Saturday, March 14, 2020

Online Teaching 101

Ready or Not, the Future Is Now—and It Doesn’t Have to Be Dystopian
Photo by bongkarn thanyakij from Pexels

Many of us in higher education received emails last week about either taking our classes online or preparing to do so. If you’re anxious about the next several weeks, imagine how your students are feeling! Many of them have avoided online classes or have had a negative experience with one in the past. For context, I teach hybrid, face-to-face, and online classes in an open-access community college where many of my students are already at risk, and last week, I could smell the fear. 

As a teacher, you are likely well aware that current research about online education suggests that distance learning is not as effective as face-to-face classes and that the retention and persistence rates for students are poor. Also, let’s be frank here: some administrators seem to think that online classes are “easy” to teach and that all we have to do is post our syllabus online to turn a face-to-face class into an online one.

Nothing could be further from the truth, and you should be aware upfront that developing and teaching an online course, in my experience, typically takes more time than teaching a face-to-face class (though it comes with added perks like flexibility and the ability to offer classes during a pandemic). For this reason, it’s important to track your labor over the next few weeks.

With those caveats, I want you to know how much I personally love teaching and learning online. As an instructor who began teaching online and hybrid classes in 2010 and completed my Organizational Leadership doctorate in a fully online program in 2016, I have seen firsthand that online teachers can create effective active learning opportunities. With intentional planning and deliberate outreach, an online class can provide a robust learning environment for your students.

Below, I have outlined a few areas that have been important to me as an online teacher, along with examples and resources. I have focused my suggestions on relatively simple and quick ways to transfer your existing face-to-face class to an online environment.

Communicate Early and Often
One of the most important ways to build engagement with online students is to communicate early and often. Communication should take a variety of forms, and make sure you let your students know what your preferred style of communication is. Here’s how I communicate with my classes:
  • Weekly LMS course announcements about assignments, sometimes including a short video I record on my phone and upload to YouTube.  
  • Regular and frequent emails, including a weekly email wrap up of the work we covered. Note: it’s important to make sure that students are checking their student email. Including a tutorial about how to forward their student emails to their phones can be a great way to make sure that they are checking their messages. It’s also really important that you respond to emails as quickly as possible, but definitely within 24 hours. I check for student emails before I go to bed every evening and when I wake up in the morning. Here is an example of a weekly wrap up course announcement/email I created for my English 215 Survey of World Mythology course:

  • “Ask Your Instructor” open forum in your LMS discussion board. Students can post questions that the whole class may have. Subscribe to this board so that you can get back to students quickly. 
  • Video feedback on assignment grades. Both Canvas and Blackboard make this easy to do by incorporating a way to record audio or video feedback directly in the assignment comment box. This way of giving feedback has two advantages: 1) It generally takes less time than line edits or written feedback, and 2) It builds rapport with your students. They will feel like you really care, which will contribute to their ability to succeed in the class. See here for Blackboard instructions:
  • Weekly online office hours. Some of my friends use these office hours for emails and DMs with students, which is fine. I also host a weekly Blackboard Collaborate live session. Usually between 2-6 students attend. Students have reported that just knowing they have this option makes them feel less anxious about our online class. If you don’t have Bb Collaborate, you could do the same thing through Google Hangouts.
  • Phone calls or live video chats. Sometimes it’s just easier to work with a student individually over the phone or through a video conference. 
  • A “resources” or “FAQ” link where students can look for commonly asked questions, including important information like how to contact the IT help desk and access online tutoring.
  • Student feedback. Treat your students as collaborators in your course development. I use Google Forms to ask my students for their preferences about short stories or potential assignments or to assess how well a particular assignment worked. This helps the students to feel like their voices are heard. Here is an example from my CWID “You Are What You Eat” course, where I surveyed students for their opinions on ethical issues that surround food (this took about 10 minutes to create):

Keep It Simple

You may not have spent much time thinking about UX (user experience). But I’m sure you’ve encountered a website that is frustrating or difficult to navigate. Keeping your online course as simple as possible will be important to your students’ success. In an online guide written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Flower Darby provides a useful glossary of common online pedagogy jargon that may help you as you think about your user experience:

Here’s how I do this:

  • Start by looking at your existing syllabus and lesson plans. You probably already have discussions and assignments scheduled for each week. For each of these discussions and assignments, you’ll need to develop an online equivalent.
  • I recommend using the discussion board weekly for formative assessments. There are a few different ways to organize your discussion boards. Depending on the subject matter, you may want to create a single thread and have students respond directly to the thread. Or you may want to allow students to create their own threads within a forum. Have students post an initial response, but also require them to respond to classmates. It’s also important for you to participate regularly on these boards to build instructor presence—but you can quickly develop a bank of generic comments that can be repurposed. 
  • I use discussion boards in a variety of ways, including peer review on assignments and essays and for discussions that we would normally have in a classroom setting. Using discussion boards is pretty easy for most students, and grading them is pretty easy for you. Create a simple rubric with your expectations. Here is an example from my online Connecting with Ideas course: 

  • Think about how to organize your course as clearly as possible. I use weekly modules, open during the week we are working on them. These modules include links to the course documents, discussions, and assignments that students should focus on each week. All of my assignments are available under an “assignments” link, and all of my course documents are available under a “course documents” link, organized in folders by type of assignment.
  • In general, one discussion board assignment and one other assignment (such as homework, a lab report, or other assignment) should be enough to replicate what you did in a face-to-face class. Keep due dates regular and consistent so that students can plan ahead.

Be Creative and Use Your Resources

Again, using your existing syllabus and lesson plans as a guide, think about how you can meet the same outcomes in an online environment. Do you currently have group projects? So do I, and the online students really have fun with them. In the real world, many students will work on distributed teams, and giving an online group project is a great way to help them practice. You can set up different group discussions and even group Collaborate Live sessions in Blackboard; Canvas lets you set up entire sub-course sites for groups where they can have their own announcements and discussions. Here is an example of a critical edition website of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” that one English 211 student group created using Google Sites (shared with permission):

Do your students give speeches or presentations? Consider using Voice Thread or Flip Grid.  You can also use Flip Grid for discussions. I ask my students for their advice about tools—while I have not used this yet, for example, I would not be at all averse to having students create a TikTok video assignment.

For lectures, I’ve seen many of my colleagues use tools like Screencast-O-Matic or Powtoon. But I am more old school. I use PowerPoints that I created for my face-to-face classes and record narrative in PowerPoint 2016. I then export the presentation to video, upload it to YouTube, and voila! 

One note about YouTube presentations: try to keep your presentations under 15 minutes. Students seem to lose attention beyond that time frame. This may mean breaking up existing presentations into shorter ones. Recording a lecture like this is quick and easy--less than an hour from start to finish. I recommend avoiding specific due dates or saving all due dates for the last slide. It’s easy to record a new final slide with updated due dates each semester—then export to a new video. 

Here’s an example from my Survey of World Mythology class: 

If you have access to Office 365, you have a wonderful presentation tool in Microsoft Sway. A colleague showed me how to use Sway to create multi-media online lectures that are optimized for mobile phones. Adobe Spark is a similar program. Here’s an example of a presentation I created on the Maya for my English 215 Survey of World Mythology class (it took me about three hours).

While I teach humanities courses, thinking creatively can also apply to science courses. For example, my oldest son is in the final semester of his college physics program, and his college made the sudden decision to move everything online. He’s most concerned about his lab circuits class, but his professor is already exploring ideas like getting each student an Arduino to work on at home. I have a feeling that in the current climate, if you have a solid proposal for something like this, administrators are definitely likely to consider your requests.

Finally, the website Amazing School Resources is collecting a wide range of free educational resources to use in online classrooms. You can access the list here:

In conclusion, you can do this. Make sure you reach out to colleagues and to your institution’s instructional designers (and be patient with them during this time because I am sure they are slammed). Whenever I have a question about how to move something from a face-to-face to an online environment, our college’s instructional designers have provided excellent suggestions and resources, including many of the things I shared above. Program chairs should consider creating a professional development site in your LMS and using a dedicated discussion forum to share assignments and resources (our wonderful program chair already does this, and it’s a lifesaver!). I know many of my colleagues who teach online are more than eager to offer resources and support.

The last bit of advice I have comes from research on growthmindset, something that we all can now model for our students. Many of us have negative ideas about online teaching. But this modality has undeniable benefits. Without online education, I could not have earned my doctorate as a working single mother of four children. Online education means access. It means opportunity. And when done intentionally and with students at the center, online education can definitely mean success. The future of education is now—and it doesn’t have to be dystopian, for teachers or for our students.

If you have other ideas or resources to share, I would really appreciate you linking to them in the comments.

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