Instructors who teach online must cover a number of bases when working with students in an online environment. You must be mentors, knowledge sharers, tech support, facilitators of learning, and technology gurus in your own right. It is easy to see that trying to wear all of these hats can make an online instructor’s life difficult and that student success becomes an afterthought to just surviving an online course.
The good news is that there are ways to ensure your students have a successful learning journey. There are methods, best practices, tips & tricks that can make your life and the lives of your students easier when participating in an online course. For this blog, we will focus on three:
- Start Here
- Model the Behavior You Want to See
- Contextualize Your Instruction
We often assume that students that come into our online courses are digital natives and will somehow intrinsically know how to find their way around when they first enter an online course. Aside from the fact that not every student born after 1990 has a computer implanted in their brain, more and more students pursing an online education are non-traditional students and may not feel as comfortable in the online environment.
This is why it is a good idea to use a Start Here unit or content area in your course. You can leverage the unit as a kind of “this is how my course works” walk-through for your students. It should contain things like course expectations, a welcome message or video from you, introductory discussion and any other information that can help your students be successful in your course. Tips like “assignments, discussions and quizzes are located in each course unit (Weeks)” can answer questions before they are even asked.
Giving your students a “standard operating procedure” for how your course will work will go a long way toward reducing their anxieties about your course and put them on a path for success.
Model the Behavior You Want to See
One way that parents impart knowledge to their young is to demonstrate whatever it is they would like their progeny to do. When you teach, adopt the same practice in order to ensure that your students know what is expected of them. Giving the students a guide or working rubric for what is acceptable can go a long way toward ensuring student success. If you are having them turn in papers, give them a non-topic specific example of how you’d like their papers formatted. It doesn’t have to be an entire paper, but an example of what you are looking for from them. When using the Learning Management System’s discussion board for the first time in your class, be the first person take make the post. This works best in an “Introductions” discussion. Provide the instruction and then provide the example that follows that instruction. The same thing goes for blogs, wikis and journals.
Giving your students an example of the online course behaviors will reduce the amount of uncertainty that naturally comes when taking an online course. Remember that some of them may never have submitted an assignment online or participated in an online discussion. Taking the extra time early in your course to provide guidance will help your students feel at ease and let them know that you are engaged in the course along with them.
Contextualize Your Instruction
Think of your online course as a new destination for your students on their learning journey. How would they describe their navigation experience? Would they say that once they travel into your course that it is difficult to find their way back? Would they say that the course links were easy to find and use? Would they be frustrated trying to make it to their “destination”? These questions can be easily put to rest by providing contextual instruction wherever your students are within the course. If you put every bit of instruction your students would need for the course within the syllabus you would end up with the document that rivals to War and Peace in its width and breadth. Compare how hard it would be to locate instruction in a 20 page document versus instruction in the same area where your students are currently working. College students are used to living in a connected world where they can find instructions for how to do something right where they are via their mobile device or computer. Taking the extra time to provide instruction in the context of where the students are in your course is easy. Here are a few examples:
- Place unit level or assignment specific ojbectives throughout your course. Traditionally we have left Learning Objectives in the syllabus and forgotten about them. By placing objectives in the unit where the student is working or on the assignment the student is focusing on, you remind the students why they are doing what they are doing, and connect the students to course content in a way that keeps them focused on the topic at hand.
- Create a locked INSTRUCTIONS thread in each discussion. Not all LMSs have the facility to keep the forum instructions/description where posts and replies are made. Make the first post of the discussion be a locked INSTRUCTIONS thread that students cannot reply to but is available for them to ensure they remember what they need to do in the forum.
- When placing content in folders, units, learning modules & containers, be descriptive. When creating a folder to place a unit’s worth of course materials, be sure to provide a description to students of what is in the folder. Remember that old adage “Tell them what you are going to tell them“. Placing descriptions on each content folder, unit or module leaves the students with no question as to what those items contain and reduces the stress of not knowing where to click.
- Provide “signs” that tell the students where to go and what to do. This last point on contextualizing your instruction may seem like it comes straight out of the Department of Double Redundancy Department, but it is well worth it to ensure that there is no confusion on the part of your online students. Online students don’t always know where to go or what to click on to advance in your course. A great best practice is to provide the contextual instruction for students so that they will successfully navigate your course. When you do use a folder, or unit for organization be sure to tell them to click the title when you type up your folder/unit description. Also, with some LMSs you can change the title of this particular container/item to blue. Blue is the universal color of links and will help draw the student’s eye. Lastly, place an item at the end of your unit telling the students where to go next. Don’t assume that they always know what comes next in your online course. Provide them with a signpost that points the way!
As with all strategies for success, don’t feel you need to implement all of these at once. You can use them all, but don’t feel like you have to. Pick one of them to use this time and become comfortable with it. Next time add another and so on. We all want to be in the business of student success. We want to see our students succeed. With a little extra effort you can help ensure that students fewer obstacles in their path when it comes to being successful in your online course. Implementing a Start Here unit in your course, modeling the behavior you want your students to exhibit and contextualizing your instructions will help set you and your students on a path to success.