I would like to share 10 takeaways from the fall 2020 semester on designing, developing, and delivering online courses. These takeaways reflect on and reinforce what many instructors have already been practicing in their online courses. From what I have experienced as an online instructor and learning designer, the fall 2020 semester confirmed that these practices do actually work well in maximizing engagement and completion rates, which relate to better outcomes.

If you are looking for analytics to back these assertions up you won’t find any here, these assertions are purely anecdotal.

The 10 takeaways below assume that students are taking four or more courses, work or have other fixed commitments, and are relatively new to learning online. It also assumes that these novice online learners find it a challenge to learn online for reasons I’ll save for another post.

One: Make the due dates any day but Sunday or Monday

If a student’s question about an assignment due Sunday evening will be answered on Sunday then disregard this point. If email is not checked on Sunday, then make an assignment due on Friday when we are more available to respond or offer office hours.

Also consider weekend workload, assignments in other classes tend to be due Sunday night and students tend to get weekend shifts at work. Yes, school should always be a priority over a work shift, but many don’t have that option.

Two: Be flexible with methods of communication and check them often

Every learning management Systems (LMS) has an integrated emailing tool, which is used by a few students but not all. Students who prefer using their personal accounts use other email platforms, so I have to keep a close eye on my Outlook inbox.

During an online timed assessment, there must be an open channel of communication to field questions, concerns, or technical issues that come up during the test. Therefore, I gave my students a very large window to write their final quiz, which minimized the urgency.

Three: Keep up the instructor presence via announcements  

Predictability makes for an intuitive course and posting an announcement at fixed intervals helps create this predictability. I sent announcements once a week or sometimes more if there was any confusion that needed clearing up. I started my week on Wednesday and  sent these announcements on Wednesday because many of my students started all their other courses on Monday.

What did these weekly announcements include? Here is some of what I include:

  • A wrap up and key takeaways from the previous week.
  • An overview of the week/module ahead.
  • A bridge that connects the wrap up with the overview.
  • A recorded virtual walkthrough of an assignment.
  • I recorded walkthroughs of some stellar assignment examples (after receiving permission).
  • A gentle nudge to keep students motivated.

Four: Consider alternative assessments that require personalized answers

There is always room for multiple choice and true/false questions in a quiz. These are great for knowledge checks and review and best of all they reduce the time grading. Granted, when we consider academic integrity these types of questions pose a challenge. Another challenge is that these types of questions do not allow students to demonstrate their understanding of a topic or concept as well as open ended questions do.

Open-ended questions do not alleviate to academic misconduct issue but asking for students to add personal examples will make academic misconduct more challenging. Connecting knowledge from the course with each students’ learned experience will allow them to better connect to the material and transfer it to long-term memory while maintaining a higher level of academic integrity.

Five: Give a larger window to write exams and drop the timed assessment.

The last time I had to deliver any work under a timed assessment was back in university. A timed assessment just does not reflect the workplace. Due dates reflect the workplace, but timed assessments do not. Adding a countdown only adds unnecessary anxiety and stress to an already very stressful situation. Applying point four will allow exams to be delivered that reflect the workplace and reduce test anxiety potential potentially leading to more accurate assessment.

Six: Use student preview mode to check the user experience

Better yet, ask a colleague with a fresh set of eyes to use the student preview mode in your course to check the user experience. Students typically take four or more courses each semester so we must assume that every course design is unique, and some are radically unique (unless an institution has a central course development team). Ask your collegue to make sure it flows nicely and the essentials are easy to find.

Adding a short survey at the start of your course will tell you students are overloaded and underprepared. My survey told me that 25% of my students have only their cell phone to complete the course. Luckily our LMS is responsive and has an app which makes that possible. Want to see what your course looks like an any mobile device? In Google Chrome, press F12, click on the mobile device icon, then choose from any current device and bandwidth.  

Seven: Give a survey at the start of the course to better understand your students

Doing this may have also set the sent the message “I really care about you and I really want to know your situation to help me help you get the most out of this course.” Every student completed the survey. There was more consistent engagement throughout the course than I have had in any previous in-class course. It was an exceptionally wonderful course with students consistently producing quality assignment on time.

Eight: Reduce the amount of content

The fall or possibly summer semester of 2020 may have been the first iteration of a course and some fine tuning is necessary for the next run. From my experience there was information overload, so activities and material were cut and assignments revised to avoid overwhelming students. Think there is to much content? Make some of it supplemental. If students are interested in it then they will come back for it later.

Developing life-long learning and self-directly learning is a learning outcome of many institutions. Sparking students’ desire to pursue their own curiosities and explore alternative sources of information is a foundational skill that we can develop by giving students more time to explore on their own and not mandating that it be covered in the course. This means cutting down on weekly journals + weekly discussions + bi-weekly quizzes + major assignments, which are wrapped up in a participation grade. Multiply this demand by four or more courses.

Nine: Be easy on the feedback and generous on the compliments

First, I feel being an instructor is here to motivate students, instill in them the can-do attitude, and set them up for success. Feedback, if not carefully constructed can undo these goals. I will assume here that students do read their feedback. Feedback leads to learning and it is required, but it can also have a very negative impact if the negative outweighs the positive. The book Thanks for the Feedback asks us to step in our students’ shoes and see what it feels like being bombarded with constant criticism.

As a student I appreciated one major piece of constructive criticism, a piece that I understood and could easily apply to my next product. I use the “This time, next time” approach. This time I liked A, B and C, but next time try X. This will ensure that the positive outweighs the negative and that the negative is manageable and can be improved on (not, for example, “Your APA citations are not accurate”).

I also found students to be very receptive to peer feedback, so peerScholar is wonderful platform to allow for a great student-lead peer review activity.

Ten: Be humble and adjust your course whenever necessary

I love to hear how instructors are so open with their students regarding their experience with teaching online. I have been teaching online for many years, but I still found it easy to tell students that I made a mistake and will correct it or adjust grades where necessary. I found students to be very forgiving when I admit to a mistake. It will take a second or third iteration of a course to iron out all the bumps, and constant revision to keep the content fresh, exciting, and relevant.

Of course, there is a threshold to the mistakes that students will accept and not begin to get frustrated and start complaining. Typically that threshold seems to be relative to how the mistakes are handled by the instructor.

I have more than these ten takeaways, but these are some that I feel should be considered when delivering your next courses. Give one or two a try if you have not already done so.

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