Finding the Keys to Unlock Online Teaching Success

by Stacy Forster
August 3, 2015
Photo by John Loo on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

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After three years as an instructor of journalism and strategic communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I’m getting the hang of this teaching thing.

"Do it right and you'll create relationships that last beyond the end of the online course."

Which means, of course, it’s time to add a twist — I’m spending the next year developing, then teaching, an online course for our undergraduates.


So, here I am — starting from scratch, but with plenty of models to watch and follow. Journalism programs are keeping pace with the expansion of online education in recent years, offering a huge range of online courses. Students can log on to take such undergraduate standards as media ethics or news writing or a massive open online course (known as MOOCs) like the one on media literacy offered by Arizona State University. They can earn journalism certificates like those offered at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and master’s degrees from programs like those at the University of Missouri School of Journalism or the one just launched at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communication.

It’s no wonder online offerings are growing — online courses can be less expensive and more convenient for non-traditional students who may be juggling jobs, summer internships, study-abroad programs or other life commitments.

Image by Jeremy Hiebert and used here with Creative Commons license.

Image by Jeremy Hiebert and used here with Creative Commons license.


It’s changing the game for instructors, too. In the classroom, time spent with students in concentrated blocks can be spaced out across the entire week in an online course, allowing for more one-on-one contact and engagement. Instructors able to log on and respond to student discussions and assignments at various times of the day rather than during preset office hours.

The style of teaching is different for online as well. Rick Brunson, associate instructor of journalism at the University of Central Florida who’s been teaching an online course in media ethics for five years, said online teaching is less about the guru model, with the instructor at the front of the class imparting wisdom.


Rick Brunson

“When you’re teaching online, your job is to be less of an authority the student looks to and more of the maestro of an orchestra,” Brunson said. “You’re bringing all of this rich content into the online space where everyone can learn and get the most out of it.”

Here’s what I’ve learned about how to build and teach an effective online course:

Don’t go it alone

Most universities have resources and technology available to help instructors create or transition existing classes to an online environment, so don’t try to do it alone. I’ve been accepted into a year-long learning community at UW-Madison to learn how to develop an online class, and then facilitate it once it’s up and running. The community brings together others who are going through the same process, allowing the group to share resources and ideas, said Karen Skibba of UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies, who facilitates the group.

Expect to seek help with the technology, too. Many campuses have relationships with learning-management systems such as (newly-revamped) Blackboard or Canvas to help with the back-end organization of an online course, but you’ll need to get help learning how to navigate them. Brunson has become such good friends with the instructional designer who works with him that he attended a baby shower for the designer’s newborn. “They know what they’re doing, and they can help you become a more successful teacher if you listen and lean on them for guidance,” Brunson said.

Be prepared

Before you jump into the process of putting all of your material into the course management system, stop to be sure you have your course well planned and organized. In the classroom, instructors can map out a lesson plan the night before to spend more — or less — time on certain concepts. But in an online course, all of the material needs to be front loaded and made available at the start of the class.

“You can never ‘wing it’ with online courses,” Sarah Smith-Frigerio of the University of Missouri said in an email interview.

That means spending significant time before the class starts making sure you understand and meet the learning objectives you’ve laid out, and letting essential ideas you’re trying to accomplish drive the boat, said Jonathan Klein, who works in learning support services at UW-Madison’s College of Letters & Science.

Photo by John Open Data Institute Knowledge for Everyone on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Photo by John Open Data Institute Knowledge for Everyone on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Build an online persona

It’s easy for a student to feel detached from the course and the instructor if it’s not facilitated the right way. Online courses are often shorter, which gives the instructor even less time to build connections with each student. It’s possible, those who teach online said, but it you should expect to invest significant time making it happen.

Gina Martino Dahlia teaches an introductory mass communication class online at West Virginia University, and she starts each class with a welcome video in which she introduces herself to the students. “They can see me, see what I look like, hear about some of my experience … they don’t feel like I’m a stranger.” She then ups the ante and asks the students to create their own videos within the first three days — in exchange for extra credit.


Gina Martino Dahlia

And because students are doing the class at their own pace and on their own timelines, instructors have to spend time to meet them where — and when — they’re engaging with the class, even if that means handing out your cellphone number to text with students. Martino Dahlia says she posts announcements and sends reminder emails daily. She also pops on to the course discussion boards to respond to at least half the class each week, and sends emails to those who may be struggling, or who she wants to compliment on work done well.

Do it right and you’ll create relationships that last beyond the end of the online course — Martino Dahlia and Brunson have both had online students seek them out for other courses. “The feedback I’ve received is that for myself, they really did feel like I was a teacher who cared, they connected with me and felt a sense of security that I was always available,” Martino Dahlia said.

Dan Gillmor, a professor of practice at Arizona State University who is teaching the MOOC on media literacy, also looks to find ways for students — who may be in far-flung places around the world — to talk with each other as part of the course.

Part of building that rapport with each student involves giving detailed feedback on assignments. That’s especially important in a course like news writing, where extensive comments and involvement from the instructor is necessary to bring student work along. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, news writing students get heavy line editing and instructor feedback on content and style, Karen List, professor and co-director of the online program, said in an email interview.

Keep it short and clear

If you’ve been teaching a course in the classroom one way for years, don’t think you can just record your lectures and throw them up on Blackboard. Expecting students to sit down to watch videos of 50-minute lectures, then take a midterm and a final, won’t cut it, online education experts said. For one, you won’t achieve the sense of community required to make an online class successful.

The good news is that the technology platforms offer a wide array of delivering content, and once you understand the capabilities available, the offerings for an online course can be robust and diverse. In the courses she’s teaching this summer, Smith-Frigerio said she’s using videos, modules, discussion boards, wiki pages, and offering real-time office hours and Q&A sessions with students, while Gillmor is hosting live sessions with experts on journalism and media literacy. Just be careful about using technology that’s too advanced — some distance learners don’t always have reliable access to quick Internet service.

Also be sure you’re clear on your expectations. Students don’t have the option of asking questions in person, so explicit directions, rubrics and deadlines will help them meet the demands of the course.

Stacy Forster teaches journalism and strategic communication in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She also serves as moderator for the biweekly #EdShift Twitter chats.

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