The element that sets successful online courses apart from old-style correspondence courses is: presence. Well-taught, well-designed online courses can allow students to get to know each other and their instructors even better than in traditional lecture classrooms. Interaction is the key. Online course presence may require instructors to communicate much differently than in their classroom comfort zones. Online communication focuses less—or not at all--on body language and tone of voice.
So, how do you communicate online?
Keep in mind, online courses do not run themselves. Effective instructors leverage clear, frequent messaging and considerate planning. Ongoing instructor availability for timely questions is vital. Instructors must stay engaged daily to keep students progressing and adding value for each other. Online teaching takes as much time as classroom teaching; it just happens at different times and locations. Here are some ideas:
Create a Good Beginning
- Create introductory Discussions with detailed question prompts to break the ice and help students connect personally. Example:
"Please introduce yourself to your fellow classmates. Include your name and why you are taking this class. You may also choose to include your major, your personal interests, hobbies, a photo, and something fun or memorable that will help people get to know you. (Approximately 5-10 sentences.) As you reply to your classmates’ posts, ask questions, look for interesting details, and keep your upcoming group projects in mind.”
- Shy students who may not speak up at all in classrooms will often write more in an online discussion post.
- Clarify expectations. In addition to the official policies in a syllabus, be sure to include separate discussion board etiquette instructions and basic explanations of the course structure. Example: “All materials and assignments are accessed through the Modules link. Discussions are due each Wednesday by 11:59 pm and major assignments are due on Sundays by 11:59 pm.”
- Include an Instructor Bio content page with a photo or short, personal video. Avoid reciting information that is already in the syllabus. Reveal what you love about your field, what you want students to gain from the semester, and assure students that you are looking forward to working with them.
- Include Week 1 setup assignments for Instructure Canvas LMS system success (notifications, profile, assignment submissions and system requirements.) Include an email requirement for immediate student questions or comments to you as the instructor.
- Answer each email personally. Use repeated student questions to trigger your creation of general Announcements and course improvements.
- Grade weekly assignments before the next assignment is due. Students cannot improve without timely feedback.
- Post due dates for the entire semester on day 1 so that busy students can plan for success. Lack of pacing and direction is counterproductive. Canvas Assignment Due Dates trigger the To-Do List reminder system and populate the student calendar for your course combined with all of their other courses. (To reduce your instructor communication burden, avoid available and until dates unless absolutely necessary. Example: A Final Exam with a solid end date and no re-takes needs an until date.)
- Use the Canvas Gradebook reminder/messaging feature to quickly remind students who miss assignments, if late work is accepted.
- Be present in your course daily and strive to complete some type of communication with each login.
- Aim for twice-daily [minimum] to respond to messages and questions. State your communication policy in advance to inform students who may be used to a 15-second response to messages.
Design for Success
- Be clear. Detailed instructions are written for the least tech-savvy students. Make no assumptions. Include info links, definitions of terminology and expectations of writing length. Include links to specific Canvas Guides for Students in your assignment instructions for those who need step-by-step tutorials.
- Be sure you understand Canvas and get help from Canvas Instructor Guides to avoid creating navigation dead-ends and frustration for your students. (Example: Make sure that hyperlinks to outside sites are functioning and use built-in modules navigation. Internal Canvas links can open in a neighboring tab. (Use HTML code snippet target="_blank" to avoid links within text that divert your students to another location in Canvas. Students won't finish reading a page if they click a link mid-sentence and land elsewhere.)
- Curate multiple examples of successfully completed assignments for students to emulate and surpass. Varied assignment examples will invite deeper learning inferences and creative thinking.
- Use Rubrics. Students will know where to spend their energy on assignments and have fewer complaints or questions. Rubrics help instructors give consistent, fast feedback without writing the same comments again and again.
- UX. User test your navigation and course layout to ensure it is not confusing. The adventure is in the course materials, not in the navigation. (Research QM Quality Matters Rubric for Online Course Design, QOLT, and other quality assurance standards.)
- Plan your course assignment due dates and pacing with the Academic Calendar and Holiday Calendar. Many students work during the week and appreciate Sunday night due dates.
- Be available for questions immediately prior to deadlines. Clarify your anticipated response times and weekend availability for questions.
- Include early course feedback—approximately week 2-3 in a semester—to gather student feedback on the course design, not the instructor! Minor course adjustments and clarifications can create major attitude improvements and student success. Use the Quiz tool for a required survey, grading only the student’s participation and not the answers.
- Aim for quality, not quantity. Use the auto-grading quiz tool for low-stakes chapter quizzes to ensure that students read materials. Save precious grading time for the most meaningful projects and writings that require your human touch.
- Reward Curiosity. Make your ePortfolio assignments the most memorable, impactful part of your course. (Research topics: Problem-Based/Project Based Learning, Backwards Design, and High Impact Teaching Practices.)
- Be flexible. Keep assignment settings unlocked wherever possible so that students can look ahead.
- Consider. Many students take online courses specifically for flexibility. Allow responsible students to submit early for holidays, vacations, and personal obligations.
- Reward Persistence. Ease student anxiety by using low-stakes quiz settings that allow multiple attempts to raise grades. Allow major writing assignments to be resubmitted after feedback and revisions.
- Reward Contributions. Create opportunities for students to locate and share content from current events with each other in course Discussions.
Maximize Student Interactions
- Participate with your own instructor comments intermittently for strongest results. Watch discussion spaces and participate subtly to allow students to converse more authentically.
- Plan group projects in detail. Include detailed outlines, expectations, and suggestions for group roles that align with grading rubrics. Use collaboration spaces like GoogleDocs and Presentations that allow group members to work asynchronously and visibly.
- Offer forums and opportunities for students to answer questions for each other.
- Create open peer reviews in Discussions and set parameters for meaningful feedback where students take on the teaching & feedback role for each other.
Experiment with Your Role
- Become a coach. Online courses are designed and polished in advance to free instructors for the coaching role rather than being the Sage on the stage.
- Distill your life wisdom to re-examine the most efficient ways to think like an expert. Then, add inspirations for creativity and allow your students to add value by teaching you in return. Courses are improved semester-to-semester by engaged students.
- Help students create their own tools for life and work.
- Help students create proud evidence of what they have learned in the form of research papers, meaningful projects, and creative ePortfolio artifacts.
- Keep feedback positive and encouraging, wherever possible.
- Be specific when revisions are needed. If your requirements are strict, then assignment instructions and rubrics must match that precision. If your instructions are loose and flexible, your grading should reflect this style of teaching.
- Be human. Use a conversational style in your Announcements and assignment directions that balances professionalism and friendliness. Written format is automatically more cold sounding, so account for this in your writing.
* This article is offered based upon experiences as an Instructional Designer, Institutional LMS support staff member, and online higher ed. instructor. These suggestions are not affiliated with nor compensated by Instructure Canvas.