me as I get ready to edit next term’s course. (And as I tackle my actual garden next spring.)

If we apply that analogy to those darn quizzes–it makes sense why they were so hard to finally pull. I’d essentially fed, watered, and pruned them over the years, and by the time I recognized them as weeds they were quite hardy. A good lesson in regular weeding.

x (Comment #33457) by Heather G 4 years ago (Comment #33457)


Your remarks about the time investment (in the quizzes particularly) makes me wonder if there has been online content, assignments, quizzes, etc. that I may have been reluctant to “abandon” because I remember the hours of my life I invested in developing them. I also think about how I’ve observed our PCC student populations change and, as a result, so do students’ learning needs. Statistical considerations aside, I still think the indicators you looked do provide valuable information about student success: student worksheet submission rates, the proportion of students who attempted each exam, student exam scores, and performance on specific conceptual topics.

Thanks for the post.