“Lessons Message On Computer Screen Showing Online Education” by Stuart Miles – courtesy of freedigitalphotos.net
We usually read about best practices in online teaching from the standpoint of distance education specialists and course instructors. I just finished a ten-week online course that I chose to take for two reasons: to update my knowledge on the topic – assessment; to be a student in an online course and observe how the course is set up and delivered.
Here are what I was able to identify as best practices in online teaching from the point of view of a student-teacher:
1 – Make sure people know each other well so they can become a true community of learners
Any teacher needs to know their students well and make sure they know each other well, too. In a face-to-face class, this is easier because you know your students not only by what they say but also by how they act and react. In an online environment, more thorough descriptions are needed. It is also of paramount importance that the students get to know each other well, too, so that they can interact accordingly. For some cultures more than for others, images are very important to aid communication. In the course I took, for example, I resented the fact that we couldn’t see people’s photos next to each of their posts. Some of us had posted pictures to accompany our introductory remarks inside a folder called “Week 1”, but they were uploaded as documents and difficult to retrieve on a daily basis. Ideally, the LMS should have a sidebar with the participants’ profiles so that they can be consulted easily throughout the course. Instructors might also place so much emphasis on having students introduce themselves that they, the instructors, forget to do the same.
2- Assess students’ background knowledge and needs and tailor the course to these needs
The first thing we did in the online course was to answer a needs assessment questionnaire. In it, we were asked to rate how familiar we were with each of the assessment topics to be covered in the course. We were also asked to explain what our role in our institution was regarding assessment and what we expected to gain from the course. I noticed that the instructors used this information to gauge what to emphasize during the course and what could be dealt with more quickly, based on the group’s experience, without losing sight of the overall outcomes.
3- Clearly state the learning outcomes for each week and the activities and resources related to each outcome
Learning outcomes need to be clearly stated in any course. In an online course organized around weekly activities, which is usually the case, the learning outcomes and the tasks associated to the outcomes need to be clearly laid out each week. What I liked about the course I took was that the instructors explained the outcomes and the activities for the week, as well as the resources to be used. Thus, when each week was opened, I was able to clearly visualize the work ahead and organize myself to do it.
On the other hand, this introduction to each week was sometimes very wordy and would have been more practical if the information had also been organized in a visual, hierarchical format:
4- Whenever possible, use a variety of media and resources
In the course I took, the content was delivered by way of articles, blog posts, and videos. This diversity of genres and media made the content more interesting and balanced theory and practice. However, the instructions and interactions were always in writing. I understand why because there were participants from all over the world, some perhaps with internet limitations. However, it would have been even more stimulating if we had had the chance to listen to each other or perhaps watch a video with the instructors explaining the week’s tasks or wrapping up the week’s instructions. Images and videos give life to a virtual environment and tap into different reception modes.
5- Vary the types of activities and discussions, but be careful about small, pre-assigned groups
Most of the course was based on discussions inspired by the rich materials we had to read and explore. Sometimes the discussions were among the whole group, sometimes in smaller, pre-assigned groups, and sometimes in self-selected groups based on topics. In the pre-assigned groups, there were times when the discussions didn’t flow because participants worked on the course at different moments, some at the last minute. Since the week always opened on a Monday, there were participants who didn’t have time during the week to work on the course, only on weekends or even on Monday, jeopardizing the ongoing nature of the discussions. After a while, it was easy to perceive the patterns of participation: the early birds, the mid-week participants, and the weekend-only participants. Perhaps these groups can be assigned only after a few weeks and based on the participants’ typical behavior. People have different schedules and life and work demands, so it shouldn’t be expected that everyone will access the course multiple times during the week. Alternatively, if this is a course requirement, it should be clearly stated when students sign up.
Another useful type of activity besides discussion threads is jigsaw reading. In this activity, students are responsible for researching different pieces of information, which is then shared among the group.
6 – Limit the number of words that can be used in a post
This was a real plus in the course. Our posts couldn’t be longer than 350 words. Thus, we had to learn to synthesize our ideas. This made student participation more balanced and straightforward. I tend to write too much, so it was a great exercise for me to delete unnecessary information or convey the same idea in fewer words.
7- Intervene in the discussions when necessary and wrap them up at the end of each week
Sometimes participants lose sight of course objectives during the discussions and digress. Other times they can make wrong or misleading assumptions. This is when the course instructors need to intervene, making clarifications and getting the group back on track. Also, it’s important that instructors wrap up the weekly discussions, even if briefly, so the participants can have a clear idea of what was accomplished and how the week’s discussions advanced the group’s knowledge on the subject.
8– Make sure all students receive a balanced amount of attention
I’m sure everyone in the course felt supported by the group and by the instructors, whose online presence was remarkable. However, participation could have been balanced even better. In our discussions, we had to produce a post based on clearly-defined guidelines, and then respond to a peer. The result was that some peers received more feedback than others. My suggestion, then, is to encourage participants to first respond to a peer who hasn’t been addressed by a colleague yet. Then, the other responses can be directed to whomever the participant wants.
9- Include a hands-on, formative project for assessment
One of the highlights in the course was the project we had to develop little by little along the course and then present in an e-portfolio format. In our case, we had to revise an assessment instrument, based on the principles learned. The instructors organized a google site for our e-portfolios, which made it very practical for each of us to upload our portfolio contents and also see each others’ portfolios. Our final assessment was based, then, on our course participation and on the portfolio.
10- Set clear performance criteria and provide weekly feedback on student performance
In the beginning of the course, we were provided with instructions for the discussion threads and rubrics for rating our participation. Each week, we received feedback on our participation and the number of points we had gained based on the rubrics. Likewise, we knew from the start what the portfolio assessment criteria were. We were also given the chance to assess our own performance. At the end of the course, there were no surprises.
Having taught a blended course and taken two online courses, I am more and more convinced that it is much more challenging to take and to teach an online course than a face-to-face one! Students can’t hide as they sometimes do in a large classroom, and instructors need to be accessible on a daily basis, rather than once or twice a week in class! But I can say it is more rewarding, too!!!