The past, present, and future of online course design

The past, present, and future of online course design (feat. Kristi Peacock from Michigan Virtual)
Meet Kristi Peacock, a course development manager for Michigan Virtual, who shares what it means to be an instructional designer, what advice she has for educators designing their own online learning experiences for students, and what she hopes the future will hold for this ever-evolving sector of education.

. . .Or listen instead on Apple, Spotify, Google, or another platform.

It’s no secret to say that online learning has changed a lot in the past couple of decades. After all, at the turn of the century, online courses were still being distributed on CD-ROMs.

As technology evolves, the possibilities it offers to educators expand in kind. No longer does every student need to receive the same education as the rest of their peers. No longer are they required to learn at the same pace, in the same place, or at the same time. 

This week on the BRIGHT podcast,  I chat with Kristi Peacock, a course development manager for Michigan Virtual, who has years of experience designing online courses for K-12 students and educators taking online professional development courses.

We talk about:

  • What it means to be an instructional designer
  • What advice she has for educators designing their own online learning experiences for students, and 
  • What she hopes the future will hold for this ever-evolving sector of education.

You can listen to our conversation using the audio player above or keep scrolling to read an edited version of the transcript!

Here’s a sneak peek at our conversation:

Edited transcript

Nikki: Thank you so much for joining me today, Kristi, for this episode of BRIGHT. To get us started, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what drew you to education in the first place? 

Kristi: To be honest, the biggest thing is that if you looked up “lifelong learner” in the dictionary, you’d find that I’m very much that person. I love to learn new things. It just made sense to me since I like to learn new things, I also like to share them. I think that made me just the epitome of what a teacher is supposed to be. I’m enthusiastic about learning new things, and I think that’s contagious for students. 

I’ve taught elementary school teaching typing to kindergarten students, at the community college level, and everything in between, including gifted and talented and alternative ed. But my biggest asset ever, when it comes to teaching, has always been that I love to learn, and my enthusiasm spreads to students.

Nikki: Thank you for sharing that. I love hearing about people’s journeys into education.

Kristi: My journey to getting to Michigan Virtual was actually kind of interesting, too. My husband was a public school administrator. So, what happened is — and I think most people who know much about public school administration realize that you move around a bit — I got really tired of setting up classrooms, taking down classrooms, and starting a new career every time we moved. 

I’m very broadly certified in all the sciences and computer science. So, when we would move, what would happen is in one district, I might be teaching chemistry, and then in the next district, I’d be teaching eighth-grade physical science or environmental science. It was always this big mind shift. 

When I was at Tahquamenon Area Schools, I served as a mentor teacher for all the students taking Michigan Virtual courses. That was back around 2001. When I saw our kids getting to take courses like German because it was their heritage, for example, or taking a course called Introduction to Logic, I thought, “Wow, I don’t know what this Michigan Virtual thing is. But I love this.” It leveled the playing field for students regardless of their socioeconomic background and their geography. That was really exciting to me. 

I said to my husband, “This is something that I could get behind.” Then, the next time we moved, there was actually a physics job posting. I applied, and I didn’t get the physics job, but I did get AP Computer Science. So, I started as a contracted teacher teaching computer science for Michigan Virtual. Then, of course, when they posted the full-time jobs, I became the full-time science teacher. So, I was one of the first four full-time teachers for Michigan Virtual, and then I was no longer working on a contract basis. 

I loved it, but what happened is… Well, it’s kind of David Young’s fault. I don’t know if you can put that in your video or not, but honestly, it was David Young’s fault because I was working with him quite a bit. As full-time teachers, we worked kind of hand-in-hand with iPD (instructional product development) to improve some of the courses we were teaching. 

So, I had started working with him back and forth, and he said to me, “Yeah, I was a teacher, too. But I found I could make a bigger impact as an instructional designer.” And, of course, I’m like, “Explain to me how that works.” He said, “Well, as an instructional designer, I’m building courses that can affect lots of kids, whereas a teacher, you can only affect the ones in your courses.”

You can only guess what happened from there. That rang in my head for a long time, and the next time an instructional design job opened, I applied, and I got it. I’ve been in instructional design ever since, and I just absolutely love the creative part of what I do.

Nikki: So is that why you like being an instructional designer? Are there any other reasons you’d like to share?

Kristi: I love the creativity part of it, and I love the sense that I have a big impact by working with other teachers and subject matter experts. We contract most of the subject matter experts. We don’t actually have them on staff. But I have met some of the smartest people that I’ve ever met in my life. When we contract these people, I mean, they’re truly experts in their field. It’s really fun. 

The first four courses that I ever built with Michigan Virtual were social studies courses. Social studies is about as far from my bivouac as you can get. I also built German courses. I built the first four semesters of German, and German was my lowest grade of my entire college career! I thought that they had made a big mistake. But the good thing is if you flip the table on that, there were times I caught them as experts talking over my head. I could say, “Wait a minute, I understand the Silk Road. We just talked about that in the last lesson. I understand that concept, but now we’re talking about South America and Columbus, and I can’t tie those two things together.” The subject matter expert would be like, “Oh, you’re right. I should probably put a paragraph in this lesson about that.” And I said, “Well, yeah. Because somebody like me doesn’t get that.” Our students benefit from that, too. That’s why this has just been the perfect place for someone who loves to learn new things.

Nikki: I like that. I really do. So, you’ve been an online instructor and a face-to-face teacher, and now you’re an instructional designer. I’m curious if you could talk to me about what your experience was shifting from being an online teacher to an online course designer. What is the balance between those two roles? With the instructional designer designing the course and the teacher teaching it?

Kristi: When I was teaching online, I liked coaching students. Because that’s more what I was doing since the content and assessments were provided for me. My role as an online teacher was being available and coaching the students. The difference between what I was doing in an online setting vs. what I was doing in a face-to-face setting was that, in a face-to-face setting, I had to go home every night and have my next day all prepared. Whether I had one prep or five preps, I had to have something to lead the students through the next day. Something to engage them in their learning. 

With Michigan Virtual and an online education, that work was provided for me. Then, I was the coach who had to prompt students, provide feedback, reach out to them if they weren’t doing their work, and allow them another try at something after an explanation. I felt like I was more in a coaching role as an online teacher than in a face-to-face classroom. But also, for lack of a better word, I had to have some kind of a dog and pony show every day. And I didn’t have to have a dog and pony show every day in online teaching, so I could focus on whether the students were doing on their assessments, whether they were keeping up, or whether they missed the target a little bit. I’d focus on what I could say to the students or what I could provide to a student to get them over the hump to really understand a concept.

When I was teaching computer science, I taught the AP course, which is primarily a Java programming course. I knew that 90% of my students had no one else in their life in their world that could help them fix their program when it didn’t run. So, it was all on me. There was no file, I can just go to my English teacher, and she’ll show me how to write this. There was no other person more than likely in their world that could write Java code. It made me aware of how dependent on me and my feedback they were. Knowing that and having the ability to coach them through it helped both them and me be successful.

Nikki: I know many of our online teachers modify their courses and create some of their own side content, for example, to differentiate for students. But it is nice that they don’t have to do it all on their own every night for the next day.

Kristi: I think that’s what keeps me here, too. What fascinates me about moving forward in instructional design is that we have not fully matured what online learning looks like. I think we’re in some form of metamorphosis, clearly, to move from the face-to-face to the online world. But if you ask me if we’re there yet, I don’t think so. I think we’re going to do better at mastery-based learning where students can demonstrate competency. 

If you understood the Silk Road and how it affected Columbus and South America, maybe you don’t need to learn it again. But if I don’t understand it, then I do need to learn it again. I like where we’re heading in terms of more individualized learning. My grandchildren will learn differently than I did, and they will clearly learn differently than my boys did, too. And I think that’s exciting. I’m excited to be part of that.

I think you’ll see us doing more packaged-based content, where we have concept packages instead of full-year courses. There’s still going to be a need for full-year courses, but wouldn’t it be cool if we could distribute them in blocks so that students were getting what they need but not getting what they already know?

Nikki: That was one of the better explanations of competency-based learning I’ve heard, and I’m here for it.

Kristi: I love the idea of competency-based learning vs. learning based on students’ chronological age. We have to stop thinking that every fifth grader should be here and every 15-year-old should be here because that’s not how it is.

Nikki: Why is that not how it is?

Kristi: Because students are in all different places. I used to work as a quality control technician for Pepsi years ago, back when we used to get the glass bottles. I was the quality control person at one of the glass plants. Every time they would bring us a new glass, one of my jobs was to assess the quality of the bottles that came in. I could go, “Yeah, this one has bubbles. Chuck.” I could get my calipers out, break the bottle, and say, “Too thin. Junk.” 

We don’t do that in public schools. Every student comes in our doors in a different place. We can’t say, “Junk.” Not that we would want to if we could, but we have to take them from where they are when they walk in our doors and not tell them that they’re behind. They’re not behind. To them, they’re right where they’re supposed to be. So, let’s take them from where they are now and move them forward. 

I think competency-based learning and individualized instruction are key to that transformation. I worked in alternative education, and honestly, some of those students are not behind. They just have so many other distractions in their lives that school isn’t their primary focus every day. We have to take them from where they are. We can’t let them feel like they’re junk. They’re not. In fact, some of them are more intelligent in other ways. 

I’ve had alternative ed students show up to class and say, “Want me to show you how to take a carburetor out of a snowmobile?” You could open that snowmobile and ask me to find the carburetor, and that’d be task enough because I’m pretty sure I’d epic fail. Some of these kids have different intelligences. They’re different. The same kid who wanted to show me how to take a carburetor apart probably couldn’t read higher than the third-grade level. But it doesn’t mean they’re dumb. It doesn’t mean they’re behind. It just means that they’re not at the place we expect them to be right at this moment.

Nikki: So, this past year, many teachers across the nation acted as impromptu instructional designers for their own online courses. I’ve heard this described as learning how to build the plane and fly it at the same time. This was understandably a challenging experience for many. As an instructional designer, do you have any thoughts or reflections you’d like to share on this experience that many teachers had?

Kristi: It’s funny because I had a lot of office hours over this past year where I was working as an instructional designer with teachers in the field who were trying to do this. Every time, my response was to tell them, “What you’re being asked to do is literally impossible. So right now, you have to stop beating yourself up. You can’t beat yourself up. You are doing your very best.” 

As an instructional designer, I’ve built lots and lots and lots and lots of courses. Right now, I’m working on a year-long AP Computer Science Principles course. One semester of that takes me about three months to build. I’m an experienced instructional designer. If you have four or five preps three weeks before school starts, and you’re tasked with putting all of that online… That’s not even doable. So whatever you did, whatever you accomplished to the best of your abilities, is a success. 

If you made it through this year while building that plane and flying that plane at the same time, pat yourself on the back and say, “I made it through. I brought students along.” Was it perfect? No. But nothing about COVID has been perfect. Part of it is don’t be hard on yourself. Because what you were asked to do was a very, very, very large task.

Nikki: I know we can’t possibly capture the full breadth of your expertise in just a few short minutes, but can you give us a little glimpse into your top tips for instructional design? What have you learned is most important when designing engaging online content for students?

Kristi: Engaging? It’s easy because I don’t think I’ve ever grown up, so it’s easy to think like a student. With my experience in face-to-face teaching and online teaching, when I rolled over into instructional design, I had a feeling for what engages students and challenges them. 

I love project-based learning. I love to learn by doing and touching. Although I love to read, I know that I can engage students more if it’s not just words on a page. One of my favorite things to do is build storyline interactions. I built a whole bunch of them for our forensic science course. Of course, I usually memorialize everybody I know, so now I’m going to need a character somewhere named Nikki in one of my little animations that I like to build.

Nikki: What tool do you use for that?

Kristi: I use Articulate Storyline often. I have also built courses where I’ve used PowToon

Nikki: Can you describe what a storyline interaction is, just in case someone doesn’t know? What does it look like in an online course?

Kristi: Well, they can be animations, or they can have realistic pictures, but they allow students to interact with the content. Right now, I’m working on AP Physics C labs, and we’re doing one on rotational motion. The plot is that this character is a secret agent, and terrorists or bad guys have infiltrated a warehouse. Up on the hill beside the warehouse is a non-functional antenna that rotates. 

Well, this is in the rotational motion lesson in the AP Physics C, so there’s a fan on the top of the factory, and our special agent has to lower himself down into the fan at just the right moment in between the opening of the blades. That way, he can get down and anchor his rope to this rotating antenna. Students have to figure out the period of the fan, you know, for how many seconds it is open and exactly when they have to drop to hit at the right time. 

The students are given a lot of data, but then they have to use the data. I think it’s kind of fun. I’m not done with it, but we’re making progress right now. I love to build those kinds of things to engage kids’ creative side to use the data. It’s one of the reasons I’ve always liked physics. I always tell kids physics isn’t hard. It’s just math with a purpose. Instead of doing 100 problems on a sheet of paper, you can figure something out with it.

Nikki: So, it’s kind of like a story problem except for it’s like brought to life and animated? That’s so cool. 

Kristi: That’s a good way to say it: Story problems brought to life.

Nikki: Alright, the same type of question and context. Can you give us your best tips and distill your wisdom for us, but this time on designing accessible online experiences for students? What have you found is most important in this area?

Kristi: This is a topic I’m really passionate about. When I came to work for Michigan Virtual — as I told you earlier in the interview — I drank the purple Kool-Aid about giving every student access to the courses that we’re building. I loved that every student in the state of Michigan had access to German or Introduction to Logic and could learn these things. I thought it was fantastic. 

But what we have to jump to next is ensuring “every student” includes those with differing abilities, cognitive abilities, visual abilities, hearing abilities, and all of the tactile abilities. Not every student or every person’s disability is obvious when you look at them. It’s really important as an instructional designer to think of these students at the beginning of a project. I try to tell teachers that I’ve worked in the office hours this year: As you’re putting your content online, think about the fonts you’re using. If you’re putting a video on that doesn’t have a transcript, let’s find a way to get one. When we make courses usable for all students, we make the best learning opportunity for every student, whether they have differing abilities or they don’t have differing abilities. 

Think about it this way. In Tahquamenon Area Schools, we have the largest school district this side of the Mississippi. If you and I are classmates in a math class sitting next to each other, conceivably, you live 80 miles from me because the busing system in our geographic area is huge. It’s super important that we understand that many of our students spend a lot of time in a car and on a bus. If that bus is noisy and I want to do my lesson on the way home, if it has a transcript on it, I can still do it. 

It’s not just the student that can’t hear because of a physical issue. It could be because there are too many people on the bus. There’s a statistic in Michigan about the number of our students being parented by their grandparents. How do we know what grandma and grandpa can hear? Even if you can look at me and say, “I have 30 kids in my class, and they can all see just fine and hear just fine. Let’s just build something.” You still don’t know who’s helping them. You don’t know who else is in the picture. 

These types of things are important to think through and not make assumptions about. Honestly, as you start designing something, make the assumption that you have students that don’t hear well, students that don’t see well, and students for whom tactically moving this mouse around all day long is exhausting or impossible. Make those kinds of assumptions when you build your course. Number one, so you don’t have to go back and fix it later when that does happen to you, but also so you’re making sure that every one of those students has the best opportunity for success.

Nikki: Thank you. All right, we got a few more questions if you have time. Can you tell me about your favorite teacher and why they were your favorite?

Kristi: You know, I’ve had many favorite teachers over the years because I happen to be a school nerd. I’m one of those people who loved school because I love to learn new things. But I would have to say the common denominator of the teachers that were my favorites was that they never raised their voices. They demanded and challenged me, but they didn’t demand and challenge me without giving me what I needed or giving me an explanation. 

They were patient because not everybody gets it the first time. Those are some of the common threads. Patient. Willingly let me take it where I wanted to take it. Instead of just saying, “You get it, move along.” If I thought I needed to learn more or wanted to engage more, they gave me more opportunities to engage with the material. Those were the type of teachers that meant a lot. Also, teachers who believed in me.

Nikki: Yes, those are answers I’ve heard echoed across like the different interviews. They challenged me, but they gave me the tools. It’s been cool to hear different answers from different people. I love it. Next, I’d like to hear about your vision for student learning. The way I break that down is: If it were up to you, what would you want to see for every single student?

Kristi: I would want us to think about how we can meet students where they are, instead of this chronological, moving-forward-anyway, you-didn’t-make-the-mark sort of thinking. It’s about taking students as they are when they come into our school — regardless of their chronological age — and moving them through their education based on their mastery of topics, not their birthday. We shouldn’t assume that they should meet certain targets just because they’re a certain age. Otherwise, we’re not accounting for the differences in who they are as people and the experiences and assets they did or did not come to us with.

Nikki: What would you say is the role of technology in that vision?

Kristi: It allows us to personalize learning to figure out where students are and build software that can remediate. I am the type of person who really has to reflect, and I know many students are, too. When you show me one time how to do a calculus problem on the whiteboard, but then I have to pack up my stuff and go home, I can’t replay that in my head. Having the technology to start and stop the presentation that shows you how to do it means I can get to that part and pause it and rewind. 

I’m a huge Googler and YouTuber, so if I need to learn something new, that’s where I go. I helped my son put new window motors in his car one time because it was expensive to have somebody else do it. We bought them cheap on Amazon, and then I sat with the laptop as we took apart the car door and followed it step by step. We didn’t catch it all the first time. If someone had just done a demonstration for us but only did it once, we might have gotten pieces and parts of it. But the idea is that we could replay that video and see it over again. We could say, “Ah, how did he get that rivet out of there?” Then, we could go back and watch it again before doing it.

A big piece of technology in education will be providing students with an opportunity to learn content at their own pace. To replay and start over and go back tomorrow if they don’t remember it. To watch it again. Because I can tell you, when we did that window motor, we had to play it all over again to do the second one even though we had a better idea of what we’re doing. That first time was not enough to make us proficient enough to do it the second time. It would take more than that, and I haven’t done any more window motors since that day, but I can tell you that I couldn’t do it again right now without going back to that video. So, the idea that technology can provide opportunities for repetition for students is huge.

Nikki: Awesome. What words of advice or encouragement would you offer educators right now?

Kristi: Stay true to who you are. If you’re truly a lifelong learner — and I know many of my fellow educators are — we love to learn. That’s why we’re here. We hope to teach others. Hold on to that enthusiasm that you had when you first got into teaching. Don’t get down on yourself or others. Keep learning, and don’t be afraid to tell students what you’re learning about and what you’re reading about and your successes and failures at learning set to do something new. 

I live on a lake, and I recently decided I was tired of my husband always going into town to buy worms to go fishing. I said, “We should build a worm farm.” I did some studying, and I built my worm farm. I tried to follow all the rules that I learned on YouTube. I watched several videos, but when you go away for the weekend, and your garage heats up to 80 degrees, those worms don’t do so well. So I made a mistake, but I’m willing to say I tried. I swung and missed, so I’m going to do it again. This time, I’m going to put them in the basement because it’s cold down there. No sunshine’s going to get them down there. 

I think it’s okay to let students know when we fail. When you’re trying to learn something new, you don’t always do it perfectly the first time. I always tried to tell students we’re going to learn this together. I don’t know all the answers. You can’t be afraid to start at the beginning. Even if you’re older, it’s okay. If you don’t know something, seek out people who do. Don’t be afraid to let your students know you’re a lifelong learner, and don’t stop being a lifelong learner. Model that behavior for them, and your enthusiasm for learning will be contagious.

Related resources 

See also: Kristi on the Mitch Albom Show!

Picture of Nikki Herta

Nikki Herta

Nikki’s love for writing, editing and pedagogy brought her to Michigan Virtual as their Content Creator/Editor. A Michigan native, she studied writing at Grand Valley State University before continuing on to the University of Minnesota for her master’s degree. While there, she also taught first-year writing to college freshman. Outside of work, she enjoys hiking, playing table-top board games, and curling up in front of the fireplace with a good book and her sassy, ancient cat, Princess Eugene.

The Digital Backpack

Get our latest articles sent straight to your inbox every week!