Sometimes baby steps make learning easier. But not always.
I remember getting the email with the news that my web design class was transitioning from traditional face-to-face to hybrid: half the students in the classroom, half online (synchronous).
And the email, a couple of years later, that said the class was transitioning to 100 percent online (synchronous).
The progression seems logical, on its face. But it’s not. The three forms — 100 percent classroom, partial classroom/online, 100 percent online — are very different environments. Add to the mix a class that includes applied computer skills (lab time) and the differences become more pronounced.
Stick with me, and perhaps my experience will make yours less bumpy.
1. Get to know the online environment
Imagine, for a moment, that you had never set foot in a physical classroom as a student or as a teacher. Had not worked at a whiteboard or blackboard. Had no experience using a projector system. And have just been given your first teaching assignment.
The first time you teach an online class, this scenario could easily reflect your experience. You may have never been an online student. An online class is not simply the physical classroom transposed to an online environment, even if we’re teaching in SecondLife.
What’s your online classroom environment?
We use Adobe Connect to stream live classes to online students in a hybrid class. And it’s also the software we use for fully online classes. It is not our learning mangement system: that’s a home-grown Moodle environment.
If you have any experience with Adobe products, you know that they are both robust and idiosyncratic (as far as the user interface is concerned). Connect is no different.
When teaching the hybrid class, I left the Connect setup in the hands of the classroom tech. I accepted the stock layout (in the main) and focused on how to integrate the two sets of students so that it felt like one class, not two. As a result, once the class became fully online, I found myself seriously lacking in Connect skills.
If you are using Connect, Adobe has an excellent webinar series that I discovered before my online class launched:
- Monday: Getting Started with Adobe Connect
- Tuesday: Adobe Connect Beyond the Basics
- Wednesday: 15 Tips and Tricks in 30 Minutes
- Thursday: Event Module Made Easy
- Friday: Reporting and Analytics
This live webinar series completely changed how I was going to use the software, but it still took me several sessions to find a rhythm.
I created a layout that I launched 15 minutes before class started; it included the class agenda and a questionnaire (sometimes serious, sometimes humorous). I had a different layout for broadcasting the “lecture” — one with a whiteboard (that I did not use as much as I’d hoped) — plus a discussion layout and a stock “closing” layout.
If possible, sit in on another instructor’s class so that you can “see” the environment through a student’s eyes. You’ll notice a big difference.
If your class is more than an hour long, be kind to your students and stop/restart the recording often (at least once an hour).
Learning management system
Assignments and discussion forums? Those live in our Moodle site, the course LMS.
Because I’ve used WordPress for a decade as my online class environment, that’s part of my mix, as well. It’s where I share the syllabus, assignments, and links to content that is restricted to registered students.
2. Understand your students
This may be the first time some (or all) of your students have taken an online class. And even if they have some experience, that other teacher may not have taught like you plan to.
As with a flipped classroom model (more on that in a moment), students must be self-directed to succeed in an online class. Time management skills become even more important than in a traditional class.
My suggestion: survey your students.
Find out who has taken online classes (and what they were). Ask what worked and didn’t work for them (not what they liked or didn’t like). Ask what they would do differently, if they could take those classes again. In other words, shift them into a reflective mode at the same time as you’re learning about their expectations.
3. Develop and articulate a course structure
Predictability makes planning easier, both for you and your students. It also helps students manage time. Develop a predictable pattern for each online session, for due dates and times, for office hours, for assigned discussion. This structure may be even more important for classes that are asynchronous.
Plan breaks — just like you would in a face-to-face class. My online classes are three-hour sessions. I take a 10-minute break at (approximately) 50 minutes, just as I do in a traditional classroom environment.
Detail this information in the course syllabus. Provide clear rubrics and think seriously about low-stakes and high-stakes assignments. Consider peer assessment for low-stakes assignments if you have more than 20 students in a course (and no TAs).
Advise students if you are going to use email to communicate announcements or reminders. See if students would like to have a Facebook group. I do not make Facebook participation mandatory except for social media classes. Don’t simply “trust” that students will see LMS announcements.
I encourage students to ask questions of one another through our email list (I set one up for each class, it’s how I send mass messages to students) or the Facebook group (if they’ve decided that they want one). I have had less success with using a Q&A thread in our Moodle LMS. I think this is because our LMS is its own destination, whereas email or Facebook are “places” that we go for many messages, not just the ones about our classes.
Set expectations for how you will answer questions in-between class sessions. For example, I tell students my goal is to answer email within 24 hours, Monday through Thursday. But the email subject line must contain the course name (the three-letter-number combo the university uses) or all bets are off.
And for smaller classes, I accept texts.
4. Flipping the online classroom
You’re not going to be able to cover as much content in a synchronous online class as you can in a face-to-face classroom. And a straight, 50-minute lecture? It’s even more boring online than it is in a classroom.
Structure offline activities to include videos and hands-on activities, as well as readings. You don’t have to create all of those videos yourself: there is a lot of good stuff on YouTube. Yes, there’s a lot of, umm, not-so-good-stuff, too. Get ready to watch, or at least hit play for a few seconds, a lot of YouTube videos. When you can’t find relevant content, make your own.
I’ve found that pre-recording the lecture portion of my courses — complete with editing — results in a “crisper” delivery. And yes, I include short lectures (PPT plus audio); I’ve found that students (still) expect it. Plus, it ensures that core content is presented at least once. Pre-recording also helps me manage class time and provides a more useful review resource for students than the Adobe Connect session recording.
Have a thread in your LMS where students can ask you questions relating to a topic — then answer some or all of them in the main “together” time of the class. This technique allows students to help construct knowledge.
Use LMS discussion forums for project peer review. Have students answer open-ended questions and require that they comment on other student responses. This discussion may start out “stiff” but online interaction is essential to begin developing relationships. I’ve found making it a requirement — with points — is the only way to nudge students into fitting this into their schedules.
These discussions are important because they provide an environment for students to connect with one another and, hopefully, engage in critical thinking, analysis, and reflection as the course progresses.
5. Think “cohort” of learners
I think it’s important that students develop relationships with one another in an online class, that they feel like a cohort, not a bunch of lone rangers. This relationship-building is especially challenging in a hybrid class, but it’s doable.
My students have used Skype, Google Hangouts or even three-way phone calls to connect with one another during class time. Plan for this to be time consuming the first few instances, as students learn the logistics. I have had less-than-stellar success with Connect’s groups feature when students lose connectivity and then cannot find their group when they log back in.
Keep the same small groups throughout the course, so students can get to know each other’s online communication style and preferred tools). With my web design class, I group students based on the type of project they are working on: for example, portfolios together, ecommerce together, nonprofits together.
I do not, however, include group projects in my online class. Help one another? Yes. Produce a single deliverable collaboratively? Not yet.
Combined with discussion forums (with course points assigned for participation), these techniques shift the learning environment from one that is teacher-focused to one that is student-focused. And isn’t that, ultimately, our goal?
Kathy Gill has been online since the early 1990s, having discovered CompuServe before Marc Andreessen launched Mosaic at the University of Illinois in 1993. At the University of Washington, she has taught undergraduate digital journalism as well as classes in the Master of Communication in Digital Media program. Today, she teaches blogging and web design. She is captivated by how technology disrupts established power structures.