Creating a Sense of Time in Online Courses

One of the most useful elements of online courses is that they’re available anytime. But along with the timelessness, there is also an absence of time in many activities and pieces of content in the course that can that can lead to feelings of disconnectedness. How closely do we connect actual time to our students’ online experiences?

While we all agree that the five-year-old unnarrated PowerPoint is a dangerous and ineffective piece of content in an online course, we would also all agree that we can’t redo each narrated piece of content each semester. How do we strike a balance between creating content that is fresh (more on that in a moment) and being able to reuse content that is valuable?

How to Create “Time” in an Online Course
One option is to create an updated introduction to the older material. For example, you could create a video or screen capture that introduces the older content to develop a closer sense of “presence” or immediacy in the class as the students are hearing or seeing you today, not a year ago. It gives you the chance to create that sense of time by commenting on recent events, weather, or school related activities. This is important for everyone. For teachers it makes them participate in the content, revisit the content they created in the past, and make it delivered in a “present” time for the students. For students it tells them that the teacher “was just here,” and that this stuff is happening now. It makes the content seem more relevant, and helps build a sense of community in the course.

A sense of time is created in discussion boards because they have only that week to complete the work and there is an understanding that the conversations happen in time. But often asynchronous discussions have wide gaps of time between student interactions. One way to bring time closer to the students is to allow them to subscribe to forum threads they are involved in. You can do this in most LMS solutions. Students get an email alerting them to activity in the thread they are active in and it brings them closer “in real time” to the events happening in the class. While this can be overwhelming in larger courses, in a class of 20 or 30 students it usually does not amount to an unreasonable amount of email notifications.

One of the most effective ways to bring timeliness to an online course is do a quick recap of previous week, as well as provide a preview of what is expected for the current week. Using screen capture software to go through the course and set expectations is a great way to not only share a bit of yourself with students, but it is a pre-emptive way to answer questions students commonly ask.

Keeping the Flowers Fresh
Lastly, keep the flowers fresh. Online courses that have been copied repeatedly often have errors in dates— references to things that happened in the past but are spoken of in the present tense. Even the most attentive teacher can overlook some of those “old dates” that create a sense of distance from the content.

When the course was created, the instructor may have had great content related to events of the day, but over several semesters those items lose “time” in the online environment. By creating content that has elements of real time associated with it, instructors can generate a sense of presence and freshness that are often missing in online courses.

Todd Conaway is an instructional designer at Yavapai College, Arizona.

There are many tools available to create screencasts and share video, but the following are a good place to start.