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NIU online courses awarded for excellence in design

September 22, 2014
Stephanie Richter (left) and Greg Long (right)

Stephanie Richter (left) and Greg Long (right)

NIU’s faculty and staff are again at the forefront of educational innovation, this time receiving Blackboard Catalyst Awards for Exemplary Course Design in recognition of innovative and engaging online course design and development.

2014 Blackboard Exemplary Course Award recipients from NIU include Greg Long and the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center for the Perspectives on Disability massive open online course (MOOC) and Jason Rhode for his online course, Instructional Media and Technology. Recipients were honored during BbWorld, Blackboard’s annual user conference held this July in Las Vegas.

For more than a decade, the Blackboard Catalyst Awards have annually recognized and honored innovation and excellence in the Blackboard global community of practice, where millions of educators and learners work every day to redefine what is possible when leveraging technology. The Blackboard Catalyst Awards are an opportunity to celebrate these accomplishments and help raise the standard for the entire community.

“It’s an honor each year to recognize forward-thinking educators who are helping create a world inspired to learn through the work they do every day,” said Jay Bhatt, CEO of Blackboard Inc. “We congratulate Catalyst Award winners on their vision and innovative approaches to education, and celebrate their accomplishments with them.”

Part of the annual Blackboard Catalyst Awards program since 2000, the Blackboard Catalyst Exemplary Course Award recognizes faculty and course designers from schools, colleges, and universities around the world who develop exciting and innovative courses that represent the very best in technology and learning. More than 200 entries were evaluated in a rigorous peer-review process by more than 300 faculty and instructional designers.

Jason Rhode

Jason Rhode

The Exemplary Course Award honors courses demonstrating excellence in four areas:

  • Course Design: the elements of instructional design in an online course, such as its structure, learning objectives, and instructional strategies.
  • Interaction and Collaboration: the level of engagement offered by the course and the level of student interaction and collaboration taking place within an online environment.
  • Assessment: the evaluation of student work toward the achievement of learning outcomes and the quality and type of student assessments within the course.
  • Learner Support: the resources made available to students as a part of an online course, which may be accessible within or external to the course environment.

In Fall 2013, NIU offered its first massive open online course (or MOOC), titled Perspectives on Disability. The course was led by Long, a Presidential Teaching Professor in the School of Allied Health and Communicative Disorders. The 10-week online experience, based on the for-credit AHRS 200, a general education course “Disability in Society” was designed to raise awareness and increase knowledge about disability.

Emphasizing personal, philosophical, sociological, psychological, medical and legal perspectives about living with disabilities, the free online course included more than 55 closed-captioned video segments across 10 lessons, covering issues related to disability and media, language, stereotypes, education, community living and adaptation. The videos featured guest speakers who were NIU staff, students, and community members who shared their experiences with disability.

“Students with and without disabilities learned from each other and helped us create a product that can be used by a wide range of audiences” Long said. “I am proud of this MOOC which represents a high impact, student driven, engaged learning activity. It represents the collective wisdom, experience, and perspectives of many NIU students, staff, and faculty. In addition, I am indebted to my Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center colleagues Stephanie Richter and Tracy Miller. Their support and expertise were invaluable to the success of this effort.”

Perspectives on DisabilityMore than 800 people from around the world signed up for the MOOC, and more than a quarter of those who started the MOOC completed it (which is typical of MOOCs). Illinois teachers who completed the course each earned 20 hours of continuing professional development units (CPDUs).

Students loved the MOOC: In their final reflections, students shared what they learned and how the experience impacted them. Here are a few of their comments:

  • “I learned that you should not judge a book by its cover because if you judge you will have that stereotype of what this person might possibly be. I learned that everyone has a story and the only way to learn their story is to ask and learn from them.”
  • “I loved the guest speakers. I loved how personal it was. I feel a lot of learning was through the speakers because they are in the present, living with their disability and are each very easy to relate to.”
  • “This course taught me to recognize my own attitudinal barriers and become more self-aware of my thoughts and behaviors toward those with disabilities.”
  • “As an educator, I will have opportunities to work with individuals with disabilities, and this course has provided me with the knowledge to better assist those individuals.”
  • “I want to express my deep feelings that I have towards this and sincerely thank each and every one who came up with this course because it was very helpful to the extent that I cannot express through writing.”
  • “I am going to recommend this course to many people at my place of employment. It was easy to use and very helpful.”
  • “I learned that the way that people view people with disabilities is completely unfair. I never really thought about my own views, and this course has definitely opened my eyes. I was completely wrong and this course has given me a glimpse into the ways others want to be treated/viewed.”

The MOOC, developed with support from staff from Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center, is hosted on Blackboard’s open education platform and available for anyone around the world to enroll in at

etra-ett-510Rhode, director of NIU’s Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center and an instructor in the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment (ETRA), collaborated with ETRA faculty and staff to revamp the course content and template of ETT 510 Instructional Media and Technology, a required course for all ETRA master’s degree students in technology specialist online cohorts.

Stand-out practices noted by reviewers of the course design included weekly unit introduction YouTube videos, video participation options for discussions and reflection journal activities, and Twitter chats incorporated throughout the course.

Here are just a few of the comments reviewers of the course shared regarding the online course design:

  • “This is a really well-designed course. I kept trying to find a ‘weak link’ in the course navigation but just couldn’t do it! It’s not an easy feat to design a course that is clear to navigate, robust in content and not feeling like I am lost somewhere trying to find something. The units make sense and the links within keep everything organized. Exemplary work.”
  • “It is evident that Dr. Rhode has a passion for higher ed/online education AND design/development skills. It’s also evident that he enjoys the facilitation side and teaching both theory and practice and engaging with learners. The embedded YouTube videos and especially the channel are an excellent addition to the course.”
  • “The learning activities truly embody the student-content, student-student and student-instructor theory and practice. The learners were offered an opportunity to gain many new skills, even if there was a “stretch” involved.”
  • “The course design is exemplary. It’s easy to navigate and it just makes sense. It provides the learners with all of the necessary information to be successful and to jump right in and feel like they can begin learning the subject at hand, not how to get to the content and activities”
  • “The learning activities are awesome. Assessment of each of the activities is thorough and clear with the rubrics.”
  • “It truly is one of the most well-designed courses I’ve seen.”

Blackboard Catalyst Award“It’s gratifying anytime your efforts to develop a high quality learning experience for students are recognized,” Rhode said. “The quality standards and best practices for online course design that this award exemplifies are ones that all NIU faculty and instructors can effectively implement in their own teaching.”

Rhode and his team actively promote the adoption of online instruction best practices through the many programs, resources and services offered by the Faculty Development and Instructional Design Center.

“This is the fourth year in a row that NIU has won Blackboard Catalyst Awards,” said Murali Krishnamurthi, acting vice provost for Faculty Affairs. “This year’s awards are especially significant because they represent the collaborative accomplishments and excellence of NIU faculty, staff and students, and promote disability awareness as well as exemplary teaching.”

For more information about using Blackboard in a course and to view a schedule of upcoming programs about Blackboard, visit the Teaching with Blackboard website, call (815) 753-0595 or email [email protected].