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Your content provides the necessary information and tools that students need to complete activities and reach learning outcomes. While it can be easy to find and add more and more content to an online course, it's important to ensure that content actually supports your learning outcomes.
In this module, we discuss different sources for content, legal issues related to the use of others' content, and how to avoid "scope creep" in your content. By the end of this module, we hope that you will be able to:
Table of Contents
As you design your course based on your desired learning outcomes, it is important to think through what parts of your content are critical to support student achievement of those outcomes and what parts are less critical. By continuing the process of backward design, the foundational content should directly support students as they complete activities and assessments. Content that doesn't directly support activities and assessments (which were developed to provide practice and show mastery of learning outcomes) is supplemental content and would be prioritized behind foundational content. Supplemental content can include additional in-depth materials for advanced students, related inter-disciplinary content, or review of basic knowledge and skills for students without the prerequisite abilities for the course.
Is it more than just a reading list?
In your face-to-face course, content includes not only your textbook(s) and other reading materials but also material you present in class and any publisher-provided resources such as videos or interactive tools. In your online course, the same range of content is important to make your course engaging and to motivate your students to learn what is needed to meet the desired learning outcomes.
When you described your desired learning outcomes for the course, you began to make a road map for your content. When you developed your assessments and practice activities, you filled in more spaces on that map. Now you can look at the map you have created and see what content is needed to fill in the remaining spaces and support student success.
Focusing the Content
One of the keys to supporting student learning is to carefully define the scope of each module, unit, or learning event. You will often have more content than can or should be included given the desired outcomes and the amount of time available. To keep the scope of the content manageable, it helps to clearly describe the prerequisite knowledge students need.
By returning to the question “What do the learners need to do?” and the related question of “Is this content necessary for the learners to be able to do what they need to do?” you can avoid information overload.
Avoiding information overload can be difficult, especially in an online environment where it’s often easy to keep adding resources through links to other websites or documents. You may hear instructional designers talk about “chunking” content, a term from cognitive information processing which emphasizes that the average human being can hold only so much information in short-term memory before it either “falls out” or gets pushed into long-term memory. Chunked instruction is designed to limit the amount of information presented at any given time to an amount that learners can handle in short-term memory, process, and integrate into long-term memory. A good chunk is something that can be understood as a whole; it should be able to stand alone but also link to other chunks. This paragraph is a good example of a chunk.
Because instructional resources come in a variety of media and because there are so many ways to present content, the selection or creation of content-rich resources can be overwhelming. The question of creating your own resources or using existing ones (or a mix of both) can also be a challenging decision. Whichever route you decide to take, the most important thing is to provide a variety of resource types. Even if your assessment is a written exam, you can still provide content in multiple forms including print, but also images, interactive tutorials, audio, and/or video.
Keep in mind that content resources are a means to the end of learning and not an end unto themselves. If your beautifully crafted PowerPoint presentation isn’t helping learners learn the material, try adding a video, a diagram with audio, and/or a live chat with you or another professional in the field. And don’t be surprised if some learners love video while others prefer a PowerPoint presentation, and still others will only want a PDF of the presentation with the text of the narration. Learners are different, which underscores the importance of offering multiple resources. The more options you have, the more likely learners will find something that will engage them.
It is also important to provide various perspectives on the content if possible. This is especially true if you’re working with ill-structured problems (Links to an external site.) such as simulations or case studies. Problem-based learning offers rich opportunities for discussion and debate when learners can see multiple perspectives on the situation. For example, a simulation where learners take roles and make decisions about a business venture would be well supported with resources showing the perspectives of an accountant, a marketing manager, a sales manager, a production manager, a representative from the support staff, a representative from the manufacturing staff, a representative from legal counsel, and an information technology consultant. These resources would highlight differences in priorities, values, and outcomes that learners see in the real world. These kinds of resources would also be valuable when an individual learner is independently working through a case study.
Producing your own content
Audio and Video
While it may be tempting to simply record yourself lecturing for an hour and post the videos for your online class, research shows that this is not an effective strategy. Traditional-aged students do tend to engage with video more than adult students; however, studies show that shorter video is the key to getting any students to watch. One study found that <6 minutes is optimum for student engagement (Links to an external site.). The average YouTube video is around 4 minutes, and analytics show that viewing still drops off significantly around halfway through on these short segments. Even TED Talks (Links to an external site.) tend to stay under 15 minutes. While there is no definitive research showing increased learning from shorter videos, if the students don't watch the video, they can't learn from it. While you may be convinced that your students are different, it is a good idea to start out with a solid mix of content types and review the analytics from your videos before deciding to go all in. Plus, it is easier to re-record a short video than a long one when you need to update content. Making Your Own Videos in the Multimedia Module goes into more detail if you are interested in recording your own video.
Many faculty have PowerPoint presentations that guide students through a review of the key points in the written material. If you are considering taking those PowerPoint files as they are and recording audio over them, there are a few caveats regarding this strategy for online classes. If you are using audio presentations with slides, please review the Guidelines and Best Practices for using PowerPoint in Online Classes (pdf, 1.62MB) (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article) Presentations and Interactive Media in the Multimedia Module provides more information and sampling of tools you can use to create regular and interactive presentations.
Though podcasts have waned in popularity over the past years, some faculty prefer to talk to their students through audio only in a podcast/audiobook style. If your video or presentation has no important visual elements, an audio-only version can be a good option, especially for students who prefer to listen while they commute, exercise, or other activities that don't allow for full visual attention. You don't need to create the next Stuff You Should Know (Links to an external site.) or RadioLab (Links to an external site.) to be successful but scripting and eliminating audio distractions such as umms and uhhs, unconscious tapping, or loud computer fans can help keep listeners from becoming distracted and losing the train of thought you are trying to convey.
If you're not a fan of video, it's easy to fall back on printed resources such as textbooks and lecture notes when you start to design an online class. However, keep in mind that in your face-to-face classes you explain and expand on the printed material your students read to help them understand difficult concepts and focus their study. The printed material used in a face-to-face class will never be sufficient for an online class by themselves. If they were, why would anyone come to class? The students need you to further explain, expound, answer questions, and give examples. That said, don't feel like you have to write the next great treatise on your subject. If you have a good variety of content sources using a mix of media the need for additional written resources may be smaller than you think.
Looking at the materials you are planning to provide to your students, where are the gaps? If you have taught this class before you'll know where students commonly have difficulty. It may be a matter of providing bridging explanations, additional examples, a Frequently Asked Questions content area, or a glossary of terms they struggle with. When you write for students to read it is best to write in a conversational tone, not like you are writing a journal article. This can be difficult at first but it's really all right to use first and second-person pronouns. Also, running your writing through a Readability Checker (Links to an external site.) is very helpful to catch prose that you think is fine - because it's fine for you to read - but is actually at a higher level than your students' reading ability.
For example, the previous two paragraphs have a Flesch-Kincaid reading ease score of 62 which is good, about the level of a BBC website. However, the Gunning-Fog score (which weights things a bit differently) is higher at 12, which is about the level of the Harvard Law Review.
Almost everything falls under copyright law. Whether there is a copyright notice on it or not, you should presume it is copyrighted until you have evidence otherwise. So how do you tell if you can use a document, video, image or audio clip in your class legally?
Can I legally reuse other people's content, graphics, and audio?
If you are embedding media (for example, embedding a YouTube or Panopto video into your course like the Creative Commons one below) or if you are linking to an outside source (like the link below to Columbia University), that is not affected by copyright. You are merely pointing students to the original source of the work, not duplicating or redistributing the work in any way. If you are not embedding from or linking to an outside source, there are three main allowances for use without requesting permission (and potentially paying a fee) to the copyright holder: public domain, Creative Commons, and fair use.
Copyright does not apply to works in the public domain; this includes general facts, words, ideas, names, short phrases (that are not trademarked slogans), method, content written or produced by the US government, and works old enough that copyright has expired. For more information on public domain works, please see the Columbia University copyright site (Links to an external site.).
If the copyright holder has chosen Creative Commons (CC) licensing you may use the work based on the CC terms. Creative Commons (Links to an external site.) and other Open Access publishing options (Links to an external site.) allow copyright holders the ability to allow reuse of their works but still retain some rights under US law. For more on Creative Commons licensing, please see the following video.
Credit for Video: Creative Commons Kiwi (Links to an external site.) by Creative Commons Aotearoa New Zealand (Links to an external site.) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 New Zealand (Links to an external site.) (CC BY) license.
If you are using a small amount of a larger work, using it in a limited way, and controlling who can access the work, you may be able to use it under Fair Use guidelines. Fair Use means using a copyrighted work
To check if your planned use leans toward Fair Use ~ try the Fair Use Checklist.
What about Images from the Internet?
One thing to keep in mind is that images are not a special case. Everything on the internet should be presumed to be fully protected by copyright law - including images - unless it specifically states otherwise. There are many images that are freely available to use with or without attribution through public domain or Creative Commons licenses but they’re not necessarily easy to find. MorgueFile (Links to an external site.) and Pixabay (Links to an external site.) are good sources of images that do not need attribution. The Wikimedia Commons (Links to an external site.) has a mix of images that do and do not require attribution. Compfight (Links to an external site.) is a Flickr search tool that pulls Creative Commons licensed images that you can use with attribution.
Filtered Google Image Search
When using Google Image Search, you can filter by usage rights and select label for noncommercial reuse.
Non-Filtered Google Image Search
What you commonly see on a non-filtered Google image search is a large number of stock photos that other people have paid for and placed on their website. So for example, the surprised girl in this Medical News Today article (Links to an external site.) is for sale from the iStockphoto repository (Links to an external site.). You can tell that it looks like a commercial stock photo and using TinEye reverse image search (Links to an external site.) it pulls right up as a commercial photo for sale. Commercial stock photos are never going to fall under fair use because if you use it without paying for it that explicitly replaces the sale of the copyrighted work, and there is a reasonably available licensing mechanism for use of the copyrighted work. If it is still a bit fuzzy, think of a picture you want to use in your course and walk through the following flow chart. (Click on the image to see full size. Image not accessible to screen readers.)
For more information regarding Copyright, please check out the ECSU ITS Knowledge Base (Links to an external site.) and J. Eugene Smith Library's Copyright, Fair Use, and Application.
Finding additional content
It is usually easier to adapt or use existing materials than it is to design your own materials from scratch. Here are some repositories that may provide media or course materials that you can use in your course. Please keep in mind that just because something is on the internet that does not mean that it is free to use without attribution. Always verify the use of requirements for anything you find online.
Course Material Repositories
Curating content, whether it is developed by you or from publishers or shared by others on the web, is important to help students be able to prioritize their work. When you have a finite amount of time, everything can't be equally important.
What do your students need to meet the learning outcomes?
Review your learning outcomes on your Course Map and consider the following questions.
Article ID: 601
Last updated: 05 Apr, 2022
PPTOnlineV3.1.pdf (1.63 mb)