As we monitor COVID-19, many schools and universities are transitioning to “remote instruction,” a fancy name for online learning. While online education is developing, it is far from the scholastic dream teachers and administrators cherish. In the future, I have no doubt that online instruction will be dynamic, empathetic, and effective — combining all the vivacity of face-to-face interactions with the convenience of distance learning. But at the present stage, the worst virtual classrooms can be text-heavy, task-oriented, gimmicky, or cartoonish. These nightmarish domains are often the creations of teachers who say, “I just love teaching online. It’s so easy!”
If it’s easy, you’re doing it wrong. Online teaching requires an inordinate amount of planning and monitoring, especially at the outset. Do not listen to teachers who set it and forget it; their virtual classrooms are probably a total drag.
The ideal virtual classroom is engaging, organized, and coherent, and it is certainly possible to design a successful online learning opportunity for students. I am teaching fully online this semester and want to share my favorite tips for success.
- Keep navigation simple. Build one path to access course features.
This advice may sound counterintuitive when building an online classroom, but it is better to limit the pathways students can use to click through the course. Instead of having separate tabs for the course schedule, readings, and assignments, make one tab for the course schedule with links to assignments and readings. This simplified navigation ensures that students must see the schedule before accessing their work.
- Create an FAQ or “Ask the Instructor” discussion forum.
Build a specific discussion board where students can ask questions about course content and assignments. Just remember to tell them you can’t answer personal questions about their grades.
- Design the syllabus, course announcements, and assignment instructions in a Q&A format. (I borrowed this idea from Eric Loepp’s article in The Chronicle of Higher Education.)
In the virtual classroom, students are accessing course directions in your absence. So they can’t raise a hand to ask their questions. Try to anticipate common questions on the assignment or course announcement page. Here are some examples:
• How long should my essay be?
• How many sources should I use? •
• Can I submit late work in this class?
Using this FAQ format will engage students. They might even see their question already listed on the assignment directions.
- Require conferences.
Make midterm, quarter, or semester conferences a requirement. It is so easy for students to forget about their online classes, so you need to make them talk with you. These conferences can take place over a virtual conferencing tool. Most learning management systems have them built in.
- Make texts accessible.
Only use videos that have professionally generated transcripts (the captioning on YouTube is irregular at best). Abandon the grimy, grungy photocopies with handwritten notes. Upload readings as webpages, MS Word docs, or PDFs with OCR (optical character recognition), so that they are compatible with screenreaders. Add text descriptions to the images you include. Anticipate the access needs of disabled students and design the class with accessibility measures ahead of time.
- Diversify the tasks you require.
Give your students a mix of easy and difficult tasks, high-stakes and low-stakes tasks. Quizzes, discussions, writing assignments, worksheets, professional emails, etc. Some assignments should be quick and general; others should be more in-depth.
- Post a welcome letter and routine announcements.
When transitioning to online instruction, post a welcome letter for students; introduce them to the virtual classroom and offer your recommendations for success. You should also post reminder announcements at the start of each content unit, whether this is every week or every 3 weeks. The reminder should explain what students will encounter next.
- Organize, organize, organize!
Your virtual classroom should be neat as a pin. Don’t clutter up with graphics, gimmicks, or unnecessary links. Keep everything tidy so students can find exactly what they need. If you want to offer supplementary information, build an area for these resources. Think about the kind of website you would like to visit if you were unfamiliar with a topic, and build this kind of site for your students.
I hope these tips can help my lovely readers who are transitioning to online instruction. If you have questions you’d like me to address, please comment below. Feel free to share this post with anyone who can use it!