Working From Home

Working From Home – CC0 Public Domain
Working From Home – CC0 Public Domain

Going forward many of us may be working from home, for the summer…or the rest of 2020. This is the current state of affairs we are faced with. The coronavirus pandemic is and will be pushing many skilled workers to home offices. Time will only tell if we will be returning to our pre-pandemic offices or not. 

Those that have a history of working remotely report that they enjoy the freedom to manage their schedules, work anywhere and little or no commute. If you find yourself in need of a home office to function as your primary work place, here are a few things to consider.

Setup a focused workspace

A top priority for working from home is to ensure that your designated work space is equipped properly, comfortable and has good lighting. Additionally, you’ll need to have a comfortable and supportive chair as well as an area large enough to accommodate your computer and paperwork needed for each work day. TIP: If your work space is small or dark, consider hanging a mirror to bring in natural light.

Establish a routine

Those in leadership positions report that they worry remote workers will be distracted by household responsibilities or social media. However, when surveyed most employees report that when they are working from home, the challenge is more about breaking away from work. TIP: Schedule several 15-minute breaks during the day for light chores or set timers as reminders to get up and move around throughout the day. Finally, consider making a clean break from work at the end of the day by working out, playing with kids or pets.

Stay connected

Employees that enjoy remote work report that they do miss some of the routines of a shared workspace, including bonding with co-workers like coffee breaks, lunches and celebrations. TIP: Intentionally schedule meetings to replicate the in-office experience. For example, coffee hours or happy hours are a great way to keep remote workers in the loop, boost morale and stay connected.

Tips to quickly create a home office

If you find yourself in a position to quickly set up a remote work space, consider:

  • A desk with plenty of space
  • An uncluttered area or bare wall to serve as a background for virtual meetings
  • A computer with a built-in webcam, microphone and speakers
  • Noise cancelling headphones
  • An internet speed of up to 30Mbps for downloads should be fine
  • Check with local internet service provider for best pricing options
  • Sufficient outlets to keep devices powered up
  • Printer and printer paper
  • A room with a door that you can close
  • Plenty of natural or artificial light
  • A solid wi-fi connection – (a hard-wired connection, if possible)
  • Locate a solution for free file storage – OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox etc.
  • Online productivity tools that allow for low barriers to collaboration with colleagues (Google or Microsoft)
  • No or low cost video conferencing and project management solutions
  • Lastly, develop a plan to keep your hardware and software updated and secure

-RG

Strategies For Engaging Students

Strategy – CC0 Public Domain
Strategy – CC0 Public Domain

For faculty, encouraging student engagement is important in the online environment as the drop-out rates are significantly higher than the traditional face-to-face courses. Engagement like many other things in online education may have a different meaning based on perspective. Here are a few strategies for engaging online students in your online courses, from the faculty perspective:

Feedback – timely feedback on assignments will allow your online students to incorporate the feedback and make improvements for future assignments. This may seem nearly impossible for larger courses. A good strategy that many online faculty use is that of providing examples, templates or models of well-written assignments, this will allow the student to focus on the goals of the assignment. Having a well-written rubric available for online students to review before they begin their work will help them focus on the desired expectations. Online faculty should consider reusing feedback from the previous semester. Based on experience from previous semesters, faculty can proactively address items where students typically run into obstacles and provide clarifying directions as needed.

Interaction – online faculty must be present in their courses in order to engage the students. Faculty can be present in their online courses by participating in discussion forums and asking students probing questions and encouraging the students to ask probing questions of each other.  Faculty can also be present by emailing individual students, groups of students and providing announcements, as needed to keep the discussions moving along.  Group collaboration tools are also becoming more popular and online faculty are finding success in messaging students directly, outside of the LMS. [Slack is a great example of this technology.]

Application – many online students are also working adults and ensuring the content of the course is relevant and can be applied to their real-life/real-world experience is a key item in the effort to keep them engaged. Those students that consider themselves to be working adults are more likely to voice their concerns about an assignment being “busy-work” if they feel that it doesn’t apply to their work life. Online faculty should invest the time at the beginning of the course to get to know the students and the type of work they might be involved in as well as their expectations for the course. Engaging assignments will involve some type of research, developing an original idea and using their critical thinking skills to solve some problem they might be faced with in the workplace.

Interesting – online courses that include some type of hands-on learning activity will generally be more interesting and more engaging.  By asking students to communicate what they have learned about a new technology and how they can apply its use to their current profession/future profession will make their coursework more interesting. As an online instructor, look for opportunities to replace traditional text-based assignments.  Try to incorporate more audio and video  by using online tools such as Flipgrid, VoiceThread or Jing. Using a few different options as a way to present their ideas will keep students motivated and interested in the course. Students all learn differently and providing a variety of options will only enhance the interest in the course and engage the student.

-RG

Team Motivation By Problem Statement

JFK May 1961 – CC0 Public Domain
JFK May 1961 – CC0 Public Domain

Recently, I came across a problem statement from the early 1960’s and it tied nicely with the topic of Mission and Vision statements.

Many years ago I was lucky enough to work with a gentleman who had made a career of providing consulting and corporate training services. While I am not sure this would classify as a Mentor-Mentee relationship, he did leave a lasting impression.

During our time together I attended several workshops that he facilitated on the topic of Mission Statements. Many of his workshops were focused on small teams that existed inside of much larger organizations.

The workshops were always great and he was a great facilitator…no matter the size of the audience. Very personable and connected with all in attendance. During his workshops he would educate attendees on the purpose of a vision statement and a mission statement for their larger organization as well as their smaller working group/team.

As workshops moved along and small teams started to zero-in on their mission statements, he would ask the teams how motivated they were feeling. It was no surprise that hands did NOT shoot into the air by attendees who felt especially motivated.

These mission statements were not motivating. The problem he explained was that they are simply vague statements. Samples usually included:

  • To empower creation…
  • To change the world…
  • To become the number 1…
  • To give everyone power…
  • Etc.

He would push the teams further to develop a vision… a future state of their smaller working team. This helped with motivation, but only slightly.

The real change came about when he introduced the idea of the Mission Essential Task List. This was a to-do list of the tasks that members of the team would do regularly to achieve their desired future state, the Vision statement, that would be directly aligned with their Mission and that of the larger organization.

Today, I am wondering if an exercise in Problem Statement creation might be beneficial to smaller groups that have been created inside of larger organizations.

Problem statements are very similar to Mission Statements but are tied directly to a reality of something that needs to be fixed or changed. Fixing or changing some product, service or process is what motivates people. Problem statements don’t have to describe a problem, just something that can be solved. The idea bing that…it is possible to arrive at the correct answer.

Finding the correct answer is especially motivating to those individuals that work in technology.  Here are a few things that will make a problem statement more motivating:

  • Learning – individuals that work in technology would love to learn new things and master them
  • Value – individuals that work in technology would love to work on something that makes a difference
  • Competition – individuals that work in technology would love to compete and prove their intelligence and hold bragging rights
  • Difficulty – individuals that work in technology would love to solve a problem that initially seems to be unsolvable

The problem statement mentioned at the beginning of this post:

“First, I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth. No single space project in this period will be more impressive to mankind, or more important for the long-range exploration of space; and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish. “ – John F. Kennedy in May 1961.

-RG

Top 5 List – Lessons Learned from Leading a Large Online Course

Large Online Course
Large Online Course

As an instructional designer, one of my primary responsibilities includes managing the design, development and delivery of online course content for our college’s online courses, most of which enroll more than 200 students in a section. For a class of that size our college hires several Academic Associates – degreed professionals hired to work with up to 30 students and facilitate their learning under the leadership of a Lead Instructor. This past year presented me with the opportunity to serve as Lead Instructor for one of our freshman-level online courses, managing a 12-member instructional team to facilitate a high-enrollment course of nearly 300 students. This was by far the most interesting, challenging and learning experience I have had teaching online courses since I began in the late 1990’s, both as an instructor and also as a team leader.

Teaching the course and leading this dynamic instructional team taught me several new things about working online. Having so many students enrolled in a single course, all working in smaller groups of up to 30 with different instructional personnel, highlighted the need for clear and consistent guidelines and applications of policies, such that students would understand them and instructional personnel would know how to carry them out. Our inter-team communication and collaboration was also critical and allowed us to coordinate as a team – discussing key issues, raising and discussing questions, clarifying information, and highlighting changes for the next course offering.

Several key items emerged as essential to the successful course experience. Here are the top 5 things that I learned, in no particular order.

Lay the Groundwork – to lay the groundwork with the instructional team before an online course begins is synonymous with establishing the *rules of the road*. This is a must for all instructional teams and a good practice for individual instructors to think through. Laying the groundwork consisted of creating and sharing a document with the members of the instructional team that would be used to guide the discussion at the pre-course meeting, and refer back to as needed once the course went live.

This document provided general guidelines as to how we would together facilitate the course with as much consistency as possible. For example, how would the instructional team communicate with students, how would we communicate with other members of our instructional team, how would we as an instructional team handle grading and feedback, how would we handle student issues and how would we address modifying course content.

Establish Weekly Meetings – the idea of a pre-course meeting with all of the members of the Instructional Team seemed like a no-brainer and a must as most of us would be meeting for the first time during this meeting. I made initial contact with the members of the Instructional Team using email and we agreed to use Google Hangouts for our first and subsequent meetings.

In that first meeting, because of the size of our team I decided to bypass individual introductions and get the course management discussion started. Our laying the groundwork document drove the discussion for this first meeting and we talked about the course in general being offered in a different LMS [we were part of a pilot project and asked to provide feedback about our experience using a competing LMS], the final project and the Lesson 1 assignments. We spent nearly 75 minutes in that first meeting and it became very clear…very quickly that we would be meeting weekly.  

The Instructional Team agreed to meet on Tuesday evenings at 6:30 pm. Agendas were created using Google docs and all members of the Instructional Team were able to add items throughout each week. The weekly meetings evolved into a recorded Google Hangout session that was hosted on YouTube and could be viewed by a member of the team that arrived to a meeting late, or viewed by a team member that missed a meeting or reviewed by a team member to better understand an agenda item.

Write Clear Directions – when I first began working as an online Instructor I would spend a significant amount of time composing the syllabus and schedule for a course to make sure course policies and assignment due dates were clear to the students. Those documents were always the priority and I recall not spending quite as much time on assignment directions, rubrics and feedback for students. That all has changed now after seeing what a large online course looks and feels like. As an Instructional Team we quickly realized how important it was going to be to provide clear directions not just for the students, but for us as the Instructional Team as well. Examples of areas where we provided clearer directions include:

  • Policy – when we began we realized that each member of our Instructional Team had a different definition of late work ranging from *5 minutes* to *within the first 24 hours*. If we were to provide consistent grading we needed to DEFINE late work. Here is how we defined late work:
Before After
 No late work will be accepted LATE WORK: NO late work will be accepted. Late work is defined as *any graded item that is submitted after the due date – this includes items that are submitted ONE MINUTE past the due date*
  • Rubrics – word count criteria – this criteria is common in rubrics and our course was no different. We found that we needed to present word count ranges in order to prevent students from submitting work significantly below or in some cases beyond the expectation.
Before After
Minimum word count of 350 words is expected Response must be provided in 300-450 words. Responses with word counts below or above this range will be penalized

We also wanted to address the resources that were being used for student  research. The goal was to push the students to find more credible resources than what they might find doing a simple search on the internet.

Before After
Provide two resources that support your position in the discussion Provide two resources that support your position in the discussion. These resources must come from the university library
  • Assignments – in a smaller [25-30 student] online course there may not be a need to provide clear direction as to the file type that will be accepted. There may be 1-2 students that submit a file that can’t be opened and reviewed. In a large online course those numbers could be much greater. We provided clearer directions by changing this direction:
Before After
Submit your document here Submit your document here:

*ONE file – do NOT submit more than one file.

*The file must be saved and submitted as a .pdf, .docx or .doc

*Submitting more than one file, or a file type other than what is listed here, will result in a zero for the assignment.

Increase Instructor Presence – we all agreed that establishing instructor presence was the key to creating an engaging community of inquiry. The presence of our instructional team would have a direct impact on the small group interactions and the development of thinking skills of the students enrolled in the course. We decided to create interactions with students by using:

  • Interactions that would encourage participation in the course – the goal was to be welcoming and personable from the beginning of the course and provide motivation and encouraging language using the student’s name at every opportunity
  • Interactions that monitor student progress – the goal was to provide timely interactions with students. This meant all students…and especially those that appeared to be behind and not making satisfactory progress towards the objectives
  • Interactions that provide feedback on submitted work – the goal is to provide timely and frequent feedback to help students determine where they need to spend additional time. We made every attempt to sandwich recommendations for improvement between positive comments to avoid leaving the student with the feeling that everything they do is wrong.

Talk with Students – the goal here is to actually “talk” with students. Many times when I ask faculty how they talk with students they reference email, scheduled course announcements canned feedback based on the course rubrics etc. I too use those methods as they are a must in online courses and our team will continue to use those going forward. During this last Fall semester I found significantly more opportunities to talk with students live and in-person due to the size of the course and some of the issues that arose due to the pilot project we were involved with. I found these opportunities to be well worth the time I invested. In the Spring semester, I randomly selected 2 students each week to speak with. Each conversation started with two questions: What are we doing well as instructors? What can we do to improve?

I found students were willing to speak openly about what they thought and what was confusing to them. For example, during one phone conversation a student asked me: “should the discussion boards should be used like a regular conversation in a regular class?”. Yes, I replied.

Whether you are a seasoned online instructor with years of experience or preparing for your first online course assignment these 5 things will lead to a more enjoyable online experience for the students and the instructional team.

-RG