Tips for Faculty: Reflection and time to consider a change
The pandemic resulted in a dramatic shift in instruction and learning models for college faculty. What began as temporary measures in response to an emergency may end as a catalyst for the transformation of higher education. The end of the fall semester is an opportunity to review and reflect on what is and is not working as institutions continue to navigate uncertain times.
Most campuses will welcome students back for full-time, in-person learning this fall. As a result of continuing COVID outbreaks, many courses are still being offered as a mix of in-person and online learning. The seismic disruption to higher education has resulted in the largest adoption of technology ever, allowing faculty to reconsider how they teach and explore new ways to teach, mentor, and coach students.
For all the upheaval, this has been a time of experimentation. Institutions have had to shake up every process and policy to respond to the needs of faculty and students. It is time to fully embrace technology, particularly with routine tasks. Technology can support faculty in spending most of their time in direct engagement with students in person or online.
This break between semesters is a good opportunity to reflect on new practices that promise flexibility in how instructors teach and assess their students. Questions to consider include:
Are the courses and topics connected to students’ personal and career goals?
Are there frequent opportunities for students to collaborate and learn from one another?
Are feedback loops between students and faculty open and productive?
Is course content and pedagogy still relevant after all this change?
Have new practices to stimulate student engagement been implemented?
Are equity and student success embedded in new practices?
Has the focus shifted from instructor-led to student-centered learning?
Do students have agency in how they manage their own learning process?
Faculty should be encouraged to take time to review and reflect on how the last 14-16 months have changed their teaching practice.
Once you have set aside the time and have the energy to dig in and create or improve your online course(s)…don’t do it alone. Ask for help. Take advantage of the many resources and support teams within your institution. If need be, look for help from others that may be outside of your institution. Here are a few ideas to consider:
Mentor – Look for an individual who has some experience teaching online. This doesn’t need to be a formal mentor relationship, just someone who’s been down that path already who can share some words of wisdom. Teaching online courses is a skill that is unique from teaching classes in person. Take your time and find someone who is comfortable teaching online and learn from their experience. Be selective and look for someone who is thriving and willing to share not only their successes but some of their failures.
Colleagues – Remember you’re not the only one trying to create an excellent experience for your students. Look to your colleagues who are also trying to be excellent online teachers. A great way to discover new strategies and ideas is to interact with those who are also wrestling with the same teaching issues. If you have regular meetings with your colleagues you might consider adding a brief 5 to 10 minutes Block of time to simply share a tip or strategy related to online teaching. Another strategy that many faculty find useful is the idea of a shared reading experience or a book club. Other faculty have pursued workshops, faculty showcases, and conferences to learn more about what other faculty are doing within online education. The bottom line here is to commit to learning and learning and other faculty members.
Instructional Designer – While you are the expert in your field you might consider seeking help from an instructional designer or a learning designer. Individuals that work in these roles are experts in effective online teaching and learning. This relationship could consist of a conversation over a cup of coffee, a 15-minute conversation to brainstorm new ideas or a longer meeting(s) that include a complete course design or redesign. Designers can significantly improve your experience and enjoyment with online teaching. Your students will be glad that you invested the time and energy.
Teaching online for the first time may feel overwhelming. Start with the basics and take your time. Once you have that first course completed it’s time to improve. Start with small things to improve upon… pick just one thing. When you’ve completed that first thing, simply move on to the next. Experienced online faculty will tell you that your course is never perfect. Take your time and commit to constant revisions. Seek new and better ideas…always!
There are many online teachers that are dedicated to the modality and have figured out some great strategies and best practices. However, there are a few myths about online teaching and learning that still exist. Here are a few:
Teaching online is not an enjoyable experience
Many teachers in higher education don’t see online teaching as a rewarding experience. In fact, many teachers report that teaching in-person is a much more rewarding and enjoyable experience. Perhaps this is because teachers that have made the switch to on-line teaching find they are doing much more administrative work than expected. If teachers simply log on, grade student work, review discussion posts, and manage other basic functions it may seem that this modality is not going to be enjoyable.
Teaching online courses can be very rewarding. From my own experience and experience of some of my closest colleagues, I would say that a majority of the online students are not only working but are also caring for children or other members of their families. These students take online classes because it’s the only way for them to pursue higher education. Many online teachers report getting a closer glimpse into the personal lives of their students, those experiences, and those challenges that the students choose to overcome when taking online classes. An experienced colleague of mine recently told me that the opportunities provided by a classroom without walls and across great distances are how they find joy in teaching online.
Teaching online classes doesn’t work
In 2017, EDUCAUSE conducted a survey on faculty and information technology and discovered that approximately one-half of these faculty didn’t agree that online learning was effective. There is plenty of evidence that online courses can produce student learning outcomes that are comparable to those in-person courses. This evidence continues to roll in year after year. Just like any in-person class, the high-quality on-line versions will require excellent on-line teachers. It is the responsibility of the teachers and the designers with which they work to create a highly engaging and effective on-line classes.
Students that take online classes are lazy
Some students that take on-line classes may put in a minimal amount of work, and just enough to get by with. Does this mean that lazy students are more likely to take an on-line class? Or have we as educators created an environment on-line that contributes to this type of student disengagement? Things to consider:
Are we offering these courses to a student population that is more likely to be working and raising a family?
Are we offering these courses to students who do not have the adequate equipment to be successful?
Are we asking faculty without experience in on-line education to lead these courses?
Are we presenting an unorganized and confusing course design that is less than appealing to the students?
Any one of these items can make on-line learning a challenge. A combination of two or more of these items can be a disaster.
Successful online learning requires a certain level of skill that some students simply do not possess. This means that on-line students must be able to manage their time well, motivate themselves, direct their own learning, and seek help when it is needed.
Successful online teaching requires that faculty make an extra effort to help those students persist. This takes awareness of the challenges of on-line education as well as careful thought, expert planning, empathy, and a high level of comfort with technology.
Online courses can run on auto-pilot
Some on-line teachers subscribe to the idea that on-line courses, once created, can simply be run by themselves and students can successfully meet the objectives. Maybe this is because online courses take such a tremendous effort to prepare before the very first day. In theory, all assignments, activities, discussion prompts, and the gradebook should be created in advance so that students can see everything from the first day. Unfortunately, some online teachers feel that students should be able to walk themselves through the on-line course without much engagement or guidance from the teacher.
On-line teachers should plan to guide their students through the course by being active and engaged weekly. Best practice includes blocking out time on the weekly calendar as if you’re attending the class in person. Be available, post announcements, reply to discussions, and grade students’ work on a regular basis. Just like an in-person course, teaching online requires continuous involvement from the teacher.
Faculty are faced with a few hard questions about the online classes that they lead. If being honest, many would admit that they do not enjoy being online as much as the in-person environment. This might explain why less than 10 percent prefer to teach online exclusively. Here are a few of those questions:
Do you enjoy being online?
Do you prefer interacting with students in an online environment?
Do you look forward to communicating with students online?
If you don’t enjoy working in an online learning environment, imagine what this might be like for some of the students.
Faculty that teach in-person do many things to help make students feel comfortable in the physical classroom. Smile, greet students, use eye contact, and answer questions. Even when the physical space may be less than attractive, there are many ways to make the space more welcoming and comfortable for all.
The same strategy can be applied to online learning environments. Making the effort to ensure an inviting, comfortable, and pleasant online learning space will create a more favorable learning environment.
Students will be comfortable and enjoy being in your online class if you:
Use interactive tools for engagement such as media and visuals.
Minimize the amount of text being used in general. Streamline course navigation and organization. Less is more.
Encourage participation and create a positive/optimistic experience that speaks to student success.
Show compassion and care for your students in both a private and public way.
Be respectful of the students’ time by being present, engaged, and punctual.
Faculty that have taught an in-person course(s), have had the experience of students raising their hands when they don’t understand something. It is during these times that faculty rely on examples to help the students better understand the content. Faculty come up with examples from different areas of life. For example, their own personal experience, professional experience, or current events that are taking place. These examples help the students to better understand the information in a way that is meaningful to them. The examples used in online teaching are even more important to your students.
A variety of examples can also benefit students that are completing their courses online. A couple of suggestions are:
Locate existing videos that present topics from a different perspective.
Record a brief conversation with a guest speaker that allows students to hear from an expert in the field.
Create opportunities for students to explain/explore the content together. Students are more likely to develop explanations that make sense to their peers A good example of this is to create small semester-long study groups (or community of learning groups) that will allow the students to discuss course concepts along the way.
Faculty will need to find the right balance, when it comes to the numbers of examples provided. Whether the examples are presented in the form of videos, slide presentations, or additional readings faculty should make it clear what is required and what is optional material. There will be need to be careful so this isn’t received simply as “busy work”.
Showcasing the work of students that have taken the course previously is another way to help students better understand the content. Examples of work submitted by students in previous semesters can be done in a couple of different ways. Perhaps, the less complex projects can be shown in full, while the more complex projects can show examples of certain segments of the overall project.
What does scaffolding mean (in education)? This is the question I was asked recently during a meeting with a group of colleagues. I think this is a term that many of us have been using and taking for granted. Some entering careers in instructional design may not completely understand what the word means. I am finding that many of the folks I have been working with recently have not had the opportunity to teach a course of their own. Many instructional designers are working with faculty and subject matter experts that teach and have been for many years. So, when this question came up…we hit the brakes and had a conversation about scaffolding and shared some examples.
In the field of education, the term scaffolding refers to a process in which teachers model or demonstrate how to solve a problem, and then step back, offering support as needed. Psychologist and instructional designer Jerome Bruner first used the term scaffolding in this context back in the 1960s. The theory is that when students are given the support they need while learning something new, they stand a better chance of using that knowledge independently. Bruner recommends positive interaction and three modes of representation during teaching: actions, images, and language.
When leading in-person courses faculty may do a lot of modeling without even knowing that they are doing just that. For example, when faculty show how to solve a mathematical equation, they explain their thought process along the way. When faculty share examples, they are showing how to connect concepts for a deeper understanding. And, when faculty ask critical questions, they are modeling how those in that discipline make sense of theories and approaches to challenges.
Faculty have the opportunity to explain things, step-by-systematic-step, to help students learn and perform successfully on exams, projects, papers, and other assignments.
This kind of modeling and scaffolding doesn’t take place quite as naturally in online courses, where real-time interactions are limited.
To help students achieve success, faculty must be creative. Faculty should scrutinize their assessments, both large and small. Have the students had the opportunity to build step-by-step, as they would have in an in-person course? Do they have the knowledge and skills they will need to do well on the assessments?
Here are some examples of how faculty can scaffold activities in an online course. When possible, the faculty should make these an opportunity to give incremental feedback so students know whether or not they are on the right track:
Many faculty want students to record a video presentation of their research topics. It’s hard enough to give a good presentation without the video-recording element. Faculty can help their online students gain experience with the technology before they have to use it on a high-stakes project. For example, in the first module of the course, faculty can give the students a low-stakes, low-stress assignment: Ask students to record and post a two-minute video introducing themselves to the class.
As part of an orientation module, faculty can ask students to send a message using the LMS messaging/email system so they know how to do this later in the class if they have a question or are in need of support. Students can answer a question about the syllabus or list two goals for their learning in the course. Faculty should reply with a short personal greeting so students know the message was received and support is available.
During the first module/week of a course, ask the students to upload a PDF of their handwritten work related to solving some type of problem. This exercise will help them learn how to create, locate and submit a PDF file as an assignment in the LMS. It’s a good way to correct any missteps early on.
Another idea to consider is that of asking the students to create a concept map of what they already know about the topic of the course, during that first module/week. As the course moves along, ask students to submit a concept map to help them make sense of topics presented in each module/week.
Faculty should look for ways to break down complex tasks so that students can make progress in a timely manner and receive feedback on their work while there is still time to adjust their approach if needed.
Faculty that stand in front of their students in a traditional classroom setting and assign work don’t simply hand out written directions without saying another word about the expectations. Faculty also do not simply display assignment directions on a PowerPoint slide without explaining what the expectations are or what students can do to be successful.
Unfortunately, this is often what happens in online courses. Directions often come in the form of written text. While faculty may feel that the writing is clear, but the nuanced detail that is usually provided in a traditional classroom is missing.
Faculty must remember that online students work in isolation. They don’t have the built-in opportunity to ask for, or receive clarification, while in-the-moment of first receiving assignment or project directions. This is why it is crucial for faculty to clearly explain what the expectations are in an online course.
Caution should be used to carefully create directions that don’t become overly detailed or provide pages and pages of directions that may be completely ignored by the students. Try to find that balance..the right mix. Here are a couple of suggestions:
If available, consider providing an example of student work that received high scores, an example that received an average score and an example that received a low score. A brief explanation of why each example received the score that it did will help students better understand the expectations.
Provide a rubric. In most cases, a simple rubric that outlines the EXCEEDS, MEETS and NEEDS IMPROVEMENT levels of achievement will help students achieve success.
Create a brief assignment overview video to go over the details that could be problematic for students. Generally, a 1 or 2 minute informal video will help students as they begin the work.
Create the directions in the form of a conversation that might take place with a student. Use bullet lists as opposed to long paragraphs that might be found in a text book.
So students don’t have to guess what the expectations are…provide meaningful support in a short and concise manner.
It may come as no surprise that students in a traditional classroom setting report being more engaged in their courses when their surroundings are more appealing. Students would prefer to learn in bright modern-looking spaces as opposed to older buildings that haven’t been updated for fifteen or more years, as an example. This does not mean that large scale renovations are or new construction is required on an on-going schedule that may not be sustainable. Small upgrades such as paint, fixtures and commercial-grade carpet can make a big difference in a traditional setting.
Students that attend courses online have similar needs related to being engaged in a visually appealing environment. Online courses can at times appear to be text heavy and boring to the students. Faculty and instructional designers can make some minor changes that can have a big impact in terms of presenting an appealing environment.
Faculty should give serious consideration to the look of their course, they may be surprised by what an impact a few small changes can make. Inspiration can come from favorite websites, magazines or online courses of their online-saavy colleagues. A great deal of time and energy has gone into the content for an online course, why not dedicate some additional time and energy into visual considerations?
A graphic designer or a degree in graphic design is NOT needed to make a visual impact in an online course. Text chunking is often the first consideration when addressing course appearance. Here are a couple of suggestions (Keep in mind that all visuals should be made accessible to all students):
Text chunking – the process of breaking down content into smaller, bite-sized bits of easily digestible information that are easy to comprehend, learn, and commit to memory.
Accessibility consideration – use the formatting tools in your text editor, such as heads and subheads, to enable screen readers.
Images – to start, look for simple images that are attractive and appropriate for the course. Many faculty will choose to use banners to introduce images in their course to help students understand where they are in a course. For example, Module 1, Module 2 etc.
Accessibility consideration – images, graphs, and formulas need alternate text descriptions. For some images, when appropriate simply use an alternative tag to indicate that the image is decorative.
Videos – another great way to make online courses visually appealing is to embed appropriate videos that are short in duration. For example, a 2-5 minute video that provides a general overview of the topic from TED Talks or YouTube are favorites of many faculty. Another popular option used by faculty are self-created videos for Course Tours, Module Tours and Assignment Overviews.
Accessibility consideration – all videos should be captioned or a written transcript provided.
Don’t let the need to add visually appealing elements to your course deny some students from being able to fully access the content. Universal Design Principles for Learning tell us that this additional support benefits all learners, not just those with disabilities.
Over the years one of the things that online students share through their end-of-course surveys is that they can easily become frustrated, confused or disengaged because the course is difficult to navigate and find what is needed to be successful. When students have to use their cognitive energy to figure out where to access videos, discussions, readings and quizzes they have little energy left to engage with the content. This results in students who are less likely to engage and learn.
In both traditional face-to-face courses and online course offerings the organization and support services should be easy to locate. The sequence and the design of the content as well as activities should have some kind of system and purpose behind it. For example:
If students have to click out of a module and into another to simply watch a video that can be a distraction.
If students have to navigate away from a module to review a discussion board, it can sometimes be difficult to navigate back to the lesson.
Faculty in traditional in-person courses have the added advantage of giving additional verbal explanations and reminders about where items can be located in the course. The same advantage is not available for faculty that teach online. Faculty need to provide clarification and structure ahead of time to proactively avoid any confusion. A couple things to consider:
Faculty should take advantage of any functionality that allows them to view their course in the LMS as a student. Review the entire course from “student view”.
While viewing the course as a student, is it clear where items are located? Is there ever a time when it’s not immediately known what a student should do? Whenever possible provide additional text or guidance such as “click the SUBMIT link above to access the assignment submission area”.
Faculty should make the effort to provide any quick pointers or videos to help students along the way in their online courses.
Faculty should think about creative use of menus, modules and folders when organizing their course content. Minimizing the number of courses navigation items will help reduce any anxiety felt by students during the course.
Faculty should look for a way to find the perfect balance between a single scrolling webpage and an overwhelming number of folders and nested folders to hold their course content.
Overall faculty should strive for organization that is clear and intuitive. Faculty should help students move through their content easily so that the students attention will remain on the learning of the material and in being successful in the course. Faculty may ask an instructional designer for support in the area of course organization and also ask an experienced online colleague for help and simply providing an extra set of eyes on the finished course. Often times faculty are too close to the course content and are not able to see it from the perspective of a student.
When online students are in their class, they aren’t anywhere near the faculty member. The students aren’t there physically. Most online students do their coursework when they are alone, and that means either at home or in a public space such as a library or a local coffee shop. These online students are not able to simply raise a hand and ask a question or turn to another student who is seated next to them and ask for clarification. This creates a strong sense of isolation and sometimes overwhelming need for support. Much different then when classes are conducted in the traditional in-person setting.
Faculty that have taught in a traditional classroom setting can pick up on those nonverbal cues from students. It is much easier to determine if students are tuning out, becoming bored, not understanding or just confused. Faculty can make adjustments on-the-fly much easier in a traditional classroom setting. When working with online students faculty aren’t able to determine if students are puzzled over what has been presented to them or if providing simple clarification is needed.
The question then becomes how do online faculty support online students just as they would in a traditional classroom setting. By walking a mile in the shoes of an online student faculty will be able to anticipate their isolation and plan for it in better course design.
Instructional designers will encourage faculty members to try to make sense of what is being presented on a computer screen. It’s necessary for faculty to get outside of their own head where their own online course makes perfect sense to them and everything is clear. Faculty need to try to envision how their students will experience the course. Some questions to consider:
If your online course uses discussions is it crystal-clear how long the students responses should be? And should students cite their sources?
Are there detailed grading rubrics being used for all assignments? Will students be able to view the grading rubric before beginning work on any particular assignment?
Will examples of successful projects, from previous semesters be provided to the students?
Faculty that are offering their courses online should work closely with an instructional designer, and if possible ask a trusted colleague to evaluate their online course and explore the course as if they were students. Faculty may be surprised by the feedback they get by following through on this course review exercise. Common feedback may include things such as course materials being presented in an unorganized fashion, intimidating tones being used in assignment instructions and a lack of clarity of what to do on the very first day of the course. Faculty should take whatever feedback is provided and consider making a few adjustments to the course.
In a perfect situation, students should know it exactly what is being taught and what they are supposed to do as a result. Online faculty must be intentional and put themselves in the shoes of the student and designing for clarity must be the priority.