This is the second article of a two-part feature.
Ensuring that online courses remain as relevant and updated entails a similar-albeit-contextually different process as how traditional (read: in-person) lessons are assessed. Here are further insights to ensure quality when making the shift from traditional to online:
6. Consider the Dynamic Online Model
A number of online learning models exist, most of which give instructors ample opportunity to personalise the material and make it his or her own. The dynamic online model helps to provide one example of how an instructor can take traditional course material and transform it into a not only feasible, but also vibrant system of learning.
The typical and traditional university course requires three hours of student attention in class per week for a twelve week long semester. Obviously, this does not count out of class assignments, studying for exams, etc. Professors, depending on how long each class sessions is, need to plan out 36, 18 or 12 lecture, presentation, or activity plans. Classes typically last for either 45 minutes a piece, an hour and a half, or three hours if the class meets only once per week.
In a traditional model, the instructor must create a system of accountability to test whether or not the student has learned the material. He or she will get relatively few opportunities to assess progress. Beyond that, class performance relies heavily on the student’s individual motivation to either learn or at least score a high grade. Relatively few opportunities to perform assessment also means relatively few opportunities to offer assistance or advice on doing better with the course material if the student is struggling.
The online model does not work well with modules of information that require student attention for 45, 90, or 180 minutes. While an instructor can restrict or forbid the use of cell phones, tablets, or laptops in the class to reduce distraction, no such power exists in online learning. The reality is that students face temptation from distraction from almost everything going on in their life at the moment. This not only includes social media and texting, but also television, the food in the pantry, other people in the house, and every other manner of distraction that can pull students away from a presentation.
Experienced online instructors understand this dynamic and their challenges to keep student attention, which is why many prefer the dynamic online model for course design. The dynamic model creates a structure of modules that last optimally for between seven and ten minutes. In most cases, an instructor can do a topic almost no justice in five to ten minutes. He or she can, however, create module groups that, piece by piece, explain a larger and more important topic.
Assessment occurs at the end of each module with a brief quiz to reassess and reinforce what the student learned. A good learning management system can automatically grade and record how each student did on each quiz. Exams, papers, and other assignments can take place at any point of an instructor’s choosing. The multitude of quizzes helps out the student by giving him or her the opportunity to help their own grade by merely paying attention and remembering the material presented in each module.
Disciplined students will also benefit if the instructor provides some flexibility on when modules should be completed. It is not advisable to provide no structure or limits on when students can complete them because many will wait to, or beyond, the last possible second to commence work.
A good idea would be to put bi-weekly deadlines of module completions, which provides good flexibility without enabling the severest of procrastinators. Online students need the flexibility. Most of them have jobs, families, and other responsibilities that they must work around and instructors should always keep that fact in mind.
7. Structure the Course Properly
Instructors should give careful thought to course structure regardless of whether they teach online or in a traditional classroom. Providing structure involves a number of course characteristics involving both what is taught and how the instructor assesses progress.
Structure of a course must start with an articulated vision, even if the instructor does not share it. In every course covering any subject, an instructor must distil a coherent class out of a gigantic mass of potential information to teach. An instructor cannot teach it all, so he or she must set some standards and guidelines governing what they will include or leave out. These guidelines, presented in order of most to less important, include:
- What is necessary for students to learn to be accepted as educated in the material?
- What aspects of the material does the instructor know best?
- What aspects of the material does the instructor enjoy teaching?
- What aspects of the material would the students enjoy learning?
Of course all of this is subjective to the instructor’s experience and choices. The instructor’s prerogatives, of course, override what the students might choose in a freshman level course. Senior and graduate classes, however, should take student feedback on what to include somewhat more seriously because those learners have greater knowledge and perspective on what may be. It still, however, should never override the instructor’s own experienced judgment.
The instructor’s field of expertise and interest should help to determine the overall themes of the course. For example, instructors with high proficiency for military and political history, but low proficiency in social should concentrate on what they know and like while lightly touching what is absolutely necessary to know from social history.
While some instructors who have not thought deeply about structure try to cover everything and run out of time, others indulge too much in one or a few topics of great interest to them to the detriment of other important subjects. A Western Civilizations instructor, to give an example, who loves the study of the Hellenistic Period of Mediterranean history might have a month’s worth of interesting information and stories to share, but will not do justice to the wealth of other subjects that require attention.
Once an instructor has decided the overall themes and what shall and shall not receive coverage, he or she should consider approximately how much time to spend on each topic and how to arrange the order of coverage. Then fill in quizzes, exams, papers, assignments, and other student obligations at times that seem most appropriate.
These ideas on how to structure a class work for both online and traditional courses, but implementation will obviously be different. Consider the differences between the concepts of strategy and tactics. Overall organisation of what an instructor covers and why resembles strategic thinking, but tactics reflect how an instructor intends to implement a class plan. One can use the same type of strategic thinking regardless of course, but the instructor must think carefully about the best ways to implement that thinking in the format available.
To create a good structure for online learning, instructors should take heed of some of the information presented elsewhere in this article. Look at existing models, such as the dynamic online model. Consider the impact of the learning management system and it must be used. Taking the course vision and figuring out how to organise appropriately and how to assess properly within the limitations of the technology is key to developing course structure.
Finally, resist the urge to “wing it” or to minimise the creation of structure. While an instructor can certainly overdo structure with too precise expectations of elements such as time for topic coverage and discussion, lack of structure can sink a class. Students have expectations that the instructor will let them know what is expected when and do not react positively to a large number of changes or vague guidelines. When instructors fail to meet these expectations of structure, students feel frustrated and confused, especially if they have full lives that include careers and family.
8. Before Opening Up the Course, Revise One More Time
Those instructors creating an online course for the first time must remember an important fact. Anything that is new and is complicated requires research, thought, and planning to execute. The learning curve will be steeper than expected and instructors should at the same time craft the course with great care, while also realising that the class will remain a work in progress.
Importantly, when done putting the course together, run through it one more time. Pull in colleagues to examine the materials, assignments, exams, technology used, and other features. Outside eyes can spot problems and mistakes more rapidly than the instructor him or herself. Better to eliminate problems before the course starts than to wait until students experience the issues midway through.
Here are some common problems that take place when crafting a new course:
- Trying to cover too many topics. This leaves no time to explore some subjects that require more depth and could prevent the instructor from covering all of the material
- Covering one or a few topics at too great a length. This also leaves less time to explore other necessary topics and could also prevent the class from learning about all necessary issues
- Incorporating technology that many students, or even the instructor him or herself, may not be familiar with. The newest bells and whistles may seem cool, but make sure students can use it properly. No one wants to fail because of unfamiliarity with technology
- Trying to incorporate too many traditional forms and techniques into online education when they do not fit as well
- Too much or too little content. Instructors should understand how much material they can easily fit into the time requirements
Instructors should also keep in mind that few courses, traditional or online, come out perfect the first go round. Be prepared to adapt and adjust as the course develops. Also, be honest with the students. Most of them will understand bugs and glitches in a course playing out online for the first time. Even experienced online instructors will experience glitches when creating a brand new course with brand new materials.
Perfection is not the standard the first, or even the second time, but improvement and correction is mandatory.
9. Do Not Get Overambitious
Instructors more acclimated to traditional course formats, but attracted to all of the technological bells and whistles of online learning, may fall into the trap of being overambitious in creating an online course. An instructor needs to carefully consider a number of factors when planning an online course.
Most importantly, he or she needs to think of time spent on the course as a finite and limited resource. That also stands true for students. Online classes have the potential to contain a wide range of cool ways to instruct, inform, and assess. That being said they ought not to require more time than a traditional course from either the instructor or the student standpoint. Instructors run the risk of burning themselves out while students who see a massive amount of time and effort requirements will simply ditch the class if they can.
Instructors putting together an online course for the first time must apply the KISS principle. It takes time to learn what works and what does not in courses, so those new to online class creation should limit the demands on themselves and students to what is absolutely necessary. Once the instructor gets experience and a better feel for online instruction, he or she should gradually add course features where deemed appropriate.
In making this choice, instructors should create their own individual standards for relevance and necessity. They should decide what is most important for the students to learn and experience and go from there. Conversely, they should resist adding a feature that has no relevance but seems “cool.” When the time comes to use it, both students and instructors will likely regret it as a waste of time.
Both instructors and online students lead busy lives and prioritising respects the time of both.
Instructors should not feel like they have taken the easy way out if they have decided not to add a lot of time-consuming features to their course if both they and students spend approximately the same time or somewhat less in class online as they would a traditional course.
10. Make Sure That Feedback Is Timely
In online learning, feedback can often present a problem. Traditional classes give ample opportunity for constructive interaction between students and instructors, but communication in online courses faces more barriers. One barrier lies simply in the additional effort required to initiate and maintain communication. Instructors may feel the temptation to put off necessary communication with students when they do not have to meet them face to face on a regular basis.
One way for instructors to avoid this trap lies in being proactive in time use. This means making feedback and interaction a regular part of the daily schedule instead of simply reacting to students on an ad hoc basis. If students receive regular communication and feedback, they will also be less likely to experience the disconnect and isolation that often serves as a major drawback of online education.
On the other hand, timely feedback does not mean that the instructor lives at the student’s beck and call. Some students will abuse the privilege of communication and expected feedback through both overly frequent contact and demands for instant replies. This constitutes an invasion of boundaries and the instructor should make sure students are not taking advantage of the privilege of regular feedback and communication.
Many learning management systems will create performance reports that allow instructors to keep up with the progress of their class as a whole and each individual student on demand. This feature should make it easier for instructors to provide regular and consistent updates and feedback.
Late or missing feedback represents one of the biggest complaints from students about their instructors. Those who plan not only their course and learning technology, but also their daily schedule, around fulfilling their responsibility to provide regular, quality feedback will have more satisfied students in the long term.
Reach Out Today
Creating an online class for the first time can be a daunting experience for an instructor. The tips listed and explained here serve as a guideline, a checklist, and a suggestion, but by no means provide a complete how to set of directions. Instructors without online experience can be forgiven for thinking that learning to teach e-courses may be too much for them to handle and, in some cases, they may be right.
They are right if they had to go through the experience alone, but they do not need to proceed by themselves in the dark.
Luckily expert help is out there for the asking. Darlo Digital employs a staff of online learning experts who stand ready to assist with advice on organisation, instruction, class management, and other important issues. Darlo Digital’s staff can offer quality and productive assistance to those brand new to online course design or also seasoned veterans.
Reach out today to our team at Course Writer if you are about to jump into the exciting, yet sometimes unpredictable realm of online learning. We are eager to help new online instructors embark on the path toward online instruction excellence.