Using a Modular Approach to Course Design
This section of “A Primer on Course Design” introduces a fundamental concept: modular course design or, put simply, building courses out of smaller, discrete units known as modules.
A module can be defined as a unit, chapter, topic, or segment of instruction. It is a standard unit or instructional section of your course that is a “self-contained” chunk of instruction. A week is a common module length, but it can be shorter or longer depending upon content and your teaching style.
A module structure is especially important in online learning environments, as it provides an aid in the presentation and application of the online teaching and learning process. When students are aware of the structure of the course, they spend less time guessing about what is expected of them and more time focusing on the content and activities.
KEY: Essentially, the module structure, as portrayed in the folder structure in your Blackboard course site design and in your schedule, provides students with a “road map” and can help keep them on track.
The structure, including the elements and how they are sequenced, is one you define. The structure of each individual module may be unique, or it may be a consistent pattern that is repeated throughout the course, in which case, the structure of the first module you create can serve as a pattern or template for other modules in your course. Keep in mind a possible module for your own course as we consider what could be a part of a module.
There are many on-line courses that are not modularized. Or to state it in another way, there are many on-line courses that are just one large module. The better on-line courses are a sequence of modules. Most of the content is presented via modules.
Advantages of the Modular Structure
Why a modular course structure? The following is an excerpt from the book Internet Based Learning (Kogan-Page, 1999) describing some of the advantages of using a modular structure.
- There are several advantages to a modular presentation. The most important one is that it allows for better evaluation and more focused revision and improvement. Modifying a module is easier and more cost effective than revising a course or one large module.
- Another advantage to a modular approach is that parts of the course can be used and reused elsewhere in other courses.
- Courses that are already in a modular format are ultimately more flexible and easier to convert for delivery in other formats.
Components of a Module (Part One)
What are the elements that make up a module? What goes into the instructional module depends on your course objectives, content, your teaching style, and student needs. In general, a module includes:
- an introduction to the module’s objectives, its rationale or purpose, and context
- activities that provide ways for students to engage with each other in discussion and with the information and concepts
- opportunities to practice, apply, analyze or synthesize new information; may include worked or practice exercises, labs, or case studies.
- a chance to reflect and articulate students’ acquired knowledge. Includes a formal or informal assessment of module’s objectives.
- feedback to students regarding their learning and accomplishment of module objectives.
- and possibly additional resources for students to extend their learning through enriching activities and evaluation
Ultimately, you will base the module and the module template on pedagogy that fits the content you are teaching. Depending on the nature of your overall course design and pedagogy, your module may have a highly distinctive look and feel. For example, the sequence of activities and modules within a course that is designed as a simulation will look quite different than a module within a more lecture-driven course.
The list below contains examples of module components, though it is by no means inclusive:
The overview or introduction to each module might contain the objectives, an introduction to the module content, and a list of assignments, activities, lecture notes, test/quizzes, and due dates.
The introduction is a place to provide a rationale and highlight the module’s relevance by describing how it fits into the course, and may provide a brief overview of new material. It is also a place to remind students what they have already learned and how this new information will build on their previous knowledge.
Any reading or visual material in addition to the text or reader. May be instructor prepared text, PowerPoint slides, Web sites, articles, graphic organizers, or other media and material.
What are the types of assignments that appear in the module? While the assignments were listed in the introduction, here is a chance to describe the assignments in detail and to provide students with the needed information and resources, including the due dates. If there are more than one type of assignment the module may have a page for each.
Collaborative and interactive activities that will facilitate communication between and among students, including group projects, case studies, discussion questions, or other types of communication and collaboration.
Labs/Practice Exercises/Worked Examples
Explicit opportunities to to practice or review skills or procedures. Assessment/Evaluation The assessment component of the module, whether a test, quiz, essay, journal or portfolio entry, peer evaluation, or self evaluation.
A module summary that pulls the material together, highlighting to students the objectives they accomplished and what they have learned.
To summarize, the module structure is essentially the type, frequency, and sequence of various elements within a given unit of instruction. The important thing to remember is that course module is “self-contained,” and as such, has its own delineated objectives, content, activities, and assessments.
Components of a Module (Part Two)
The Tennessee Board of Regents has established detailed standards governing the development of online courses offered by the State University and Community College System of Tennessee. Those standards recommend that modules of instruction consist of the following elements. We’ve adapted this model of a module for the hybrid seminar, modifying it somewhat to fit our purpose and the information needs of our audience. As you review this outline for a typical module, compare it to how we have organized and presented the modules in this seminar.
Overview: A general statement about the nature of the module and its relation to the course as a whole. The introduction should not only introduce the topic of the module, but should also forecast the content and organization of the module itself.
Module Learning Objectives: These objectives should be the specific outcomes that relate to each individual module, not the objectives that relate to the entire course. Students should be explicitly and clearly told what they are expected to learn in each module. It is very important to make sure that the module outcomes align properly with the assessments in the same module.
Key Words and Concepts: A list of keywords, with or without definitions, perhaps listed for emphasis so that the student will be on the alert for an explanation or definition later in the module.
Content, Lectures, Readings, Assignments, etc.: This can be a very broad area to cover and may include multiple topics. Therefore, you may want to separate this material into sections (lectures, discussion board forums, PowerPoint presentations, reading requirements, self-assessment activities, and so on).
Additional Resources: Supplemental or complementary materials relevant to the module. Be certain to clearly and explicitly designate these materials as optional.
Assessments and Evaluations: All assessments should contain detailed explanations of their purpose, with full descriptions of how students are to complete them and how they are to submit them.
Summary and Reflection: This section provides a way to engage the student in a dialogue about what they have learned by completing the module. This dialogue might take place in an online or classroom discussion, in a small-group activity, or through a writing assignment. It might also contribute to a student’s grade for participation.
“Modular Course Design Benefits Online and Hybrid Instructors and Students”
Andrea Henne, dean of online and distributed learning in the San Diego Community College District, recommends creating online and hybrid courses composed of modules—discrete, self-contained learning experiences—and uses a course development method that specifies what to include in each module.