Online Course Preparation with the Student in Mind

Desk with elecronic devices
Desk with elecronic devices

I’ve been shocked by how little so many of my colleagues know about teaching online. I’m no expert, but it’s something I’ve done in a number of contexts for a decade and a half. Here are some of my suggestions for teachers suddenly thrown into online teaching without preparation who are now looking at its continuation in the fall:

What passes for pedagogy for teaching online at too many of our colleges and universities is focused more on the technology than on the actual learning. With so many pedagogical assumptions built into the available digital platforms, this is not surprising. In a number of respects, the platforms reduce instructors to a parody of the Freirean facilitator—not facilitator of learning but of use of digital tools.

This is not advice on platforms or how to use them. Or about courses that have been designed for you by your institution. That information can come from the college specialists in BlackBoard or whatever other system is sanctioned by the college. Or from your department, if it has created structures for its online courses.

My purpose here is to help instructors bypass the constrictions tightening around us as we operate online and to develop courses that truly are student centered and, as much as possible, student driven, courses that will engage the students through their own agency or sense of ownership.

The only bit of advice I will give concerning platforms is that you do need one. An online course cannot be successfully executed by email—even if you have material to be distributed to each student for work at home. Without some sort of centralized online clearinghouse, the class network is too diffuse, leaving students unnecessarily alone—even if they can email the professor or other students in the class. There is no virtue in making an online course simply a faster version of the old correspondence course.

The real question for instructors is how to use the technology available in order to allow students a real learning experience. The only way to do this adequately is, counter intuitively, to focus on the students while developing a means for successfully challenging them to create their own pathways to course goals through the resources (including the online platform, the instructor, fellow students and available material) that are at hand. How this is done is going to depend on disciplinary goals, instructor and student abilities and backgrounds, technological access (we have to be careful with this: there are plenty of students whose wifi and/or devices may not be adequate) and even institutional restrictions.

The suggestions here are deliberately broad. Each of us needs to take our individual situations and those of our students into account as we develop courses that can engage our students and allow them to learn. These suggestions are also as simple as I could make them, so that they can be used even by people whose first experience in online teaching was the coronavirus forced transition in March:

  1. Don’t fret the technology. Use your platform as a repository and a means of communication but don’t expect it to do anything for you. If you start to rely on the technology, it will begin to shape teaching and learning possibilities and you and your students should retain control of those.
  2. Concentrate on the student. Without a classroom as the focus of the course and with the screen itself a completely inadequate replacement, the student needs to be the driver of the engine powering the course (as the student should be, anyhow)—on a road marked out by the instructor but in vehicles chosen (at least in part) by the student and in progressions that make sense to the students’ lives. Imagine being the student sitting before the screen and the steps they need to be taking; imagine why they would be willing to take them.
  3. Build flexibility into class structures. The road, the syllabus, for the class needs to have plenty of on-ramps and off-ramps, allowing students to deviate from the narrow path as long as the goal or destination remains the same and the student notifies the instructor of the change in route. Don’t expect all students to be able to do the same thing at the same time. Even in the best situations, this is difficult (we even have problems with it in physical classrooms). Online, it is easy to let the platform define the route; for the sakes of the students, prepare them for possibilities beyond the platform.
  4. Allow students room to help each other, formally and informally. To be really successful, the students need to work with, and support, each other. This requires that there be no competition for grades (no class-average goal, for instance) and a method for rewarding students for helping others (like participation, this can be part of their final grade). Students should be encouraged to establish their own means of communication with each other and not necessarily through the class platform. Peer Led Team Learning strategies can be useful here.
  5. Make a journal a class requirement. A journal that includes a log of all student course activities needs to be a part of almost any online course that doesn’t require frequent evaluative exercises. The journal can be monitored during the semester for progress but it should not be evaluated until the end, allowing students latitude for experiment. The journal could include records of texting, copies of emails or anything else students wishes to include to demonstrate their activity. It should also include a running glossary of unfamiliar terms each student encounters.
  6. Don’t front-load the course. Aside from a general outline of what progress through the semester will look like, don’t post everything at the beginning of the semester. Doing so would seem both overwhelming and prescriptive to the students. Post assignments as needed, possibly providing the new assignment’s details as the last assignment is turned in. This gives the instructor ability to adjust with greater ease to identified student need. A general outline given on the syllabus and presented on the platform is certainly warranted, but waiting this way provides flexibility and focuses student attention during the term.
  7. Avoid overuse of synchronous class meetings. Unless absolutely necessary that the entire class meet at once, synchronous meetings should be of smaller groups and, if possible, shouldn’t always include the instructor (such meetings are easily recorded and the record forwarded to the instructor). Ask small groups (four to six students) to name a coordinator from among them who will also be responsible for communicating for the group with the instructor, a role that can rotate. Don’t believe that it is necessary to approximate the bricks-and-mortar experience.
  8. Avoid lectures longer than fifteen minutes. Record them instead of presenting them live. Use them for motivation and not information, making them as fun to watch as possible. Requiring attendance at a long online lecture, either recorded or synchronous, sets up a situation where the students while probably do other things while half-listening. That is useful to no one.
  9. Respond to students quickly. Get back to students in a timely manner, either on the class platform or email. Try to do so within 24 hours of receipt. Students, after all, can quickly start to feel alone in online learning situations. Though they are supposed to be working with other students, knowing that the instructor is available and responsive keeps students focused on the pace of their own activity, helping keep them from putting things off. If ‘office hours’ are required, make them as expansive as possible. At the same time, give students ‘blackout’ times when they will not be responded to—after 10 PM, for example, and before 6 AM—or on weekends.
  10. Be supportive and not demanding. If there is a problem, don’t offer solutions until the student has described the situation as completely as possible, using leading questions to draw them out just as you would during a face-to-face meeting in your office. Don’t punish, certainly not with grades. You can lose a student by confrontation easily online, for the student need only to top responding—or even to block you. Fostering a sense of collaboration, even when the students has failed at a task, can turn things around.

Once again, all planning for the course needs to start where the student is—this time, physically and not just emotionally and intellectually. Imagine their physical space and the ways in which they might react to things they see and hear through their screens.

Without the classroom as a base, we have to change our assumptions on course management, doing more than simply migrating online. The platform, though we might like it to, does not act as a replacement classroom but as a nexus for interactions, many of which may start there but should quickly move into off-site student parings and small groups and even to other platforms with differing possibilities (such as video conferencing). The platform also serves as a repository—of documents, links and classwide communications. Though it can be used by students for posting their own work, the platform should be expected to be public to the whole class. Discussions through the platform must also be situated so that students can catch up easily with the rest of the class if they have missed.

The students will approach the class through the platform, so it does need to be welcoming and easy to access. Everything on the screen should shout to the student, “OK, you can do this.” Students may be sitting in pajamas at five in the morning before the kids get up or may not have the best device for studying at home (some will probably be operating on a phone) and may not have continual access. Whatever their circumstances, they do not have the time to be puzzled by the technology or feel threatened by an opening set of demands.

Students will probably not always have an isolated space for completing classwork. In the best scenario, they need to be able to work away from their digital machines at least part of the time but may not have the ability to print out material found online so, in some ways, we teachers must make sure that they can make do with limited access and subpar (for teaching purposes) devices and that there are even class activities that don’t require a device or access at all.

We also need to think about student schedules, organizing our online courses not on an at-school model but in ways flexible enough so that students can work them around other necessary activities. We can’t simply assume that the type of classroom schedule that can work on a physical campus can transfer to home. This is one reason a heavily asynchronous format should be preferred.

Before we even start planning and organizing our courses (if we have that option), we need to decide how much synchronous contact we absolutely need with students. Frankly, as I said above, this should be kept to a minimum. Most of the course should be asynchronous with synchronous meet-ups among students to be arranged in pairs and small groups starting with texting between them (almost every student now has access to a device for texting; if not, they will certainly have an alternative through whatever device they do have). If lectures are needed, they can be recorded—but, again, they should be kept short.

Too often, we create scaffolds for students within our syllabi and our sequences that become more like the bars on prison cells than aids that students can comprehend and utilize. If students can be part of constructing their own scaffolds, they are more likely to stick with the course and to participate in it.

When we create an online course before the start of classes, or use a structure that others have created, we can be creating circus cages with props inside for students to perform on while the instructor cracks the whip. Or so it can seem to students. Even our concept of “scaffolding,” of creating parts to be put together for building to a whole or taking discrete steps that build to that whole, can seem as though they are simply tasks for pleasing the person who hands out rewards. To maintain student interest in an online environment, we need to give them a sense of engagement. That means they can’t simply feel like performing bears but must take ownership in their activities.

The more we rely on technology, the more the students are going to feel caged. That’s why it’s best to do as little for them as possible while giving them the avenues for doing as much as they wish. Even if they are only using their phones, they have powerful tools available, tools they can manipulate best if left to their own devices. We instructors don’t need to do everything for them, leaving them nothing more to do than go through the motions we planned for them. Quite the opposite, though that can be more than a little scary.

The syllabus you construct (if that is part of what you can do) should not be of the railroad-track style we are used to. Specific dates (stations) for specific lessons are probably not going to be met, the train likely to be going to go off the rails at some point anyhow. Students need to have understanding of the goals of the term and should be given of the breakdown and structure of the various tasks—along with the necessary build—but stations can be replaced by milestones along a variety of routes—we want to reach this point by this time, but we are not on a rigid schedule or tied to a particular route.

When students do reach certain milestones early, their tasks can change—and students who want to earn As should expect to take on added tasks. Before moving on, they should be expected to help at least one other student reach the milestone they just passed. Members of each class move at different speeds; in a classroom, we teachers can see this and react to it in ways that have no direct corollary online. There, things are more black-and-white. Students have either done the work or they haven’t. By using other students as peer leaders, we can take some of the pressure off of the students who are a little behind.

The structure of the course should include student interaction with one another from the start. An introductory task that includes examination of semester goals can profitably accomplish this. Each student could complete this task individually but would then be asked to swap their result with another student, one assigned by the teacher who also provides the means for initial contact (probably email addresses—students can move on to other means on their own). Then, each of these pairs could write up a collaborative piece and next could be connected with another pair. The four could next construct a mutual product to be shared with the class as a whole, these to be combined to produce a classwide presentation of goals and means for arriving at them within the course context. In this way, students will have increased agency in the course itself and a better understanding of what they are expected to do.

There are other exercises that focus on student collaboration that can also build to a group success, the type of thing that keeps students motivated. Most of these are discipline specific, however, and I am trying to be as general as I can, here.

The main thing to remember, no matter what we decide to do online, is to focus on the student and not on the technology. That’s going to be hard, for the technology is right in front of us while the students can no longer be seen.

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