time-saving tips for teaching large classes.

Time-Saving Tips for Teaching Large Online Classes

Reduced enrollments and state budget cuts have led to increased class sizes at for-profit and nonprofit colleges and universities. “There are 2.4 million fewer college students in the United States than there were just six years ago” (Marcus, 2017). Schools must be creative in implementing strategies to remain solvent. Increasing class size is one strategy – in both on-campus and online classrooms – that allows administrators to benefit from economies of scale. However, students and faculty are negatively affected by that financial “solution” in many ways. There are multiple repercussions of increasing class size, including: decreased instructor interaction with students and provision of substantive feedback on assignments, declining student satisfaction, especially-concerning decreases in student learning, and increased instructor workload (Saiz, 2014).

The reality is, it’s impossible to devote the same time to each student in a larger class as you’re able to when there are fewer of them in the class; yet, fundamental elements of adult learning theory and online pedagogy still apply. Learning is facilitated by active instructor engagement and by the provision of timely and substantive feedback. In the online classroom, in particular, where students may feel adrift in cyberspace, instructor presence and responsiveness are critical.

How do you deliver high-quality education in classes with increased class sizes, while managing your workload within realistic time constraints? I’ve outlined below seven broad strategies to consider. Although the focus is on online education, many of these strategies could be applied in face-to-face classes as well.

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The Best Video Formats for Online Teaching

When online faculty or course developers are approached about adding videos to their content, they tend to think of either webcam shots of themselves at their computer or screencasts of themselves reading bullet points to students. But there are a variety of highly effective and easy-to-produce video formats for online education. Here are the different options, along with their best uses and the best technology for creating them.

Webcam
Yes, the webcam shot does have a place in teaching. For one, it is the fastest way to make a video. Just start the webcam, speak to the camera, save the file, and upload it to the course. But the time savings is usually lost by the need to reshoot multiple times due to errors. It is unlikely that you will get through a video much longer than a few minutes without some verbal errors, and it can easily take five to ten shoots before you get a clean version.

For this reason, webcam shots are best used for content that does not need to be flawless. A good example is discussion posts. Instructors can use them to summarize important points in a discussion at the end. The “ums” and other verbal pauses or corrections do not matter. We do not worry about them in live conversation; our audience just listens right through them. So an instructor does not need to worry about them for video discussion. Leaving them in might even better demonstrate that the instructor is speaking from the heart, rather than a script. A good idea is for instructors to include thoughts that have occurred to them as a result of the discussion, demonstrating to students that the instructor is paying attention to their posts and thinking about them. An instructor can also assess discussion, saying that “I thought it went well because . . .” Online instructors rarely provide students with an assessment of a discussion as a whole, instead focusing on individual comments, but talking about it as a whole will help students understand what the instructor is looking for from students. Take a look at this example: https://youtu.be/h7vj8j_gZuQ.

Webcam shots are also good for videos that welcome students to a course. While they do require multiple shoots to get a clean version, the time investment is worth it due to the way that they humanize the instructor to the students and make students feel comfortable expressing themselves. Students should be encouraged to make their own as well. See this example: https://youtu.be/6KfM_JaVJ6E.

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Five Ways to Engage Students Outside of the Online Classroom

Ubiquitous learning—the idea that everywhere you go, you’re learning all the time—lets us take advantage of the concept that in every interaction, there may be opportunities for students to engage with our subject matter, if we can just get them into that holistic thinking mode.

I am an avid knitter and like to knit all the time. When I need to learn something new about knitting, I’ll often go to YouTube or to some other online videos that I’ve seen. I might read a book or take an online course to learn some new ideas. I might talk with others who I see knitting or people who approach me. I like to knit out in public so that people might come up to me and talk about what I’m knitting.

Searching the web, talking with others, trial and error—these are good ways to learn things through experimentation and trying things out. But how does one get into this holistic thinking mindset in the classroom?

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What Do Students Really Want from Online Instructors?

Over the past nine years, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing approximately 200 instructors at my institution develop and teach their first online course. I’ve witnessed instructors excited by the opportunity, but I’ve also observed many who were hesitant or even fearful of teaching online.

The instructors who were hesitant or fearful often would ask: “So, what’s the secret to being a great online instructor?” I had the sense they were expecting an extensive or complex answer. Many times they were surprised by my response.

Much has been written about student satisfaction in online courses, and there certainly are a number of factors that can influence a student’s experience as an online learner—institution, discipline, level of course, peers, home life, instructor, and so on. The ideas in this article have come from three sources: my 11 years of online teaching experience, hundreds of discussions with instructors about what has and hasn’t worked in their online courses, and the research literature.

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Facilitating Communities of Practice in Online Courses

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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What Students Can Teach Us about Online Learning

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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Set Students up for Success in Online Courses

Student success comes from strong leadership, including establishing rapport, providing resources, and putting the onus of responsibility on the students, rather than the instructor. Perhaps the most important area for success in any online course is what I call the “start here” area. Let’s explore this idea further.

“Start here” area
Some instructors call this an introductory area or a “welcome to the course” area. I like calling it “start here,” because, quite frankly, it’s incredibly descriptive and leaves no room for misinterpretation.

Let’s take a look at the six key elements of a start-here area: the instructor introduction video, course expectations, main assignment tutorials, technology tutorials, student engagement areas, and a syllabus quiz.

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Three Keys to Starting Strong in Your Online Course

The start of the term is a critical time for any course, when students form an impression that can help or hinder them for the duration of a class. There are three key practices that can set the tone for the entire term and have an effect on retention and student success if implemented.

First impressions are important, so reflect on how you welcome students and the tone you use. Many students report feeling overwhelmed when they start online classes, and a verbose first message can exacerbate that. Ideally, your course will have some sort of “Start Here” section or unit, which might contain your syllabus; the course schedule; and links to Learning Management System tutorials, downloads students might need, or campus services that might be helpful (tutoring, financial aid, counseling). I also include a link to a quiz for students to assess if they are suited to online learning. With your “Start Here” in place, your initial message to students can direct them there; avoid being overly wordy, and instead, focus on helping them to feel at home. This helps build your presence and create trust in you, and it can establish you as a part of the learning community of the class as well. You may even want to create a short welcome video, but we will talk about videos later.

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Developing Online Instructor Presence

What is instructor presence? It’s the way that instructors present themselves to the students in the online classroom. It also involves simply being present to students through the regular posting of course materials, discussion posts, and announcements.

Instructor presence increases student retention because students are more likely to stay in class if they feel their instructor cares about them. By being present, the instructor can pull students together, encouraging cooperation and collaboration. Additionally, if things start to go off the rails and a student begins to have problems, an instructor who is present can address those problems immediately.

How does one establish instructor presence in an online class? First, determine your teaching persona. Next, determine which elements to share with the class. Last, create a strategy for regularly expressing those aspects of your persona to your class.

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Channel Your Inner Avatar and Add Interest to Your Online Content

Have you ever experienced the eerie, but familiar, sensation that your students have not done the required reading and are not prepared for class? We all know that our class sessions would be a lot more enjoyable—for us and for our students—if our students were better prepared for class discussions. After one particularly challenging session, we discovered that while our students spend around 20 hours a week preparing for class, they spend about 10 hours a day using a variety of digital devices, such as smartphones, tablets, PCs, video games, and TVs.

After some contemplation, we decided to embrace our inner avatar! We found CrazyTalk Animator 2, which enabled us to put a face, body, motion, and a voice to the instructor. This program allows users, even those without any coding experience, to create short video clips using a selected avatar and voice. The avatars can run, smile, frown, dance, write, and do a number of other things. Moreover, the user can simply drop the avatar into any PowerPoint presentation to add an additional component of animation to an otherwise lifeless slide. We created the avatars to present short, focused discussions of course topics.

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