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Drawing on lessons from online teaching

Online courses require many of the same components as face-to-face courses, but they can also pose challenges for students and instructors who are not used to an online learning environment. A well-designed online course can provide an excellent means of learning, especially because it offers the flexibility that many students need. This environment can seem impersonal at first, though, especially compared with the more familiar classroom, but it doesn’t have to be. You won’t be able to meet with students in person, but there are many ways to interact with them, get to know them, and create a sense of community.

As you prepare your online course, don’t just put your physical course online. You may use many of the same materials, but you will need to adapt them for the web, taking advantage of such things as video, audio, websites, journals, and online discussion boards. Most online classes are asynchronous, meaning that students won’t meet or do the work at the same time. Asychronous shouldn’t be confused with independent study, however. Innovative online courses include group discussions and work that engages students to reach course milestones together. Partly because of that, the online environment requires more preparation upfront, more guidance for students, and more thought in how you display course materials. Here are a few things to keep in mind when creating your online course. 

Create a clear path for students

Students will get their first exposure to the class in Blackboard, so it is especially important to create an introductory page, often called “Getting Started,” that explains what the course is about, what is expected of students, what types of work they will complete, and how they will communicate with you and with classmates. These introductory pages often include these elements:

  • Welcome message. This can be written, but a video or audio introduction provides an immediate personal element by allowing students to see or hear you as an instructor and listen to you explain the general expectations for the class. 
  • Course objectives. List the objectives on the introductory page and explain how students will achieve those goals.
  • Assignment calendar. This helps students plan their online work. Explain the types of assignments (papers, projects, quizzes) they will complete, and when each is due.
  • Communications expectations. Tell students how they can contact you and set general guidelines for when students can expect a response. (See the communication section below.)
  • Required course materials. Provide information about a textbook if you are using one and about any other materials, including technology, that students will need for the course.
  • Academic resources and services. Make sure students know where to go for assistance.
  • Introductions via a discussion board. Encourage students to introduce themselves and engage with others in the class.
  • Lessons or modules. These won’t go on the introductory page, but they are an important element for organizing your course. Create a folder for each week of the course or for each learning module. Provide a list of learning goals, an explanation of how students will achieve those goals, a list of readings and other assignments, a list of discussion questions, and any other material students need to complete the work. Creating modules or folders for this material helps students find course material easily and allows them to follow the progression of the class.

Communicate clearly and frequently

Creating a sense of community is important in an online course. You, as the instructor, are the community leader, so you want to make sure you communicate with students frequently and make them feel part of a course. Here are some ways to do that.

  • Survey students. A pre-class survey provides useful information about who students are, what they know and what they expect from the class. Consider sharing the survey results with students so they get a sense of who else is taking the class. Surveying students again at midterm (or earlier) can alert you to problems they might be having, allowing you to adjust elements of the course.
  • Email students or use Blackboard Announcements at the beginning of each week. A weekly message to students adds additional structure to your online course. It signals to students that a new component of the class is beginning, allows you explain the focus and expectations for the coming week, and helps you tie up any loose ends or clear up misconceptions from the previous week. Much of this information might repeat what you provide in the weekly modules or folders, but you can use it to add a personal touch, as well. For instance, include personal insights about the class or class material, interesting links or current events that tie in to course material, or other outside material that students might find interesting.
  •  Set communication expectations. Students will want to know how best to contact you and when they can anticipate a response to questions and inquiries. They will also want to know when their assignments will be graded. Because students will submit material at varying times, it is in everyone’s best interest to set expectations at the beginning of a course. Many instructors tell students that they can expect a response to email queries within 24 to 48 hours. Once you set a timeframe, though, stick to it. Don’t let messages pile up. A caveat: 24 hours is a long time to wait if a student is working in a condensed format class (four weeks or eight weeks), so you might consider a shorter window for those types of classes. Some faculty also schedule virtual office hours when they are available via chat or video link (Skype for Business or Zoom, for instance). You can specify times for these or recommend an appointment.
  • Set up an online forum for questions. You can do this on Blackboard or with other online tools. It’s a great way to provide information to all students when one student asks a question. Students are generally eager to help their colleagues and will often answer questions that others have posted online. Encourage that, but also correct any errors or misconceptions. Most forums will allow you to subscribe to them so you will get an email alert when students post their questions.
  • Join online discussions. Online discussion are a great way for students to engage with one another and with you. Students who may not speak up in face-to-face classes often thrive in online courses, which give them more time to think through their responses and reduce the anxiety of being the center of attention. Consider assigning roles to students for online discussions. For instance, designating a leader to get the discussion started empowers students. Assigning roles like devil’s advocate, synthesizer and reporter help students approach discussions in different ways and can cut back on “me too” posts. You don’t have to respond to every post on online discussion boards, but do make your presence known. Students want to know that you are paying attention. Highlight good responses, emphasize important concepts, or redirect conversations that go astray. Be careful not to squelch student voices, though. Remember that online forums lack the nuance and inflection you can provide with your voice, so always consider how students will perceive your comments.

Provide course material in a variety of forms

Video and audio provide great ways of leading students through difficult concepts. They also add a personal touch, allowing students to hear you and see you. Students can also stop and replay sections they want to listen to again. If you do plan to use video or audio, take the time to create short videos intended especially for the class. Don’t just record 50- or 75-minute in-person class sessions and post them online. Most students won’t watch those (would you?) and they aren’t an effective means of learning. Videos of five to 10 minutes are generally the most effective way of breaking up course content into smaller pieces that students will work through. That shorter format also helps you focus on what is truly important.

  • Choose the right format. Keep in mind that video is a visual medium best used when you need to demonstrate something, show images or diagrams, or lead people through a sequence. If you don’t have visual elements to provide, consider using audio, which students can listen to on their phones. That can save you production time and provide a more effective means of conveying information than a face on a screen.  
  • Add captioning. If you create videos, make sure to provide closed captioning or a written script. Many students watch video with the sound off and rely on captioning to “listen” to the instructor. International students rely on captions to pick up on words or phrases they may not be familiar with. You can get help with captions by contacting KU IT. Check out their website at: http://content.accessibility.ku.edu/captioning-services-available-ku  The Center for Online and Distance Learning (codl@ku.edu) can also help you create and caption course-related videos.
  • Make the text readable. Even if you use video and audio, most of the course material will take the form of text. It is important to write clearly, but it is also important to think about designing that text. Keep paragraphs relatively short. Use subheads, lists, tables and similar elements. Add illustrations to enliven pages. Your students are used to a well-designed, media-rich online environment. Your course certainly won’t look the same as a great webpage, but an engaging display will help students find and use your course materials.
  • Provide ALT tags for images. Images, charts, and other illustrations can help make numbers or abstract concepts easier to understand. Make sure to describe images for students who might be using screen readers, though. Including an ALT tag when you add an image on Blackboard is simple and quick: http://content.accessibility.ku.edu/alt-text-images

Find and use the right tools

Blackboard provides a consistent and familiar environment for online course material. It should generally be the starting point for your online classes. There are many other tools that allow you to create course content, communicate with students, and assess their learning, though. For instance, VoiceThread can provide an effective alternative to written discussion. Zoom provides a means of video conversations or online office hours. Yammer can provide a social media element for your course. Softchalk, Respondus and Camtasia provide ways of creating online course material. OneNote, through a class notebook created on Blackboard, offers another way of sharing material and interacting with students. Some instructors have found that tools like Slack (for discussion, instant messages and sharing of materials), Remind (for sending text reminders), and GroupMe (for group discussions) have greatly enhanced their online classes. Keep in mind, though, that not all of these tools are supported by KU IT. If you would like to explore different tools for your course, talk with one of the educational technologists at KU IT (itedtech@ku.edu or 785-864-2600).

Reach out for assistance

The instructional designers at the Center for Online and Distance Learning are an invaluable resource for instructors. Set up an appointment with one of them before you put your course together. They can help you set up a timeline for completing the course, provide advice for creating course material, and provide an all-important review of your course once it is completed. The CODL team also includes media specialists who can help you with the planning, creation, and captioning of your videos and test proctoring options. Contact CODL at onlinelearning@ku.edu or 785-864-1000.

KU Libraries provides several streaming media databases with documentaries, films, and newsreels you can use for your course as well. Check out their streaming media databases at http://guides.lib.ku.edu/streamingvideo.