The brave (not-so-)new world of online learning
I have an online graduate course starting next week – this is my 11th year teaching in the “virtual classroom”, and the new term has put me in mind of some of the most valuable learning I have gained through experience, course evaluations and student feedback. Here are my Top 3:
1. Put out the welcome mat
Universities and organizations generally have a standardized, branded Learning Management System (LMS). The LMS is the platform in which the online course is delivered, so your customization options tend to be fairly limited. In other words, it is your words – versus the overall site design – that are key to a positive first impression.
For example, is the first announcement or discussion posting focused on technical instructions and course requirements? Or on how you will support students’ success in the course, and how enjoyable and inspiring the collective learning journey will be? Time spent crafting a warm and positive welcome helps set the stage for group safety and engagement.
2. Generate controversy
If fostering meaningful critical discourse is challenging in traditional classrooms, it can be even more so online. Students often feel more inhibited when posting messages as opposed to speaking up in face-to-face groups. And online conversation can quickly take on the flavour of a series of rather stilted “mini-essays” unless you model and shape conversational threads.
One effective way I’ve found to stimulate authentic and lively conversation is to post about a controversial topic related to the course content – preferably something that links to a website, video or social media site, or all three. In my addictions course, this might be the way that addiction is portrayed in popular media, and how that connects to broader theories of addiction. Now the class is critiquing theory in a context that highlights real-life applications and relevance.
3. Over-communicate but under-state
Over-communicate because people don’t read. That is to say, they read, but tend to skim or miss points that are buried in the “fine print”. It’s better to make the same points in different ways across the learning platform or course tools in order to ensure that no one gets lost or left behind. This refers to issues that are process-related (like assignment deadlines, accessing technical support or how students will be graded), as well as content-specific (for example key definitions, essential points or important references). In my courses I try to reinforce communication using discussion forums, weekly overviews, course announcements and email to make sure that everyone is on board and on track.
Under-state because there is a phenomenon associated with text-based communication known as “emotional magnification”. Without visual cues, the same content delivered in person with no ill effects can be experienced with greater emotional intensity and negative valence when delivered online. We’ve all experienced this in email and other digital communication modes, and the consequences can adversely impact the positive learning community you’ve worked so hard to foster. Special care in providing corrective feedback is warranted, and this is especially critical in group discussion forums.
There is lots more to online teaching than captured here, but these are my “Top 3” and will be front of mind for me next week as the new term starts.