As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to force instructors into remote learning environments, instructors with past online teaching experience are at a clear advantage when it comes to engaging students, creating lessons and impacting outcomes.
To help you make the most of your remote instruction, we asked veteran online educator and Director of the Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence at Ashland University, Shawn Orr, about the questions she hears most. Read on to learn how Shawn approaches other instructors’ common challenges—and gain strategies you can use to further student learning virtually.
Question: What are your top 3-5 best practices for administering an online class? I’ve never done this before, what should I focus on?
I just wrote an article in eCampusNews Today’s Innovations in Education answering this exact question. To quickly summarize, my best advice is:
- Be realistic about what we can accomplish over the next month in our courses, focusing on the big picture course learning outcomes and projects.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel; use resources that have already been created (like publishers’ content, TedTalks, TeacherTube videos, Khan Academy videos, etc.), selecting just one or two new technologies to enhance instruction.
- Communicate often, providing support, clear outlines and details for the week’s work and make sure students know how to connect with you and get the help they need to succeed (definitely consider online office hours).
- Set clear expectations for learning, prioritizing what’s most important and adjust assignments and assessments accordingly.
- Provide as much grace to your students (and those working so hard to provide the support to us and our students) as possible. We should not adjust our standards of mastery, but we do need to understand this is a difficult, unexpected learning environment and there are many factors that impact our students during this time.
Question: Is synchronous learning an important part of online learning or can you still have a robust asynchronous online class?
You can definitely have a robust online class without meeting synchronously. Given the situation we are in right now, I’m choosing to hold synchronous sessions for my classes as it maintains an active community of learners; however, I’m also recording these sessions and providing alternative activities for students that are not able to join in real-time because of technology or other issues.
Courses that are planned online often do not have required synchronous elements because that negates the flexibility that online courses offer. There are certainly hundreds of ways to have a robust online class without synchronous sessions, and ways to create a solid community of learners working together asynchronously.
Question: How do we assess student learning in an online course?
I’m still giving exams in most of my face-to-face-now-online courses this semester. I’ve switched them to open-book open-note exams, with a 75-minute time limit and broadened the questions to include more essay and short answer.
I’m giving students four days to complete the exam (narrow time limits are difficult in online learning due to student obligations and technology issues); however, once a student starts the exam, they have to finish it within the 75-minute time limit.
Also consider the exam questions that come with your publisher’s content which provide a less time-intensive way to gather digital questions and administer the exam through your LMS. Another option is to use a lock-down or monitoring tool like Respondus (our University previously purchased this product so it’s available in my LMS).
Finally, consider other types of assessments rather than final exams to determine the level at which students mastered the content, such as final papers, group presentations, live exams (where students meet with you virtually, one-on-one, where you ask questions and they discuss key content), a reflective paper, or having students submit a digital portfolio of their work from the semester.
Question: Do you have any recommendations for resources I can read to prepare myself to administer an online course?
So many! Here are a few citations to books, articles and links to digital articles which include many of my go-to resources:
- Conrad, Rita-Marie, and J. Ana Donaldson, Engaging the Online Learner: Activities and Resources for Creative Instruction, San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass, 2004
- Weimer, Maryellen, Learner-Centered Teaching: Five Key Changes to Practice, Langara College, 2017
- English, Joel A., Plugged in: Succeeding as an Online Learner, Wadsworth Cengage Learning, 2014
- Group Projects in Online Classes Create Connections and Challenge Instructors
- Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching, Putting Your Course Online in a Hurry
- Campus Technology, 9 Resources for When Coronavirus Moves Your Course Online
- Stanford University, Teaching Effectively During Times of Disruption – Cohn and Seltzer
- 5 Tips for Teaching Online – from an instructor doing it now – eCampusNews
- Ten Ways to Overcome Barriers to Student Engagement Online – Online Learning Consortium
- Resources and help for faculty affected by COVID-19 – Cengage
Question: Do you have a preferred headset, microphone, camera, etc.?
Honestly, I don’t really have a preference. I lean toward ease of use and affordability. To share, my headset/microphone is a Jabra product, my stand-alone microphone is a Blue Snowball and my add-on camera is from Logitech.
Question: What are the most common technical issues you/your students face—and how did you troubleshoot them?
The biggest technical issues for most of my students during this time of disruption has to do with connectivity. I’m fortunate that virtually all of my students do have access to computer equipment and internet service, and my university has put emergency services into place to provide equipment and hot spots so students that cannot gain access in other ways have the tools they need to complete the semester.
I’m comfortable with the technologies we are using, so I’ve scheduled several individual sessions with students to help them learn how to use these technologies, and I’ve also helped students submit IT tickets to get support for LMS and software products they are using. With that said, I try to select tools that allow students to connect in multiple ways.
For example, if you offer lectures synchronously via Zoom, students can join via their computer (if they have good internet), call in with their cell phone (if they don’t have good internet), or watch the recorded version of the lecture when it’s posted in the LMS at another time.
I also think it’s important that we consider accessibility issues and use tools like closed-captioning on our videos, use our colleges’ accessibility services (hopefully with services offered digitally) and reach out to places like your campus library to get links you can put directly into your LMS so students can quickly and easily access these resources.
I’m offering grace whenever possible, realizing that whether student issues are technical, family, health, or something else, students need support and encouragement.
Question: How do you solicit student feedback during a class? Any suggestions/best practices for student engagement in an online format?
In online classes, I provide a lot of opportunities for engagement and feedback, including interactions during synchronous class sessions where I call on individual students to answer questions, put students in small groups to discuss concepts/case studies/complete activities both within synchronous sessions and together outside of class sessions, within discussion boards and by using digital tools like BONGO which allows students to create presentations and allows other students to watch those presentations asynchronously and leave comments and suggestions.
There are so many ways to engage students in online courses, and below are two articles that provide great ideas for engagement in online learning. The Online Learning Consortium has many excellent resources about how to engage students in online courses. Personally, I recommend Ten Ways to Overcome Barriers to Student Engagement Online and Synchronous Online Classes: Ten Tips for Engaging Students.
Question: An issue some of my students have is access to a computer, making things like hosting a live lecture extremely difficult. Do you have any tips for online engagement via smart phones (since this is something nearly all my students can easily access and use)?
There are a lot of great apps you can download and use via a cell phone to connect with students, including TextNow or RemindMe. Students with smartphones and good internet connectivity may also be able to use the browser (on their phones) to join live sessions if they are offered digitally, perhaps through tools like Zoom, Google Hangouts or Google Meet.
Shawn Orr is the Director of the Center for Innovation and Teaching Excellence and a faculty member in the Department of Communication Studies at Ashland University in OH. She is also a Cengage faculty partner and recently hosted a webinar about how instructors can quickly move courses online. You can view the recording here.