online learning communities of practice September 9

Facilitating Communities of Practice in Online Courses

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What are communities of practice?
A community of practice is a network of people who exchange knowledge about a common profession. Members of the community exchange best practices and share evidence and results while supporting each other on a personal level. Good examples of these communities are the LinkedIn groups that can be found for nearly any profession.

While communities of practice are common and valuable in the working world, too often the interactions within a course are designed to apply only to that course, rather than prepare the student for the broader discussion within the profession that they will encounter after leaving school. That’s why I focus on forming communities of practice within my online courses.

A gradual approach to communities of practice
While there are various ways to promote communities of practices in online courses, I find discussion forums are the easiest place to start. When I design my discussion forums for my classes, I use a gradual design approach that spans the entire semester. The idea is to use the forum to facilitate a pathway toward communities of practice for the students.

communities of practice

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Balancing quality and quantity August 22

Three Strategies to Improve Online Course Quality on Your Campus

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When talking about online education, quality can be hard to define. This should come as no surprise, though. Institutions have been struggling for years to define quality in face-to-face courses.

Consider this dictionary definition of quality: The standard of something as measured against other things of a similar kind; the degree of excellence of something.

Institutions may attempt to measure the quality of online courses and programs in a variety of ways, including student and faculty satisfaction data, retention rates, student evaluations of teaching, student learning outcomes for a course, peer (instructor) evaluations of teaching, course design, student graduation or exit surveys, employer surveys, etc.

There is no question that institutions have been placing more emphasis on the quality of their online programs in the last five to ten years. Here are some thoughts in response to that new interest—principles that I’ve found to be important in maintaining quality in online courses.

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Ideas about online teaching learning August 4

What Students Can Teach Us about Online Learning

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My students participate in an activity called “Building a Learning Community” during the first week of classes. In this activity, completed via a discussion board, I ask them to share about three topics: what their best and “not best” teachers did that helped or hindered their learning, what peers have done that has had a positive or negative impact, and feedback on certain policies (e.g., late work, deadlines). The answers have taught me a lot about online teaching, and my responses on these boards provide the students with insight on what they can expect from me.

Students report that their “best” teachers had multiple ways to present ideas and were relatable and involved. They also enjoy lessons that include more than just reading the textbook and watching a lecture, lessons that, when appropriate, incorporate outside videos, other materials, or instructor-made videos to demonstrate concepts covered in the lecture and/or text. They typically define “relatable” faculty as those who make their enthusiasm for their topics and their students’ successes visible even through cyberspace, who talk “to them” about topics in lectures rather than “at them,” and who invite questions in person or virtually. Those identified as better teachers were those who make it clear they read discussion boards, either through being “on the boards” with the students or via the feedback given. Those instructors also tended to send a weekly message to wrap up lessons, preview the upcoming week, or comment on a common issue that might have come up in the class. These instructors were visible and obviously “in the class” with the students, being more of a “guide on the side” than a “sage on the stage.” The less effective teachers read straight from slides with no elaboration during video lectures, rarely encouraged students or gave much feedback, weren’t attentive to class concerns, and failed assignments for reasons such as formatting not being 100 percent correct. Students most commonly express frustration with past instructors who did not return emails or phone calls.

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online course design checklist May 14

Checklist for Online Discussion Design and Facilitation

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1. Do you ask discussion questions that promote critical thinking?

2. Do you engage students in different types of discussion activities?

3. Do you clearly explain your expectations?

4. Do you provide exemplary and poor discussion post examples to students?

5. Do you handle desirable and undesirable discussion behaviors effectively?

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How to Design and Facilitate Online Discussions that Boost Student Learning May 2

How to Design and Facilitate Online Discussions that Boost Student Learning

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In an online learning environment, the discussion board is the heart and soul of the course. The posts, queries, responses, and exchanges aren’t just about learning the course content—they also help to humanize the course. The trouble is, of course, that it’s not always easy to get students to participate in the kind of deep learning instructors envision when they design their online courses. Students tend to simply agree with each other to fulfill their required number of posts, and the discussion remains at a superficial level.

In Design and Facilitate Online Discussions That Enhance Student Learning and Engagement, Meixum Sinky Zheng, PhD, an assistant professor and instructional designer at the University of the Pacific, shared strategies to creating better online discussions. This article is based on the ideas she discussed in that 2016 program.

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student blogging April 28

Ten Concierge ‘Keys’ for Supporting Individualized Online Course Development

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Large group training workshops to facilitate online course design can be a mechanistic experience and a nightmare to schedule given perpetually busy faculty with overloaded calendars. Equally ineffective static, “self-serve” online materials only go so far and can leave faculty disengaged or confused (Riegle 1987; Howland and Wedmen 2004). Personal support services modeled on the hotel concierge are used successfully in health care and private industry and, to a lesser extent, in higher education (Michelau and Lane 2010). They hold promise as an approach for supporting online course development.


online student with laptop April 4

Principles that Help Make Online Courses Successful

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Beverley McGuire has taught online courses for 10 years, and she’s been a student in them for five. From those experiences, she’s learned a few things about making online courses effective. She’s also conversant with current research and collaborates with colleagues. From that knowledge and those experiences, she identifies five key design and delivery principles for online courses. She teaches religious study courses, but her principles are broadly applicable.

Humanizing the course website
It’s a simple but powerful principle. When students first open the course website, they are meeting the course and its instructor. What’s their first impression if the website is not easy to navigate? How much text confronts them during this first encounter? “By humanizing their course website, instructors enable student to get a sense of their passion, personality, or persona, which can create a sense of teaching presence” (p. 31). McGuire continues, “Although I initially gave little thought to the appearance of my course website, viewing it as a repository for syllabi, lectures, and assignments, I now approach it as a kind of virtual persona” (p. 32).

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online teaching and learning March 20

Supporting Excellence in Online Teaching and Learning

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How can institutions support excellence in online education? The question is one of paramount importance to all institutions with online course offerings, but it may be a particular challenge to residential, research universities, which are not necessarily designed with online education in mind. But Julie Schell, EdD, Director of OnRamps and Strategic Initiatives at the University of Texas at Austin, is meeting that challenge. She is passionate about the way that course design can be used to foster excellence in online teaching and learning.

First, she explains that it is important that institutions not “use technology to take old methods and [scale them up].” For example, she notes that many online courses such as MOOCs may take pedagogical methods that work in the face-to-face classroom and uses technology to scale it up to reach a (sometimes much) larger audience. “That’s not supported by research,” Schell says.

Instead, she urges departments, faculty, and instructional designers to “think about who is the user and what…they need.”

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professor on laptop in library December 20, 2016

Online Course Activities to Increase Student Engagement

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I have learned that a few simple instructor activities greatly increase student engagement in an online course. Here are some of the most effective activities you can use in your courses.

Connect icebreaker discussions to content
The use of icebreakers has become widespread in online learning. But what kinds of icebreakers are best to use? My observations suggest that great icebreakers are those that pique students’ interest in the content while also helping them learn more about each other as whole people. For example, an icebreaker in a course about forensic biology might ask students to share an experience in their lives that made them think forensic biology is an intriguing field of study (their own experience, a film they’ve seen, or stories they’ve read).

The key is that the students begin to get to know each other through shared stories, but these stories are connected to the course content in ways that are personally meaningful to students. This allows the icebreaker discussion to flow into the content discussions that follow rather than create a space for “social chat” that is disconnected from the goals of the learning. Some students will immediately find peers they feel personally connected to through this story sharing. For students who are highly motivated by their relationships with peers, this gets the semester off to a great start.

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information overload computer key December 6, 2016

Top Online Course Design Mistakes

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Although online education has been around for nearly 20 years, I still see a number of common mistakes among online course developers. Here are the top course design mistakes in online education and how to avoid them in your courses.

Too much content
When I hire someone to design an online course, I invariably get too much content. Developers will assign over 150 pages of dense, academic reading per week, along with websites and other resources. Covering all of this content would take far more time than can be expected of students, leading them to pick and choose what they think is important, not what the course developer thinks is important.

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