Lessons Learned

Lessons Learned


It’s finally here! Finals week for my online class! Whew! It’s been a crazy semester!

I wanted to share a few lessons I’ve learned from teaching my first online class. Feel free to take a look at my course syllabus for teaching Social Media ETWR 1391-009 at Amarillo College.

Teaching online is a lot of work.

Up front, it takes a great deal of time to put curricular materials together for an online class.

I sunk a lot of time into learning the LMS (Learning Management System) at Amarillo College, which was Blackboard. I was required to take several online classes through our Center for Teaching and Learning department on how to use Blackboard tools, but the instruction didn’t include how to incorporate the tools. I was very confident after taking these online classes that I knew how to use the tool. However, when I opened up my class, ready to incorporate the tools, I just sat there. Hum? I know how to use the tools, but how do I incorporate it? How was I going to use assessments with this system, or incorporate discussion? How was I going to grade my students, and how was I going to motivate them to participate in discussion? Countless decisions had to made at the onset about just how the online course would be structured, operated, and maintained.

Although a lot of effort went into planning the course, there’s was also the matter of the daily and weekly workload. In an online course, students will not necessarily be completing assignments at similar times each week. I had to communicate with students on their schedules, which means checking email on a regular basis and keeping up with student discussions that took place on a virtual message board.

Another issue with communication that I learned teaching online is that questions that can be answered verbally in the classroom require a written explanation in the online course, and sometimes, it takes more time to write out a sensible explanation than to say it.

In some ways, I think the workload for an online course is similar to that of a face-to-face environment—but it seems like more work because it’s not as concentrated. For example, in a classroom, an instructor may do the bulk of their work for the week while meeting with students, and if all students are together in one place, announcements can be made and questions can be answered for the entire class. In other words, a great deal of teaching can be done in one sitting. An activity (or several activities) can be completed during a single class period, and any issues related to that activity will be discussed in real time with the entire class. Then everybody moves onto the next thing simultaneously.

In the online setting, though, the workload is distributed. Students will likely be working at different times during the week, and their questions will trickle in accordingly. Plus, an activity that might take 20 minutes to complete in a classroom setting might take a few days to discuss online, especially if students are not able to be online together at the same time.

Students appreciate regular communication and timely feedback on their progress.

I teach Social Media, so I figured some students would come to my course feeling anxious about the subject matter. Students may also feel anxious at the thought of taking an online course, and it should be part of the instructor’s job, as much as possible, to put students at ease right from the beginning.

I wanted students to know they would receive quick responses to any questions or concerns they have. I wanted to create a supportive online community where students could be free to take risks in discussion, attempting to explain their understanding of challenging concepts and ideas. I let students know that I’m online often, and that I want to hear from them if they have questions or concerns. To set the tone, I started the semester with me asking the students to introduce themselves, and I started by posting my own introduction. What I failed to do, and will do next semester, is to add a photo of myself in my introduction post. I feel this makes my post more personable. I also responded to each introduction individually, because I wanted the class to know that I’m interested in getting to know them, and by modeling ways to respond to posted messages, I was hoping my students would begin to feel more comfortable responding to each other in discussion areas.

Additionally, I provided timely feedback about their progress in the course. Feedback helps students know what their strengths and weaknesses are and gives them time to ask questions and seek assistance before subsequent assignments are due. I wanted to ensure that all students receive feedback on their work within one week of submitting it. Sadly, I’ve heard horror stories from some online students about instructors being largely absent and students getting little or no feedback. I don’t think situations like this are the norm, but the instructor who is not comfortable communicating with students electronically might need to think twice about teaching online.

Many great tools exist but aren’t always necessary.

Many amazingly cool tools can be used in online courses, but it’s important to balance what’s necessary against what will make the site look impressive.

My approach was to keep things simple. Video, audio, and animation all have their place, but I worry about the student who has technological barriers to accessing it all.

Yes, using flashy effects might make the online class look very appealing, and it’s certainly important to keep up with technology, but if the tools don’t work as you anticipate, or if students have difficulties using them, it may negatively affect the course material and students’ ability to learn. In this class, Social Media Tools, I didn’t want to waste my time preparing tools that will only frustrate and disenchant my students. For example, I could spend a ton of time working up videos for using Facebook Pages, which would probably be useless in six months. Heck? The Facebook Help pages can’t even keep up with all their own changes.

Students need extrinsic motivation.

In my class, some students were motivated by wanting to learn the material, and wanting to practice applying what they are learning. I feel the other students needed to be motivated extrinsically. In a traditional classroom, in-class work, with the instructor looming nearby, is often extrinsic motivation enough. Online, however, if an assignment is not collected or graded, some students will simply skip it, even if you strongly encourage them to do it for the sake of better understanding the material.

When I first began to think about this online class, the one thing I knew for certain was that I wanted to include ample opportunity for students to collaborate. I wanted to create a community where students had opportunities to get to know each other and learn from each other. I tried this semester, but nothing was set in stone, and I feel I could have done a better job. I have found when nothing is set in stone within an online class, students are like running water, taking the path of least resistance. The next time I teach this class, I want to break the students into small groups and have them complete several discussion assignments. They will have one week, and then one student from each group would summarize the discussions and submit the summary to me. I think the best way to motivate students to complete this task is to make it a part of their grade, setting it in stone.

Give deadlines.

I believe deadlines keep students on task and ensure that they are working through the material at a similar pace. Sometimes, I’ve heard students use the terms “self-paced” and “individual study” to describe online learning, and it makes me cringe. Flexibility is one thing, but it doesn’t mean “no deadlines,” nor does it mean that students can work at whatever pace they want.

Flexible in my mind means that from week to week, students can have some choice in terms of when they sit down to do their work, but they will encounter deadlines on a weekly basis. In learning, ideas build on others, and instructors need to help students create the foundation they need to better understand the more complex ideas and concepts that they will encounter later in the course or even in the successive course. And, I want to make sure that students are working at a similar pace so they can engage in real discussion.

Deadlines help students stay on top of things, too, and make the course feel legitimate. Ultimately, they also motivate some students to check in frequently. I gave weekly deadlines because I have encountered some students who get off track if they have even seven days when nothing is due. This is not to say that I required a major assignment every week, but I did attempt to make certain that students are accountable for something, whether it be taking an assessment ,completing a more formal homework assignment, a quiz or a project.

These are some of the lessons that stick out in my mind the most from teaching an online class. No matter what I teach or the tools uses to teach, the ultimate goal is that students learn the material.