Teaching University Courses Online; A Part of the Learning Journey
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
The Corona Virus has meant universities are looking to switch their courses online quickly. Universities have had the capacity for online and blended learning for a few decades now, and whilst many have kept up to date on the latest Learning Management Software (LMS), lecturers have been wary.
Most academics are uncomfortable teaching entirely online, and indeed it does feel as the interaction is stilted. If we are honest, it’s the lack of the performative aspect, the ability to feed off the energy in the room and show our personality. It’s through this performance that we are able to convey meaning and emphasis by using humour, raising our voice or using engaging body language.
Online courses lack passion and inspiration. Or, at least that’s what we’ve decided to believe.
Also, to move to the virtual is not a simple task of taking face-to-face content and simply moving it to an online platform. The new format requires a little re-thinking. Focusing on the online platforms rather than the teaching elements can confuse the basic purpose of what the lecturers are trying to achieve. The course, whether at Bachelors or Masters level, online or off-line, needs to be focused on the learner and their learning journey. Personally, I have decided not to be daunted by the challenge, but rather look at it as an opportunity to find new methods and increase my ability to engage with students.
Our primary objective, as teachers/lecturers, is not to teach but to give space to learn.
Our role should always be to provide space and opportunity for students to formulate their own learning experiences. Adults are different from younger learners. To start with they are more pragmatic about their learning goals, they have specific reasons and motivations to attend a course. Learning is often self-initiated for older students. This often means they wish to have greater control over their learning and are therefore sometimes resistant to change. Conversely, adults also have a wealth of experience to draw on, which is something teaching staff can take advantage of. Rather than seeing the curriculum as a set of required readings, concepts and practical activities, we can instead see it as the totality of learning experience which is in part created by the students themselves. Teaching online or teaching in a lecture hall or workgroup session, comes down to the same basic building blocks of good teaching; focus on the learners and their learning journey, a clearly designed course, and varying levels of engagement and interaction.
The Learning Journey
Most lecturers and tutors are unaware of how they actually connect with students and get them to think of their own learning processes. However, we all do it. Littered throughout our lectures and workshops etc, are suggestions, tips, anecdotes to guide students on the learning journey. This is one of the great dynamic aspects of face-to-face learning that we can weave into our contact time with students.
For online learning, however, this needs to be more carefully planned and integrated into various elements.
Reflective learning blogs /vlogs (individual or group). Organise students into groups to write a blog at regular intervals (e.g. monthly). Ask them to answer set questions to make them reflect on their learning process: How are they learning and engaging with the concepts of the course? What challenges them in their learning journey? What strategies have they tried to implement? How successful were those strategies? You can provide students with a number of readings or examples for the basis of reflection; i.e. an adapted version of Bloom’s taxonomy, or Schon’s learning in action model. After posting their blogs, students’ provide peer feedback in the form of substantive comments for other groups. Towards the end of each course, allow the students to look back at the challenges they’ve overcome and the strategies they have created. This allows them to map their progress and establish their ownership over their learning journey.
Hold brainstorming sessions with students on their learning goals and learning strategies. Prior to online lectures or workgroup sessions, encourage students to meet one hour before/after to brainstorm key issues and challenges related to the content in small groups to then feedback to the whole group at the start of the online lecture.
Recent studies have shown that online attention span had reduced from 12 seconds to 8 seconds. Meaning it is harder than ever to keep students engaged via virtual platforms. This also presents a challenge for the course organisation and means the traditional structure of reading / 1 or 2-hour lecture /workgroup tutorial, doesn’t work anymore.
Moving courses online doesn’t mean a total redesign of the content. Face-to-face courses are often organised around wider themes and topics, with lists of required reading supported by lectures, workgroups and tutorials. We also expect students in a face-to-face course to follow all activities at the same time. However, with online courses, we have the opportunity to be more creative, and structure courses asynchronously, where students can follow the different aspects of the module at different times but still reach the same learning objectives. As a result, online learning needs to be organised into shorter and more easily manageable units. Chunking is sometimes used to describe this mode of course organisation. Breaking down the course to modules made up of smaller units with specific learning objectives for skills and content knowledge. Over the course, the specific smaller learning objectives build on each other over a unit and in modules.
Rather than longer reading lists, more specific reading might be suitable or tasks given for students to research important readings for themselves. Students can access reading via Google docs and use this as an opportunity to annotate readings together in pairs or as small groups. As a follow-up students share annotated readings with other groups and compare ideas or ‘teach’ one another on different sets of readings. By making use of virtual settings as a tool, we can increase students ability to critically engage with texts.
Break lectures into several 10-minute videos each focused on specific issues or questions in the content. Part of your lecture could be to narrate over your usual powerpoint slides to give students the same access to your way of speaking to create emphasis. Avoid being perfect but instead focus on the performative way you would give a lecture – this includes little mistakes or slips of the tongue. Some part of lectures can still be ‘live’ by using platforms such as Zoom, which still gives you the opportunity to use a whiteboard function. However, these live lectures via video platform still need to be short and to the point.
Make use of different tools and virtual platforms to give students greater freedom to participate.
Scaffold learning by giving a 2-minute video on examples or models that can support an assignment, clarify learning objectives in a virtual Q& A. Students need to be clear on what they must do. Clarity of objectives is essential.
Allow students to develop their own strategies for online learning through group discussions prior to the start of a session or assignment.
Increase the number of pre-lecture tasks and activities at both individual and small group level before whole class discussions via discussion boards or in video-chat. Set students questions, case studies or problems to research prior to the lecture. Give more time for discussions via Google hangouts or chat functions on the LMS.
Allow greater space for feedback through using micro-tasks. Micro-tasks are focused on specific content related or academic skills. For example, set a short (150 to 200 words) close text analysis of required reading to develop referencing skills. These short tasks can be shared easily and students can build up peer feedback on specific skills. These micro-tasks don't need to be written as essay assignments, students could make reflection vlogs/blogs/photovoice journals on their thoughts of the content. This also allows for students to gradually work up to more conceptual difficult essays and final thesis.
The main emphasis here is to break up the usual dynamics of university teaching into shorter, focused activities with varying the modes of communication.
We want to engage not only with the diversity of learners, but the diversity of modes of learning - touch, sight, sound and experience.
Interaction & Engagement
It’s easy to allow online courses to become passive and static. As you have seen with all the previous suggestions, however, students don’t need to work individually online with a 1-hour video and list of readings. Instead, make use of pair and group work, and use this as an opportunity for students to cross-group to provide feedback. Different levels of interaction between students, allows students to gain fresh perspectives and stay engaged with the material.
Online courses benefit from more active, engaged models but most of all from your presence.
Have virtual office hours/email hours and online chat hours. Respond to comments on the discussions board / LMS chat forum, or put out an announcement that summarises some of the comments the students are making with your thoughts.
Allow students time to collate their feedback from peers or yourself. They can make a table of common types of comments and make a learning action plan to improve their academic writing/presentation skills.
Hold a virtual conference organised by the students. Organise the students into groups with each group as a panel to present different perspectives on a topic. Have a chair and a discussant. Invite other classes to be an audience, providing a great opportunity for students to polish their knowledge of their content and their presentation skills.
Provide rewards for active participation, contributions and attendance as you would in a normal course. Rewards can be through grading participation or providing formative comments from lectures or TA. Or, get creative.
Allow for several methods to gain active participation - i.e. students can use chat or audio functions in the live sessions or have space for peer feedback, both private and public (i.e. on a blog). Discussion boards can also be useful with weekly questions on specific topics.
Vary the level of interaction through small group engagement/one to one tutorials/large lecture style. Set group blogs/collaborative assignments via google docs or research projects which aim to create case studies or solve a challenge.
Have rules for interaction between students and with you as a tutor. For example, students must provide structured comments for peer feedback – i.e. each comment must have 3 sentences; clear point to improve/highlighting a strength, evidence from the text and finally further suggestions or advice. Make students responsible for the contributions they make.
Teaching online with the right preparation can be as dynamic and inspiring for students as a face to face course. The Corona Virus and the national responses to shut down public spaces have highlighted our shortcomings with a number of issues not only teaching online. However, there remains a small opportunity to see this time, where universities have no choice but to implement work from home rules, as a chance to reinvigorate university teaching.