As outlined in the Online Teaching Survival Guide by Boettcher and Conrad (2016, p. 43-57)
It is overwhelming to think about on-line teaching for a novice like me especially when it involves developing an online course from scratch and not knowing where to start. I am grateful for the Best Practices for Teaching Online: Ten Plus Four by Boettcher & Conrad ( 2016, p. 43-60) as these practices lay a solid foundation and a step by step guide for developing and teaching an effective on-line course. In this journal, I will reflect on the ten best practices and how each might relate to the on-line course(s) I plan to develop and teach.
- Be Present at the Course
Teacher’s presence in an on-line learning environment is just as important as it is in a face to face (F2F) classroom environment. Learners want to know their teachers’ backgrounds, their subject matter expertize and how they demonstrate their passion for the subject matter and care for their students. Having participated in a number of on-learning courses, I have noticed that teachers demonstrate their presence at the courses in a variety of ways. For example, some instructors make it a point to meet their learners through skype meetings or phone calls to introduce themselves and to get to know more about their students and their course expectations. Some stay connected through weekly announcements and by engaging in the discussion forums where learners share their thoughts, challenges and or dilemmas on various course topics. Others start the course with a welcome note and meet every learner through a group Skype or ooVoo meeting. While others showcase their presence through short videotaped lessons, assignment introductions and weekly topic reviews.
My plan to be present in an on-line course is to incorporate a mix of the above mentioned strategies while evaluating what is working and what I might need to do differently on a continuous basis. This will allow me to ensure that my students feel connected with me throughout the course. I especially plan to use the group introduction method of using Skype or ooVoo during the 1st week of the course to make sure that my learners get to know me and their classmates, get their questions answered and are provided with the opportunity to express their anxieties or excitements in a supportive and safe environment before embarking on their learning.
2. Create a Supportive on-line community
This best practice is based on the premise that “social context strengthens connections and meanings” (as cited in Boettcher et al., 2016). It refers to the fact that on-line learning requires more explicit nurturing and planning than the F2F classroom environment to ensure that there are equal opportunities for faculty to student interactions, student to student dialogue and student to resource interaction. This can be accomplished through weekly announcements or messages that coach, remind, suggest and inspire, and through email communications and live chats that address individual issues. In addition, module introductions, mini video lectures, and discussions forums where learners have explicit guidelines for interaction and engagement can help establish a community of practice. Other methods include reflective journaling on course topics, and resources, synchronous ‘meet the expert sessions’ where students can engage in a discourse with the expert and their peers and through brainstorming sessions to solve complex case studies.
As a learner, I enjoy watching mini videos prepared to help learners better understand course requirements and teacher expectations, mini lecture series that learners can watch as many times as needed to grasp the topic concepts and student to student discussion forms that engage learners in critical thinking, reflective journaling and creative problem solving. My plan is to incorporate all these best practices to help create a ‘community of practice’ of my learners.
3. Develop a set of explicit expectations for your learners and yourself as to how you will communicate and how much time students should be working on the course each week
Teachers and learners all have busy lives and can easily get side tracked without explicitly set deadlines and due dates especially for an on-line course. To promote work/study and life balance, teachers must clearly state how often student will communicate on line with other students and for what purpose and how often and what times/days the teacher will be available on-line. In addition, clearly state how long it will take the teacher to respond to students’ non-content related questions and when students can expect to have feedback on their assignments after submission.
For me, I really appreciate knowing when my eLearning instructor is available and when I can expect feedback on my projects and assignments. For this reason, I will adopt the 48 hour response policy, set up time (virtual office hours) on the weekends to be available for a minimum of 4-6 hours for real time chats/conversations while reviewing discussion forum conversations and participating in the discussions as appropriate. I will also encourage public space Q and A for content related queries,
4. Use a variety of large group, small group, and individual work experiences
This best practice is no different than what is ideal for a F2F classroom environment which also requires a variety of small, large and individual work experiences for learning to be meaningful for students with different learning styles. “Variety gives students ways of tapping into their own varied skills and abilities” (Boettcher et al., 2016, p. 50) as it provides opportunities for social interaction and connections, creates supportive communities of practices and allows for quite reflection time for individual learners.
Examples include group project work, complex case studies, partner assignments and individual reflections through journaling. It is also very important to align activities with the course phases as outlined by Boettcher et al.; Course Beginning, Early Middle, Late Middle and Closing Weeks (2016, p. 79-85). For example, a group project during the course beginning may cause a lot of anxiety among learners but may be an ideal activity for the early and late middle phases of the course. Course beginning calls for more individual activities including asking learners to post their personal profiles, introduce themselves to their peers, review course framework and requirements etc. Early middle phase is more appropriate for engaging learners in collaborative activities such as discussion forums, sharing their views of specific course topic related dilemmas etc. Late middle phase is ideal for activities that create a community of practice among learners such as group projects, complex case studies and synchronous brainstorming sessions or debates on controversial course topics.
When developing an on-line course, I plan to keep all the above listed in mind and use ‘Four Phases of a Course: Themes and Happenings’ by Boettcher et al. (2016, p. 79-85) as a guide to plan activities for all four phases of the course.
5. Use synchronous and asynchronous activities
In today’s digital age, it is easy to have a good blend of synchronous and asynchronous activities to provide a good balance of individual and interactive activities for learners and to help those of us “accustomed to doing in face-to-face classrooms, and discussions and events” (Boettcher et al., 2016, p. 52) feel comfortable and included in the eLearning environment. This can be accomplished using tools provided by the educational institution, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and by utilizing social media tools such as Google Hangout, Skype, ooVoo and numerous other digital tools.
Being a “digital immigrant” teacher, I am currently in the process of learning how to use various Social Media tools so that I am able to incorporate a balance of synchronous and asynchronous activities in my on-line courses for my learners.
6. Ask for informal feedback early in the term
Formative evaluations are much more useful for both the teacher and the learners than the summative ones as they are likely to benefit the next group of learners not the current group. Boettcher et al. recommends early surveys or informal feedback discussions to learn about what is working and what might help in providing learners with a better course experience. (2016, p. 52). The recommended period for feedback a fifteen-week course is in week 2 and for a shorter course is midweek of the first week of course.
The first few courses I plan to offer online will be shorter in duration so my goal will be to get feedback as early as possible in order to make needed changes faster. I would also like to conduct mid-course feedback surveys to ensure that my learners are still having positive experiences.
7. Prepare discussion posts that invite responses, questions, discussions, and reflections
Discussions among learners make for an interesting, stimulating and engaging learning experiences and are vital component of both F2F and eLearining environments with the key difference of on-line discussions being mostly asynchronous while F2F are synchronous. Discussion boards in an eLearning environment therefore, are “the heart and soul of the online community” (Boettcher et al., 2016, p. 53).
There are a number of reasons to promote discussions among learners including creating a place for an open question-answer forum for learners,, encouraging critical thinking, using the discussion board to enforce domain or procedural processes, helping learners with their own reflections and inquiries and providing a place for socialization and community building (as cited in Boettcher et al., 2016).
Asking open ended questions in a discussion forum to encourage exploration and application of course concepts and following up with probing and thought provoking feedback or comments to promote self-reflections are a few good strategies for discussion postings (Boettcher et al., 2016, p. 53-54).
As a teacher, it is important for me to have clear guidelines around discussions postings to provide a safe and inclusive place for expressing their thoughts and opinions in a respectful manner that promote team spirit and supportive community of practice.
8. Search out and use content resources that are available to digital format
In an on-learning course, thinking digitally for all course content is a must. Learners should have no difficulty in accessing course content using their digital devices anywhere, anytime and as often as they would like. This means 24/7 access to working links for must read articles, e-text books, audio/video lessons and other course resources. In addition, including a step to step reference document on accessing organization’s library resources remotely will go a long way to help learners access needed resources in a timely fashion.
I also believe that enlisting learners help in finding and identifying relevant and engaging resources enriches the course’s resource library and motivates learners to explore tools that are more relevant to their personal preferences and learning styles. A good example is to ask all learners to contribute at least one resource to the Course Glossary.
9. Combine core concept learning with customized and personalized learning
During the course design phase, it is important for the teacher to clearly identify the core concepts, questions and performance goals of the course. During the teaching phase, teacher’s responsibility turns to mentoring learners and helping them apply their learning by providing them opportunities for explaining, elaborating, relating and sharing the knowledge with others to make learning meaningful and enjoyable. This can be accomplished by “making students’ thinking visible” (as cited in Boettcher et al., 2016, p. 56). In other words, creating opportunities that requires learners to talk, write, explain, analyze, judge, report and inquire.
Discussion forms, collaborative group projects, complex case studies, Wiki projects, reflective journaling are all good examples of activities that inspire learners to make their knowledge explicit.
10. Plan a good closing and wrap activity for the course
Last week of a course can be stressful and anxiety provoking for learners due to the remaining course work. On the other hand, it is easy for the teacher to get side tracked by assessing and grading activities instead of being present in the course for a good course closing and wrap up. Just like a good F2F course closing, it is important to celebrate student successes, acknowledge their achievements and allow them the opportunity to articulate their course takeaways. For faculty, it is an opportunity to reflect whether core course performance objectives have been met by conducting summative feedback.
Boettcher, J. V., & Conrad, R. (2016). The online teaching survival guide: Best practices for teaching online: ten plus four. CA: Jossey-Bass.