Online Instruction for Higher Ed Faculty Suddenly Teaching in the Virtual World: Some Concrete Ideas


I first started using Blackboard in 1998, when an LMS was a novelty. It is now nearly ubiquitous in higher education, but many faculty members have never taught a fully online course. Certainly, finding oneself having to teach entirely in a new medium can be daunting. At the same time, this emergency instructional mode can prove to be an opportunity for exploring new and highly effective ways to deliver instruction. Here, I offer a few lessons and ideas that I have found useful in the fifteen or so years I have taught, designed and managed fully online courses.

A New Way of Thinking

You cannot simply transfer classroom methods online. Online instruction is fundamentally different than classroom instruction, a difference in kind not degree. Perhaps the two biggest shifts are the role of the professor and the division of curricula. Even instructors who use active learning and discussion in the classroom tend to play a central role, sometimes symbolized by where they sit or stand in a classroom. For sure, online there is no front of the classroom, no clearly visible hierarchy. The virtual classroom requires the professor to be a more of an active coach and less of a sage. Second, you need to think of instruction as modules. Generally, online learning has two week modules, or in shorter courses, one week modules. Even if you start midsemester think about dividing your material into these small modular units.

A Modular Formula

Each module should have a consistent structure, so students know precisely what to expect. The structure will depend on how you want to deliver material, but always be consistent. The following elements are some proven ways to organize a module.

Overview

Make sure to describe or list exactly what students are expected to do over the course of the module and identify what material they will be required to work with. For example, this module you will be expected to: Read Chapter Two of the textbook, view the CNBC video on “The Debate Behind Video Game Violence,” complete the assignment on the Supreme Court Decision “Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association”, and participate in the discussion forum regarding the video game rating system.

Outcomes

Your syllabus will probably have course wide outcomes, but each module should have its own outcomes, which are aligned with the course outcomes. I would recommend two outcomes per module. These outcomes indicate exactly what students should be able to accomplish over the two weeks as well as how you need to structure tasks to make sure they can achieve those outcomes successfully.

1. By the end of this module students will be able to identify the three components of the ESRB rating system and explain what these components indicate to a consumer about a video game.

2. By the end of this module, students will be able to describe the significance of the Supreme Court Decision Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association. (2011)”

Outcomes must be clear, direct, active and measurable.

Material

Provide verifiable links to any videos or reading material the student will need to access. Post files that students will be required to read.

Assignments

List the assignments required for the module, the due date and how you want the assignment submitted.

Discussion

Create and post a link to a Discussion Forum for the module. For a course just transferred online one discussion per module is enough.

Resources

Post any files or hyperlinks to material that can be helpful to students.

The Discussion Board/Forum

Discussions are a critical element of online learning and often make up 25% of a course grade. In these emergency situations that will not be the case, but discussions can still play a vital role in keeping students in touch with each other, establishing your presence in the class, and generating deep whole class learning. Asynchronous discussions are entirely different than synchronous classroom discussions. Online students will participate at different times, but this time delay has distinct advantages. In a traditional class of twenty students most likely only a third will participate in a single discussion. The more active students will participate the most, and discussion can easily stray off topic or lack solid evidence. Online, every student in the class will participate in the discussion. This encourages shy or reluctant speakers to have a larger presence in the class and such participation can enrich any course. A second advantage to asynchronous discussions is the substantive nature of comments. When students have time to think about, draft and revise their response to a prompt that response will probably be more thoughtful and informed than spontaneous classroom conversation. Along with these thoughtful responses, students have time to support their response by research, quoting texts or readings assigned during the module or even other students. The need for documented evidence to support what you post gives weight to an online discussion.

Structuring the Discussion

To assure the discussion is meaningful a few things are necessary. First, your question must be open ended. That’s obvious, but what’s not obvious is the need to be very specific and concrete about what and when you want students to post. Specify the length of the initial post, how you want students to document their response, and when you want the post to occur. Next, declare how many students you want each student to reply to and how long that reply should be. Do not allow, “Good post.” That’s not participation. If your module starts on a Sunday, the initial post should be made no later than Wednesday night because you want every student to have time to respond to each other. If you allow students to post anytime during the module, several students will wait until the last day which precludes other students any chance to respond.

Example

How effective do you think the ESRB rating system has been? Make an initial post of at least 125 words no later than Wednesday at 11:59 PM. Make sure your post includes a specific example of a video game you have played, what the game’s rating is, how the rating was arrived at and whether you think that rating is accurate. After your initial post, respond to at least two of your classmates with a post of at least 50 words. Your response must be substantial and add to the original post’s perspective in some way.

Management

Upfront you must post etiquette and rules for online discussions. You should use rubrics so that students are clear about what they are expected to post and how they will be evaluated. Rubrics are very easy to attach to online discussions in an LMS. You should also model what you consider to be a good post in the upfront course material, perhaps, as part of a revised syllabus. You should also on point out good discussions so other students can see examples of what you believe to be excellent responses. How active the professor should be in a discussion is a matter of personal teaching philosophy. On one hand, the professor can model good discussions, extend good points of other students, and move an inert discussion forward. On the other hand, the professor’s active presence can easily inhibit students’ honest responses. Nonetheless, for these sudden midsemester online courses I would recommend the faculty play a relatively active role because students need the feedback and many of the students are not habituated to online courses in the same way adult students are.

Presence

In addition to discussion board participation a faculty member should have regular communication with students. Give feedback quickly on assignments, respond to emails in 48 hours at the outside; 24 hours would be best for these courses. Use the announcement feature at the beginning of each module to alert students to what is ahead and to summarize the previous module’s work.

Lectures, Videos, Games

Short Bursts!

In an online course you need to deliver key material in very short, frequent bursts. If you use videos, do not go much more than 5 minutes, if that. When recording lectures through Tech Relay, or PowerPoint or any other tool make them brief. If you have an extended lecture or PP, break the material up into short segments and use mini games and short simulations. In a sense, instructional delivery will be like a casual mobile game- Candy Crush Saga for education- short, engaging, and available 24/7 with feedback.

Synchronous Instruction

A fully online course has very limited if any synchronous instruction because students are spread across time zones and have varied schedules. However, these midsemester courses started off in a classroom and have set days and times for meeting. Consequently, some synchronous learning makes sense. At the same time, the extraordinary nature of the pandemic and the fact many families will be house bound may limit opportunities for an entire class to meet like they have been prior to the online migration. I would take a survey or poll of students regarding their availability and schedule synchronous classes strategically, but this is a matter of teaching philosophy too. Zoom is effective for giving short lectures or summarizing reading material, answering questions, and holding class discussions on assigned reading or viewing. I also like synchronous learning for student presentations. Presentations will keep students more engaged with each other.

Virtual Office Hours

I highly recommend posting virtual office hours and using the chat feature of an LMS to communicate with students in real time. Office hours keep students engaged and oriented in a disorienting situation. They know you will be present at a specific day and time.

Group Work

Group work can be difficult in traditional classrooms and more difficult online. Nonetheless, distributed work forces are becoming more common. The current health crisis has forced many employees to work remotely. Group work from a distance is important and can play a vital work in preparing students for postgraduation reality. Perhaps relax/suspend group grading or just evaluated on qualitative scale. Creating groups in an LMS is simple. Only one student per group needs to submit an assignment. Group members can share files and communicate with each other around a project. In my experience virtually every student has used Google docs for creating presentations. You can enable Google tools within the LMS. Students can share files and best of all collaborate on a single document. You can host group presentations using Zoom or if you are reluctant to hold a synchronous session, create a module and folder for student presentations and upload them for the entire class to view and provide feedback on.

Quizzes/Tests

Online quizzes and tests are not much different room a classroom in term of test construction, but delivery is a different matter. Creating a test is more labor intensive than traditional test creation because you must upload your questions into an LMS, but many items can be machine graded. You can set a time limit for quizzes/test if you do not want students referring to material and notes. You can password protect the quiz and provide access codes for each student. In general, I do not favor traditional quizzes and tests even in a classroom but use your own philosophy as a guide. I prefer giving quizzes for low stakes assignments and check for understanding purposes. Security is a complex question and for this emergency online learning situation I would trust the college honor code signed by students and tone down traditional test assessments. Regardless of how much you use these online assessments always provide feedback for every response. This takes up front time but allows for better student learning. If a student makes a wrong item choice make sure the student knows what was incorrect about that choice. An LMS also allows for multiple attempts, pass fail or non-graded assessments as well.

Resources

Your college or university will most likely provide online resources. Much material is now freely available in digital form. In terms of pedagogy, the Online Learning Consortium, Educause, and MERLOT are excellent resources for higher education faculty. I also highly recommend Online Writing Labs. Post links or embed sections in your course. Students always needs assistance with citation, writing good introductions and constructing logical arguments. OWLS are 24/7, material can be downloaded as PDFs, and costs nothing. The Purdue University OWL is the most famous online writing resource, but the OWL I founded has many interactive exercises, and a multimedia dimension most other OWLs lack.

These are just some ideas that have worked for me. I am available to brainstorm or help in any way that proves helpful.

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