July 18th, 2008

10 Tips From a Distance Learning Trainer

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As a distance learning trainer at the University of West Georgia, Christy Talley helps develop online courses, trains faculty in online instruction, provides student support, conducts student surveys and evaluations, and delivers online professional development. Part of her role is to give advice to online instructors. The following are her top 10 tips for online instructors:

  1. Make some noise—Offer a multi-sensory learning experience by including audio narrations. “When it’s done well with nice PowerPoint design, students feel it is a good interactive activity,” Talley says. The narration also gives instructors the opportunity to insert other interactive activities into the presentation. They can tell student to pause the presentation, take down some notes, or answer a question — things that get students to use the content. Talley suggests that instructors include one such interactive activity for every half-hour.
  2. Convert documents with CutePDF—Do not post Word documents and PowerPoint files because not every student has these products. It would be ideal to create course materials using HTML, but not every instructor knows how or has time to learn how to use HTML. When HTML is not an option, CutePDF can enable students to convert any Windows documents for free. (See www.cutepdf.com.)
  3. Have a taste of MERLOT—MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) (www.merlot.org) is a learning object repository that can save instructors and course developers time and effort of having to create learning materials.
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  5. Adopt publishers’ online content—Another good source of learning materials is content provided by textbook publishers. Publisher often provide supplemental materials like flash cards, animations, quiz questions, and databases designed specifically for WebCT or Blackboard.
  6. Provide participation incentive—Some students are not familiar with the nature of online learning and need to have a clear explanation of what is considered appropriate participation. Talley says it’s a three-step process: 1) Describe the nature of the course. 2) Assign points or a percentage of the grade to posts and interaction. (Talley says that 20 percent seems to work well for most instructors.) 3) Clarify expectations for quality posts.
  7. Seize all learning opportunities—Faculty often don’t realize that there are many workshops and training opportunities available on campus and online.
  8. Provide links to any required plug-ins—Provide a page with all the links to all the plug-ins students need for the course and have students download them in the beginning of the course. This is particularly important for synchronous sessions that require plug ins. If they do not have the plug-ins before the synchronous session, invariably some students will miss the event as they install the plug-ins, Talley says.
  9. Have special synchronous sessions—Talley does not recommend mandatory synchronous chats because not every student will be able to participate. Instead, she says to offer chats as an option to give students the opportunity to ask questions. These should be scheduled at the beginning of the course so students can arrange their schedules if they choose to participate. All chat sessions should be archived for students who are unable to participate synchronously. For undergraduate courses, Talley recommends that these chat sessions have an agenda. She also recommends giving students access to chat rooms to allow them to work on group projects synchronously if they choose to.
  10. Open a virtual café—Use either a bulletin board or blog to create a space for bonding outside the content-related course areas. The virtual café should be strictly for students, Talley says.
  11. Create quality assurance—All courses at the University of West Georgia include formative evaluations that are 51 percent or more online. In addition to the regular faculty evaluation, students fill out a distance learning survey, and each faculty member is required to submit a form describing how he or she will improve the course based on that feedback. Student comments have become more favorable over the years as faculty have made improvements based on the distant learning surveys. Areas that get the most student comments include communication, workload (faculty who are new to online learning tend to put too many learning activities into their courses, Talley says), and reporting grades.

Contact Christy Talley at ctalley@westga.edu.