Case Study: The Anatomy of Designing and Improving Online Group Presentations

Concurrent Session 3
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

We will present and discuss designing an online group presentation with a faculty developer through the lens of continuous improvement. We will identify the design challenge and solution, and successes and lessons learned. This session is intended to elicit audience feedback and participation through sharing their own personal design challenges and solutions. 


Elizabeth Lemke was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. She has lived in Chicago for the last 8 years, and during that time, she has worked in the higher education landscape in various capacities, from teaching college composition to writing and editing online course content and media pieces to project planning and coordination for online course components. She currently works with Northwestern's School of Professional Studies on the Distance Learning team as a Learning Designer. In this role, she collaborates with faculty to design and implement engaging and meaningful learning experiences for online students.
Dr. Reba-Anna Lee received her doctorate in Educational Technology in August 2006 from Alliant International University. She completed her Masters and Bachelors at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Prior to joining Northwestern, she was the Associate Director of Academic Technology and eLearning at Marist College in New York. Her background includes K-12 experience, as well as over ten years of higher education administrative and teaching experience. Dr. Lee has experience working with faculty in implementing new technologies into the classroom, whether it is face to face, blended, or completely online.

Extended Abstract

Case Study: The Anatomy of Designing Online Group Presentations

As much as we like to think our online courses are perfect, there is always room for improvement. Our job is never done. On the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies Distance Learning team, we are first and foremost focused on partnering with faculty to develop high-quality learning experiences for students. But another focus is preparing developers to teach online, especially when they are brand new to online course design and online teaching. This includes an ongoing process of revisiting courses and individual assessments (how well did this work for students and instructors, and how can we make it better?), as well as identifying the needs of the developer and building and maintaining a highly collaborative professional relationship.

The Distance Learning team believes in a good challenge, and during the Spring 2016 course development cycle, a new-to-online course design and teaching developer and I met and conquered a design challenge while developing a new-to-online Master’s-level course about public relations and crisis management. This course had only been offered for on-ground students but never online, so we had a solid syllabus and course schedule to start with. With all the new-to-online components, an extreme level of attention to detail, patience, and prototyping was necessary.

During the course design process, we not only worked to develop course components for online, but we discussed design decisions in great detail, practiced using some of the technology during our meetings, shared training opportunities and resources, conducted ad hoc meetings and phone calls, drafted and prototyped course components all in the service of cultivating an effective online learning environment with a prepared and confident instructor. This presentation focuses on the development and implementation of one of two summative assessments, the midterm project, and the process of working with a new-to-online faculty developer.

The midterm served as an important scenario-based summative assessment that evaluated what students had learned and practiced throughout the first four weeks, during which students engaged with instructional material (such as textbook readings, online articles, instructor topic videos) and participated in various formative and authentic assessments (such as current events forums and other topical discussion forums, weekly accountability quizzes, and written assignments). These formative assessments prepared them for the midterm, which asked groups to plan, prepare, and deliver a written communication plan, give a presentation of the plan, and participate in a post-presentation Q&A session.

Design Challenge  

The design challenge was to design a summative assessment that included three discrete components normally performed in one sitting in the on-ground classroom. We had to ask ourselves, can this assessment work in the online classroom? We decided, yes it can! The we asked ourselves how will we design this for the online classroom? Do we recreate the classroom experience with a live presentation and Q&A using video conferencing tools? Or do we create an alternative experience where students collaborate throughout the first five weeks to plan, prepare, and practice the midterm collaboratively producing the written plan, deliver a recorded group presentation for instructor review, and participate in an asynchronous Q&A session?

Design Solution

Keeping the student experience in mind, we decided creating a fully asynchronous midterm was the best option because we had the tools and technologies available to create a rigorous, well-paced assessment. We introduced a detailed midterm overview in Week 1 that included the short scenario, instructions for the three deliverables, milestones and due dates, collaboration tools and strategies, and support and help information. We were confident the overview included all the information they needed to plan, prepare, and deliver the midterm. Students were asked to use BlueJeans to collaborate throughout the planning stages of the midterm and to record and deliver their final presentation. We included BlueJeans tutorials and help guides, as well as encouraged students to attend the optional synchronous session with the instructor so they could practice using the tool before the final recording.

We anticipated pushback from students about the group work component, because it’s time-consuming and especially challenging to carry out in the online classroom. Paula M. Bigatel, an instructional designer and instructor at Penn State University, stated in her article Student Engagement Strategies for the Online Learning Environment that "as much as students complain about the challenges of group work, we have to remind them about how important collaborative skills are in the workplace." With this in mind, we made sure the midterm assessment was relevant and authentic and that students saw the benefits of this practical real-world application. Alignment of learning objectives and activities and assessments is essential for a high quality course. The midterm aligned with course and weekly objectives, such as:

  • Assemble communication plans for routine and crisis communication.

  • Generate several pieces of communication to share information with stakeholders.

  • Compose and relate a comprehensive communication plan to share proactive news with stakeholders.


We designed and implemented a short midterm evaluation:

  • What worked and didn’t work when working with your group?

  • Describe one thing you learned while working with your group that you might not have working individually.

  • Suggest one practical change the group could have made to positively influence how well the group worked together.

Based on feedback from the evaluation, students found BlueJeans easy to use for recording the presentation. This was great news because avoiding student frustration with poorly integrated course technology in very important. Course technologies should enhance rather than disrupt student learning.  

Students stated they learned a lot from each other about their writing and communication styles, the importance of planning and identifying roles, the value of sharing ideas and listening and defending their ideas. They practiced delegating tasks and completing their individual duties for the greater whole. One student said they “realized how critical it is to make sure a public relations team is all on the same page about the communication plan.” The midterm successfully created an authentic situation for students to practice professional skills.

From the instructor perspective, the design of the midterm “performed as expected” in the online classroom. The midterm clearly aligned with course learning objectives so students understood why this assessment was important, how to get started, and what was expected from them. Additionally, the midterm allowed the instructor to start evaluating whether students were working towards mastery of the content.

Lessons Learned and Next Steps

While group work should empower students to direct their own learning and practice authentic, real-world tasks and skills (such as planning, time management, and communication), students definitely do not like doing it, hands down. A solution to this might be reminding students what learning objectives the midterm aligns with and how they can apply the skills learned through the midterm to the their professional lives.

Groups found it challenging to write a collaborative communication plan, but with additional planning they thought they could have produced a more polished piece. Students found it hard to find time to collaborate, and many felt they should have started the process earlier. We implemented milestone reminders throughout the course to help pace the workload and expectations, but a bit more structure could help monitor group interaction. By providing more specific milestones, we could have better prepared groups to stay on track. For example, “By Week 2, your group should have an outline of your written communication plan,” rather than the current milestone, “By Week 2, your group should be working on the communication plan.”

Some groups discovered they were all local and were able to met in person, while some groups started a group text to collaborate. Some groups also used video conferencing tools other than BlueJeans to collaborate. Some changes to consider for next time might be to add more collaboration strategies: exchange phone numbers, meet in person if your team is local, offer more options for video conferencing tools, or offer the option for them to choose what tool works best for the group.

Designing and implementing an online course (or program) is never a one-and-done situation. We plan to revisit this course in the future and apply some of the continuous improvement ideas we already have and discover new ways to improve the learning experience for students.

Session Outcomes

By the end of this session, you will be able to:

  • Recognize the many roles a learning/instructional designer fulfills during and after the course design process, including continuous improvement considerations.

  • Compare and contrast Northwestern University’s online group work design process to your own institution’s online group work design process.

  • Identify ways in which your online group work design process can improve.

  • State ways in which your online group work design process can improve Northwestern Univeristy’s process.

  • Relate your own course design and online teaching experiences.