Your freshly built course site looks clean and crispy. Ideally, all course materials are posted before the semester starts and course tools are ready to engage students in learning. It’s time to sit back and let your students do the learning (reading, writing, discussing, reflecting, debating, sharing, problem-solving, and so on). Right? Not quite.
Like in a regular classroom, online students expect the instructor to guide, mentor, and encourage them. Teacher presence becomes even more important in an online class where the technology connects (or disconnects) the students and the instructor. Another important online instructor’s task is to foster student engagement and build a learning community.
Your next steps will include creating a course introduction, planning the ways to foster student engagement and interactions, devising techniques for facilitating online discussions, and identifying course and time management strategies.
Set the Stage: Week 0
The students will enter an online class with different assumptions, skills, expectations, and attitudes about online learning. Therefore, it’s important to give students some time to get comfortable in the new learning environment.
Consider starting your course with Week 0. In this introductory week, you will set the tone for the online course, clarify course expectations, establish guidelines for participation, model appropriate online communication, create rapport with students, and let everyone in the course get to know each other and get familiar with the course site and the technology tools.
Ideas for the Course Introduction
- Make the online course syllabus publicly available – well before the deadline to sign up for courses. Knowing in advance what to expect, for example, regular web conferencing sessions or several face-to-face meetings, will help students plan their semester accordingly. Request OIT Assistance creating a public web page for your course or contact the IT support for your departmental website.
- Email a welcome note before the semester begins. Introduce yourself. Include information about the course, required course materials, and instructions on getting started. Use a personal and conversational tone. The students should feel you are a real person.
- Create the instructor contact page. Post your picture, bio, or a video. Share your interests and hobbies.
- Instruct students to introduce each other via a discussion forum, or a live online session. Try to establish individual contact with each student during the first week by making a comment on the students’ posts.
- Use a scavenger hunt as a course orientation activity. Familiarize students with the course syllabus and the online learning environment. Give tasks that will teach students how to navigate the course, participate in course interactions, and try out the tools that they will be using in the online course.
- Give students an individual data sheet or a getting-to-know-you survey to complete. Through this activity, you will clarify your assumptions about your students. Why are they here? Are they new to online learning? What do they already know?
- Create a video course tour. Offer a review of course expectations.
- Use an ice-breaker to give students an opportunity to share personal information about each other.
- Follow up via announcements, individual and class emails for clarification and encouragement.
- Team-building activities. Allow some time for group members to get to know each other, determine their group name, and agree on the group roles, rules, and timelines
Time for Action
- Develop a set of course introduction materials in your Online@UT (Canvas) course site.
- Request Assistance – ask for a consultation and feedback on the developed course materials.
Support Student Engaged Learning
“The involvement of a learner in an online course, whether one calls it interaction, engagement or building community, is critical in an online course.” (Conrad & Donaldson, 2007).
Ways to maintain instructor presence in a course:
- Login and monitor the course activity regularly.
- Post announcements and messages on a regular basis. Topics may include reminders, course updates, an upcoming event, a weekly class recap, comments on the news relevant to the course topic, or a picture from a trip to a conference.
- Participate in student discussions. Students do want to hear your voice and need your guidance, just like in a regular classroom.
- Post a weekly recap message or video as a way to provide a weekly review of the course and give group feedback to the class.
- When the class size permits it, keep a journal with each student to give private feedback on graded assignments and to discuss any private issues the students may have.
- Offer online office hours – through a chat room or a live online session in Zoom.
Some ideas for engaging students with the course content:
- Create problem-solving assignments and projects.
- Make the content authentic, with real-world situations and relevance to students, to their life and career, current events, and pop culture.
- Create cooperative learning groups that mimic real-world tasks.
- Do mini-lectures *after* students have been discussing the ideas; be sure they have something to listen for in the lecture. Don’t lecture for more than 15 minutes. If you have a lot of additional information to “cover,” provide it as reading materials.
- Use online presentations by innovative or controversial thinkers in the field (shared on YouTube, iTunesU, TED, PBS videos, and NPR podcasts) and by guest speakers in your class.
- Create engaging presentations. Visit Lynda.com training to learn more.
- Create a series of shorter presentations with quizzes, problems, online activities, and additional resources to read.
- Integrate examples from students’ experiences (use this information from submitted students’ assignments).
- Post lecture handouts with blanks; instruct students to view the online lecture and fill in blanks.
- Ask students to complement the lecture with additional web resources.
- Present lecture segments as a quiz: a question, possible answers, and then the correct expanded answer.
Strategies for facilitating student-student interactions:
There are a number of strategies for increasing student interactions, participation and engagement:
- Establish clear participation guidelines that students would discuss at the beginning of the course and agree to.
- Grade student participation in an online course. Let students know how much time you expect them to be involved in online course participation and what you consider quality online participation.
- Make it easy for students to find and use the communication tools in your course.
- Be willing to step in and take control of the class if there are problems.
- Make phone calls or send individual emails to students who are not participating.
Time for Action
- Develop a group project assignment with detailed instructions, participation guidelines, grading criteria, and any additional materials that may be needed.
- Request OIT assistance – ask for feedback on your developed assignment.
- Behaviors & Strategies for Improving Instructor Presence Online, CSU.
- Boettcher, J. V. (2007). E-Coaching Tip 32: Steps in Building a Course Community.
- Boettcher, J. V. (2011). Ten best practices for teaching online: Quick guide for new online faculty.
- Conrad, R., & Donaldson, A. (2011). Engaging the online learner. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
- Felder, R & Brent, R. (2001). Groupwork in distance learning. North Carolina State University.
- Fischer, K., Reiss, D., & Young, A. (2005). Ten Tips for Generating Engaged Online Discussions.
- Paloff, R., & Pratt, K. (2007). Building online learning communities: Effective strategies for virtual classroom. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Facilitate Online Discussions
Asynchronous online discussion is a common form of engaged learning in an online class. The asynchronous discussion format gives students time to reflect on complex issues, encourages higher levels of thinking, offers opportunity for introverts to “speak up,” and develops communication and collaboration skills. Discussions can be used in many activities and assignments, for example, student introductions, reading summaries and comments, reflections, debates, brainstorming, group projects, peer reviews, and case studies.
Tips on Facilitating Online Discussions
- Define your role in the discussion – facilitator and guide – and explain how you will be participating. The instructor does not have to respond to every single post, but has to demonstrate a presence in the discussion.
- Provide your expectations for participation, grading rubrics for discussion, and examples of exemplary performance.
- Create group discussions facilitated and summarized by rotating students. Provide guidelines for group discussion and facilitation.
- Assign/encourage roles in discussion groups: facilitator (ensures all roles are present and all contribute), recorder (summarizes, checks consensus and understanding), and brainstormer (asks questions and presents new ideas).
- Post a summary in response to several posts.
- Be more creative with your discussion task; include debates, projects, and peer reviews.
- Require participation; make it a significant part of the final grade.
- Have two deadlines: for the initial post and for replies. For example, the first post should be a set of questions related to the reading/project, the other posts – responses to the other students’ questions.
- Make the topic interesting and relevant. Ask thought-provoking questions taking into account student experiences or interests.
- Incorporate students’ ideas and experiences in your posts-summaries. Mention students’ names.
- Use brief video clips (2-3 minutes) as discussion prompts.
- Affirm contributions and provide constructive feedback.
- Reduce the size of the group to 3-5 people to increase participation. When possible, consider pairing.
- Contact non-contributing students privately.
- Address disrespectful posts quickly through personal contact.
Manage the Online Course
Managing an online class takes a lot of time and effort. In this section, we collected strategies, techniques, and tips that will help you manage the course and the course load.
Course and Time Management Techniques:
- Set your rules of communication with students early and stick to them. Set your rules such as the timeline for assessment and feedback, time to respond to student emails, and when you plan to be online and visit the course site (e.g., turn-around time for responses to students’ questions: M-F: 24 hrs, S-Su: 48 hrs; feedback on submitted paper: one week; best way to communicate: email and/or IM). Your students will hold realistic and reasonable expectations of your presence in the online course. Besides, you will be a good role model for online participation by setting and following the rules.
- Inform students about added resources and other changes to the course through the Announcement tool. Mark the newly posted materials as posted ‘date’.
- Practice proactive course management strategies such as monitoring assignments, communicating regularly, sending reminders about missed or upcoming deadlines, and making course adjustments.
- Spend more time on planning and designing the course to reduce the time spent on dealing with logistical issues during the class.
- Create a class schedule with critical information for students: assignments, due dates, links to more info/tools, and points.
- Include the information in one place only. For example, don’t post the assignment due dates both in the syllabus and the assignment instructions. If you need to change the dates, you would have to edit them twice.
- Create and introduce a Roadmap to Success – a document of student expectations, responsibilities and accountability for learning, and student help resources.
- Rely on peer feedback and self-assessment to reduce the need for instructor feedback and instructor assessment. Teach students how to give effective peer feedback.
- Provide rubrics, samples of assignments, and instructions for completing assignments.
- Seek advice of your IT staff or explore tools’ features that make your work more efficient (e.g., flagging/expanding view/subscribe/filter/search feature of discussion forums, copying items in your course site, test automation, email filtering, and calendar features.)
- Create the “Q&A“ or “Ask the class” forum. Instruct students to ask the instructor private questions in an email, other questions – in the forum.
- Create a “Student To-Do list” for each week – include clear directions and all materials needed.
- Take advantage of the filter in your email system. Set a filter to place the emails from students in your course to a specific folder. Instruct students on the email protocol such as a specific subject line and types of questions.
- Set weekly course tasks and reminders on your calendar.
- If you have an empty folder, indicate when you will post the materials. Create a reminder to do this task in your calendar.
- Set up study groups (tools: Zoom and Canvas discussion forum or groups).