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Best Practices for Teaching Online Coursework: 15 Suggestions, or What to Do When You Suddenly Find Yourself Teaching Online

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

An extended family member, who is also in academe, brought it to my attention that many in our field are thinking of the future state of the college classroom. It was only a matter of time before those of us who work in higher education would need to consider alternative methods of teaching. Measures to halt the spread of COVID-19 may begin to impact our learning communities, requiring more virtual classrooms to “pop” up. Just today, both Princeton and Columbia announced intentions to cancel in-person classes while we pass through the storm. Unfortunately, many very good, knowledgeable instructors have little, if any, experience teaching online. My intention with this post is to share a list of best practices that I adhere to while teaching online courses. These are my standards, and though they overlap with those prescribed by my institution, this list should not be considered as their official stance.

I hold a Ph.D. in American studies and a good portion of my dissertation focuses on the ways digital culture is a harbinger for broader social beliefs. Additionally, I found myself needing to adjust my work schedule after the birth of my son while also keeping my foot in the proverbial professional door. So, I decided to teach online courses. I have several years of online-only teaching experience and one of those courses focuses on the convergence of science, technology, and society. Not only do I spend a lot of time improving my teaching for the sake of getting better at my job, digital communication is a topic close to my academic heart.

If you find yourself thrust into a new way of teaching, I hope that my thoughts bring some guidance and solace. While it is a different challenge to master, requiring distinct skill sets to shine, the core of our teaching remains the same. The first thing to note – that will shape nearly all of the points below – is to remember that, like you, students may feel plunged into a new way of being, producing unease and hesitation. I know what this looks like. Not every student who registers for an online course wants to be there. Sometimes it is required because of a life change, or they feel pushed into the class by a well-meaning advisor, or – like what happened to me one semester – an entire class of students who registered for an in-person course find themselves switched to an online format as the result of a last-minute instructor adjustment. But a lot of students do appreciate the online platform and proficiency as a helpful guide is crucial to their success.

[Keep in mind that this list covers what to do the entire semester, not if the institution makes a switch to online coursework half way through the semester. Take what you need here.]

1. Communication is key. Be in touch with them early and often. More communication is always better than too little – but try not to spam their inboxes. I always contact my students several weeks before the semester begins, providing them with the syllabus and general schedule for the semester. This will assist them in forming their own work balance. Be good-natured and friendly in your emails. Try not to be “cold.” Emotions are more difficult to convey through email because of several factors, not the least being the emotional state of the recipient. If the student is already nervous about the course, then a terse email will not help in the least. That said, maintain professionalism on your end, even if they do not. Most emails I receive are formed like a text message, which I find highly inappropriate, but my response with a salutation, body, and concluding statement usually helps to lay a foundation for communication expectations.

2. Give time frames for your availability. Set a schedule for yourself and relay the important parts of it to them. Will you maintain virtual office hours? Are you absolutely unavailable on Thursdays? When will you respond to email? I tell my students that I am unavailable between the hours of 10:00 PM and 7:00 AM and typically grade their work on Mondays and Tuesdays. This helps them understand that I am a real person with a life outside of work, but it also shows them that I am committed to serving as their teacher this semester.

3. Be clear with instructions, but do not write a tome. As instructors, we all have different syllabi styles. Some include pages of information while others condense everything to one lonely sheet (I am amazed at your skill, by the way.) Online coursework requires that the students work on their own time and try to figure out the information, usually, by themselves. One needs to find the balance between “not enough” and “too much” information – which, unfortunately, is different from course to course. I like to include guides for each assignment and use hyperlinks to connect pages and drop boxes. One thing you will learn, to your irritation but probably not surprise, is that some students just flat-out will not read the instructions – or will read very little. You will receive emails asking questions about information you posted in several places. I refer you back to #1. Be patient. There may be an honest to god reason the student did not see something, which will give you insights to whether there is a technical difficulty or discernment into the learning personality of the student.

4. Honor the learning abilities of your students. Make sure your course site is accessible. (This is so important!!) Your institution should have a person on staff to help with this. Not only should you adapt to students with documented learning differences, but consider the general learning variations that are just built into our personalities. In a moment, I will discuss utilizing different digital technologies, but it is important to note here. Not every assignment needs to be submitted in writing. Not every assessment needs to be an exam or a term paper. If you are able to be flexible, give the students a choice between submitting something in writing or as a video answer. Each semester, I am always delightfully surprised at the students who hit their stride when they realize how they like to communicate and they use it. You can see their confidence soar. Additionally, just because the student is a millennial or a “digital native” does not mean they are proficient in working with software. There is often a learning curve for about 75% of the students at the beginning of the semester.

5. Establish a regular, logical routine for the course. Will your course run Monday-Sunday? Friday-Thursday? I recommend setting up the course as a series of modules, which makes a lot of sense for the online format, but when you have the week start/end is up to you. Consider when you are able to grade assignments, when you want to engage with the students, and when students may engage with the course. I prefer to grade on Mondays and Tuesdays, so I establish a Sunday night due date each week. Do things the same every week. Try not to “make things interesting” by changing the format half way through the semester, or several times over the weeks, this will only result in mass confusion. I like to require the same kind of assignment each week (discussion board, weekly response) and then allow for a creative project or assignment here and there. Students find comfort in knowing what is expected of them.

6. Utilize technologies available to you. Use video conferencing, video creating applications, discussion boards, etc. Do not try to “recreate” the classroom. Activities that work in the classroom may not transfer well to the online format, but that does not mean that you cannot try through creative means. I love Zoom and use it for group debates. Students may get nervous at first, but the tools available to online coursework are typically user-friendly. If we can figure out how to do it, they can. Use these methods in your communication with students, too. You can send a video as a response to a question, instead of a written response. I find this is very helpful. Students also like seeing your face from time to time. I begin each week with a “Monday Announcement Video” that gives reminders, answers questions, and covers the work they will face that week. Students appreciate that the instructor is “live” with them and does not put the course on autopilot.

7. Use images, videos, and graphics. No one likes to look at a boring page with just…words on it.

8. Give students work load expectations up front. My institution has guidelines on how many hours a student should work each week for an online course. I relay this to my students. They know at the beginning of the semester that they should work about 10-12 hours a week to be successful in my course. This information helps them to establish their routine and hopefully understand the work load.

9. Do not be tempted to increase the work load simply because it is an online course. Online courses are harder by nature of the platform. It is important to remember that the online course is also a lesson in life- and time- management, paired with learning the subject you teach. This will be challenging to your students.

10. That said, use discussion boards to your advantage. Rely heavily on this, if you can. Students end up loving it. Engage with them several times a week. Most students know how to communicate online through social media, and as long as you establish guidelines for professionalism and to convey your expectations (how many posts a week, length, etc.), they will approach discussions in the same manner and with energy. But you have to be the one to set the tone. If you engage, they will engage.

11. Make students create content for the class. Information does not always need to come from you. As long as you maintain “quality control,” students will really enjoy being at the helm. There are many creative ways to do this.

12. Avoid exams, unless necessary. If you must schedule an exam, make it open book/open note with citations and increase the challenging aspects of the exam. Students will use their books/notes anyway.

13. Provide information and resources on how to research ONLINE. A lot of students will jump to the Google Machine first, when we have very wonderful libraries with beautiful online databases. Provide a review on how to use these sites. Talk to your librarian(s) about creating videos or content to share with your class.

14. Teach a lesson in trusted sources. We live in an era of misinformation and fake news. Also, see #13.

15. Give them opportunities to provide feedback. The best instructors take the “temperature” of the group regularly, but it occurs less formally and almost without trying: in conversation before and after class, by assessing the “look” of students as they walk in the door or sit in their chairs, or in discussion. Online coursework does not have the benefit of these more intuitive measures, so providing polls and surveys for student response is imperative. Some of the most consequential changes I made to syllabi happened because of student feedback.

An important take-away from this list is that an instructor should still create meaningful relationships with students. I work for a small liberal arts institution where the professor-student relationship is highly valued and it is crucial that I cultivate this in the online classroom. Be patient with them. As mentioned, online coursework can create the jitters in normally confident students who live in a world of YouTube stars and the Instagram famous. Making videos may not be a “natural” feeling. The shy student feels put on the spot and the outgoing student feels isolated. But it does not have to be this way! From my experience, nearly every semester, students walk away from my class with a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.

If institutions need to make an adjustment to the typical routine of the classroom, these are some suggestions to take into consideration. It is not an exhaustive list, but it does contain what I feel are some of the most important practices. Aside from the COVIN-19 crisis, there may be instances where we are asked to adjust our teaching skill set. Hopefully, this post will help set you on your way.

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