Five ways to build a more engaging online class

A few months ago, the US News and World Report identified 6 signs of a bad online instructor.  The list includes such markers “no set timetable for emails” and “an unclear syllabus.”  The list was primarily designed for students enrolling in an online class so they could easily assess the quality of a class and withdrawal if needed.  It’s kind of like the brown M&M story for Van Halen.  In their concert contracts with venues, Van Halen would require a bowl of M&Ms backstage with all of the brown M&Ms removed.  While many people felt the band was just exerting their excessive celebrity status, the reasoning was actually much different.  Since the contracts usually outlined explicit safety considerations that were needed for the band to perform, the brown M&M’s gave the band manager an easy way to assess whether the venue had done their due diligence.  If he saw brown M&M’s in the bowl, he would know that the venue hadn’t followed the contract to the letter.  It’s a quick and easy assessment.

While these “signs for bad online instructors” may provide the same easy assessment for students, it’s not that helpful for people wanting to develop engaging online classes.  An online instructor could essentially correct the “6 signs” and still have a poorly constructed online class.  Rather than focus on these areas, I offer the following strategies for building more engaging online classes.  Most of them are directly or indirectly related to Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis’s work with the Social Presence Model.

1.  Be involved.  Students find online courses more engaging when they know the instructor is participating herself.  I’ve blogged about this before and discussed the need for instructors to be VOCAL (visible, organized, compassionate, analytical and a leader-by-example).  When students submitted an assignment, provide individualized feedback to students.  If you’ve assigned participation in discussion forums, respond to their discussion posts.  It’s important that you’re e a participant in the online class and not just an observer.

2.  Get students talking early.   In the very first module of my online courses, I usually have students introducing themselves to their classmates.  This helps to break the ice in the class and fosters a larger community across the group.  I find early involvement in online classes leads to more extended engagement with course content and in the discussion forums.

3.  Use a mix of media.   Students like to hear the voices and see the faces of the people in their online classes.  Rather than having students submitting papers or taking online tests, have them use online tools (MyBrainShark, Screencastomatic, etc.) to record their voices as they present their ideas.    Instead of uploading text-based documents, create short lesson videos that teach the content.  By using a variety of modalities with your online students, you can help them engage with the class at multiple levels.

4.  Connect the content to students’ lives.  While this may be difficult with some subject matter, it helps to build social presence with students.  By having students connect the content with their experiences, you tap into the element of the Social Presence Model that Dikkers, Whiteside and Lewis call “Knowledge and Experience.”  When students share their knowledge and personal experience with a topic, they feel more connected with the content.

5.  Seek out new alternate forms of content.  The Internet houses a wealth of educational material. From blogs to videos to simulations, the online instructor really has a world at their fingertips.  Not finding anything valuable on YouTube or through Google?  Check out some of the sites for Open Source Educational Content.

What have you lost?

I heard a report on the radio the other day about the many venues and recreation centers that were banning the infamous “selfie stick.”  If you haven’t yet been introduced to the device, the selfie stick (or photo arm) helps a person take a better-framed picture of herself.  Amusement parks have banned them on rides for safety reasons.  Several music festivals have banned their use completely because they obstructed the view of the musicians on stage.  Jason Gilbert, a technology editor for Yahoo Tech, has compiled a comprehensive list of places that have banned the selfie stick.  Gilbert promises to update the list regularly.  If you’re an avid selfie stick user, you may want to check out the list before planning your summer vacation.

In the radio report, the announcer proposed a suggestion for people to avoid selfie stick withdrawal.  “When you want to take a selfie and you can’t use your selfie stick, ask a passerby to lend you a hand.”  The suggestion may seem incredulous to some but that’s the way people used to take photos at monuments or state parks or museums.  We would ask someone nearby to give a hand.  Now with photo arms, remotes and built-in countdown timers, we’re trying to be independent.  It’s kind of funny that in the new “sharing culture,” we’re sharing a lot less.  Sure, we’re sharing photos of the celebrities we see or the places we visit.  But this is a different kind of sharing.  I’m talking about the sharing of time and talent instead of the sharing for self-promotion or envy.

Along the way, we’ve lost some of the sharing.  I hope I don’t sound like a crotchety old guy.  It’s not really my intention.  Instead, I want to shine a light on the aspects of our culture and society that we lose through the incorporation of technology.  Every time a new tool or technology is introduced, loads of people focus on the features and functionality we gain.  Routines become more efficient and streamlined.  We gain new powers and new routes to communication.  But we also lose some things in return.

A friend of mine completed three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan over a seven or eight year period.  After his last tour, we were discussing how much he was able to use Skype while he was stationed overseas.  He said that it provided comfort to his family to see his face and hear his voice regularly.  “But,” he said, “I don’t have a single letter from this tour.  After the other tours, my wife and I made a scrapbook of all of our letters to each other.  This tour, I don’t have a single one.”  With technology, we gain.  And we lose.

I don’t have a solution to avoid the losses we experience from the incorporation and evolution of new technologies.  Maybe those losses are things we can’t fight even if we try.  Instead, I want to shine a light on the loss and help us do better at recognizing the changes that are happening around us.  We don’t need to mourn the loss.  But maybe we can do a better job of accounting for it.

On my reading list

Summer is approaching and I’m putting together my reading list.  While I’ve never been one to sit on a beach and read, I do like to create a list of books that I’d like to tackle while I’m away from campus.  Here are a few I’ve added to the list so far:

1.  Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology – This has been on my reading list for a while.  I’ve had a copy sitting on my desk for the last few months and I’ve been trying to find the time to read it.  The book is written by Michelle Miller, a professor of psychological sciences and co-director of the first-year learning program at Northern Arizona University.  In the text, Miller discusses the educational value of teaching online.  As someone who teaches a lot online, I’m anxious to see how she frames educational access and discusses the benefits online learning.

2.  ZigZag: The Surprising Path to Greater Creativity – A colleague recommended this as a possible book for a faculty learning community on campus.  The book identifies different strategies to increasing creative potential and could be a great resource for those of us who work with students in educational contexts.

3.  Talk like TED –  I’m one of the plenary speakers for the Teaching Professor Technology Conference this fall and I’m looking for ways to liven up my address.  A friend suggested that I check out this book to learn the “nine public speaking techniques of the world’s top minds.”  While it may not alleviate my anxiety, it may make my presentation a little stronger.

4.  It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens – As a dad of a teenager, I’m a little nervous about my daughter’s online activity and I hope this book will help me be a more informed parent.  Through exhaustive interviews with teenagers, the author, Danah Boyd, examines how teenagers use technology to interact with their peers.  A colleague has been using the book in her Legal and Ethical Issues in Online Education course and her students have loved the text.

5.  Twenty One Trends for the 21st Century: Out of the Trenches and Into the Future – This book just showed up on my radar recently.  Written by Gary Marx, the book examines different worldwide trends that are going to significantly impact the next century.  Concepts like diversity, sustainability and privacy are going to loom heavily on society and the book could be a good resource for creating some campus faculty development in the coming academic year.


The most important question 

It’s the end of the semester and things are getting a little crazy on campus.  It seems that finals week always brings out odd requests, tales of hardship and hopes for opportunities of redemption.  Some students ask for an incomplete grade to continue working on class materials.  Others will request extra credit assignments to boost their grades.  A few desperate students will beg their instructors to overlook a semester full of missed classes or tardies with a last ditch attempt to pull out the proverbial fourth quarter comeback.  This is that time of year.

When I first started teaching, I always had trouble weighing the requests.  I originally took a hard stance and just said “no” to every student, regardless of the situation.  While I consistently applied my “Just say no!” strategy, I realized that wasn’t actually being fair to students in need.  Let’s face it.  While those of us who work in higher education like to think of ourselves completely as academics and scholars, we’re really in the people business.  We work with students and they sometimes need empathy and support.  With this in mind, I’ve come up with the most important question that guides all of my decision-making when considering any instructional course of action.

What is in the best of interest of the student?

It may not be that groundbreaking or revolutionary but the question firmly places our focus on students’ needs.  Before anyone suggests that it means giving passing grades to all students or reducing expectations, I don’t apply the question that liberally.  Like me provide a few examples.  During a recent winter session, I had a student who was struggling financially.  She was taking an online class and had some of her utilities shut off during the course.  Considering her economic situation, I chose to give her an incomplete at the end of the semester so she could have a little more time to make up her work.  I felt the economic impact of an F would not be in her best interest.  She was a bright student and ultimately received a B+ in the class.  The incomplete was absolutely in her best interest.

But let’s look at a different situation.  I worked with a student a few semesters ago who was absolutely in the wrong program.  Although he was an intelligent young man, he wasn’t passionate about his major and his performance in class was lackluster.  I gave him the grade he earned (an F), even though he had requested some leniency.  In his situation, he was forced to consider whether his chosen major was right for him.  The failing grade motivated him to switch directions and find a program in which he was more passionate.  In this situation, the failure was absolutely in his best interest.

More recently, I had a student who I believe was dealing with some mental health issues.  She missed a bunch of classes and always had some drawn out excuse for her absences.  Despite her requests for an incomplete, I graded her on the work she submitted and gave the student an F.  It wasn’t an easy decision.  I hoped that the failing grade would provide some opportunity for a family intervention or maybe motivate her to seek help on her own.   Since it was relatively recent, I’m still waiting to see how this last scenario plays out.  The student was upset and said I was being unfair.  But I know that my heart was in the right place.  I made the decision with her interest in mind, whether she recognizes it or not.