The Top Ten Lessons I Learned Teaching a Fully On-Line Course for the Very First Time
Peter P. Constantinou, PhD
School of Public Policy and Administration
I was asked by my department to mount a fully on-line version of a course I have taught before. My first reaction was less than positive, because one of the things I love most about teaching is being in the classroom with students, and the dynamic that emerges. But, given that it was a priority for the department and there was strong demand from students I thought I would give it a try. As part of my approach to teaching, I normally keep weekly notes about what worked and what didn’t. In this case, what I thought would be a few scribbled notations, became almost a reflective journal with loads of notes, lessons-learned, recommendations, editorials, and admissions. As I was preparing to do the course a second time, I thought I would capture and share the most important of the lessons I learned. Below are the top ten lessons I learned doing an on-line course for the first time.
- TAKE THE eLEARNING COURSE. I use upper case here deliberately. I am not yelling at you, but I am yelling. I took the course reluctantly, thinking that Moodle was intuitive enough, and that having taught for over 22 years that I would be fine. Wow, was I wrong. The course offered by the Teaching Commons was masterfully designed and delivered. Not only was the content there, but the instructors were very knowledgeable and supportive. But even more than that, I was in a classroom with other faculty who were taking the course, and we shared ideas about teaching, and became a network of support for each other. The course started with philosophy and governing principles, and then went into the mechanics of operationalizing our visions.
- Be creative and there are supports out there to help you to be. What was particularly helpful is how hard the instructors pushed us to be creative. The danger in mounting an on-line course is that it could be a digital version of a correspondence course, and that is not what we or students want, and with the technology we have now, it can be so much more. At first, I felt that the on-line course instructors in the Teaching Commons were a little out of control, thinking I was going to start having games and crazy exercises on-line. But then I realized how easy the technology was and what a big difference it made in the learning experience of students, and with their help and guidance, such additions to delivery methods became quite easy, and the results were well received.
- Get the workload right. When I teach I have an explicit agenda for a course, share these learning objectives with students and regularly go back to them with students to ensure we are accomplishing what we set out to. But I also have a hidden agenda in all my courses. In this particular case, I wanted to help students learn to write and improve their writing. Also, I wanted them to think about taking a position and then defending it. So one of the best ways I know how to do this is to do lots of writing and have lots of feedback. Makes sense so far. In my case, the course was going to be offered in S1, and notionally twice a week for six weeks. But I also allowed the course design to be flexible enough for students who wanted to move more quickly through the course. So, with the exception of the two tests that were administered on specific dates at specific times, they could move through the course at their own speed. And my experience was that about half the students wanted to do this and did. The course requirements included a major essay broken out into three smaller assignments (the proposal and thesis, the paper structure and annotated bibliography, and the final paper), but students were also required to make at least two substantial contributions to the on-line discussion forum twice a week, answer at least two challenge questions about the readings each week (250 words each) and post arguments for the debate subject twice each week (250 words each). The challenge is that I promised comments within 24 hours, so that they would have the comments to help inform their next effort. With 50 students, this became an enormous task. I found myself at my computer for more than eight hours per day assessing and providing comments for the entire six weeks. The upside to this was twofold. First, students were fully engaged with the course because they were constantly producing content and completing assignments. In focus group discussions after the course, students said what they liked about the course was they were never bored. Second, the comments meant that I actually saw an improvement in their writing from assignment to assignment. In fact, many connected with me via Skype to talk about their assignments, they said because they saw opportunities for improvement along the way. As one student put it “Normally if you do poorly on an essay, you read the comments and you hope that next semester you do better by building on what you heard. But in this class, every day there were new chances to do better – a fresh start every day, so that gave me hope and inspired me that if I wanted it, I could make the changes suggested by the Professor and do better.” The challenge for us as faculty is to find the right balance, for them and for us. Six students dropped the course after the first week saying it was more work than they wanted for a summer course. And for me, because it was the only course I taught that semester, I could handle the workload, but if I had two or three others it would not be possible.
- Experiment a little. Given that this was my first time doing this, you might say the whole endeavour was an experiment. But even within the course outline, mid-way I started to experiment. For example, normally each module had a video lecture, PowerPoint slides, discussion questions, chat room questions/topics, reading material and written and video messages with tips and logistical announcements. In one of the weeks, my video lecture was shorter than most. What I noticed was the students read and relied more on the readings, and the quality of the written responses, debate/discussion questions and chat room contributions were better supported by the readings. In short, they read the readings more carefully and referenced them more. It seems that when I provide a video lecture, they seem to rely on the readings less, more apt to quote me than the book. While that is not a bad thing, I found the detail even better when they had the book as the primary source of material, with the slides more as an overview. So I began to experiment a little more. For one section I had only a video introduction to the material, requiring students to rely more on the book and slides. And as I had suspected, their written work and discussion points were really quite grounded in the text. While this might seem obvious, if you only have the book you will rely on the book more, what was not obvious to me was that adding my video lecture meant they took the reading less seriously or used the reading less/benefited from the readings less. So again here I think finding the right balance is important.
- Keep a journal. I have always kept notes during my classes as a way of keeping track of student interactions, what material worked well and what did not, so that I could have consistent, well organized and professional administration of the course, but also to make improvements from one delivery to the next. For me, excellence in teaching is in the nuances and details. If we are to aspire to do better, at some point it is about refinements and micro-adjustments. For me the journal was critical. And this year when making the second delivery, I made many changes that were noted from that first delivery.
- Put yourself in their shoes. Moodle is a great tool, and there is a feature to allow you to see the site as a student would. But I like to visualize the student experience in my teaching. And in this type of delivery, I think a lot about what would it be like to be them experiencing this. It helps me anticipate issues, or understand questions.
- The importance of the written word. Many of us have come to understand that the course outline is like a contract between us and our students. I am always updating my course outlines to improve their clarity or to anticipate or deal with issues. This is where my journal comes in handy, so I never forget an issue I had that could be made better by a simple improvement in the course outline next year. And there is nothing more frustrating than experiencing the same thing because you did not make a change you wish you had remembered. One of the lessons I learned early on is how incredibly important it is to have consistency between the documents students have. If you have any discrepancy between your course outline, your slides, the assignment details or video lectures, students will either be confused, and this can generate lots of questions and anxiety, or they will use it to their benefit. In all cases, it can and should be avoided. If I can avoid 50 emails from panicked students, that allows me to focus on grading. And if it means 15 students approach the assignment differently because of the lack of clarity and precision of your description, that is a bad thing. I did not think it could happen, but when all they have is what you give them, and you are not physically in a classroom where they may chat to others or where there might be opportunities for questions, some things might be simply left to their last-minute interpretation. In focus groups with students last year, students told me they were less likely to ask small clarification questions via email or chat room, than they might in a classroom, or before and after class. While my experience suggests otherwise, as I do get lots of these types of questions, I have to assume they are telling the truth and that these documents have to be as precise and instructive as possible. And I would post announcements and clarification, but that almost always created more discussion “but I am almost done, and I thought it was supposed to be done this way…” or created the impression that perhaps I was not as organized as I should be.
One other key component to this reality is that tone is hard to read in email/text exchanges. Many instructors have lamented that students may write things in an email to a professor that they would never say in a face-to-face meeting. Well, we are bound to have more of this in an on-line course. My experience has been to take deep breaths before responding to an email or post that had a certain “tone”. By giving students the benefit of the doubt, or seeking clarification, we can validate if our concerns are correct, or if this is simply a transmission interpretation problem. In some instances where I felt the opportunity for a “teachable moment” arose, I arranged a Skype meeting and found that that resulted in the kind of minor adjustments that come from looking someone in the eye and managing questions or concerns.
- Set the tone in chat rooms. Spend time not only evaluating chat room contributions, but shaping the discussion. One of the things that I wanted students to do more is not simply say, “In my opinion…” and leave it like that. What I was hoping for was informed and evidence-based opinions. So I would insert myself in conversations to get them engaging in a way that used the text and the research findings more to support their position/arguments. Best to start early, and make regular appearances or interjections along the way to keep them reminded of the expectation.
- Make deliberate decisions about guiding principles. My first experience taught me that students taking an on-line course in the summer had a variety of expectations and commitment levels. Some would take the course module by module, week by week, as they would a regular delivery in-person course. Others were going to do this as an intense mode course, moving from one module to another as fast as they could, to get the course done (for a variety of reasons). So when I was designing the course I had just assumed we would do it week by week, until the course had started and a number of the students asking to move through the modules at their own pace. This meant I had to make some adjustments, and think about the logistics about someone contributing to a discussion forum for a module two weeks from now when no one else was focused on that yet. So a few decisions about these logistics are critical early on. In the end, my experience was a mixture of things. The tests had to be written when scheduled, and discussion forums could only evolve as quick as others would join, but I was pleased to grade their work as it came in, thereby accommodating their situation. The challenge here is that when they all start, not unlike a marathon race, everyone is together in the same pack. But then some break away and ultimately teaching on-line with this type of flexibility is like having each student work at their own pace, which requires the instructor to be flexible. From a logistics point of view, some instructors in the course I took told me that they did not allow the flexibility because it allowed them to grade in bulk – go in on a given day and mark all assignments for module 2. The problem with that approach is that if we are going to give students feedback so that each assignment can be informed by comments on the previous one, they then have to wait for you. My governing principle of allowing students to move at their own pace and giving feedback within 24 hours meant that I had to work at all parts of the course at the same time, and I did find that a little difficult. Other instructors have told me they find that discombobulating and uncomfortable/confusing. So it is important to know yourself and make the appropriate strategic choice early and communicate it clearly so students do not complain that they thought they could move differently through the course, because they did so in other on-line deliveries. I think it is only fair that they know precisely what they are signing up for.
- On-line teaching does not mean “easy”. Often I hear from students that they take on-line courses expecting them to be easier. What they should be is convenient for students who want to continue their studies when they cannot be physically in the same place as the university, or because their life or work means their schedule does not fit with traditional course offerings. In short, on-line courses should be more accessible. What they should not be is “easy”. One of the things I took from the introductory course cited in tip #1 above is that on-line is just the delivery mode, and innovations in Moodle and approaches to pedagogy mean that the quality of the experience and the level of difficulty can be maintained. Also, most faculty think on-line is “hard” or extra work. Well I can report that, like any new approach or venture, there is more work upfront. But when I consider how long it took me to prepare my first traditional delivery courses, it is a marginal increase. And like traditional delivery, some materials, such as videos, assignments, discussion questions, etc. can be used again in subsequent delivery. What was difficult for me was the transition from thinking that in-class is the superior experience and that teaching via the computer was a sacrifice in that quality. What I know now is that it is just different, and if it is any less of an experience, it is because we allowed it to be so. Just as I would with traditional delivery, setting the tone upfront, and having consistent messaging throughout all documents and correspondence, is critical.
- Moodle is only as good as the user. I have discovered that there have been repeated efforts to improve the capability of Moodle, as the developers continue to take feedback from users about issues or to develop new capabilities. As with most computer software, the settings are really key. The first time I used the automated feature for a time-fix on-line assignment, I worked with the Moodle support team in the Teaching Commons to set it up “right” so that it would go off without a hitch. And it did. The second time I did, there were a couple of minor settings that had changed or that I had changed for other purposes that affected this functionality. So my message here is quite simple – although you have taken the courses, and gotten used to using the software, be available during test and assignment times because sometimes things do not always go off as planned. In one case, as soon as students reported an issue, I was at my desk to make the change. So while in theory this can all be done without you, it is a good idea to be there to take questions or make adjustments as student experience issues. I found the tips I had received from the team in the Teaching Commons really helpful. For instance, when setting the time at which the assignment is due, I would state “9pm EST”. What this often means is that students will work until 9pm and then try to upload their assignment, thereby experiencing difficulty because it was past 9pm. So I adjust the settings so that they have 5 minutes beyond 9pm to upload (although they do not know this, Moodle just continues to accept assignments until 9:05pm). Otherwise there is frustration, confusion and anxiety.
The above is intended to be some reflections of a first time on-line instructor who learned a great deal about teaching on-line, about teaching and about himself. I have gotten beyond my own trepidation about on-line teaching, and have come to embrace it as yet another opportunity to make post-secondary education accessible to students. And that realization is bolstered by the fact that I have learned that we can maintain the rigour, the quality of the student experience by utilizing technology. My experience was made better because of the wonder people who work in the Teaching Commons, and by keeping a journal of my experiences. I hope you too explore and enjoy the world of teaching on-line!