So Suddenly Online: Trading Backward Design for A-PoEM in (Post)Pandemic Times.

Concurrent Session 4
Streamed Session

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Session Materials

Brief Abstract

The sudden non-negotiable shift from face-to-face, to online instruction in our courses, made it clear that our ID team needed to trade the uncontested, venerable “backward design” (Understanding by Design) framework, for something much more flexible and faster. This presentation traces our journey, and points to a new destination.Diagram of A-PoEM Framework


George Jura is the Director of Academic Technology at the U of Wisconsin-Madison School of Nursing (SoN) where he leads a team of academic technology staff in helping faculty identify, explore, and implement technology-enhanced teaching & learning solutions that best support and complement the School's undergraduate and graduate programs. The driving force behind his work is the realization that even the most sophisticated technology is useless, if people who could benefit from it don't know how to use it effectively; consequently, his passion is making information about technology easier to find and understand, and making technology easier to use. His primary long-term interests include evidence-based instructional design and course development, the use of student-response systems to increase student engagement in large undergraduate courses, and helping faculty develop generative learning activities that promote understanding. His immediate present focus is on leading the UW-Madison School of Nursing academic technology team in the planning and design of courses for two new graduate (Doctor of Nursing Practice) programs to be launched in the fall of 2021. In the past, he has lead campus-wide technology training initiatives for students and University staff at U of Wisconsin-Whitewater, as its first Technology Advancement and Training Coordinator, including managing the UW-W TechQuest project, an innovative online technology training for incoming students. Before focusing entirely on instructional technology, George developed broad teaching expertise as a faculty member at Iowa State U. (Ames, IA), and Lawrence U. (Appleton, WI), where he taught numerous technology-enhanced courses on Spanish Mediaeval & Renaissance Literature; Spanish Art; Film and Narrative Theory; and Linguistics. He shared his ideas on teaching with technology with audiences at numerous forums, including presentations and workshops at several EDUCAUSE National, and Midwest-Regional Conferences; ELI Annual Meetings; National Forums on Active Learning Classrooms; Distance Learning Conferences (Madison, WI) incl. 2020 virtual conference; OLC Accelerate 2019, several Modern Language Association conferences, and many regional conferences and events. OLC Innovate 2022 session is titled 'Nudge, Sludge, and Choice Architecture: Applying the Lessons of Behavioral Economics to Instructional Design.' Session preview info at:

Extended Abstract

Anticipated Session Outcomes - At the conclusion of the session, participants will be able to: 

  • Place backward design / UbD in the context of other existing instructional design frameworks 
  • Identify the main elements and sequence of "backward design / UbD" instructional design framework
  • Be able to list potential strengths and challenges the framework / model presents
  • Identify the specific challenges the A-PoEM framework addresses
  • Be able to apply A-PoEM framework to a design or redesign of a course module


Interactivity and audience engagement:

Participants will be asked to participate (optionally, for those willing) DURING the presentation using a student-response system (SRS - Socrative) at several points during the presentation (for example, which of the popular ID frameworks have they used in their own course design practice); questions will be incorporated into presentation slide deck, and made available using an online SRS system (Socrative) that supports anonymous participation (via laptops and mobile devices). Additionally, time at the end of presentation will be reserved for an open Q&A session.



When in the early spring of this year our faculty and instructional design team (along with the rest of the world) faced the need to shift very abruptly and completely, to fully online instruction, it quickly became clear that our existing, almost dogmatically orthodox approach to instructional design (ID) that followed the dominant, and rarely questioned “backward design” framework derived from McTighe & Wiggins’s immensely influential Understanding by Design (UbD, 1998), was not going to work. Or at least not very well, and not easily, and - most importantly - not fast enough to keep up with a new reality that was changing daily.

Adapting face-to-face and just-ever-so-slightly-blended courses to non-negotiable remote delivery demanded something else: what was needed was a “framework” that would respectfully preserve the common-sense logic of the “backward design,” with which we had become so comfortably familiar, perhaps for too long, and yet, at the same time be more flexible, more easily adaptable, and much, much faster to implement.

To be honest, it was not the first time when our ID team struggled with insufficient flexibility of the classic backward design / UbD model: we had previously noted the challenge in the process of adapting several graduate (doctoral) courses for online delivery; but it was the timing and pressure of this unexpected, so-suddenly-online moment that brought what was previously just a tentative thought, into full concentrated focus, and prompted decisive action.

This session traces the journey – partly, imposed by circumstances - from the traditional “Understanding by Design (UbD) / backward design” approach to an alternative that preserves and respects the strengths of the original, reliably tested UbD framework, but intoduces more flexibility and speed; we called it A-PoEM (an acronym of a functionally decriptive moniker, Any Point of Entry Method).

The term “backward design,” referring to a specifically structured process of curriculum development, was introduced by Jay McTighe and Grant Wiggins in their 1998 book Understanding by Design (or UbD). Even though various process “models” of course development had been used before (ADDIE since 1975; Dick and Carey’s Systems Approach since 1978, to mention just two influential models), and after UbD (Allen’s SAM, popularized by his 2012 book Leaving ADDIE for SAM, which inspired the sub-title of this presentation), UbD, and specifically its characteristic reversed-order of planning elements of instructional design, has quickly become the dominant framework – an almost unquestionable orthodoxy of the quickly evolving ID discipline. The UbD/backward design methodology (the two terms have become almost synonymous in common ID usage) exists - first, and foremost - in a flattened, schematic form - on hundreds of websites, and is a staple of even most rudimentary instructional design workshops and courses. The simple, reverse order process goes as follows (identified in a diagram on p. 16 of the original UbD book): first (1) “identify desired results,” next (2) “determine acceptable evidence,” and finally (3) – and only then – “plan learning experiences and instructions.”

It is only when one goes back to the source (here I refer to the expanded, second edition of the UbD book) one realizes that perhaps this, strictly speaking, was not its authors’ original intent: in their book, McTighe and Wiggins, even before the method’s enormous success, clearly defined their arguably sensible approach as “not a prescriptive program.” What was important to them was “thinking more purposefully and carefully about the nature of any design that has understanding as the goal,” and they clearly and explicitly warned that a “step-by-step guide to follow” was “something that is antithetical to good design.” They also insisted that their “conceptual framework” had “many entry points.” (p. 7)

At the same time, they were fully aware that much of instruction at K-12 level, the level in which they were primarily and explicitly interested on more than three-quarters of the pages in their book, focused - with little or no reflection on true understanding - on covering content, or focusing on keeping students entertained through various fun and inventive learning activities. Both authors were concerned – to a point of writing a book about it - that focusing exclusively on these two elements of course design: coverage of material, and activities, with no concurrent reflection on the underlying purpose of it all, and without cohesive alignment of all elements of such design with assessment, was not likely to produce good student learning outcomes. In what is perhaps one of the most persistent and most misused echoes of their book, they called it “the twin sins of traditional design,” that underscored much of the “purposelessness, visible throughout the educational world from kindergarten through graduate school.” (p. 16)

But what if starting with content or activity were not purposeless at all? What if mastering the content, or deliberately structured exposure to it, or reaching fluidity in performance of an action (Violin, anyone? Or, taking blood pressure correctly?) were the key factors from which secondary, or perhaps even parallel – but certainly not subordinate, objectives could be formulated only by extension?

The presentation considers several case studies of courses in which starting with strictly understood “learning outcomes” presents a challenge (due to the nature of the material in one case, and to the level of the course, in another). We also explore a growing body of academic literature that questions the very idea of measurable learning outcomes and their functional utility in (admittedly) limited, but – in some disciplines – rather frequently encountered circumstances. We explore this idea by engaging with UbD author’s very apt original metaphor of learning as a journey ( “analogous to travel planning. Our frameworks should provide a set of itineraries deliberately designed to meet cultural goals rather than a purposeless tour of all the major sites in a foreign country.” UbD p.14), and show how carefully planned “guided tours,” while appropriate at some levels, and under certain circumstances, at other levels (think upper division, and graduate courses), might need to be replaced by unstructured, exploratory trips, where unpredictability and ability to tolerate and mitigate risk inherent in exploring an unknown territory is an essential part of a learning process at more advanced levels.

Finally we explore a case study that prompted this presentation: the need to acknowledge that sometimes – say, at a time of a sudden onset of a pandemic – but often under much less stressful circumstances, courses are adapted from a previously existing version (due to changes of content, circumstances, or mode of delivery), and not created from nothing, and in these circumstances the balancing of high educational quality of the course with efficient processes that take advantage of existing, tested materials, are worth at least careful consideration.

We proceed to present the alternative model: while the proposed A-PoEM model preserves all three elements of the original UbD: results – evidence – instruction & content (the green elements and one-direction-only arrows on the diagram, below), it introduces two significant modifications of and departures from this approach.

First, it stresses the flexible order (sequence) of these elements (note the red two-directional arrows on the included diagram), allowing to use any of them as a starting point for the design of the instructional unit (for example, a course module), as long as all remain bi-directionally aligned. Second, it introduces “safeguard elements”, such as explicitly articulated alignment of module elements, which is shared with students; and carefully calculated approximate workload indicators, that include anticipated time spent on each activity, and make sure that course elements are aligned not only among themselves (objectives - activities - assessments), but also with administrative / accreditation requirements for the course, for example, assigned number of credit-hours required, or specific accreditation criteria.

OLC Proposal - Jura - Diagram

Finally we conclude the presentation showing how A-PoEM framework might be successfully applied by session participants to adapt their own existing courses for online delivery, taking one module in a hypothetical course as a case study / example.