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eLearning Frenzy

eLearning is like a sewer, what you get out of it depends on what you put into it.

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Best Practices For Utilizing TA’s In Your Online Course

Having an Effective TA for Your Online Course

We all know that teaching online requires instructors to think differently about how their course is delivered. While the methodologies of learning are still in play, the online medium requires you to proactively account for multiple learning strategies when putting together, delivering and interacting with your course and students.

Online instructors fortunate enough to work in departments who provide Teaching Assistants, feel like they have a lifeline in this strange “new” online world. However, the fact that you have a Teaching Assistant does not make the stars align, world peace occur and automatically make everyone fall in love with your course. There are some things to consider about utilizing TA’s in your online course that can make the overall experience more successful.

Combat Inferred Digital Nativity – #providehowtosforTAs

Digital Native PhotoWe like to think that the next generation is more “plugged in” and that they “get it” (whatever “it” may be) when it comes to technology. While this may be true for their smart phone (Let’s take a selfie!), it does not guarantee immediate understanding of your institution’s Learning Management System.

This is why it is important to put your TAs/Doctoral Fellows through the same kind of technology “how-to” sessions that are available to you as a faculty member. At Sam Houston State University, TAs/Doctoral Fellows have the option of participating in any of the teaching online certification programs, which provide a strong base for starting out on the right foot, particularly for those who will teach online courses in the future. These technology development efforts help increase course interaction, engagement and ultimately satisfaction for both instructor and student.

Use your TA to Increase Student Engagement – #notjustforgrading

Increase Online Student EngagmentThere are three types of interaction in any good online course:

  • Student/Content
  • Student/Instructor
  • Student/Student

Each one of these plays an important role in student satisfaction as well as student success. With online class size growing, it does become more challenging to engage every learner in the student/instructor interaction more than a few times during the course. TAs can play a very important role in helping to increase student/instructor interaction, as they fall under the “instructor” umbrella in this equation.

You can assign your TA to work on specific discussion forums within the course to provide feedback, answer questions, or to gently nudge students in a particular direction to ensure objectives are met. This ability to flex your teaching assistant is not limited to discussions. They can help out with blogs, wikis, web conferences and more. This can help increase the one-on-one interaction time you provider learners throughout the duration of the course.

Use your TA to Increase Instructor Presence – #untilwefindacloningmachine

Instructor PresenceThere are only so many hours in a day, so many days in a week and honestly, there is such a thing as a work/life balance. Leverage your TA to help with office hours, web meetings and other times where you may be spread too thin to be in two places at once. They can also help with answering “virtual office” or “general questions” discussion forums if you are at a conference, out of town or fulfilling research requirements.

Put a Face to your TAs Name – #gettingtoknowsue #orstew

More than likely, you have a place in your course where you introduce yourself to the class. It may be in your Virtual Office area or in some other spot. It probably has a picture, some contact info and a brief bio. This would be a great place to add a second item that introduces your TA to the online students. That way when students see discussion replies, grade book feedback and more, they will know who it is from.

Making the course more personal for your students is always a best practice. Connecting your students to you and your TA will allow the students to feel like that they “know” you and this is especially important when it comes to online feedback.

Use your TA to Unleash your Online Grade Book – #feedbackmachine

Online GradingOnce a course is developed, where is the one place where you may spend most of your time in? The answer is overwhelmingly, the grade book. A well-used grade book or grade center can make the difference for you, as well as for student success and satisfaction.

Gone are the days where students would check the door to the classroom twice a semester (midterms and finals) to figure out how they were doing. Nowadays, students receive updates on their phones when an assignment in their course has been graded, when an exam grade has been posted, or when their group projects have been evaluated.

Leveraging your TA to help with the grade center can help decrease grading turnaround time and increase the amount of times a student receives personal feedback on graded items in the course. Any LMS worth its salt has a Rubric tool that faculty can employ to ensure grading guidelines are followed down to the individual criterion by the teaching assistant. Even if you limit your TAs to a particular number of assignments to grade, it will help with the amount of grading you have to do and the amount of time it takes to get that grade to the students.

TAs add value to what you are already doing in the online course. They are an important supplement and providing them with technology skills, leveraging them to increase student engagement, introducing them to your students, using them to increase instructor presence and empowering them to enhance feedback with your grade book are best practices that can contribute to success and satisfaction for you, your students, and your online course.

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Teaching Online – The Middle Distance

Long Road Ahead PhotoWhen running a race, it is easy to think of it in three parts. First, there is the start, where you build slowly all the while being excited about the journey you are on. Then, there is the finish, where your goal is in sight and you race to the end of your journey. The bulk of the time of your race is spent in the middle distance, where you are trying to put one foot in front of the other and keep your eyes on the prize.

If you think about it, teaching an online course can be broken up into the same three categories. The start builds slowly as the students and instructor develop the routines they will follow as they move through the course. The finish is completed in a mad frenzy as students race to deliver classwork and submit end-of-course assessments. The majority of the course is handled in the middle distance, where students work to meet weekly objectives and make their way through the course.

For a runner, the middle distance can be the toughest part of the race. For an online instructor, the middle distance of a course can be just as challenging. However there are some strategies/practices you can put into place to make this part of the online course easier to handle.

Keep the Pace

paceIn order to stay on track for a strong finish it is important to pace yourself when running any race. Going too slow can dramatically affect your finishing time and going too fast can burn you out so that you don’t finish strong or for that matter, finish at all.

Pacing yourself as you teach an online course is just as important. Going too slow for your students can disengage them from the course and from meeting learning objectives. Conversely, blowing through course materials is also detrimental for your students’ comprehension and retention. Establishing a pace that keeps all parties engaged and involved while not leaving folks behind is a great best practice when teaching an online course.

Stay Engaged

Student EngagementAs you move through the long stretch of any race it is easy to lose focus, lose track of what your goal is and just disengage from what you are trying to do. Staying checked in while you run ensures that you know where you are, what you are doing and where you need to be to complete the race successfully.

Staying engaged is possibly the most important thing you can do as an online instructor. Though it may seem monotonous at times, checking in and interacting with your course can mean the difference between student success and failure. If you know how your students are doing (because you are engaged), then you know what course corrections to make, what affirmations to give, and how best to direct your students as they move through the course.

Be on the Lookout for Obstacles

ObstaclesAs you move through any run, it is important to keep an eye on the road in front of you for any obstacles that may trip you up. Getting tripped up can reduce your pace and disengage you from your plans for the run. Listening to fellow runners and race officials can help you in this regard. Having a lay of the land can also be a tremendous asset.

Obstacles can be just as problematic in an online course. Keep an ear to the ground with your students through discussion forums and e-mails to help them work around any roadblocks that may occur. Keep in touch with “race officials” aka the support desk or LMS administrators so that you and your students are aware of what is on the road in front of you. Knowing what course activities might cause issues for your students (third-party tools, multimedia or new software) can help you be sure your students are prepared for any issues that arise.

Whether you are at the middle distance of running a race or teaching an online course, keeping pace, staying engaged and being on the lookout for obstacles can help you be successful and finish strong!

Promote Student Engagement by ‘Personalizing’ Your Online Course

Personalized Learning

The Glossary of Education Reform defines student engagement as:

the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their learning

Personalized LearningIf the above is true, then there are many ways an online instructor can impact the attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion of students.  This particular blog post deals with how personalizing an online course can increase student engagement.  When an online instructor and students can invest more of themselves in on online course, the satisfaction levels reported by those same students will go up.

This particular view of online course personalization will be broken into 5 areas:


Placing Yourself in the Course

Place Yourself in the CoursePrevious posts on this blog have focused on instructor presence in the online course.  We’ve talked about establishing routines to ensure prompt feedback and instructor availability.  This particular practice revolves around something a little more superficial, but important nonetheless.

Students in an online course like to feel that they know who you are.  A text-based introductory paragraph or post in a “getting to know you” discussion forum may not fully encompass who you are to the student.  Why not take one small step and add a picture of yourself to the course.   You may already be familiar with the best practice of establishing a Virtual Office in your course where you can answer student questions.  Why not add your photo and contact information in this same area and personalize your office.

Here at SHSU, Blackboard allows you to set up a Social Profile that places your picture wherever you interact in a course (discussions, blog & wiki posts, grade center etc..). If your students feel like they “know” you, they are more likely to reach out to you and less likely to drift off into obscurity.

The logical next step in this progression is for you to utilize video to connect yourself to your course and your students, but that is a post for another time.


Allowing Students to Place Themselves in the Course

Online StudentsIn online courses it is easy for students to believe that they operate in a vacuum.  They punch their ticket fulfill obligations, and never get a good look at who is on this learning journey with them.  Allowing students to place themselves in your online course begins to build that learning community that encourages students to be successfully engaged.

Why not have your student find a way to place their image in your course.  Have them attach/upload/insert their picture as part of an introductory activity.  Some Learning Management Systems like Blackboard, allow students to create their own Social Profile that includes an image and biography.  After the profile is created the student’s face appears in the course roster, grade center and course activities (blogs, wikis, discussions, group activities etc..).

Having student/faculty images in your online course allows a more cohesive integration of group activity and shared learning.


Allowing Students to Personalize Their Learning

Personalize We know that student satisfaction goes up when they feel like they have some “skin in the game” when it comes to their learning experience.  The challenge for many online instructors is figuring out how to incorporate student content-building or contributions to the online environment.

A good first step is to find out what they know and what they want to know more about.  You as the instructor will define the boundaries from which they will pick, but a survey or KWL* assignment is a great way to start out a course.

*KWL – What do you know?  What do you want to know?  What have you learned?

You can also provide an element of continuous improvement in your courses by having your students journal each week or at an interval of your choosing.  The journal entry could serve 2 purposes:

  1. Provide a graded assignment where the student reflects upon what they learned during the week.
  2. Allow the student to tell you what the high points and low points were of the previous unit of study.

The journaling activity will allow you to make course corrections (pun intended) during the course rather than finding out where you might have some issues when the course is finished and evaluations are in.

There are other methods for involving your students in this process. The scenarios are numerous, but here are a few ideas:

  • Have your students come up with the academic integrity policy for the course to increase buy-in.  They can use a wiki or discussion board to share ideas around defining plagiarism and academic honesty.
  • Create an assignment dealing with constructing a study guide for the final and allow your students to contribute questions.
  • Use peer evaluation as a method for grading discussions and other assignments.


Feedback Early, Feedback Often

FeedbackProbably the most important way to ensure your students believe that you are personally involved in their learning is to provide prompt and frequent feedback.  Think about how you feel when someone gives you kudos on a job well done or even coaching on a subject where you might need assistance.  You feel like someone took a personal interest in something that you were doing, right?  Students feel the same way about the feedback you provide via the course.

Here are some options:

  • Make feedback part of your daily routine as an online instructor
  • Change up how you provide feedback (text/audio/video)
  • Post a weekly announcement recapping the last week’s activities and previewing the current week.
  • Too many students to reply to discussion posts?  Provide 1 summary post per discussion giving kudos and challenges when needed.
  • Schedule “office hours” where you can provide synchronous feedback a ’la chat or webinar when needed.


Personalization without Confusion

Sometimes in our desire to create a learning environment that is personal and engaging for the learner, we can add a layer of confusion that can separate the student from the learning experience we are trying to create.

So before we go tech-crazy or jump into a fun idea feeding frenzy take the following into account:

  • The Main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.  If the personalization/engagement does not comport to the learning objective, then don’t do it!
  • Keep it simply single. Add one new wrinkle to your experience at a time. Don’t heighten student anxiety by adding lots of tools/tech that they’ve never seen before.
  • Don’t play Hide & Seek with course content and activities.  If you started out putting content and activities in a certain order, stick with it!

Here are some quick and easy ways to provide personalization without confusing the issue:

  • Use images to introduce content/topics and break the monotony of the text monopoly!
  • While keeping the same routine/order of a unit of study, utilize different activities to differentiate the way students interact with the course.
  • Change up how you deliver content to students.  Introduce a discussion activity a ‘la webcam recording or provide an audio introduction with assignment instructions that contain bonus points for those who listen.

These five methods of personalizing the online learning environment don’t have to all be done at once. As with most of the best practices on this blog, we encourage you to take it one step at a time.  Remember if you feel overwhelmed, then odds are your students will too!  Hopefully you will find your students paying more attention, being more curious, showing more interest, bubbling over with optimism and being passionate about their learning.

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