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The underlying theme for the Sloan Consortium International Symposium on Emerging Technologies for Online Learning (ET4Online) was on how instructors can refresh their online course to keep it interesting for students.

In an Online Colleges blog post about the symposium, Dr. Melissa Venable writes,

The primary goal of keeping an online course current or fresh is improving the experience and environment for all involved. This effort can include content and assignments, as well as social interaction and technology upgrades, and it doesn’t have to mean a large-scale initiative. Small changes and modifications can make a positive difference for both students and instructors.

Dr. Venable posted a few ideas from the symposium to help instructors refresh their online course. Those ideas are:

Threaded Discussions

  • Include student generated discussion questions.
  • Vary your comments and replies.
  • Use the HTML Editor to format a text-based response (e.g., bold and italics, bullets) and add embedded links, images, and multimedia.

Multimedia Options

  • Build a community with audio.
  • Increase your presence with video.
  • Use the HTML Editor…MORE! Audio and video options are integrated into the Content Editor, allowing you and your students to record from within the course.

Assignments and Activities

  • Consider assignments that foster student interaction with each other.
  • Give students choices for assignment completion (i.e., choosing between writing a paper and creating a video.)
  • Integrate “active learning" breaks.

For suggestions on setting up a successful online course, read the “Strategies for Creating a Successful Online Classroom” article.

Photo Credit: work found at Christophe / CC BY SA 2.0

image showing unhappy team member

Most students have mixed feelings about group work and usually moan and groan when they find out they are required to work on a group assignment. This is also true for students taking online classes. Group work is more challenging for online students because they may have to work with peers in different time zones, use different technologies for online collaboration, and communicate in ways that can make it difficult to understand someone’s personality or tone.

Many students cite lack of cooperation, work equity and dependency on others as major factors in disliking group work. Ironically, this is precisely why group work is essential for learning.

Online Group Projects — Yikes! You can hear the moans and groans of students echoing through your computer monitors as you start the first week of your online course. The reasons for requiring a group project vary from one discipline to another, but there are educational and career motives for requiring group projects.

Steven Johnson’s "Where good ideas come from" video gives an excellent explanation as to why group work is important.

Successful online group collaborative assignments can be a challenge in an online course. In a Faculty Focus article, Gregory Wells, instructional designer at Colorado State University, provided a few suggestions for improving online group work assignments. Those suggestions are:

Define the Project - the project should be integrated into the course objectives and not be viewed as an extra assignment or busy work. The project should allow students to practice specific skills based on the objectives of the course and demonstrate the ability to apply learning to a specific project.
Establish Milestones - the project should include specific milestones during the course. For example, require an outline, a project scope, a requirements document, and other pertinent deliverables.
Use the Learning Management System (Brightspace) - offer private group discussion areas and other collaboration tools that will encourage both communication and participation.
Simplify and Clarify Grading - it is imperative that you establish clear grading expectations for the group project.
Provide Encouragement - it is important to encourage and communicate the specific details of the project. Instructors can not assume students have the knowledge, competencies and skills necessary to engage in group work. They must prepare students for the obstacles they may face.

Following Gregory’s suggestions will not eliminate all of the potential issues that come into play with online group work, but these suggestions will certainly minimize the issues and can turn those moans and groans into excited and energized students that understand the importance of group work.

For more information on Gregory’s suggestions, read his article, “Five Steps to Improving Online Group Work Assignments.”

teamwork word cloud

Additionally, you may find helpful information in the following resources:

hourglass in the foreground and a clock in the background

Managing your time when teaching an online class can be a bit of a challenge. How do you manage time when there are no set course hours and when the classroom is open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week? Online instructors need to develop effective time management behaviors to be efficient and not just busy.

In a Faculty Focus article, Dr. Deborah A. Raines shared ten strategies she uses to manage her time. Those strategies are:

  1. Roll call – Take attendance on the first day. A simple discussion board with a response of “I’m here” alerts you to who has not found the classroom site.
  2. Syllabus quiz – Give a syllabus quiz during the first week. This quiz provides an opportunity for students to experience the online testing environment and provides an incentive for students to read the syllabus and other important information.
  3. Ask the class – Create an “ask the class” discussion area where students can ask general questions and encourages students to respond to each other.
  4. To-do list – Create a to-do list as the first item in each module. This item provides an introduction to and guidelines on how to approach the material in the module.
  5. Establish rules and expectations – Disseminate clear and consistent rules and expectations such as when to turn in assignments, the beginning and ending date of units, turn-around time for responses to questions or feedback on assignments.
  6. Private office – Create a dropbox or private journal function for students to communicate with you on confidential matters.
  7. Roadmap to success – Write a clear and concise document of student expectations, responsibilities and accountability for learning.
  8. Take advantage of tools and technology – Use online tools within the learning management system such as student tracking, testing automation, self-grading or rubrics added to assignment dropboxes, to increase your efficiency. In general, handle each item only once—if you open an item, do something with it, don’t just peek and plan to come back later.
  9. Establish a routine – Set your schedule. Get in the habit of going to your online courses at consistent times and know what you are going to do while at the course site.
  10. Don’t re-invent – Use existing resources. There are a number of quality learning activities available on the web. Using existing resources can reduce the time needed to develop similar materials.

For more information you can read Dr. Raines’ blog post Be Efficient, Not Busy: Time Management Strategies for Online Teaching.

Photo credit: time is money by ewvasquez2001 | CC BY 2.0

online classroom management

One key to a successful online course is instructors’ ability to manage their online classroom. Yet many online instructors don’t realize that the best practices in traditional environments should not be discarded simply because the participants are interacting online. The students still need to be managed as a cohesive group of learners.

In an Edutopia article, Heather Wolpert-Gawron provided suggestions for successfully managing online classes. The article was written with a K12 audience in mind. However, her suggestions can be used in a higher education environment as well. Heather’s suggestions for successfully managing your online class are:

  1. Build an engaging online environment. Build an online environment where students want to come back week-after-week.
  2. Build community. By building community right from the get-go and encouraging it throughout the course of the class, you’ll save yourself from some issues later on.
  3. Curate answers in an organized way. Find ways to curate resources and responses to questions so that participants can find them easily. Consider a Q&A discussion forum or develop FAQs.
  4. Be present. Make sure students know you are present in the course.
  5. Establish norms for office hours and video conferencing. Have a dress code when meeting virtually (e.g., no pajamas if you are participating via webcam). How should students ask questions without interrupting the current speaker?
  6. Don’t group randomly. Create group assignments where students can self-enroll and other assignments where students are randomly assigned to groups.
  7. Teach about plagiarism. Use strategies to ensure the student’s work is original or cited.
  8. Don’t shy away from difficult conversations. Stay on top of issues as they arise.
  9. Use various means to contact participants. Contact small groups of students and also the whole class routinely, but know when it’s time to do a behind-the-scenes intervention and email a participant directly.

For more details on Heather's suggestions for online classroom management, you should read this Extending Classroom Management Online article.

Additionally, check out these CAT FooD blog posts related to online teaching:

each of the seven deadly sins depicted by an eye that has makeup in a different color to reflect the deadly sin

In an Edvocate article, Daniel Stanford listed his seven deadly sins of online course design from a faculty developer’s perspective. These resonated with me; and I thought I would share Daniel's seven deadly online course design sins with you.

#1. Overwhelming Discussions

“Post to the discussion board, and then respond to three classmates’ posts.” Sound familiar? These are often the instructions for online discussions even though it would be impossible to replicate this level of participation in a face-to-face class. The result is a massive number of posts that instructors and students dread sorting through.

#2. Lack of Scannable Text

Staring at a computer screen trying to read the information is tiring enough as it is. Don’t make it worse by writing long paragraphs that lack visual interruptions and organizational cues. “Chunk” the content to make it easier to scan through.

#3. No Progress Indicators

Within seconds of entering a course or a specific unit of content, students should know what they’ve completed, what is incomplete, and when the incomplete items are due. The worst nightmare of any online student is to think he or she has met all the course requirements for a given day or week, only to stumble upon additional ones after a critical deadline has passed.

#4. Bad Narration

There are two reasons most instructors create narrated PowerPoints.

  1. They believe it will be faster to deliver a lecture verbally than write it out.
  2. They believe it will be more engaging for students than reading.

Both of these motivations have their pitfalls. First, faculty are often surprised how long it takes to produce an effective narrated presentation. Second, delivering information via audio with no text alternative makes it difficult for students to control the pace of their learning. Also, audio-only approaches to instruction can be challenging for ESL learners (English as a second language) and a deal breaker for students with disabilities.

#5. Buried Leads

Don’t make students read through or listen to several minutes of non-essential fluff before you get to the good stuff. Burying the lead wastes students’ time and hurts your credibility as a curator. As a result, students will struggle to find the part where you finally say something important. Worse yet, they might begin to ignore your emails, readings, or videos altogether.

#6. Digital Hoarding

Face-to-face courses come with limitations that encourage instructors to prioritize what they share with students. Examples include the number of hours in each class meeting and the number of photocopies the instructor has time to print. In online courses, these limitations are removed or relaxed, which makes it tempting to share every interesting reading, video, and website you’ve ever encountered. All too often, the result is a course site that feels like one of the homes on Hoarding: Buried Alive, but with more scholarly journals and fewer cats.

#7. Faceless Professor Syndrome

Online courses provide limited natural opportunities to reinforce that you’re a real human being and help students put a face with your name. Don’t squander these opportunities by obscuring your identity and increasing your anonymity on the discussion board and in your self-introduction. Humanizing your online courses improves the learning experience as well as student success and retention rates. This Humanizing Tool Buffet developed by Teaching and Learning Innovations at CSU Channel Islands has a collection of emerging tools just right for humanizing your online course.

If you are interested in knowing how Daniel Stanford suggests you atone for these deadly online course design sins, read his Edvocate article “Seven Deadly Sins of Online Course Design.”

Taking an online course can be an isolating experience for students, but it doesn’t have to be. Humanized learning increases the relevance of the course content and improves students' motivation to log-in to the course week-after-week.

buffet

Are you looking for ways to humanize your online course? Check out this Humanizing Tool Buffet developed by Teaching and Learning Innovations at CSU Channel Islands. In the buffet, you will find a collection of emerging tools just right for humanizing your online course. Peruse the buffet, click on the links, and sample what looks intriguing and helpful to you!

girl in front of a computer with her head in her hands

Many students enroll in online courses because they can take online classes at times that are convenient for them and from the comfort of their home. Some students mistakenly think that taking an online class is easier than taking its face-to-face counterpart and they underestimate the amount of time they must invest in taking the online class. When in fact, taking an online class requires students to be self-directed learners.

It is important for the instructor to set the tone for the online course to help students succeed. In a Faculty Focus article, Amy Hankins provided five suggestions to help students succeed in an online course. Those suggestions are,

Provide detailed instructions and anticipate questions – Don’t assume students will be able to read between the lines.

Post Announcements – Show students you are present in the course by providing reminders, clarifications, and overviews to help engage and motive students.

Provide examples and rubrics – This will help to minimize questions and confusion.

Utilize differentiated instructions – Provide students multiple opportunities and formats for learning, including videos, audio lectures, and project choices that help engage and encourage learning for all students and preferences.

Encourage peer support and engagement – Allow students to get to know one another by using an introductory assignment and encourage students to connect throughout the course.

For more information, read Five Ways to Help Students Succeed in the Online Classroom and check out our CAT+FD Online/Hybrid Instructor Resources.

Photo Credit: Girl | CC0

CAT+FD Online Teaching Resources logo

In a US News and World Report article, Ian Quillen identified six signs of a bad online instructor. The list included things like a syllabus that is unclear, no set timetable for responding to emails, and simply converting print resources used in the face-to-face class. Ian’s article was intended to help students access the quality of an online class and be able to withdraw if necessary. However, this list can also be used to help online/hybrid instructors recognize where their course may be in need of improvement.

Additionally, we have developed an online teaching resource to help faculty develop or improve their online and hybrid courses. Check out our new CAT+FD Online Teaching Resources and let us know what you think.

by Janice Florent

laptop computer and cup of coffee on the top of a desk

Are you thinking about how to deliver your online course for maximum success? In an Inside Higher Ed blog post, Andrea Zellner provided some strategies to make your online teaching better. Andrea's strategies are:

Technology should help and not hinder.

Expect things to go wrong, and do as much as you can to help your students help themselves. For example, provide links to help and how-to documents so that students do not have to go on a wild goose chase to find this information. You can minimize your time answering student questions by using the “three-before-me” rule, which pushes the responsibility of locating an answer to frequently asked questions to the student.

Anticipate difficulties.

Learning in an online environment can be a lot more difficult than learning it in a face-to-face class. Students report that taking an online course can be an isolating experience. Avoid straight lecturing as lectures can be dull when delivered online. Here are a few ideas to keep your online course interesting.

Incorporate synchronous opportunities.

This follows directly from anticipating difficulties. You should find the right balance between synchronous and asynchronous learning activities. Additionally, be sure to include well-timed synchronous virtual office hours. Include the virtual office hours during weeks when you know the content is likely to be confusing.

Don’t be stingy with your feedback.

Students want detailed feedback and the feedback needs to be timely. You should give students feedback that helps them learn and you should be as effective as a fitness band.

Humanize your course.

Humanize your course by adding a little personality. This can go a long way in making students feel comfortable approaching you for help and can make them feel more engaged with the course.

Encourage self-directed learning.

Research on self-directed learning has shown that people who take the initiative in learning, learn more things and learn better than people who sit at the feet of teachers passively waiting to be taught.

Use gamification in your course.

Gamification is making a boring process interesting by using fun elements from games. Gamification is a motivation tool. Here is some information on using gamification in your courses.

If this has piqued your interest, you can read more in Andrea's Strategies to Make Your Online Teaching Better and my Seven Deadly Sins of Online Course Design blog posts.

Photo credit: computer and coffee | Creative Commons CC0

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by Janice Florent

pile of letters with two feet sticking out and you've got mail on computer monitor in the background

Unlike face-to-face instructors, online instructors are generally inundated with questions from students by way of email messages. It doesn’t take long for an online instructor to feel like they are drowning in student emails.

In a recent eLearning Industry article, Dr. Liz Hardy provided five tips to help you manage student email to avoid a flood of student email. Those tips are:

1. Make communication time frames clear.

Tell your students what to expect when communicating with you. When your students understand your communication rules, they are more likely to work within those rules.

2. Prevent unnecessary student emails in the first place.

Set up your Blackboard course to be as learner-friendly as possible. If your students can find the information they need without extensive searching, they’re less likely to email you for help with simple questions. By encouraging self-directed learning, you find that student email more often relates to valid questions - rather than multiple queries about when the next assignment is due.

Consider using the “three before me” rule, which pushes the responsibility of locating an answer to frequently asked questions to the student. The student must prove to the professor that he/she has attempted to obtain the answer from three different sources prior to contacting the professor.

Additionally, you can minimize emails by utilizing Blackboard for assignment collection. The Blackboard assignment tool is an efficient way to manage and collect your student’s individual and group assignments digitally and can help to unclutter your inbox.

3. Scan your inbox before you answer even one student email.

Scan your inbox first. Are there messages from colleagues or administrators you need to answer first? Is there a reply from a student you’ve been waiting to hear from on an urgent issue? Deal with those messages first. Then you can look for patterns – are there any students who have sent you several emails since you last checked? Try reading email in reverse date order. You may find the student has answered their own question. In this case you can send one email back to the student with a single-line response.

4. Don’t multi-task.

It’s actually more efficient to deal with each student query in full, completely, and then move onto the next. What seems like saved time through multi-tasking can actually lead to a lot of backtracking and cross-checking, as you try to make sure you’re matching the right answer to the right student.

5. Answer student email in blocks.

Check your email messages two or three times a day, in blocks. Avoid checking at other times. Mute your speakers so you won’t hear that demanding bleep every time email arrives in your inbox.

These practical approaches will help you take control of your inbox, and get on with your teaching day. If you would like more information, read Dr. Hardy’s article "5 Ways To Survive A Student Email Avalanche."