March 17th, 2009

Tips for Teaching Large Classes Online


Jonathan P. Mathews, assistant professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering at Penn State University, teaches a high-enrollment (more than 400 students) general education online course, Energy and the Environment. Although he has two teaching assistants, the logistics of managing such a large class would be overwhelming without implementing the following online course design and management ideas.

Don’t overuse text. “If you can replace text with an image, replace it with an image. If you can communicate effectively with a movie, communicate with a movie. I tend to see a lot of online textbooks used, but really, if you don’t provide additional interaction, they might as well be a standard textbook.”

Anticipate students’ questions. “I knew from earlier endeavors in online teaching that the types of questions I was likely to get would be very predictable. So the design comes in doing simple things like confirming that you received a submission. You need to give feedback that says something like, ‘Thank you for the submission.’ (This can be automated in most course management systems.)”

Use the announcement page. “I do it in a silly way. My image might be upside down. On Halloween, it’s a negative image of me. One week I’ve got green hair. Tell them what the expectations are that week, what you’re covering, and how it fits [with the rest of the course].”

Manage expectations. “If it’s going to take a week to do the grading, tell them it’s going to take a week and a half.”

Avoid deadline extensions. The deadlines in Mathews’ courses always fall on Friday night. To avoid having to deal with deadline extensions (which can be time consuming), Mathews drops each student’s lowest grade in the course to cover missed deadlines due to things such as computer problems, illness, bereavements, etc.

Provide regular feedback. “Students want to feel that they’re progressing, and how you communicate that to them is quite important,” Mathews says. Students in Mathews’ course receive three grades in a typical week, more than in most courses. He feels the frequency of feedback is important. Also important is the students’ progress in relation to the other students, so Mathews regularly ranks students and provides them with estimated final grades based on current performance.

Teach students to be successful online learners. Much of Mathews’ communication with students is related to course management (grades, technical issues, team processes, etc.). “I want to teach them how to be successful in teams. I want to teach them how to be successful online. Down the list is teaching them my material. It used to be the other way around. Now, it’s much more that I’m trying to promote doing well in the medium and understanding the medium as opposed to understanding the content. It’s because, as a group of educators, we’re not teaching students how to be successful online. It should be a universal goal of the university not only to teach students subject matter but also to teach them how to be successful in the online medium. It’s not something you can get in one class.”

Excerpted from Tips from the Pros: Managing a High-Enrollment Course, Online Classroom, April 2006