Teaching an online class for the first time: things to consider

I am by no means an expert in distance/online education, and I would never claim to be one. But after having taught my second online course in two different university settings this past June, I do have a couple of pointers for the first-timer to be aware of while developing and delivering an online course.

First, your CYA pointer: check to see if your university has a manual or workshop for online instructors, and make sure you make use of any such aids, if for no other reason than that, if things go awry for whatever reason, you can demonstrate that it is not because you did not follow the regulations your university has imposed upon online instructors. Some particular points you need to be certain of before your course begins: whether you’re required to take attendance or authenticate student participation in your class and if so, how; whether you’re required to hold posted virtual office hours or you can simply tell your students to contact you via email with questions; what the required workload is for online students in order to fulfill Higher Learning Commission or other accreditation requirements; what the policies and procedures are for allowing students to override attendance caps or take the course at a different level (i.e. taking a 200-level course at the 300 level and so forth), reporting students who never log into the class, dealing with students who plagiarize or otherwise cheat on assignments, and so forth–sometimes handling such situations can differ for online courses in comparison to on-the-ground ones.

Second: There are a lot of instructors who develop their online course week by week, rather than having the entire course available to their students up front. I highly recommend that you upload and publish the entirety of your course at the beginning, rather than doing it in a piece-meal fashion as the course rolls out; if you don’t want the students to have access to every assignment from Day One, you can always use the adaptive release controls in your learning platform (Blackboard and Canvas both offer it) but there are several good reasons for having it done and uploaded. First, without the pressure of thinking up readings and assignments, quizzes, and so forth while the course is running you can devote your time to assessing student work without feeling pressed for time throughout the duration of the course (and have the time needed to troubleshoot any issues that arise). Second, most students taking an online course are doing so because of the flexibility an online course affords; they want (and sometimes need) the ability to “work at their own pace.” I know some professors who create the entire course on a do-it-yourself pace and just open it and let the students go. I like a little more collaboration with my students and I also don’t want to end up with fifteen assignment sets to assess on the last day of the course, so I do require my students to complete all of a given week’s work by 11:59 p.m. Sunday of each week–but they are welcome to work ahead once a week’s assignments are completed. That’s a nice compromise that gives them flexibility without sacrificing your sanity as the instructor–but to offer it, the whole class needs to be up and running from day one. It takes a lot of effort up-front to make that happen–my online courses have taken on average 40 hours to build from scratch, counting shooting and uploading videos, writing quizzes and assignments, and developing and organizing the modules–but it also ensures a much smoother experience both in teaching and taking the course once it opens.

Along those lines, some professors open their course to students for viewing, or to complete introductory materials like posting videos & taking syllabus quizzes, etc., up to a week before the actual course begins. This practice can be especially helpful for students who have travel plans or other potential time conflicts like work and family obligations to contend with. I would check with your university to make sure doing so doesn’t violate any policies about online coursework, but if it isn’t a violation of any policy I think this is a good idea, and it’s one I intend to make use of in future online teaching.

Third: I know that one of the things people like about online teaching is that they often don’t have to grade as much, but have a mix of automatic assignments, like the quizzes you can set up to grade themselves, and assignments you actually have to read and score. Make sure that the assignments you have to read and score allow you to offer the students individual and personalized feedback on their work. It’s probably true that a lot of students don’t care about the comments and just want the grade, but there are also a lot of students who really do want the professor’s feedback on their work. Err on the side of offering that feedback whenever possible, and make it clear and evidence-based. In Canvas, I use the Speedgrader function, read the students’ document, and then actually cut and paste specific quotes from the student’s work to support the comments I’m making, so they can clearly see the examples of what I think is particularly good, or needs improvement, in the work they are doing for me. It doesn’t take as long to do this online as it does on paper. Regular ongoing assessment matters in an online course, because it is the only means students have of gauging how they are doing–they don’t have the benefit of face-to-face contact and conversations that happen during on-the-ground courses. Don’t sit on grades, and don’t leave them wondering whether you think they are doing okay. Give them good, solid, meaningful feedback in the form of comments on at least one assignment per week (preferably much more than that).

Fourth: Look, this is an online class and students have access to the entire Internet at all times while taking it. Think carefully about the assignments you are asking your students to complete–do you REALLY want to assign a 3-5 page essay on a canned topic that pretty much every professor in your field will ask students to write on, and make them upload it through Turnitin.com, and spend hours scrutinizing percentage matches? Or do you want to know that the students have been exposed to the information you want them to have and can use it to demonstrate their understanding of the course objectives? If you ask them for definitions, they’re going to copy-and-paste those definitions from some website. If you ask them for commentary on a specific symbol or metaphor, they’re going to locate that on a website and cut and paste it in. We KNOW this. So, if you can’t beat them, join them. Get more creative with your assignments, and have them use the Internet freely as a tool to complete the work rather than a crutch to get through it. Some ideas: have them complete textual archives (students have to locate images that are NOT book illustrations or movie stills for a particular text’s film adaptation, which they associate with a given text, and write a paragraph explaining why they chose that image–interpretation work); have them choose a significant quote, explain why they chose it, and post that to a discussion board, and then read through these and choose someone else’s quote to respond to in a video response–critical response work; ask them to locate 3-5 websites online that would be helpful to other students in understanding the week’s assignments and post them with an explanation for what, specifically, they think is helpful about each one (annotated bibliography-style work); have them complete a weekly synthesis paper in which they have to pull together the course reading(s), and assignments they have done for the week, any videos or lecture notes you posted, and any other information they got from the Internet and synthesize those into a 2-3 page summary of the week’s subject matter, with bibliography of all sources included. These kinds of assignments are open to a full range of internet assistance, but are also unique to your course in terms of the texts or other content being covered–students will have a very hard time plagiarizing them–and in my experience, students typically don’t, because they think these kinds of assignments are interesting and they want to do them.

Fifth: I mentioned videos. You should have some. Even if it is just a brief, 3-5 minute introduction to the course, students like to see who you are, to put a face to the name, and to feel like there is actually a person on the other side of the computer. For my online summer course this past June, I had an Introductory video discussing the requirements for online learning and how to use Canvas for my class, one offering a general overview of the course subject matter and learning objectives, and one each introducing in very broad strokes each of the major time periods and literary movements we covered–8-9 videos, ranging between 3-12 minutes each. If you don’t want to post a video of yourself, then focus the camera on a Powerpoint you’ve created, or on a photograph or pet or something–but give the students some idea of the live person behind the course syllabus, even if it is only your voice. And have them record and upload introductory videos of themselves as well–these do not have to be shared with other students, but they’re helpful in letting you know a little about the people you are teaching, and humanizing the online experience a little.

Those are my beginning pointers for teaching an online course for the first time. If you’ve taught online before and have other ideas or suggestions, please feel free to leave them in the comments section below!

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About Melissa Ridley Elmes

I am a medievalist, wife and mother of two who spends her days researching, writing, teaching, painting, singing, dancing, acting and trying to find more hours in a day.
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