Online courses can be examined from two angles: what students do during the course and how a professor structures the course. There are a variety of instructional strategies and learning activities that educators can implement to keep students engaged in course delivery. Equally important is course structuring, in which instructors make intentional choices in course design, optimize course layout, standardize due dates, and provide meaningful feedback with grades.
From our combined thirty years of teaching pedagogy online, we’ve come up with ten (plus a bonus!) recommendations for the structural components of a digital classroom.
1. Consistent course design throughout the course structure
Implement a highly structured and consistent course site design. Whatever the actual structure (folders, modules, etc.), the course should be clearly and systematically organized in a predictable pattern. The same types of content should be posted in the same places each week (eg a weekly checklist first, then readings, then a link to the discussion forum, followed by small assignments, etc.). These course components can also be coded with text color for visual reference. Consistency in course design is crucial for student success.
2. Intentional Orientation to Course Structure
The series of links, folders, modules, etc. of course organization from an individual instructor can create an unintended maze for students. One solution is to create a visual orientation of the course structure by including a screenshot of the LMS links on the home page with explanations of the content of each link. Another solution is to develop a narrated video tour of the course as part of the first week material. What looks clearly labeled and clearly organized to faculty may not be so clear to a student managing multiple online courses, each with different organizational designs.
3. Best Practices in E-Learning
Students in online courses each bring with them their own expectations and experiences of distance learning. Providing space and time for students to familiarize themselves with e-learning best practices and the skills necessary for success in online courses encourages students to self-assess and determine if the online learning environment suits them. As part of the first week’s module, incorporating a How to be an online student A video that summarizes best practices from research on student success in online courses can help students regardless of their level of online course experience. The video can include easy-to-implement ideas and strategies that students can use quickly from the first week of class. Additionally, if an online skills inventory is incorporated into the orientation material in the first week of class, students can self-assess and determine whether the online course format truly matches their current skills or if a a more traditional course would be better suited. their needs.
4. Using low-stakes assignments for students to learn navigation and features
During the first few weeks of the course, provide low-stakes (point value inconsequential) assignments that allow students to test out the various LMS features used throughout the semester. For example, provide students with the ability to email the instructor via their institution’s email address, submit an assignment that requires an attachment/upload, take an online quiz, and to post on a discussion forum (or any other peer-to-peer interaction) . Using these low-stakes assignments can underpin the technology skills needed to succeed in the LMS environment, and students can review and repeat these assignments until they master the skill.
5. Weekly checklists
A checklist is the first visible item in the course and contains all of the assignments and tasks for that week. Students can print the checklist to add physical attendance to class or simply view it on their screen. The checklist can serve as a visual reminder for the student to engage with the content. Intermediate due dates (such as initial mid-week discussion forum posts) not reflected in the learning management system (LMS) may be displayed in the checklist. Additionally, checklists can be used to set the stage for upcoming or multi-part assignments.
6.Discussion forums to facilitate dialogue and questions about the course
Provide structured discussion prompts (or other peer-to-peer interactions) that encourage students to learn from each other and ask questions of the instructor. In some LMSs, instructors can subscribe to these forums to receive notifications when posts are added. This open forum allows instructor and students to help each other in an open and welcoming online learning environment. Students will likely have questions about the course, and if there is no acceptance forum for those questions, they will likely not be asked at all.
7. Consistent lesson announcements throughout the week on a predictable schedule
Many courses begin with a weekly “starter announcement” that introduces the week’s content or reviews questions from the past week. Consider scheduling three announcements per week to provide consistent interaction and demonstrate active engagement in the course throughout the week. Instructors can make the first announcement as the traditional weekly initial kickoff message, the second as a way to share additional course-related resources, and the third as a nudge for upcoming assignment due dates.
8. Consistent due dates and duty stations
Providing consistent due dates (the same type of assignment is always due on the same day of the week for each week of the semester, or all assignments are due on the same day each week) is easier to schedule as an instructor just random due dates spread throughout the week. In our own experiences, having a consistent day and time for homework each week is more important than a particular day or time. Making sure assignments are open at predictable times adds another layer of structure and stability on top of the course layout.
9. Use of Rubrics and Scoring Guides
Using rubrics with built-in grading guides allows for a quick and less subjective grading method, not only for large projects, but also for smaller, repetitive tasks such as discussion forums. Rubrics provide a grading model for the instructor and additional guidance for the student, as more explicit expectations can be detailed in the rubric in addition to the assignment instructions.
ten. Substantial and personalized feedback
Providing students with meaningful, individualized feedback provides another way for the instructor to communicate frequently with students to praise work and offer suggestions for improvement that aren’t just visible as points or percentages. Detailed feedback can be manageable if a standard feedback commentary is written and then customized to each student’s work.
Bonus: Internal and informal formative course surveys
Instructors can learn a lot about their courses by surveying students with the anonymous survey tools built into the LMS. Students can, for example, share effective teaching practices they have experienced in other online courses or articulate course components that are particularly useful to their learning. When instructors introduce the survey platform for student feedback, students are empowered to provide constructive feedback. In addition, instructors have the opportunity to become aware and resolve issues before the end of the semester.
These structural course development practices have helped us create and maintain online courses that are organized, predictable, and functional and held in high esteem by students.
Laura Schisler, PhD, is an assistant professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Missouri Southern State University. Following a career in middle and high school science education, she now teaches scientific methods and general teacher education courses in a variety of teaching formats.
Carissa Gober, EdD, is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Missouri Southern State University. Currently, she teaches General Teacher Education courses and major ESL courses following a career as a K-12 teacher and instructional coach.
Melissa Locher, EdD, is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Missouri Southern State University. She has over 15 years of online teaching experience in general education and special education course content.
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