When a professor and instructional designer team up to develop an online course, they often deliver an effective and innovative learning environment with accessible, engaging content and extensive opportunities for interaction and collaboration. Statistics professor Linda Davis and instructional designer Joe DiPietro have not only met this expectation, they have surpassed it.

In Fall 2012, the pair worked together to develop STAT 501: SAS Language and Basic Procedures, a one-credit asynchronous online course designed to prepare students for graduate-level programming courses. And, it seems their hard work has paid off. Out of over 200 applicants, Davis and DiPietro were among those selected as winners of a 2014 Blackboard Catalyst Award for Exemplary Course, joining a select group of educators and course designers from around the world to earn the designation.

joe depietro received catalyst award on behalf of himself and linda davis

At the 2014 BbWorld Conference in Vegas, Joe DiPietro is joined by Blackboard Leadership members as he accepts a Catalyst Award for Exemplary Course. Photo courtesy of Joy Taylor.

For Davis, the Award is a testament to what Mason faculty who are new to teaching online and developing online courses can achieve, especially with assistance from instructional designers, like DiPietro, of Mason’s Division of Instructional Technology (DoIT).

“The Blackboard Exemplary Course Program involves a very competitive review, and having a Mason course recognized is one more indicator of the quality we strive for in our distance education courses,” states Steve Nodine, Mason’s Director for Distance Education.

The award ceremony, hosted by Blackboard Inc., took place last week at the 2014 BbWorld Conference in Las Vegas, Nevada. Though Davis was unable to attend, DiPietro was present to accept the award on behalf of both of them.

Award Criteria

Introduced in 2000, the Exemplary Course Award focuses on the values and best practices of course design, interaction and collaboration, assessment, and learner support, as detailed in the Exemplary Course Rubric. Interaction and collaboration, for example, are achieved through discussion, chat, email, blogs, wikis, podcasts, video, and synchronous or asynchronous collaboration.Courses are evaluated by a peer group of Blackboard Clients, then a Reviewer Council, and finally by the Exemplary Course Directors.

Other 2014 Blackboard Catalyst Award categories include the Staff Development Award, Student Impact Award, Innovation Award, and, for those outside of the U.S. and Canada, the Innovative Blended Learning Award. For further details, see http://www.blackboard.com/Community/Catalyst-Awards.aspx.

A Formula for Success

As programming is a skill learned through practice, STAT 501 is an ideal course for online implementation. Meeting weekly and setting individual tasks and goals, Davis and DiPietro structured their approach within a series of instructional design milestones and in accordance with Office of Distance Education expectations.

Preparing technical content and programming assessments for an online course can be challenging, so DiPietro and Davis focused on providing appealing and productive outlets to promote student interactivity. Ultimately, they found a formula for success with three “Standout Practices.”

Thoughtful Navigation. Providing the same information through multiple links within the Blackboard Learn™ Learning Management System (LMS), Davis uses thoughtful navigation to account for differences in the learning preferences of her students and ensure accessibility. While buttons in the navigation panel organize the material by type, folders in the Course Content section organize by topic.

In fact, the ease of navigation is DiPietro’s favorite aspect of the course. “I’m going to sound like a total nerd,” he admits, “but the navigation piece is brilliant. Most course builders try to follow the ‘three click’ rule, but Linda exceeds that by making everything accessible within two.”

catalyst2Standout Practice 1: Thoughtful Navigation. Image courtesy of Linda Davis & Joe DiPietro.

Multiple Modalities. Davis also provides lecture materials in multiple formats, such as interactive videos, presentations with audio, and transcripts that can be viewed separately. To embed quiz questions into lecture videos, DiPietro suggested using Shareable Content Object Reference Model (SCORM). The pair also utilized PowerPoint, Camtasia, and screen capture software to enhance accessibility and maintain student interest.

Varied Assessments. To address course objectives in different ways and provide both instructor assessment and student self-assessment, Davis varies assignment types. By doing so, she achieves another significant milestone – student satisfaction and success. As director for the MS in Statistical Science program, Davis continues to interact with many of her students, who often comment that, while challenging, the built-in programming assignments are extremely educational.

catalyst5Left – Standout Practice 2: Multiple Modalities. Right – Standout Practice 3: Varied Assessments.
Images courtesy of Linda Davis and Joe DiPietro.

“Students have emailed me to let me know that what they learned in this course has helped with their jobs and really prepared them for other courses,” she says. “I’ve even had students take the course and get SAS certified.”

The Value of Teamwork

Given their recent award, it is evident that Davis and DiPietro valued teamwork as an essential tool for building the online course. Davis elaborates, “Joe was very knowledgeable. All I had to do was explain what I’d like to accomplish in the course, and he would come up with a way to do it.”

This was definitely the case with developing videos, which was new to Davis and her biggest challenge. While time-consuming, she admits that the videos and annotations added clear value to the course. “Since working with Joe, I would say the course is 200% better.”

Matching the course development phase, submitting the course for a Catalyst Award also revealed what effective teamwork between a faculty member and instructional designer can do. Not only do winners receive international recognition, but all participants earn professional development experience and gain valuable feedback.

“I would never have considering submitting the course if Joe hadn’t suggested it,” says Davis. “The effort was 50/50. He did a lot to get the course copy up and ready for submission, and I focused on going through evaluations, removing student related content, and submitting examples.”

Because the review process is extensive and extremely competitive, some faculty may question whether submitting a course for consideration is worthwhile. But the better question is, ‘Why not?’ DiPietro notes, “I’m not sure if Mason has ever developed a Blackboard Catalyst Award-winning course, but I’m happy to say they definitely have now.”