Teaching online means more than just typing up lectures and putting them on the web. Read below for specific tips and recommendations from fellow BMCC faculty.
- Interaction in teaching online
Interaction between students and teacher, between students and other students, and between students and content–is a crucial learning tool. This interaction often happens unconsciously, or transparently, in the face-to-face classroom, but online it has to be intentionally engineered into the course. Discussion board activities, hyperlinks in the content areas, quizzes, treasure hunts, live chats, and inquiry activities should be major elements of every online course. For students to be active, engaged, and learning, they need to be doing more than just reading words on a screen. Time online, number of logins, or completed exams are all necessary, but not sufficient in an online class.
- Keep it short
It’s very difficult for students (or anyone else) to read long blocks of text on the computer screen. When students need to read extended passages, those passages should be made available in a printed form–or in a form that’s easy for students to print out on their own computers. For text on the screen, break it into smaller portions, with hyperlinks, pictures, and a consistent, easy-to-read font (don’t switch sizes, fonts, or colors unless you have a compelling reason to do so). Students should not have to scroll down the screen more than once or twice.
- Be clear and organized
Online courses are a new medium for students, and a challenging one. If the course navigation is not extremely clear, and extremely organized, students will become confused, frustrated, and lost. In designing online courses, we need to be sure the scheme of the course is completely logical and consistent, and that students always know exactly where to look to find the information they will need. If there’s a way for them to miss it, they often will, so it’s good to provide multiple avenues, multiple opportunities for finding the same information. Assignments, due dates, schedules, tasks and expectations should all be consistently and accurately labelled, and located in the same place from one week to the next.
- Reward what you value
In an online course, students will tend to give their attention and effort to the areas that they know will affect their grades. If discussion and interaction (for example) are important, they have to “count,” and they have to count in proportion to their educational value. If an assignment is optional, but important, it should be worth extra credit points. The system of awarding credit in the course has to be clear to students from the beginning, with the standards and criteria made explicit. Some people say that “grades are the currency of the classroom,” and “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” So if you want something from students–reward them for it!
- Stay involved
Students in an online class only know that the teacher is there at all if the teacher is actively involved and participating. It’s important to log in to your course and participate (add to the discussion, make an announcement, give some feedback) very frequently. Students should see (on the front page of the course) that the teacher is present and paying attention to the course in a very visible way. Even an announcement about a current event, the weather, or interesting (course-related) public or popular events will demonstrate the teacher’s presence.
- Be Responsive
While much of the class communication will take place on the discussion board, students will still contact you by email. At the beginning of the course, it’s good to announce an email response policy, and stick to it. The policy should guarantee a certain maximum time, whether that time is 24 or 48 hours (it probably shouldn’t be more than that), and all emails should be answered in less than that maximum. If you’re not available by email on the weekends, students need to know that. Whatever policy you announce, if students know that their emails will be answered, they feel much more confident and secure in their learning.
- Let questions be questions
The Socratic method as practiced in the face-to-face classroom requires teachers to ask questions to which they already know the answers–trying to draw those specific answers out of their students. This technique does have its place in the online class, too, but it’s not a technique that works well in a discussion board where the goal is student-student interaction and active thinking and learning. In a discussion board setting, try to make all the initial questions or prompts function as “authentic” question–questions for which you don’t have a specific or recommended answer in mind. A question is really a question when it’s something the teacher really doesn’t know, and the students really do. Questions of this kind tend to engage students more, make them active, and encourage a deeper understanding and interest in the course content.
- Use extra-textual cues
In a face-to-face class, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures, and all kinds of body language to help us communicate. In writing, we don’t have any of these tools. We can’t soften a harsh comment, emphasize a point, offer a sympathetic sigh or a raise a sardonic eyebrow. But in an online class, we do have access to some extra-textual cues which can simulate some of these physical or aural signs. Strategic alterations of text, “emoticons” :0 😉 🙁 , small images or animations can carry some of this meaning. Use these cautiously! A little can go a long way, and too much can cause them to lose all effectiveness. But students, with their experience of chat rooms and instant messaging, are quite experienced in interpreting these cues.
- Remember social presence
A major difference for students between taking an online course and reading a book about the subject material is you, the teacher. Students tell us that they want (and learn best from) teachers who are first of all human beings. They want to feel that there’s an understanding, a connection, with the person on the other side of the computer. In teaching an online course, you can ensure that you still maintain a human social presence. The “Contact Instructor” page in Blackboard gives teachers a chance to post some biographical information and (much more importantly) a photograph. Beyond this, the tone of the teacher’s communication in the course, while professional, should also be somewhat informal or casual. Sometimes when writing, we take a formal, scholarly tone, out of habit. In teaching online, though, we can work around that habit to aim for a more conversational tone.