The Design of Online Education and Training Continues to Evolve
By Dr. Chuck Russo, Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University
About 25 years ago, I was asked if I could figure out a way for this “internet thing” to deliver both education and training for law enforcement personnel. At the time, I was working in education at the University of Central Florida (UCF) and also developing training courses at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO Institute).
In January 1997, my first UCF online course was taking shape as was APCO Institute’s Virtual Institute. The UCF course, “Police and Society,” appeared on what we would later call a bulletin board. The courses for the Virtual Institute were constructed using HTML code.Whe
It’s important to remember that in 1997 AOL (then still better known as America on Line) had just stopped charging by the hour and Microsoft Office was available on a set of 45 3 ½ inch floppy disks. People who had a 56 Kbps dial-up modem were “flying” online.
There were no learning management systems (LMS) then like Blackboard, WebCT, Moodle, Sakai, or D2L. For these courses to work they all had to be coded by hand.
While designing and building these courses, I had to keep in mind how criminal justice professionals would access the content. The majority of these criminal justice professionals would be taking courses on their agency’s dispatch consoles as well as on the mobile data terminals (MDTs) in officer’s vehicles.
[Related: Do Cops Need a College Education?]
My biggest fear when designing and building the online education and training courses was that I would unintentionally crash an agency’s computer-aided dispatch (CAD) center (9-1-1 operations center). I had to be very careful and take into consideration certain design parameters. This was not an issue to be taken lightly. To alleviate this concern, I kept the design simple. I limited the images to those that were absolutely necessary to convey the information, but including video wasn’t an option. To my knowledge by keeping it simple, I never knocked out a 9-1-1 system.
Teaching People How to Learn Online
Not only did I have this technical obstacle to overcome, I had another big concern to deal with: No one knew how to “learn” in an online environment.
Solving this issue took some time and thought. What I initially sketched out was a design that took advantage of things students would already be familiar with: a registrar’s office, a library building, a classroom building, and eventually a student union type area. These elements were all displayed on a simple map that looked like the kind prospective students would be handed when they first came to the campus of a brick-and-mortar school.
For example, to register for classes or retrieve student records, students clicked the registrar’s office icon. While this design approach sounds simple enough in today’s world, back then it was a major challenge to figure out how to move the student from point A to point B in the online world.
Standardizing Online Education Course Delivery
Another important component to the design of online courses was the need to standardize them, much like we see at many educational and training institutions today.
In the traditional in-person classroom, each faculty member would run the course as he or she saw fit. Professors provided a syllabus that might contain just a few words and some resemblance of an outline, while others provided what seemed to be a short book on the course. With each course, the student had to play the game of “let’s figure out what the professor actually wants from us.”
Since the online education environment was new, I sought to standardize both the classroom experience and the way students accessed information and resources for the course. For example, every online course’s syllabus followed a standard template. The online classroom was set up the same for every course with lists of resources, reading materials, and assignments in the same place.
Once students “learned how to learn” in the online classroom system, they would know how to navigate future online course offerings.
Successes of Online Course Design
Later in 1997, the UCF course went live and worked as designed. The Virtual Institute also went live and was a huge success, winning the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE) Innovation in Training award that year. Little did I know it at the time, but it seems I had successfully created the first online training institute in the U.S. (and probably the world). Those opportunities some 25 years ago laid the groundwork for the next years of my life’s work.
I spent the next 20-plus years designing online education courses, working with colleges and universities interested in developing an online presence, and constructing online training centers and corporate universities.
Today, as Criminal Justice Program Director for American Public University System (American Military University and American Public University) I lead a department of approximately 60 faculty members who provide higher education in the online environment. The university offers graduate degrees, undergraduate degrees, certificates, and learning tracks, all in a 100-percent online classroom, serving thousands of students every year and helping them to reach their educational goals.
Thankfully, instructional designers no longer have to hand-code HTML to create an online course. I have worked with many different LMS programs over the last 20 years that provide robust platforms to convey content to students and create engaging student learning environments. Consistency, continuity, and customizability all come together to enable our faculty to create engaging classroom environments without formal instructional design training.
The Future of Online Education
While I don’t necessarily see myself doing this for another 25 years, I continue to look to the future to anticipate, predict, and design courses to meet upcoming challenges. Ten years ago, we would never have anticipated the sheer number of students using mobile devices to access course content. Now it is a design variable that can’t be ignored and course content must be accessible through these devices.
Today, instructional designers must prepare course content that can be delivered by wearable technology. Whether via smart glasses or smartwatches, lessons and other course content must be designed in a way that it can be delivered to students who have these devices. Universities that seek to succeed in the online environment of tomorrow must prepare today to deliver content via wearable tech or else student satisfaction, and ultimately student enrollment, will suffer.
About the Author: Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the United States and the Middle East. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, in addition to post-traumatic stress and online learning.
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