I remember a few years ago, when our program manager decided it was time to provide synchronous online workshops to our clients with full time jobs. We were hoping to have about 5 clients registered for every workshop but soon we had to put a cap to the number of registrants as we were flooded with requests. People loved the idea of learning while wearing pyjamas in the comfort of their own apartments. We used Webex as a platform and started experimenting. It was a steep learning curve that I am still riding. There is so much to learn about how to design and deliver an online workshop that will contribute to the “effective, efficient and satisfying teaching and learning experience for both instructor and students.” (Boettcher&Conrad, 2016)
In The Online Teaching Survival Guide: Simple and Practical Pedagogical Tips, Judith Boettcher and Rita-Marie Conrad have put together a list of 10 best practices to follow when designing an online course to improve student engagement and outcomes. I will list and summarize all 10 best practices, then reflect on ways of applying them in my online courses.
1. Be present at the course site
What differentiates a teacher from a great teacher? I think that a great teacher makes a conscious effort to understand the learning expectations of their students, is flexible and has the tools to adapt their teaching to the learner’s expectations , needs and learning style. To do all of these, the great teacher has to be present and has to pay attention to their students. As the guide explains, students want to know and see their instructor. They want to know who they are but also, need the instructor’s guidance and mentorship. Students like to be challenged and want to challenge from time to time. Cultivating the social, teaching and cognitive presence supports the learning as well as the development of a long lasting community.
My strategy and approach:
- Set up a 30 minutes meeting via Skype or FaceTime to introduce myself and to get to know my student by asking them to respond in the same framework I introduced myself ( whether it is cultural background, years in Canada, pre-arrival and post immigration employment, years of experience, family, hobbies and favourite movie seen in the last 6 months)
- Create a 3 minutes video, introducing myself, my hobbies, my family, my interests and why I was chosen to facilitate this course (establishing the expert level)
- Keep a personal blog and provide links to it; instructors don’t have to post a lot but a few interesting reads to allow students to create the connection
- Use a variety of approaches and tools to introduce new concepts such as videos, podcasts, articles – all accompanied by guiding notes explaining what the core concepts are that need to be understood and retained
- Provide clearly defined learning goals at the beginning of every module. e.g. At the end of this module, every student will be able to list the 10 best practices in online learning and will have identified at least 1 strategy per practice to use in designing an online course.
- Facilitate online discourse: make myself visible in online forums and discussion boards every day by mediating passionate discussions ” Let’s not forget that we are here to learn and unlearn so keep an open eye to all the point of views presented!”, encouraging discussion: “this is a safe place for new ideas!” or simply pointing to the right answer when detecting confusion among students
- Create assignments that will require the student to read, understand, explore the subject and then reflect on the subject and create their own meaning
- Team up students on simple assignments directing one group to present advantages, while the other group will present disadvantages or pro and con’s. Encourage teams to question and challenge the ideas presented in forums within a week. After the week, ask both teams to re-work their previous assignment incorporating all the points discussed in the forum. This way, instructor can also see how much information has been retained.
2. Create a supportive online community
It is believed that a traditional face to face course provides a better environment for faster and stronger relationship building. One of the main complaints around online education is the perceived lack or weak sense of belonging to a community. The Online guide recommends that we should pay equal attention and time to the 3 types of interaction: faculty to student; student to student and student to resource. My strategy to build a strong online community:
Faculty to Student:
- Create module introductions using PowePoint with recorded explanations that can be paused, and re-played
- schedule a short live video conference to address any other questions that might be floating around and are not yet addressed
Student to Student
- Group work: assign students to small groups to complete short tasks that require collaboration; continuously switch and bring new students in and encourage communication and collaboration among them all
3. Develop a set of explicit expectations for your learners and yourself as to how you will communicate and how much time students should be working on the course each week.
Managing expectations is a very important practice to consider when designing an online course. Setting expectations, communicating these expectations and providing explicit explanations are important steps in helping students better manage their time, have a clear understanding of the course flow and overall, successfully manage their learning process. Some of the strategies lined up in the guide: creating rules around what kind of questions to reply to in a one on one interaction versus group interaction, setting policies on response time for questions in forums.
I really like the idea of scheduling weekly “virtual office hours”. No matter how well we, the instructors, think that we explained a or presented rules, in my experience there is always somebody who either did not pay attention, or the language was a barrier, or something else interfered with the message being received. By setting aside some time to answer questions and interact one on one with students, will be of much help.
4. Use a variety of large group, small group, and individual experiences
Participating in a variety of learning experiences will develop and enhance students interaction with the learning community. Study groups are a very effective and efficient way of stimulating the learning process and develop skills and knowledge. In my experience, we encourage all newcomers studying for licensure exams to team up and work together. Technology has provided us with the tools to engage in virtual teams as well and work to complete projects and build knowledge. The key to a successful online course is to engage students in a variety of individual work, small and large group and also, ensure there is at least one unpredictable element that will break the read, post, write weekly monotony associated with the online courses.
Individual work: I enjoy writing blogs, therefore I will use blogs as a place of reflection on the material presented, emotional ups and downs of balancing work-family-coursework, community engagement
Small group work: In my workshops (facets face) I use an activity that usually generates lots of chatter: I select a few prominent figures (actors, scientists, etc..) then I ask small group of up to 4 people to come up with 2 – 3 pro or con arguments why we should/should not hire them. they have a few guiding questions to consider as well. I would like to use this activity for an online group assignment as well. Or, create a similar activity.
Large groups: Post a Youtube discussion/presentation on the topic, allow a week time for everybody in the group to watch then set a day when everybody in the group has to ask question on the topic and answer/comment at least once on at least 4 other responses. Students are graded on their level of participation with bonus points for the question/comment that generated the most activity.
5.Use synchronous and asynchronous activities When you work full time, one of the advantages of online courses are the asynchronous activities. They allow the student the time to think, to organize the information and draft the answer without the pressure that might be felt during synchronous, same-time sessions. Although the idea of anytime, anywhere is very attractive, interactive, same time live sessions break the monotony of an online course, are great for brainstorming sessions on problem solving activities.
In the future I would like to use Skype, WebEx or FaceTime for synchronous one on one or group sessions. A great Q&A session as described earlier would be a great time to break the monotony of a course, and push students towards collaborating and meeting or knowing each other.
6. Ask for informal feedback early in the term I had a good laugh reading the term “post mortem” describing the course evaluations. I have used them in the past and I definitely agree that they are pretty much useless for the students or clients attending the sessions/courses. Sure, one can argue that changes can be made for future delivery, but I would argue that the composition of a course changes every time and what might have worked for a previous group, is not 100% sure that will work for the new group. Getting feedback early, in the course, is a great way of ensuring that every student will have a positive learning experience and is set up for success.
For a shorter course I will ensure to ask feedback second week of the course. I will probably provide a short questionnaire with questions similar to those that we are already using in the face to face workshops. For example: What were your personal reasons for taking this course? On a scale from 1 to 10 with 10 being the highest, how well do you feel that the description of the course represented the content within the course? What is one thing you feel you need to change or adjust in the course to be successful?
7. Prepare discussion posts that invite responses, questions, discussions, and reflections The difference between the online and blended classroom and the face to face campus based classroom is the way student and faculty communicate, as pointed by the authors of the guide. The most important space or “the heart and soul of the online community is the discussion board. This is the place where students interact and get to know other students and instructor, this is the place where questions are asked, details are discussed, brainstorming happens, etc. While in the on campus classroom space all the discussions are verbal and readily forgotten, in a blended or online classroom, discussions are asynchronous, students reply whenever they have time, usually after taking the time to reflect and edit their answer as they are aware that these answers will be archived and will permanently stay in the course history.
For me, providing a place for students to post and interact freely not only with other students but with the instructor as well. I think it is important to set clear expectations and rules about what is acceptable in the forum and that every question is an important question. I also enjoyed the guidelines provided for writing our assignments, with clear guiding questions.
8. Search out and use content resources that are available in digital format In today’s environment, the digital content is the easiest to be accessed. I always carry my tablet with me and whenever I am forced to wait for an appointment or I have a bit of time to kill, I turn to it to access information. Public libraries have digitized content that you can easily access, there are videos and iPods and e-textbooks. Providing information in more than one form adds a lot of value to the course. I still enjoy holding a book in my hands but whenever I am on the road, my iPad is my best friend. Providing a list of resources to students is an excellent strategy but involving them in finding even more resources is even better. I am a big fan of Pinterest – it is a fun tool that appeals to a lot more people because of the visual aspect. Asking students to create a board with different online resources on the subject would be a great way of grouping all the resources in one place.
9. Combine core concept learning with customized and personalized learning This best practice requires faculty to design the course around identified core concepts and performance goals then to mentor students and help them apply and develop their own knowledge. Psychologist Lev Vygotsky presented this concept learning principle. In essence, when we teach students new concepts we present the concepts in “knowledge clusters”. While they are part of our knowledge structure, by themselves they don’t make that much sense for the student. the instructor’s role is to guide them through projects and customized questions to create connections and make these clusters meaningful. For this, one of the effective strategy is to make student’s thinking visible and stimulate students’ growth from concept awareness to concept acquisition.
One of the strategies I will incorporate is asking students to create, talk, analyze, judge and reflect in journals and also to create wiki pages where they can explain information and provide examples of how to use it in real life scenarios.
10. Plan a good closing and wrap activity for the course A good course should end with a good closing and wrap up activity and should be less focussed on assessments and grades. The final part of the course should see a shift in the student’s level of expertise from a novice to an expert. Presentations on various related topics are a very good way of allowing the student to prove his growth and level of expertise attended. It would provide a final check point for the student as well in making sure he/she has the confidence to move into a leadership role.
Conrad, M.C., & Donaldson, J.A. (2011) Engaging the Online Learner, San Francisco, CA, Jossey-Bass