Behind the scenes at an online course

By Michael Conterio. Posted

Collaboration is an important part of course design.

Michael Conterio reveals some of the work that goes into creating materials for online training courses

It’s been a busy year for my team at the Raspberry Pi Foundation — we’ve launched 14 online courses as part of the National Centre for Computing Education (NCCE). Here’s how we’ve been going about making sure that all of them are high-quality learning experiences.

First, make a plan 

Although we’ve launched an average of more than one course a month, the story behind each course starts five or six months before with the planning stage. The most important part of creating a course comes first: working out what it’s about. It sounds silly—surely when you start writing a course you know what it’s about—but even when you’ve got an overarching topic you still need to work out the specifics to include. Sometimes, it’s a case of working out the programming concepts you want to cover, the most sensible order to cover them in, and some programs that the learners could work towards building. In other cases, the structure has been a lot harder to pin down, for example in our ‘Impact of Technology: How to Lead Classroom Discussions’ course. In that case, we had to work out how to make sure we interleaved useful advice for running classroom discussions and help for long-answer questions with information to start off discussions on a range of different topics. 

Once the overall content has been decided on, we decompose the course down into smaller segments. One person then takes control to plan each course step by step. Dropping down from a group to a single person here helps cut down the time spent going back and forth on particular elements and can keep the course feeling more coherent. While writing the course step by step, the lead educator tries to make sure that we’re not only sharing useful pedagogical approaches, but also implementing them in the courses. We know that teachers’ time is limited, so each step needs to have a good reason to exist. The flow of the course between steps is important too. We need to help keep learners feeling that the material makes sense and motivates them to continue. Not getting this right at this stage can lead to trouble. Although we may make minor changes to the plan as we write the course, the few times we’ve made larger changes, we’ve had to put in a lot of extra work to make sure the learner’s journey through the course still makes sense.

Each course has one person overviewing each step.

Before the writing can start, the step-by-step plan will be checked by others in the team, particularly those who helped with some of the earlier planning. This can help spot where some elements from the initial planning haven’t been followed through in the step by step, as well as point out a few points where the plan can be polished up slightly.

The write stuff 

Once the plan is approved, it’s time to get down to the writing. This can take several months, thanks to a combination of factors, such as the amount of material needed (courses can have over 25,000 words), the fact that our writers are often juggling multiple responsibilities, and also because I can get quite picky. In my role as production manager, I see the initial drafts of each step and generally provide feedback. At this point I’m pretty much acting as an advocate for the course participants, trying to make sure that everything is as clear as it can be for them, whether that’s a definition of a term, instructions for activities, or in making sure that learners not only understand what they are doing but also why we are asking them to do it. Sadly, I am fallible, but other people will also get a chance to check the course later and we can also respond to feedback from our learners.

Writing for online courses is pretty hard on our creators, as it’s quite different to the writing (and teaching!) they usually do. Although learners will be able to comment and get feedback, real-time communication isn’t possible, so our course creators must navigate the tricky task of conveying tone in solely text-based communication, as well as trying more generally to minimise confusion. They’ve also got to try and make sure that there’s enough of their own passion and voice present to make a connection with each of the potentially thousands of learners per run. It’s not an easy job, but they all put in a lot of hard work, and take a lot of feedback with good grace, to make the courses the best that they can be.

Real-world examples, like creating a train departure board, help teachers make programming relevant to students.

Illuminating computing

One part where we’re very lucky is with our illustrators, animators and videographers. They all work together with the course writers to not only make the course look good but to fill it with memorable content that aids the learners comprehension of the material covered. While writing the course, the author adds notes on content they would like added to their text which they later discuss with the other content creators. The production of these assets is a big job and can take up to two months for each course, despite having different people working on each aspect. As the people producing these are not subject specialists, it’s easy for a key part of an illustration to be misinterpreted or part of an animation to accidentally pave the way for a misconception. To avoid this, all of these people have to continue to work closely with the course author and the production managers to ensure that all of these pieces of media come out looking as close as possible to how they were imagined.

Our lead educators often have to step out of their comfort zone at this point, as they find themselves in front of a camera. Presenting like this is very different to standing in front of a class – looking directly into a camera can feel very strange, especially when there’s an autocue to read. The scripts loaded onto the autocue have been adapted from the course text by one of our video production managers to cut them down for time, as well as to adapt anything that sounds more awkward when spoken rather than written. In any case, our videographers guide our educators through the whole process and by the end some find that they even enjoy being in front of a camera.

Courses use screencasts so that the instructors can talk you through writing code.

Greater than the sum of its parts

As the course launch date nears, we have to start putting all of this material together. Our team must adjust animations to match the voiceover timing and edit them into the videos. Other members of the team must send the videos off for transcribing and then check the transcriptions are accurate. We also need to upload the images and write suitable alt text for them, for accessibility. Our wonderful copy editing team check through the text for the inevitable typos and unfortunate phrasings, and fix them to make sure that the meaning isn’t lost. And finally we’ve got to upload all of these things onto the online platform, using a seemingly never-ending array of text boxes and buttons. At this point both us and the web team make a final check, and the course is done!

Now all we’ve got to do is facilitate the course, responding to discussions, queries and cries for help, until the course run comes to an end. Well, until next time. 

Online courses for computing education

There are over 20 free online courses from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, available to access from anywhere in the world. Whether you’re simply curious about computing, a coding club volunteer, a lifelong learner, or a school teacher, we’ve got all your learning needs and interests covered. 

And if you’re a teacher in England, you can use a subset of the Raspberry Pi Foundation’s online courses as credit towards your NCCE Computer Science Accelerator Programme certificate - a development programme with a mixture of online and face-to-face modules to help you confidently teach GCSE computer science. Visit the NCCE website to find out which courses are part of this programme, and book your place today at teachcomputing.org.


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