Take My Advice

Seventeen instructors offer guidance for colleagues teaching an online course for the first time (and for those seeking a few new ideas).

November 15, 2017
 

“Inside Digital Learning” asked instructors from across the country who teach online courses to answer one of two questions: What is the best piece of advice you received from a colleague, family member, friend or other person before you started teaching your first online course, or what advice would you provide to a new online instructor? Here are their responses.

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Tom Beaudoin, associate professor of religion, Fordham University

Imagine the total learning experience from the perspective of the online student and put your all into preparation on the front end. This includes considering the variety of media Tom Beaudoinstudents can encounter as a way of progressing in learning in your course: might you include documents, audio, slides, video, websites, discussion boards, pictures, live chats, etc.? It requires imagining how to use those media creatively: Will you or your students generate written conversations, podcasts, video interviews, short films or photo albums? Remember that online habits of interaction are differently habituated than in the classroom. Expect to meet that habituation creatively!

As you are imagining teaching online from the student perspective, do not neglect crucial academic labor matters that pertain to your professorial role. Teaching online demands realistic support from your institution to facilitate quality production: before you consent to teach online, ascertain that you have adequate institutional resources to do this well. Make sure you know who owns your online course and what happens to it if you leave or are not available to teach it in the future. Be clear about your expectations, and the institution’s, regarding the equal rigor of online teaching and learning in relation to the classroom.

Finally, understand that the fundamental shift toward online education taking place in U.S. higher education is as ideologically complicated as the older model of classroom education. Work with colleagues to discuss what is happening, who is making decisions and what you want online education to become.

I find satisfaction and even joy teaching a mix of on-campus, hybrid and online courses, but professors must be their own advocates -- together -- to make this transition well into a new educational age.

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Satesh Bidaisee​Satesh Bidaisee, professor of public health and preventive medicine, assistant dean for school of graduate studies, St. George's University

The online delivery of a course can be a challenging prospect, as switching from on-site (or brick) to online (or click) is a significant change. However, the academic quality and rigor of the course should not be determined by whether it is on-site or online. Develop your course the way you would ideally like it to be delivered -- then work with the online team to facilitate that delivery using the variety of online tools available to instructors today.

Teaching an online course can actually be an opportunity to create a more engaging, interactive experience for your students if you take full advantage of the available technology. While you cannot replicate the in-person back-and-forth of a classroom, encouraging students to utilize social media channels or set up virtual discussion groups to work together can help mimic that collaborative environment. This will motivate students to succeed -- and allow them to turn to each other as they work through the material.

When leading these courses, try to incorporate direct interaction as often as possible. Encourage students to ask questions, or even establish opportunities for them to take charge of their learning by including student-led seminars. Consider adding live sessions. The more direct involvement your students have in the course, the more invested and productive they will be.

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Pamela DeCiusPamela DeCius, instructor of humanities in fine arts, Saint Leo University

Create opportunities for your students to interact in the online environment as they would in an on-ground class. Tools like VoiceThread allow asynchronous ways for students to have ownership of their opinions and ideas when responding to peers in discussion posts, presentations and group work situations.

VoiceThread allows varied ways to comment such as audio, text or even recorded video. I believe this face-to-voice-to-typed-word is an integral part of creating a community within a class, especially when the course is occurring in a condensed format (i.e., eight weeks versus 15 weeks).

There is a slight learning curve starting with the first interaction, but I find that with consistent use it becomes easier and more substantive. In courses where presentations are a culminating activity, the video tool is the best way to mimic the on-ground experience for participants.

I also encourage online instructors to engage with students using these tools in a way that models the type of interaction that you expect of them. Again, students should get to know you and your teaching style as they would if you were delivering material live and in person every week. This was my biggest concern as a new online teacher: I was afraid that the online environment would limit that crucial connection between teacher and student and student with their peers. With tools like VoiceThread, we are able to successfully provide a more enriched platform for our students and ensure sound pedagogy.

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Kalenda Eaton​Kalenda Eaton, associate professor of English, Arcadia University

Be present. Be aware of not only the texts, but also the subtexts in student writing. Engage with the students in frequent dialogue and provide opportunities for students to ask and answer questions. The professor should be thoughtful about how to create learning communities that inspire dialogue and deep thinking.

Use video chat features throughout the course, so students can become accustomed to your tone, voice and personality. This will help transfer meaning to/from your posted assignments and comments.

On the surface the online class resembles other digital environments where we can simply click, type and submit without being very thoughtful, but the reality of online education is very different. Much of what we do in a face-to-face classroom can be (and should be) adapted to the online classroom.

You really have an opportunity to make the material come alive in an online classroom with links, digital tools, media, etc. But it is important to use these resources as methods to get students engaged. The tools should be incorporated in ways that require students to be active, rather than passive, learners.

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Michael GoldbergMichael Goldberg, assistant professor, Weatherhead School of Management, Case Western Reserve University

In order to deepen the experience of their online students, I would encourage instructors to find partners or encourage students to organize local meet-ups. For my MOOC, I worked with U.S. embassies and consulates, local universities, seed accelerators and the Microsoft Innovation Centers to organize meet-ups around the world.

One of my students in Düsseldorf, Germany, Arjan Tupan, brought together several local partners, including a university (EBC Hochschule), a nongovernmental organization supporting entrepreneurship (StartupDorf) and the consulate general of the United States, Düsseldorf, to host meet-ups in two local co-working spaces in Düsseldorf. During their meet-up sessions, students watched video lectures from my MOOC, hosted local experts as guest speakers and engaged in brainstorming sessions to discuss ways to improve support for entrepreneurship in Düsseldorf.

Some of my local partners translated subtitles of my video lectures into local languages, which also deepens the student experience and helps to reach a larger audience. Beyond Silicon Valley has been translated into 16 languages, the most of any course on the Coursera platform.

I am not alone in emphasizing meet-ups as an integral part of my MOOC. Coursera, the largest provider of MOOCs, has a Learning Hubs Initiative, which establishes physical spaces for students to access their classes. Coursera reported that their Learning Hubs participants show higher completion rates, ranging from 30 percent to 100 percent, versus the 6.8 percent Coursera-wide average. Despite the lack of professor-student interaction, local meet-ups can produce a more meaningful educational experience and spark innovation for the online student.

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Andrea GoodAndrea Hickerson, director and associate professor, school of communication, Rochester Institute of Technology

The best advice I’ve received about online teaching came from peer learning groups coordinated by RIT’s Teaching and Learning Services. I realized that teaching face-to-face allows for a certain amount of improv. As a communication instructor, I can pick up a daily paper and use it to organize a class discussion in real time.

Teaching online requires more up-front work, particularly designing and inputting course materials thoughtfully into a course management system. It’s true that a lot of online teaching success is about course organization, like making sure content is clear, posted in the right place and linked to working supplementary materials. You have to anticipate student questions. However, over time and through peer critique I’ve been able to see online teaching as more than just mastery of course management software, but an exciting new sandbox to experiment with different creative teaching methods -- if I let myself be open to them.

I’ve experimented with things like recording myself grading papers and holding synchronous peer-editing sessions. Sometimes it has worked, and sometimes it hasn’t. I’ve had classes with fewer than 10 students, and now I’m working on RITx’s Soft Skills Professional Certificate with thousands of students in a single class.

At this point in my online teaching experience, the possibilities of what I can and want to do online often outnumber the hours I have to create and grade. So, my advice is to sign up for as many peer teaching review sessions as you can and to continually ask yourself how both your course design and course activities work together to achieve the goals of your course.

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Leigh Ann HallLeigh Ann Hall, professor, Wyoming Excellence Endowed Chair in Literacy Education, University of Wyoming

While what and how you teach is critical, teaching in an online environment also requires you to pay attention to how you build relationships with your students and how you help them build relationships with each other. Time flows differently in an online class, particularly if it is asynchronous. The ways in which students interact with you and each other will be different than in a face-to-face setting. I think it’s critical that you build in time each week that mindfully addresses how you interact with your students and build a community. Some suggestions:

  • Use Flipgrid. Design experiences for your students that allow them to see you and each other.
  • Create weekly videos. I like to make short (five minutes or less) videos each week where I am talking to students about what we will be learning and doing in the upcoming week. I use Screencast-O-Matic for this because it allows for picture in picture. It is an opportunity for students to see and hear me.
  • Reach out to your students. Create a spreadsheet with the names of all your students. During the semester, reach out to them -- just a few each week -- and see how they are doing, tell them what you appreciate about their work, etc. This starts a conversation that allows you to connect with them and shows meaningful engagement. Check off on your sheet who you are contacting -- you don’t want to leave anyone out!

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David JoynerDavid Joyner, course developer/general course manager, online master of science in computer science, Georgia Institute of Technology

One of the most common mistakes I see instructors making is creating course content that cannot be maintained over time. Video, for example, is a very heavy medium: it costs a lot to modify video material, so avoid putting details that are likely to change into course videos, like specific rubric percentages, assignment descriptions, grading policies or staff names. Instead, keep those in more fluid formats, like text, which allow for easier maintenance. If you're unsure of whether some material is good, test it via text before investing the time and energy to film it.

Keep this eye toward maintenance in designing the videos themselves as well. If, for example, your videos heavily cross-reference each other, than modifying one area of the course might demand that you modify several others as well to stay up-to-date. Wherever possible, avoid this by keeping the videos as individually independent as possible. Rather than using phrases like, "Recall the example we used last semester," say "Imagine this example." If the previous area of the course is unmodified, students will draw the connection on their own, but if that example has been dropped, the video does not come across as unconnected.

These two general approaches combine to limit how often you need to maintain or modify your course material, and to make it easier to do so when you need to.

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Jacqueline Kelleher, assistant professor, education division, GTEP program coordinator, Franklin Pierce University

While teaching in an online environment, it is critical to engage your students often and early. It is very important to be responsive and provide timely feedback. Students are often submitting discussions and assignments into an online campus management system, which can seem impersonal and create a sense of anxiety for some. Our faculty responsiveness – and I try to get a response out within 24 hours – can alleviate some of that tension and truly make our learners feel supported.

We need to build connected, caring communities for our online students and the extent to which we respond and provide reassurance that we are here for them goes a long way in establishing relationships and building a sense of trust. It is amazing how receptive students are to quick email turnaround! Feedback should be timely as well, and specifically targeted to the work product being submitted.

Strong rubrics with clear expectations and proficiencies will help with this and, in turn, guide the learning. Students can get frustrated when these tools are either not clear, not provided, or not used when delivering feedback. Feedback can also include a personal check in to each student in the class – a personal email or instant message to see how they are doing, provide encouragement, and to identify any supports they might need to be successful.

Finally, convey your enthusiasm. Online courses are fun! Infuse your personality into your writing and engage them in your content with humor and a positive outlook. Take this experience as an opportunity to explore a different pedagogy that is sure to enhance your creativity and communication skills when you remain open to what you can learn as well.

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David KoppDavid Kopp, professor and associate dean, Adrian Dominican school of education, Barry University

The best piece of advice I could give an instructor who would be teaching his/her first online course is to ensure you’ve gotten the proper training to teach online! That is, it’s important to appreciate the notion that just because you may be an effective face-to-face instructor does not mean, by any stretch, you’d be an effective online one.

Consider that while your expertise in the course content may be constant, there will not be a direct crossover in your presentation principles for online classes; a different skill set must be employed for the virtual class, a skill set that goes beyond just being a “sage on the stage.” For example, depending on the depth and breadth of the technology used for the online and blended courses (e.g., webcams and/or microphones), and the mix of the course contact hours in real-time (synchronous) and/or recorded (asynchronous) sessions, you’ll have to prepare your instruction for a non-three-dimensional experience.

The connection (metaphorically and literally) to your online student may only be by way of your voice and, for some assignments, perhaps, only text-chatting discussion boards. As a result, and as we know with email communication, messages and meaning run a risk of being misinterpreted in the absence of students being able to observe your body language, facial cues and/or inflections of voice.

Given the above, my experience has been that online instruction, when done with fidelity, is, indeed, more challenging than face-to-face instruction, yet can make it more fulfilling, too.

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Gretchen Kreahling McKayGretchen Kreahling McKay, professor of art history, chair of the department of art and art history, McDaniel College

The best piece of advice I can give an instructor embarking on teaching online for the first time is to not expect it to feel like the face-to-face class. That is like comparing an apple to an orange. However, built with the right kind of structure, an online class can still have all of the experiences of a face-to-face class, albeit in a different way. A sense of community, content exploration and discussion can all be structured in an online class. An architecture of engagement is necessary to facilitate those experiences in an online environment. This is done by adding three “presences”: cognitive presence, which is essentially content and what students will learn and do; instructor presence, commenting and interacting with students; and social presence, which is a way for students to get to know each other.

Finding solid, scholarly content online has never been easier, but it takes time. Also important is setting learning goals for the class as well as for units. Rather than thinking of weeks as we tend to do with face-to-face classes, modules work best in online formats. Modules give students a chance to see the architecture of the course, with learning goals and directions for what to read and write laid out in advance. Such structure helps students navigate through the course, clearly showing them what is expected in each module.

A final word, we tend to not give students reflection time in face-to-face classes, but it is essential in an online class. One of the richest areas of my online courses are the “learning journals,” where students note what and how they are learning. These spaces offer me a chance to get to know them individually, while discussion boards help me see them interact with each other as a community.

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Nora NachumiNora Nachumi, associate professor of English, Yeshiva University

I would recommend making the course as visual as possible. Video clips, images, graphs and charts are enormously helpful in keeping students engaged. If you are going to lecture, make sure that they have something to look at besides your talking head on the screen.

Filming lectures can be difficult for instructors who are used to the back-and-forth of in-class discussion. The best ones are short and give students something interesting to look at, like video clips, images, graphs, charts and etexts.

Remember to practice first; know what you are going to say before you start speaking. Make sure you have decent software and know how to use it. Your students will feel more connected if they are able to see your face on occasion.

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Amy PorterAmy Porter, associate professor of history, Texas A&M University San Antonio

The best piece of advice that I would give a professor who is about to teach an online course for the first time is that you have to run your course so that there is constant dialogue with students. You can have outstanding course content, fascinating primary sources and challenging assignments, but it is critical that you interact with the students frequently so that the students stay engaged and feel like you are constantly present in the course.

The dialogue should be varied and can include video chatting, discussion boards, emails and voice-recorded comments providing feedback on assignments. An advantage of using such methods is that the students need to log in to the course frequently, and frequent log-ins help keep students on track and aware of assignment due dates. The ultimate goal is for the students to feel that they are part of a collaborative atmosphere with the professor as well as other students. This helps with the retention and performance of students in the course.

Let the students know you are there checking in on them just as you would be in a face-to-face, small classroom atmosphere, and then your online class will be a positive and productive experience for professor and students alike.

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Michael Poulakis, assistant professor of psychological sciences, University of IndianapolisMichael Poulakis

My wife, Lisa, gave me the best advice. She told me that taking online courses is like your treadmill at home. She used the metaphor of exercising. You have to motivate yourself to get on the treadmill and do the hard work and keep yourself accountable for meeting all the goals and requirements. Going to Planet Fitness (aka, face-to-face courses) potentially has the advantage that other people can keep you accountable (aka, your professor who will notice that you did not show up in class or that you struggle to meet the deadlines).

I am currently teaching an online addictions course for undergraduate students. The advice that I would give is to update the course every semester and keep it relevant with what is changing in our society. For this particular course, the last two semesters I have highlighted the tremendous impact that heroin had on babies born addicted to it in our state and how mothers cope with their shame and guilt.

No matter how good your evaluations were last semester, keep updating the course, make your course as applicable as possible and offer real-life examples and the students will remember and master the material.

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Amy RottmannAmy Rottmann, program coordinator, master of arts in teaching, assistant professor of education, Lenoir-Rhyne University and regular "Inside Digital Learning" contributor

1) Take a deep breath. I know it can seem overwhelming at first, but online course design and implementation can be fun, so just breathe!

2) Utilize backward design. We do this in our face-to-face courses, and we should also use it in our online courses. Backward design requires instructors to identify learning objectives for their course as well as the evidence that support those objectives. Once the established learning objectives and evidence are created, instructors scaffold instruction to support the objectives. It is a helpful method in creating a comprehensive course outline.

3) Be creative with student engagement. Once a course outline is established, start thinking of creative ways to engage students in the course. Just be mindful that it is often easy to fall into the repetition of the basic discussion board assignment, which I do use from time to time. However, there are numerous ways to engage students in an online environment that allow them to demonstrate and apply course material in a variety of creative ways. Instead of the traditional discussion post, require students to post informational videos, podcasts, infographics, etc. I love designing online courses that creatively involve my students in the learning process.

4) Take another deep breath … because you got this!

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Catherine SpannCatherine Spann, research scientist, University of Texas at Arlington, instructor, edX

Gratefully George Siemens, executive director of LINK Research Lab at the University of Texas at Arlington, mentored me through the process of creating and teaching my first online course. One thing he mentioned that stuck with me: be a learner. As instructors, sometimes we think teaching means being an authority on every topic, every question and every detail that may arise in the course. George encouraged me to accept that the course would not be perfect. It would never be perfect. For me, perfection meant my students would love the course and learn everything they have ever been curious about. Reasonable, no?

Rather than aiming for perfection, aim to learn. Taking the seat of a learner prevented me from getting upset and frustrated when there were technical issues or when activities didn’t go as planned. Being a learner helped me view those situations as opportunities for growth. I could take that feedback and make the course stronger in the future. The added benefit of being a learner meant that I was open to what my students had to say. I learned from them.

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Peggy SemingsonPeggy Semingson, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, University of Texas at Arlington

Learn one digital tool at a time and do it well before moving on to another digital tool. That piece of advice I learned about teaching online before I taught my first online course in 2008 came from Erika Beljaars Harris, who worked in the Center for Distance Education (then) at the University of Texas at Arlington. I knew I wanted to engage my students with dialogue-based innovations in digital reading and writing such as blogging and podcasting, to add interest to the course, and to move beyond the learning management system.

The first thing I wanted to learn about was blogging. Erika advised me to get really good at using blogging with students before moving on to another digital tool or pedagogy such as podcasting. This was excellent advice, and I’ve thought about her words to this day. I took the advice to mean that, as a complete novice to online teaching, I needed to fully understand the first digital tool I was going to implement. I needed to know what blogging was, all the pieces and parts of blogging, its possibilities, the rationale for its use, and the technical aspects and caveats of the tool.

I next sought out my own further mentoring about blogging. I contacted a campus administrator, Michael Moore, who taught his government class via a blog. Dr. Moore (currently at the University of Arkansas System) explained to me how he engaged students in dialogue and how he structured his blog. I later learned how to use blogs for cross-course mentoring where my online students, who were also experienced K-12 teachers, wrote and informally mentored my undergraduates (future teachers) on the same blog. It’s not that I didn’t try new digital tools in the meantime. But I fully explored that one tool and sought total understanding.

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