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

Top 5 List

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 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:
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.
Criteria: Word Count
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.

Criteria: Resources
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:
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 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.