This post started as a presentation that I gave as part of the Foundations of Successful Online Teaching and Learning series my colleagues and I created as part of our outreach work to K12 schools across Michigan. The tips are a few that I’ve identified in my 20+ years of experience building and teaching online courses and they apply across the disciplines and levels of teaching from Kindergarten through Graduate-level courses.
Before I start with the tips, I want to place into context where I’m coming from. In online teaching, each of us faces a unique challenge as we develop our courses. Some of us have challenges with access to materials, technological hurdles, timing, or space issues. For example, many of our classes that make use of hands-on activities or that require studios, labs, gymnasiums, or other specialized spaces, will find the online teaching can be a challenge for emergent readers and writers. We may need to provide different types of supports, and many of the things that we do in the classrooms are just different in online courses. It doesn’t mean they’re worse. They’re just simply different.
Keeping that challenge in mind, we also need to remember that good online teaching is a combination of best practices for teaching in your discipline, subject, or sub-discipline; the level you are teaching, and best practices for teaching online. At the convergence of these sets of practices is where you find your best practices for teaching your subject/level in an online class.
Tip 1: It does not need to be perfect the first time.
We tend to want to do everything the best way that we can and in the most perfect way. And when you’re doing it online, you often find yourself clicking the mouse button to try to truly perfect where that picture is on a page or to write that last paragraph we know could be helpful, or that we think needs to be in there. Perfection ends up creating a situation where we end up racing at the end to finish something anyway, and then we don’t often get the perfection that way. So I’ve tried started to try to work on this myself to adopt it and encourage you to do so as well. It doesn’t need to be perfect the first time and just getting something up there so that you can iterate on it and revise as you go forward is what you should be striving for at first. Once you’ve built a course or built the materials, you can then go back through and start working to fine-tune and perfect the content that you have up there.
Tip 2: Mix up your content.
Things can get bland and boring quickly in online courses. If you don’t have different modalities of content. Think about integrating different sorts of formats, pictures, videos, text interactives. All of these work to break your content up and help the students to maintain focus and attention. Video activities that ask students to get up and move are a great way of mixing up this content. You start to get at switching between passive and active modes of learning in this way. You may also think about it as having students read about something then asking them to get up and make, move, talk, or otherwise engage with someone around them.
Tip 3: Follow best practices for writing on the web
There is a lot of information about what the best practices are for writing on the web, using this information can help you think about how you present your content to your students.
Break up your text, not long paragraphs are large paragraphs of content, but break it up into smaller chunks of information. I find that it helps to think about it as chunks of information rather than how we would traditionally write a book or a paper or some sort of larger format, piece of content. There are a lot of studies that have shown that people skim headings, sorry, skim the text, and read headings. So, know that they might be skimming over some of your paragraph text. Some studies have even shown that information on the left side of a paragraph is read more than on the right.
Be careful of what goes in what is called “below the fold.” And that is the point in which you scroll on the screen. So, if you have really important instructions in an online course or information to communicate that you want the students to see, make sure you keep those in a space that’s visible before they start to scroll.
Last, know that students will generally tend to scan large blocks of text that have no interactivity or other means of breaking those text blocks up. This is where looking back to tip number two is helpful as you combine these two to create great content for your course.
Tip 4: Everything takes longer online
Everything takes so much longer online, longer to get to know each other longer to read things longer to provide feedback to receive and to reply to messages. This seems like a pretty obvious thing going from face to face classrooms to online but it’s a reason that a lot of us try to still teach face to face when we can. There’s something about the immediacy of the feedback, both in terms of student learning, and just simply in terms of communicating with others. I’ve built my career on online teaching and I still love to teach face-to-face. But when I’m teaching online, I try to remind myself that everything is going to take a little longer. By doing that, I can pace myself and pace the course accordingly so that I’m not trying to do too much too quickly. And I’m not also trying to do too little because I’m unsure of how the pace is going to go.
Tip 5: Repeat, repeat, repeat
Repeat, repeat, repeat. Repeat across multiple modalities. Emails and a video, plus telling the students put it in multiple places in the course, multiple times. So many times, to get across that information because it gets lost so easily. repeat yourself almost to the point where you feel like you should not say it another time. And it is probably not even too much at that point.
Tip 6: Keep your important information and dates in one place.
Despite my urging you to repeat, repeat, repeat, It is also important to put the important information in one spot where the students can always know that the information is in that place. So even if you’re repeating in different places in the course you want to have one spot where that information is always kept. I keep all the information on one page in my classes. It’s updated there, it’s referenced there, students know to go there, I put the dates in that I’ve changed information or updated things in there. So there’s no confusion about it. If we change something, the way the assignment is, a date extension, any of that stuff goes in that one spot. It’s like where you put your keys in your house. If I don’t put my keys in the right spot when I come into the house, I can’t find them when it’s time to go. And then I’m wandering around looking for the keys, this is my digital version of that. I make this page a digital key hook to put all the information there and the students know to go there when they need some information.
Tip 7: Keep videos short
A lot of us tend to want to use video when we produce online courses. It can be engaging for the students, a way to break up working with text, help you to manage your time, and help to increase and maintain student motivation and engagement. But be sure to keep these videos short. They should not be longer than seven minutes at a time. And usually, even seven minutes is a little long. Break them up into shorter chunks.
Think about not using the talking head exclusively. If this were a video presentation and it was just simply a video of me in a classroom, and all you had to do was listen to me and there wasn’t much interaction in terms of looking at the screen changing slides, etc. I probably would have lost many of you by now. So mix it up, show some video with slides. Maybe put a cut over to your face from time to time. Or perhaps even a third perspective of the video if you get fancy.
One of the things I find to work well is that I’ll have a break at about somewhere between four and five minutes. At that point, I’ll ask the students to think about something. Even just one question where they take a moment to think before moving on is a way of breaking that up for them. It’s getting them in a space where they’re more likely to continue learning because we’ve reset their attention span and broken up the video. We also forced them to think about something that we’re talking about, so we are promoting reflection during the content presentation.
A last note about this is you don’t even need to stop recording your video to make multiple videos. You could even put a slide in there, where you ask the students to stop and consider something and then press a button to move on. Software like Camtasia makes this easy to do and can even export data back to you after the fact.
Tip 8: Stick with core supported tools for your school
Stick with core supported tools for your institution or school district. This is important. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be thinking about innovating or other ways that you can do things better and help students learn more. But especially as you think about students who are in multiple classes a day, each teacher using one or two new or different technologies could add up pretty quickly, you could have students thinking about how to use 20 different tools to do their classwork. The cognitive load on the student, in that case, is huge. We want to ensure we’re helping do as much as we can to keep their energy and focus on learning the course content. By using core tools, we’re able to help to do that by limiting that aspect of cognitive overload.
Most core supported tools also have support built into them by your school, you can often find tip sheets, instructions, workshops, and even support personnel to help you and the students. When you choose to adopt a new tool, you take on the burden of teaching the students to use that tool. You take on the burden of supporting the tool when there are questions, and you’re left on your own when the tool doesn’t function correctly. If you’re having a hard time thinking about how to make something work with your current set of tools, have a conversation with your colleagues about how they’re using the core tools. Is there a way that they’ve thought of using those tools to do what you want? Once you start reaching out like that, you might find some interesting uses of the core tools that help you to be able to accomplish your teaching goals without adding extra tools.
Tip 9: Set expectations for communication.
Expectations for communication are extremely important in online courses because we sit in front of the computer all day, and it becomes very easy for us to get mired in the amount of communication that comes through. The number of emails, chat messages and social media posts we often get from large classes of students can be overwhelming and keep us at our desks. A communication plan for your class can help establish when you will and will not be available for the students, and what the “rules of engagement” are in terms of communicating with you. Think about questions such as; how quickly will you respond to them? How do you want them to ask questions of you? Via email, a discussion board, or during a synchronous session? What should students do if they can’t get in touch with you? Is there a backup mode of communication that you have in the event of a technical failure of email or the learning management system? Is there an “emergency contact point” that you’ve set up where a student can leave a message, or otherwise communicate information to you that comes up suddenly.
Some research has shown that giving time for students to respond to each other’s questions can lessen the load on the teacher, while still allowing the student who asked the question to get a good answer. This may or may not work in your course, but it’s worth a try to see if the students can help one another.
You may also think about how to communicate in multiple forums, and multiple times, to multiple audiences throughout the week. Perhaps it’s communicating to students in a synchronous class, sending them an email later, and posting something in that space in your course that you’re going to be posting the important information. In K12 perhaps this is also engaging the parents in an email update or somewhere that is public on the web where the parents can get to and read.
Tip 10: Just because you’re teaching online doesn’t mean everything needs to be online.
Find opportunities and ways that you can ask students to engage with the materials and ideas outside of the digital. This can be powerful in their learning. We might ask them to talk with family members or friends, to interview a parent, or grandparent as a way of getting historical context and perspectives, or doing some sort of hands-on activity in the home or around the home. Once they do that, they can use the computer to report back to the class and share what they’ve learned. A colleague of mine often says “online courses are online reporting, not online doing.” This may not always be the case, but it’s a great way to lessen screen-time and to help students think about applying their learning to real-life situations.
So there are my top 10 tips! I encourage you to think about these tips, make some changes to them, customize them to how they might work for you, or think about other tips and ideas that you might incorporate into your course. Good luck with your online class development and teaching!
Interested in watching the 16 min video presentation this is based on? Check it out on MSU Mediaspace!