Online Course Writing: Check Your Work
As any current or former math student knows, “Check your work” has been a constant refrain of teachers through the ages. In fact, “Check your work” is good advice for any project you are working on, educationally, professionally, or personally.
Checking your work is an important part of online course writing, as it should be a goal of every online course writer to produce work that is as professional-quality as possible. Not checking your work when writing an online course can lead to issues of language, issues of internal consistency, issues of pedagogical effectiveness, issues of engagement, issues of usability, and so on, all of which can lead to a negative user experience for students and instructors.
The following are some simple things you can do, as the author or developer of online course materials, to ensure the quality of your work:
Proofreading your own work can go a long way toward eliminating issues of spelling, grammar, or clarity, even before your draft is seen by another pair of eyes (editors, reviewers, instructional designers, and so on). Take the time to read your own work, ideally from the student point of view, and make sure the language is as clear, accurate, and grammatically correct as possible.
Check for Internal Consistency
A professional-quality online course should be internally consistent, which is to say the course has no internal contradictions. For example, if a set of online course materials states that an assignment is due on a Friday in one place but due on Saturday in another place, the course is internally inconsistent and students will not know when the assignment is really due.
Another simple example of internal consistency is using the same names for the same things throughout the course. If an assignment has a particular title, use that same title throughout the course, everywhere a reference to that assignment appears. This helps ensure students know exactly which assignment you are referring to with no ambiguity.
Many other forms of internal inconsistency are possible in an online course involving things such as assignment point values, assignment requirements, required materials, and so on. Checking your draft of online course materials for internal consistency can help your students know exactly what is expected of them, and hence preemptively eliminate many student queries and support issues.
Check for Broken Links
If your online course materials rely on links to external resources such as websites, online articles, externally hosted documents or files, and so on, check to make sure that the URLs (web addresses) for these external resources are still functional with no broken links. If you find that you have accidentally included a broken link to a resource that is no longer available, try to find the resource’s new location and provide the updated URL.
If you are unable to find an updated location for a particular web resource, you may be able to access and provide a link to an archived version of the resource through the Internet Archive (archive.org). (See my previous article on how to recover broken web resources here: Recovering Broken Web Links and Resources with Archive.org.)
Check Your Style Guide
Many online courses use a particular style guide (APA style, Chicago style, MLA style, and so on), either as a discipline-wide standard or as a standard mandated by a particular institution or academic department. If you are required to author your course in accordance with a particular style guide, get to know the essential elements of that particular style—such as the format for inline citations and end-note references—and check to make sure that you have written and styled your content accordingly.
Check Your Math
If your online course contains any math, whether complex math for quantitative courses such as those in accounting and finance or simple arithmetic as in calculating the total number of points for all of the assignments in your course, check your own math and make sure everything is proverbially adding up.
Check for Accuracy
As the subject matter expert responsible for authoring professional-quality educational content in your field of expertise, check to make sure that your instructional materials, explanations, and assignment instructions are as accurate and clearly expressed as possible. While editors, reviewers, and instructional designers may be able to compensate for other types of deficiencies listed above and below, the burden of creating accurate course materials falls squarely on your shoulders as the subject matter expert and course author.
Other people involved in the course development workflow may not be able to spot any issues of accuracy if they themselves are not subject matter experts in your field. This means that you should go above and beyond to make sure that every component of your online course is as accurate as possible according to the standards of your particular discipline.
Check for Pedagogical Effectiveness
Becoming a subject matter expert in a particular discipline takes years of focused study. While these years of focused study produce expertise, subject matter experts are in danger of forgetting what it was like to learn the material and concepts in their field originally, before they became subject matter experts.
When writing online course materials, it’s important to think back to a time when you yourself were first learning the material you are now tasked with teaching to others, and to find the most effective and engaging means of helping your students walk the path that you walked so long ago, when you took your own first steps toward becoming the expert you now are.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of writing educational materials from your current perspective with years of expertise but to forget to take into account the novice/initiate perspective and what it’s like to learn the material in your discipline for the very first time. Be your students’ guide in the online course materials you are creating, not just an expert!
Join the Conversation!
As a fellow instructional designer or educational content developer, what are some of the things you do to help ensure the quality of the materials you are responsible for producing? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section, and join the conversation!
Zachary Fruhling is an instructional designer, online educational content author and developer, educational technologist, philosophy instructor, poet, and podcaster with nearly 20 years of experience in higher education and educational content development. See Zachary's website at www.zacharyfruhling.com.