Getting Ready to Author Digital Assets

If you have been assigned the role of authoring online learning materials (what we call "digital assets")—or you are considering whether or not to begin such a project—then this short course is for you! We have designed this course to illuminate some of the unique opportunities online learning environments provide students while, at the same time, alerting authors to the workload implications and the ways in which time and other resources are sometimes used inefficiently. We discuss cognitive principles as they apply to online learners, offer numerous design and development tips, share sample lessons and activities, and provide you with checklists and other handouts.

1. Welcome to GRADA

In the course overview, we define “digital assets” and provide a high-level description of the course, some quick navigation tips, and contact information if you require additional support.

From being able to discuss authoring contracts with your supervisor to identifying best practices and appreciating the workload, here we list the six course outcomes that you should be able to achieve after working through GRADA.

The number of authors participating in digital projects increases daily. In this lesson, we share some statistics about online learning in Canada, Ontario, and at the University of Waterloo.

Authoring digital assets is exciting. In this lesson, we list some of the many features and benefits of digital assets and respond to two of the most common myths about which first-time authors may hear and wonder.

2. Before you begin

In this lesson, we provide some discussion prompts we recommend you review with your chair or supervisor before you formally begin authoring your digital assets. Sample items include intellectual property rights, decision-making authority, and assumed ongoing maintenance responsibilities.

3. Workflow

In this lesson, we explain why jumping in and starting to author some of your content without having a high-level vision puts you at risk for completing more work than your project requires and diminishing your credibility as an author. We also discuss the benefits you, and your students, will enjoy if you solidify your vision of exactly what you want your students to feel and be able to do before you start actually building any content.

This lesson provides a few discussion prompts we recommend all multi-author teams discuss at the beginning of their project to prevent incorrect assumptions that could lead to inconsistencies and/or duplication of effort.

There are three common approaches to prototyping: starting at the beginning, starting with the content one knows best, or starting with a bottleneck concept. In this lesson, we argue that every project requires prototyping and list the pros and cons of the three common approaches.

While few disagree that having their work reviewed is useful, not everyone sets aside time in their schedule to review and address their reviewers’ feedback. This lesson reminds us to formally schedule time for quality assurance checks in our planning.

We conclude our discussion on workflow by presenting a sample timeline that shows how all the tasks (prototyping, quality assurance, etc.) required to build a 12-week online course might be broken down into monthly target deliverables.

4. Designing online assessments

Although the types of assessments students complete online may differ from those they complete in a face-to-face environment, the planning steps are the same. In this lesson, we review how to plan for online assessments and then provide various online assessment options. We also list various types of quizzing questions, including some less familiar options.

In this lesson, we offer some tips for providing feedback on manually graded assignments and writing pre-populated feedback for quiz questions.

Embedding short assessments throughout your assets can have a tremendous impact on your students’ learning. Adding frequent prompts that require students to retrieve information you just covered is an easy and effective way to boost students’ understanding of a concept and prevent them from believing they understand more than they actually do. In this lesson, we discuss how to use something called retrieval practice to improve learning and then show a few examples of retrieval practice in action.

5. Designing online content

If you have never tried to learn from online content before, you may be unsure where to start. In this lesson, we breakdown online content into three types: static, dynamic, and interactive. Examples of each type of content are listed along with usage considerations.

Whether or not its deliberate, everyone has their own way of doing things. In this lesson, we provide some sample consistency-related issues you may wish to discuss with your co-authors (if you have any) to ensure that your assets appear coherent to your students.

6. Designing with multimedia

This lesson introduces a design framework to help ensure resources spent creating digital assets result in learning experiences that are valuable for students. Valuable assets are defined and an activity is presented that tests your ability to improve the design of sample assets based on best practices.

7. Pulling it all together

Our key takeaways from the three Design units are summarized in a checklist for easy retrieval/reference. A few notes about how the Centre for Extended Learning can assist University of Waterloo authors are also mentioned.

A full lesson from some grade 7 & 8 mathematics courseware is presented along with a summary of how various aspects of the design checklist are demonstrated in practice. It’s worth noting that this content was targeted to 12 and 13 year-old students so dynamic content and their associated multimedia principles were used more extensively than it is in many university-level projects.

A full lesson from a Master’s level History of Mathematics course is presented along with a summary of how various aspects of the design checklist are demonstrated in practice. In contrast to the Grades 7 & 8 materials, static content is the default with dynamic content being used more selectively.

8. Workload

One of the primary goals of this course is for authors to walk away having a good sense of the workload requirements for their project. Unfortunately, we haven’t found a surefire way to accomplish this task, as authors regularly underestimate how long authoring will take despite warnings to the contrary. We start this unit with two high-level tips that we strongly recommend you do whether or not you trust your planning skills in this area.

In this lesson, an additional seven factors that can dramatically impact authoring efficiency are introduced along with some corresponding recommended best practices.

9. Next steps

Although GRADA does not focus on online teaching, we recognize that many authors will begin teaching an online course immediately following their authoring project. Some resources we have vetted and would recommend are provided for authors who may be interested.