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Two courses. Same content. Different outcomes. What the??

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comparing applesI just wrapped up my spring term a few weeks ago, and with the dust settling, I’m finally able to see with some clarity. With clarity comes the opportunity to really reflect on experiences. This term I learned the course you create is only one part of the equation, and sometimes, it’s the weakest part.

This term I taught two online sections of the same course. I built the courses identically. Delivered them in the same course management system. Set up the course with the same modules. Used the same assignments and exercises. Worked at the same pace. The only difference was that I flipped the units of one of the larger assignments (a presentation with recorded audio) to prevent me from having to grade 42 presentations in one weekend. The interesting outcome of all of this was that one section’s reviews reflected a great course experience, and the other, while not horrible, had some unhappy students. What happened?

I started to see differences in the sections early on. Section one wasn’t keeping up. They asked basic questions that told me they hadn’t reviewed the introductory video. They had trouble keeping up with the assignments. And, they weren’t participating in their peer group discussion boards, something that really ends up hurting the entire class. I could tell this section just didn’t have “it”.

My second section, on the other hand, was moving along smoothly. They were engaged in the assignments and discussions. I rarely received a question over email. They just seemed to click. When it came to their final projects, I could see the difference in the two courses magnified. Section one’s teams hobbled together presentations, and section two presented flawlessly. This got me wondering, what happened? How could two identical courses have such different outcomes? As I shared this story with one of my mentors, one whose opinion I still value and trust, he explained to me that sometimes, no matter what you do as the instructor and builder, a course has a dynamic outside of anything you do. And, that’s just how it goes.

Sometimes we experience this in face-to-face courses. When a class seems to lack a connection either within itself or with you, the term drags on. No matter what in-class work you drum up, creative ways you try to engage, or innovative strategies you test, the class just doesn’t come together. I guess I didn’t realize this can also happen when none of you are even in the same room together.

But this presents a distinct challenge for us as online instructors. If we saw this kind of lack of engagement and struggle to mesh as a team, we’d change our strategy mid-steam. Not so easily done in an online course, though. In fact, changing your plan of attack midway through an online course might result in a mutiny. So, what are we to do? I don’t have the answer to this yet, and maybe it requires some more research on my end about the dynamics of online course work, something I’m more than happy to do and engaging in as we speak. But, regardless, this will definitely stick with me as I design two more identical courses this summer and next fall. What can I do as an instructor to ensure connectedness with the course and their peers when what I initially set up isn’t working.

If any of you have experienced this in your courses, I’d love to hear about it and how you handled it. Thanks for sharing!



  1. Your blog is a great asset to your resume… makes you stand out as a candidate.

    • Thank you, Steve. Blogging helps me to not only clear my mind, but it helps me to stay current and learn from others. Those are the most enjoyable aspects of it. Thank you for taking time to visit!

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