Tuesday, September 16, 2014


First Timers Teaching Online

You know how there’s a special circle of hell reserved for people at conferences who stand up during the q-and-a and start with “this is really more of a comment than a question”?  This is really more of a question than a post.  I hope that doesn’t consign me to the flames.

For the folks who recently taught online for the first time: what do you know now that you wish you knew then?

Selfish motive disclosure: I’m hoping to improve the ways we prepare new faculty to teach online.  Any constructive, helpful feedback would be appreciated.  Thanks!

Put the phone number for tech support in big, bold numbers at the top of the syllabus. Unless you want to field a bunch of questions about why some aspect of the online platform you're using doesn't work with some archaic browser + plug-ins.
A few suggestions, one short, two long (sorry):

1.) Use the calendar feature in the LMS for due dates, and display it prominently on the homepage. In survey after survey at my college, students are almost universally adamant that you include it.

2.) Provide extensive, detailed, and occasionally off-topic feedback on assignments. (Did I mention extensive?). Like it or not, this is where the majority of "teaching" occurs in my classes. You can include tips, descriptions, content, news, cajoling, encouragement, and whatever else at all turns in the class itself, and many students will ignore it in favor of diving right into assignments. They will, however, open graded assignments and read the feedback closely. I used to rail against this, but now I embrace it. Many essays that I pass back contain more of my writing than the student's. It can be a pain and might honestly be a poor use of my time, but this is the best (maybe only) place to really engage with the students.

3.) Be nice. 10x nicer than you would be in a physical classroom. It's fashionable to dismiss struggling online students as not ready for the different demands of virtual learning. It is indeed tougher, and it does require more self-discipline, but this isn't a license to disengage from the class and be a jerk. Most of my online students need more patience and assistance than classroom students--they are overwhelmingly adults with jobs, families, and many have little experience with college or computers. Because of transportation and child care, though, (around 33% in a given semester are single mothers, you'll find) online might be their only shot at knocking out a lot of required courses. So be patient and help as much as possible--they will appreciate it.
Agreed with the above.

Consistent with: prepare your faculty member with the realization that it is important to check course email very frequently (like, 2-4x/day). Students who never see the professor are more prone to feel disoriented, panicked, or desperate if they can't find a physical person to help with solutions. Quick response buy goodwill.

Monitor the LMS's performance closely. Find out if you can get on an email distribution list from IT that tells you when there are slowdowns or outages. If you know they're happening, or about to, you can prep the students so they don't panic.

Be extremely aware of academic dishonesty: sending intentionally-corrupted files which can't be opened and delay grading; seeking to open quizzes or exams, take screenshots, close & study, re-open; claims that the LMS failed when it didn't; group/team test-taking, etc, etc. Learn how to lock down access to specific or only DNS servers.

Be prepared to bump deadlines later. Set them earlier, because no student will ever object if you say "because there were some tech problems, I am extending the deadline for X assignment or Y assessment."

If possible, grade / comment as promptly as possible. I have found voice-to-text transcription software invaluable, as it permits me to move through extended commenting nearly as fast as I can speak. Online, more extensive and articulate comments are essential. I have found that online students find this reassuring and are appreciative.

Recognize that online testing is a fundamentally different tool; it is NOT a tremendously effective tool for assessing skills (too many different ways to game the system). It is an extremely effective way to ensure compliance with reading, note-taking, etc.

A few thoughts.
Prepare a decent lesson for EVERY week before going back and making the lessons in the first 3 weeks perfect.

Put pictures and videos of yourself in strategic places; students want a connection with a real person in online teaching just like f2f.

Don't wing it. Good lord, don't wing it. Online requires way more up-front prep time.

Be very attentive to accessibility-for-disabilities issues. Having to go back and fix a lot of content is crazy-making; preparing it to be accessible up front is not as bad.

Also read the book "Conquering the Content" in detail from front to back, doing all the worksheets.
While I haven't taught online, for online or hybrid courses I've taken as a student (or for professional development) my favorite course feature has been a lively class discussion board to encourage discussion among the students like you'd have in a classroom. That lets me get more perspectives on the readings or course topics than just my own and the professors, and reminds me that I"m in a class rather than an independent study.

I saw this best used in a class where we were required to post at least twice a week on one of several discussion topics started by the professor as part of a participation grade, and at least one of our replies had to be a response to another student's post rather than a new thread. (This works best with a nested-style discussion board, so you can reply to any post and continue subconversations.) I think the rules further said that your posts had to be at least x sentences and on topic to count, but I don't remember the specifics. What I do remember is that it was a hybrid class and that the most dominant student during in-class discussions barely posted (just doing the minimum to get the points) and the person who was most vocal and prolific online was extremely quiet in class, so it does hav value in hybrid classes as well as online-only if you want to reach a wider variety of students. To keep everyone from posting at the last minute, I suppose you could further require that the first of the two posts has to be in by Wednesday while the second isn't "due" until Saturday (or whenever) but can be done early so everyone has other posts to reply to, but we didn't have that problem in the class I took because some of the students really took to the message board and tended to post a lot. I also suspect that students who don't tend to do the reading in advance but rather skim it for assignments were more likely to do it if they saw other students posting about the interesting parts, since they'd want to contribute too.
When I first taught online, I was hesitant to send e-mails to the whole class. I'm so used to being careful not to flood the e-mail inboxes of colleagues, that I didn't want to intrude on my students that way. When I first started teaching online classes, I only sent e-mails to individual students and only when they first wrote to me.

However, now with my online classes, I try to send e-mails to the whole class several times a week. I remind them of what's due, I send out helpful tips as they write and revise papers, and I send out encouragement to the whole group.

Then the following day, I cut and paste the e-mail into the Announcement section of my course shell.

I think that e-mailing students frequently helps them remember that they're in a class and helps keep them on track.
Your experiences as a beginning online instructor will vary greatly, depending on the type of course you will be teaching.

Very often, you will be teaching a prepackaged course that is created and organized by an outside vendor, one in which you will have essentially no academic freedom. You will be reduced to the status of a performer, one who simply reads the works of others to your students. In the classroom, you will be little more than a glorified teaching assistant. Part of the joy of teaching is being able to organize and present your course in the manner you deem to best suited. Just like the captain of your own ship, you and you alone are solely responsible for everything that goes on. You thrill at the successes and you agonize at the failures, resolving to do better next time. All this is absent when you are teaching to someone else’s prepackaged course.

If you have the freedom to create and organize your own online course, there are a different set of challenges. If you imagine that teaching an online course is somehow going to be simple and easy, you will be making a big mistake. You will probably end up making a bad job of all of this--the course will become a joke, with incredibly simplified material and trivial quizzes, and the students will learn very little, certainly much less than they would if the course were taught in a conventional classroom. Even worse, the material in a badly managed and designed online course could become totally incomprehensible to the students, driving them away in droves.

The development of an effective online course syllabus and lesson plan can be quite a challenge—it requires expertise in the creation of Internet-based lessons, the ability to adapt factual material for web presentation, as well as skill in the creation of adequate and effective tests and examinations. Special attention needs to be given to how online courses are displayed—it is important that the online material be “user friendly”, that it can be easily searched and easily navigated. In order to set up and maintain an online course, you will probably need to be able to master software tools such as Microsoft FrontPage or Adobe Dreamweaver, and perhaps even have to know how to program in HTML, or at least be able to get someone else to do all of this work for you.

Another problem with creating your own online course is the question of who owns it. Course materials created by online instructors are often treated by the college or university as being “works-for-hire”, which means that online instructors lose their intellectual property rights when they use their course materials online--they are required to cede the rights on their materials to the university, thereby enabling their employer to sell the online materials to others or to hire a part-timer to deliver the material for considerably less money. A prospective online instructor needs to read their contract very carefully before signing—if the phrase “works-for-hire” appears anywhere in there, this is an automatic red flag.

For your students to be successful in online courses, they have to have a higher tolerance for ambiguity, they must be more autonomous, and they will need the ability to be flexible. They need to be more focused, better managers of their time, and must be more able to work independently. Many online students imagine that just because they don’t have to attend regular classes this means that they have complete freedom to do as they please and goof off, only to quickly find that the class really does have a specific, set schedule in which work still needs to be done by the deadlines. Such students rapidly discover that they cannot keep up with the assignments and the work—the dropout rate in many online classes can be quite high as poorly-motivated or procrastinating students rapidly get themselves into academic trouble and they quickly crash and burn.

Some of the problems with online education are technical in nature. Because the courses are computer-based, there can be problems with slow servers, software glitches, lost files, or e-mail congestions and backups. Sometimes, the online course management software package that the university uses has been designed to work with PCs and often slows down or even locks up when a Macintosh or Linux user tries to go online. In a conventional class, if an overhead projector burns out during a lecture, an alternative can usually be quickly found, but for an online class if there is a hardware malfunction or if a software problem occurs, the entire class is often shut down until the problem is solved.

Even though there are no formal classes or lectures, you will probably spend much more time in grading, e-mailing, and in correcting work than you would have done in a conventional face-to-face class. In addition, you will have has to be able to master the complexities of an ever-changing online course management software system, and you will probably have to spend hours and hours of time on the phone talking to tech support to straighten out problems and snags. Because the interaction with your students is web- and e-mail based, this means that you are potentially available to your students at all hours—24 hours a day 7 days a week, which can rapidly consume your time and energy, much more so than a conventional face-to-face course would. You will need to learn fairly early on how to set reasonable limits to your accessibility, lest you be driven to exhaustion.

One of the advantages of teaching an online course is that you might not need to hold regular office hours, and you can spend a lot more time at home sitting in front of your computer. But, since you are on campus less often, this might mean that you become invisible to your administration, making it more difficult for you to obtain promotions or to get tenure. As a former boss of mine once said, the last thing you want to be is invisible at performance review time.

Consider strongly looking beyond the "1 original post and two responses each week" discussion board model. especially with survey-level students, this tends to produce a going-through-the-motions atmosphere by the midpoint of the semester. In my experience, requiring them to post a short essay once every few weeks, then respond with a longer, well-crafted piece results in much more thoughtful engagement.

I also agree with Christopher Smith that there is no good way to do traditional testing in an online setting. I've tried a number of solutions, each worse than the last--very little time to reduce the opportunities to flip through the book, on-campus tests that defeat the purpose of online learning, some company (ProctorU, I think?) that hijacks a student's webcam and monitors them as they take the test (God, I still can't believe I did that. What's wrong with me?). I've abandoned traditional tests in favor of subjective essays and projects.

Group projects will always fail.

Provide a lot of up-front guidance on assignments, and even examples where feasible. On a public assignment like a discussion board, if the first person screws up, everyone else will, and you won't see it until the next morning.
I've been teaching online for a number of years, but here are some key lessons I've learned over that time:

1. Redundancy is a good thing. I list due dates in the syllabus and the course calendar, but I also post an announcement each week, and send out email reminders, particularly at the start of the semester. It may seem like overkill, but especially if students are new to online learning, they really appreciate the structure, and are less likely to get hopelessly behind. And I have a master Word file with all my announcements and emails, so all I have to do each semester is change the dates, then copy and paste.

2. Be prepared for how frequently you need to check and respond to email. Nobody's expecting you to be online 24/7, but students do appreciate rapid replies, even if it's just to say "I got your email, and I'm not ignoring you, but this is a difficult question and I'll respond tomorrow when I have more time to think about it."

3. Constantly offer to help students. Most won't take you up on it, but they appreciate the offer all the same. And for those who do reach out to you, it can make a world of difference.

4. Text expansion software is your friend. For example, I have it set so that I can type ";Writing Center" and hit enter, and the software will replace that with a paragraph explaining that the student has a lot of writing errors, and giving them information on how and where to get help. Doesn't take me much time, but on the student's end they are seeing detailed feedback in their assignment. I use the free Phrase Express, but there are other good programs as well.

5. Tone matters! Since students can't hear or see you, you need to be explicitly supportive in words. EX: Instead of "Your paper is due Tuesday," type "Hi everyone, this is just a friendly reminder that your paper is due Tuesday. Good luck!"

I've been teaching online for several years and the best advice I got when I started was: create a quiz on the syllabus. If you're going to put a lot of important stuff in the syllabus (assignment types, expectations, books, etc.), then create an incentive for students to read it carefully. I'm all about creating positive incentives for students, rather than punishments for infractions.

Totally agree with what has been said regarding quizzes/tests. Same source of advice told me to create complicated assignments that were hard to plagiarize but easy to grade. Rubrics are your friend.

I've been teaching online for several years and the best advice I got when I started was: create a quiz on the syllabus. If you're going to put a lot of important stuff in the syllabus (assignment types, expectations, books, etc.), then create an incentive for students to read it carefully. I'm all about creating positive incentives for students, rather than punishments for infractions.

Totally agree with what has been said regarding quizzes/tests. Same source of advice told me to create complicated assignments that were hard to plagiarize but easy to grade. Rubrics are your friend.

Try to find a way in your LMS to see your website from the student personality. Some do this, some don't but it can be very important to see what you are presenting through their "eyes".

Post everything at least 2 weeks before you need it (that way if you have issues or run out of server space, you have time to fix things).

Have an ap on your phone that allows you to answer student e-mails. They expect an answer in 24 hours or less.

Make short videos of complex ideas for students to review so they don't have to go flipping through your lecture for the 4 minutes they are really interested in.

Consider including a transcript of your lecture along with your powerpoints, posted after the lecture goes live.

If you can teach in real time, do it! But require the students in the class to answer questions during class (otherwise they wander off physically and mentally).

In a recorded lecture, have a problem the student needs to solve embedded in the talk every 15-20 minutes. This gives them a break and lets them process the material while it is being presented (this works in the live classroom as well).
My first week is all about course structure... Syllabus quiz, writing assignment in which they answer questions about the assignments, a check-in post in the different discussion areas... a discussion post about plagiarism, a discussion post in which they post their top 3 questions about the course (I answer all of those quickly)... And perhaps the best bits..

1) a discussion area for ask the class/ask the professor, and a few emergency drop boxes.. 1 for 1 late assignment, 1 for students making a mistake (wrong file submitted or submitted without references) and one in case I made a mistake (wrong closing date or some other technical problem).

Also, don't think you can do the set-up during the semester. Invest the time over break and get all the weeks ready to roll before the first day.

One more thing, a uniform due date every week.. Typically, 11;59 pm on Sundays...
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