teaching online April 2

How Teaching Online Can Improve Your Face-to-Face Classes

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When teachers are tasked with developing an online course, their thinking often follows along these lines: This is what I do in class. How can that be translated online?

What if we reversed our thinking?

Instead of assuming what’s done on ground is ideal, what if we looked at teaching online as a means of improving our face-to-face teaching skills? The process of developing an online course, starting with a clean slate instead of converting resident instruction via technology, leads to an examination of our classroom-based course design, assumptions about learning, and ultimately improves instructional practice in both settings along several dimensions: teaching persona, power distance, instructional clarity, student interaction, and learning assessment.

Presence and Distance
From the minute we enter the classroom, students are sizing us up. Our appearance, demeanor, voice, word choice, and mannerisms project an image. Similarly, the teacher may notice a variety of student characteristics: clothing, tone of voice, behavior, and level of attention. All this happens automatically when we share a physical space with our students.

Online first impressions begin with the learning management interface, course organization, and whatever materials and resources the teacher has chosen to share when the course opens. While teaching online means we may not have to worry about physical appearance, it does mean we have to spend time thinking about how to create and maintain a presence online. Who am I? How can or should I communicate my identity to students?

I didn’t invest a lot of time thinking about this before I started teaching online. Thus, I missed opportunities to make learning personal. Online teaching forces us to think more carefully about persona, values, and priorities than the face-to-face context. Teaching online has made me more intentional about establishing and maintaining my teaching persona online and face-to-face.

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student studying on laptop March 9

Captivating Your Online Learner with Engaging Course Visuals: 7 Easy Principles

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In an online environment, keeping your audience’s attention and focus on the critical concepts can be a challenge. Visuals are one of the most powerful ways to engage online learners, especially those from the upcoming generations. We will discuss how the visual design quality of course materials impacts student learning and describe seven simple design techniques that educators can use to create clean, clear, and uncluttered visuals.

Why does good design matter?

Design affects our emotions and perceptions. Attractive visual design can evoke positive emotions in learners and facilitate learning (Plass et al., 2014). Designing attractive, simple, and uncluttered course materials contributes to emotional design, thereby enhancing positive feelings of learners and increasing motivation. Positive emotions have been shown to contribute to more flexible and adaptive thinking and encourage creativity, problem solving, recall, and innovation (Isen, 2002). People also perceive well-designed objects as easier to use (Norman, 2005). Utilizing a few simple design techniques to create clean, clear, and uncluttered course materials can help enhance learning.

Good design also impacts cognitive processing, increasing both comprehension and information retention. Research suggests that visual design affects cognitive processing in four main ways: selection, organization, integration, and processing efficiency (McCrudden & Rapp, 2015). Good design allows students to identify and focus on the most relevant information and efficiently organize that key information in memory, increasing comprehension and information retention.

Finally, well-designed course visuals communicate the credibility of, and care taken by, the presenter. Research has found that judgments of credibility are largely influenced by design elements like layout, font, and color (Robins & Holmes, 2007). Given that materials that look good tend to be judged as both better and more credible, design improvements can increase presenter credibility and communicate that the presenter cares about both the audience and the topic.

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UDL framework for learning November 16, 2017

Applying Universal Design for Learning Principles

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When creating course materials, it is important to be as inclusive as possible. A common way of working to ensure that materials respond to different approaches to learning is to use Universal Design for Learning (UDL), which proposes inclusive course design. It is a framework that helps to make content, activities and assignments, and instruction accessible to students at different levels, with different abilities, and who take different approaches to learning. While this sounds straightforward and relatively simple, when one dives into the UDL literature and works to implement its guidelines, the task quickly starts to feel overwhelming—at least that’s how it made me feel.

Last year, I attended a year-long faculty working group in which we focused on implementing UDL in our courses. Here’s what made this a daunting task. A course that is truly adhering to UDL guidelines makes every aspect of the course as inclusive as possible, including the syllabus, lectures, and any online components such as videos, PowerPoints, etc. It can mean creating closed captioning for videos and ensuring that all documents are created and saved in a manner that is screen reader ready.

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online learning activities October 27, 2017

Which Assessment Strategies Do Students Prefer?

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While most faculty stick with the tried-and-true quiz and paper assessment strategies for their online courses, the wide range of technologies available today offers a variety of assessment options beyond the traditional forms. But what do students think of these different forms?

Scott Bailey, Stacy Hendricks, and Stephanie Applewhite of Stephen F. Austin State University experimented with different assessment strategies in two online courses in educational leadership, and surveyed students afterward on their impressions of each one. The students were asked to score the strategies using three criteria: 1) enjoyment, 2) engagement with the material, and 3) transferability of knowledge gained to practice. The resulting votes allowed investigators to rank the various strategies from least to most preferred by students.


librarians can help with online course design October 10, 2017

Librarians are the Forgotten Course Design Resource

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Most institutions provide instructional design teams to support faculty in creating online courses. At my institution, each department has an assigned instructional designer, and most faculty members consider designers to be an indispensable part of the course development process. The same cannot be said for librarians, however, as my experience has been that most instructors view librarians as valuable sources of resources but not as actual resources themselves. While not intentional, of course, this means that instructors are missing an opportunity to enhance their courses. Similarly, instructional designers, who often work independently of librarians, may not be aware of all the resources available to them when supporting instructors during the process of course design.

All institutions have librarians dedicated to instruction and assigned to departments. In many cases, especially at larger institutions, these librarians hold graduate degrees in the fields to which they are assigned. They also usually possess many years of experience working with faculty from those fields. Combined with their training in developing collections, these librarians bring considerable expertise when selecting resources to be used in class and should always be consulted when choosing textbooks, articles, and other materials being used in class. They often know of material that faculty members are not aware of. They are also up-to-date on what databases and other electronic resources are currently offered through the library. This is no small detail because licensing agreements and available titles shift regularly as libraries and vendors renegotiate their existing contracts. Consequently, it is best to always include a course’s assigned librarian in all stages of course design, as the librarian may have more current knowledge regarding available resources than an instructor or instructional designer.

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online learning communities of practice September 9, 2017

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, 2017

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, 2017

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, 2017

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, 2017

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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