Sharon Guan

Designing an Instructor-Agnostic Course with a Sense of Instructor Presence

If you think the title of this blog is too complicated to understand, you can use an analogy, such as eating candy without a sweet taste, or drinking water to booze up, or anything that sounds oxymoronic, self-contradictory, and illogical.

If instructor-agnostic means removing the trace of any specific instructor, how could you create a sense of instructor presence in the same course? And why would you want to do it? Have you ever seen a course like that?

Before answering these questions, let me share a personal story with you. Two weeks ago, I received news that my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Devastated by the phone call from her primary care physician’s office, which offered nothing but a quick read of the final diagnose, I struggled to find out anything about breast cancer—the causes, the symptoms, the types, the treatment, the chance of spreading. Yet none of the information on the Internet could put me at ease or  tell me how to deal with this life-threatening illness. I was overwhelmed by feelings of fear and helplessness until I received the phone call from Beth, a nurse from the pathology department of the hospital.

Beth spent 40 minutes on the phone with me, explaining the type of tumor shown in the biopsy and other factors—such as the hormones estrogen and progesterone—that contribute to the severity of the situation. Beth also answered my question about another test result that had made me suspect that the tumor had spread. After the conversation, Beth told me that she would put the test reports and a link to an instructional video on my mother’s healthcare network account. “Don’t be scared by the word ‘invasive’, it is just a medical term,” she said.

The video is called Early-stage Invasive Breast Cancer: Considering Your Treatment Options (screenshot below).

Screenshot of breast cancer treatment video

It looks like a fancier version of the type of lecture that we would build for an online course: it’s interactive, well-paced, and delivered by the calm and friendly voice of an “instructor.” And from the beginning to the end, the “instructor” never introduces herself.

But at this point, it really doesn’t matter to me who provided the instruction in the video. The information—even though delivered in a very caring and personable tone—is factual and objective. There’s no need to inject any information beyond the content just to make the listeners feel Dr. So-And-So is giving the speech. For a learner like me, Beth has served the need of solving the problem at a personal level, providing  a “heads-up” before the video, and alerting me to some of the vocabularies used in the video. As a desperate learner, I accomplished the learning goal by receiving personalized explanations combined with an instructor-agnostic learning material—the video.

In the instructional design world, the video I’ve watched constitutes a “reusable learning object,” which means material that can be used again and again for the purpose of learning. Unless the presenters possess high brand equity (like those in TED talks), the less personal identity present in online teaching material, the more usable it will be for other instructors.

An effective online course with reusable value should be a combo of what Jose Bowen called “brand-name online resources” and “local strengths.” For a face-to-face course, the “local strengths” are things like face-to-face interaction in small sessions; for an online course, they are the various strategies we use to add personalism into the course, such as a personal welcome message, feedback to student posts, a weekly wrap-up of learning points, or a report on learning progress.

As we are approaching the 10th anniversary of DePaul Online Teaching Series (DOTS)—an award winning program that prepares faculty for online teaching—I see more and more courses leverage the vast amount of information from the Internet. Course content is evolving from narrated PowerPoints for every single module to an interesting amalgam of movie segments, YouTube Videos, TED talks, online articles, and class blogs. In a course where a variety of resources are pulled together, the role of instructor will be more of a curator who—in addition to assembling the content—will spend time “finding the right entry point, creating a supportive environment, communicating high standards, and guiding student learning.” (Teaching Naked).

Jose Bowen predicts that the universities of the future will offer standardized and consistent products like McDonald’s does. Many institutions are already joining this globalization trend: if we have an online course built by one instructor, why would we reinvent the wheel when the same course needs to be taught by another? Why don’t we devote the effort just once to build “brand-name” course content and let the instructors focus on adding their own personal touch, or what Jose Bowen called the “local strength” to each of its offerings?

My experience of mastering the learning module on breast cancer has taught me that an instructor-agnostic course with a strong sense of instructor presence is not only doable (and cost-effective) but also effective.

Sharon Guan

About Sharon Guan

Sharon Guan is the Assistant Vice President of Faculty Instructional Technology Services (FITS). She has been working in the field of instructional technology for nearly 20 years. Her undergraduate major is international journalism and she has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in educational technology from Indiana State University. She has conducted research on interpersonal needs and communication preferences among distance learners (dissertation, 2000), problem-based learning, online collaboration, language instruction, interactive course design, and faculty development strategies. She also teaches Chinese at the Modern Language Department of DePaul, which allows her to practice what she preaches in terms of using technology and techniques to enhance teaching and learning.

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