January 18th, 2010

Best Practices in Online Teaching: Don’t Assume

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We want our students to learn what we have to teach them. We want them to retain it. In the best case, we want them to enjoy the work, assimilate the driving principles, and look forward to each opportunity to make their work better. We diligently gear up and learn how to use slick software that allows students easy access to a wide variety of materials.

We’ve committed to teaching online, either totally or simply using Web materials to enhance a traditional classroom setting. Yet with all the features and potential efficiency of teaching software, we still know that too many students simply aren’t “getting” what we have to teach, let alone enjoying it. Why? We bought the best software available; we learned every bell and whistle it had to offer, and we’re confident of our own credentials.

So what’s missing? Maybe it’s as simple as a little up-front housekeeping. Before day one, we can take a few simple but effective steps that will help students launch through that first day, and then use their energy on the course rather than on frustration.

Here are some easy-to-implement best practices for kicking off your online courses:

  • Don’t assume students understand the workings of an online course. Offer them tips for online learners that include knowledge of traditional versus online learning, Web etiquette, helpful links, and where to go for help. Also include suggested study tips for online learners. Remind students that even though they are at home when they log on to complete their class work, they still need to find an environment free from distractions where they can turn off the cell phone and the iPod, have someone else watch the kids, and really focus on their class work.
  • Don’t assume students have the minimum equipment and/or skill requirements needed to be successful in an online course. Be sure to make the minimum equipment requirements readily available to students prior to the official start date. In addition to whatever postings your institution might offer, a personal email to all students enrolled is a great idea. If your institution doesn’t test students for minimum computer skills, be sure those enrolled understand the basic computer skills needed. All too many students who sign up for Web courses can’t save a file to CD or change a font to boldface.
  • Don’t assume students know how to behave in a Web course. Require them to sign a behavior and ethics contract. Said contract should outline the acceptable code of conduct for the course. With the immediacy of email, students often fire off messages without thinking about the ramifications of tone or word choice. Students routinely use email and texting for their daily communication with each other and they may not realize that what works with peers may not be appropriate in an academic setting. Explain such concepts as flaming, using all caps, and interpersonal communication (inappropriate tone) via the Web.
  • Don’t assume students know the more important rules and regulations in the syllabus. How many times do students receive a detailed syllabus only to come back and ask an obvious question? Again, give them a short syllabus quiz and require that they score 100 percent before they continue in the course. Four or five questions are plenty.

We’re by no means claiming that this list is exhaustive, or that it will guarantee success. What we can claim is that best practices will net fewer and less troublesome episodes; maybe you’ll avoid that mid-semester insomnia generator that brings you out of a sound sleep with these words: Why didn’t I take care of that when I had the chance?

Lori Norin is an assistant professor of speech communication at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith, and Tim Wall is an English instructor at the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith.

Excerpted from Up-Front Housekeeping for Web Courses: Facilitating Consistent Performance with First-of-Semester Strategies, Online Classroom, Oct. 2008.