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Teaching at Tech

Experts reveal how they create online courses to keep learners captivated
Controller panel at GTPE's design studio showcasing a live taping for online delivery

There’s more to an online course than meets the eye. Engaging adult learners across the globe takes more than simply recording lectures and making them available online. At Georgia Tech, a world of creativity and expertise lies behind every course in its renowned online master’s degrees-at-scale, which are currently offered in computer science, analytics, and cybersecurity.

These degrees are unique because hundreds of learners can take them from anywhere in the world at a fraction of the cost of traditional master’s degrees. But going big and low cost doesn’t mean compromising on quality. Georgia Tech’s online master’s degrees-at-scale are the same as their on-campus counterparts. The only difference is that they are specially designed for the online environment.

Georgia Tech takes six to seven months to redesign each existing master’s degree course for its degrees-at-scale so that they meet the needs of online learners.

This discipline is called Learning Design, and the Georgia Tech Professional Education (GTPE) learning design team includes instructional designers, graphic designers, interactive video producers, project managers, and digital technologies support staff. They collaborate with faculty and their teaching assistants to design, develop, and deliver high-quality online courses that challenge and engage learners all the way to graduation.

Yakut Gazi, associate dean of learning systems at GPTE, provided a behind-the-scenes peek into some of the work that goes into creating courses for Georgia Tech’s online master’s degrees-at-scale.

Start with the End in Mind

According to Gazi, the course creation process starts long before any video recording takes place. “We start with the end in mind by thinking about what the faculty lead wants to accomplish in the course,” she said. “We work together to identify the student learning objectives. Then we design with these goals as our focus. These objectives define exactly what students need to be able to do in observable, behavioral terms. She noted that it can be counterintuitive for faculty when they first start teaching online to think about their courses this way because they tend to concentrate on the content they need to cover. But for instructional designers, content or technology never drive the design process. “If you don’t chart a course with specific learning objectives in mind, the content takes you on a different path,” explained Gazi.

Guide Learners through the Content

When end-of-course accomplishments and student learning objectives have been defined, the instructional designer works with the faculty member to choose activities, assessments, and technologies to guide learners step-by-step through the content. The result is a series of appropriately sized content pieces that require learners’ constant engagement and input.

Keep the Essentials in Sight

During the course design process, GTPE’s instructional designers also focus on two critical concepts: copyright and accessibility. Material presented in the online classes must meet stringent copyright standards. And every aspect of the online learner experience must conform to a universal design approach to the meet the needs of learners who may have a variety of auditory, physical, speech, or visual needs and challenges.

Studio Time

GTPE, which is based in the Global Learning Center in Atlanta’s Tech Square, has two fully equipped professional studios and several smaller recording spaces, including a self-service studio for faculty use, where Georgia Tech’s online and distance learning programs are produced. This is where faculty are prepared for appearing on camera and recorded as they teach their course content to an online audience of learners.

Delivering Faculty Expertise

By the time faculty arrive for their first studio visit, the design, storyboarding, and scripting for their courses has been done, with every step carefully laid out. Their role is to bring their subject matter expertise. The GTPE learning design team’s role is to deliver this expertise in a variety of ways.

Outcomes of Video Recording

The outcome of video production work can be headshots of faculty, desktop captures of proofs, mathematical derivations, or code, a dialogue between two experts, demonstrations, or on-location recordings outside of the studio. When recording is complete, the interactive video producer uses the visual assets to present the final content product or online course.

Ongoing Faculty Support

The learning design team’s work is not over when a course is ready for online delivery. Instructional designers work with faculty and their teaching assistants to prepare them for the technology used to teach online, including collaborative tools to interact with learners. And the digital technologies support team is available to faculty and learners on an ongoing basis to provide technical support.

“Before creating the online course, I was very excited about the possibility of extending my instruction to reach thousands and eventually tens of thousands of students — it’s only possible because of the partnership with GTPE colleagues.” Duen Horng Chau, Faculty Lead in Online Master of Science in Analytics, Associate Director in M.S. Analystics

Focus on Improvements

The first time a course is offered, the learning design team works closely with faculty to make improvements and keeps an eye on student forums to identify and resolve any problems. In addition to making revisions and improvements to courses on an ongoing basis, the learning design team also substantially refreshes them every three years.

Engaging Learners

The ability for learners to interact with each other, with their instructors, and with their course content is crucial to the learner experience. The learning design team designs for all these interactions and selects technologies to enable connections on various levels.

Connecting Learners to Content

Gazi shared some examples of interactions that courses in Georgia Tech’s online master’s degrees-at-scale support. “We enable meaningful student-to-content interaction by designing high-quality content that students need to engage with throughout the course rather than consume passively,” she said.

Learners and Faculty

When it comes to student-to-faculty interaction, the very nature of degrees-at-scale makes it impossible for the faculty lead to interact with hundreds of students. Georgia Tech overcomes this challenge by employing teaching assistants to provide learners with the personal attention they need. Each teaching assistant works with no more than 50 learners. Interactive tools include channels that learners can use to ask teaching assistants confidential questions or to pose them in a forum for the benefit of their peers.

Learners and their Peers

Students interact with each other on Georgia Tech’s official student forum, Piazza. They also use unofficial forums.

“Students are very responsive to other students who are asking questions, and more than that, there’s a social aspect. You can see students are connecting to one another. There’s humor in what’s being put out there. There’s a sense of community.” Dan Hawks, Learner in Online Master of Science in Analytics

Blazing a Path for Higher Ed Peers

By introducing degrees-at-scale to the world, Georgia Tech has become a leading voice in education innovation. Its learning systems experts have devised ways to serve hundreds of online learners without compromising on quality or rigor. As technology continues to evolve, GTPE’s learning design team forges ahead to bring world-class Georgia Tech content to learners worldwide – while blazing a path for other universities to follow.