Ten Things I’ve Learned Teaching Online

I’ve been teaching online courses for over 6 years now, and every semester it seems to be a new experience. Some semesters go smoothly, and other semesters present new opportunities for me to change my approaches. Regardless of every group of students, there are ten things I have learned that I keep in mind when I do teach. Here are those lessons:

  1. Some students are simply not ready to take online courses. Whether they are learners who need an in-classroom experience, or there is a lack of understanding about how online classes work, there will be students who start their online class without knowing exactly what they will need to do. What I have done is create an “orientation” for my course (using a blank page in Blackboard Learn) which is the first page students see for the initial week of classes. On this page I explain what is expected of students in the class, where to find their syllabus, and other information to get them started.
  2. It’s easy for instructors to blame Blackboard when things go awry. I’ve made errors with settings before where a test didn’t open on schedule for students. Instead of sticking to the due date, I took responsibility for the error and provided an appropriate extension.
  3. Be as specific about course policies and procedures as possible in your syllabus. If you don’t give extra credit, make it clear. If you do not accept late work except in certain circumstances, be as specific as possible as to what constitutes an acceptable circumstance to turn in work after the due date. If your course is completely online, your students should be referring to the course syllabus for all information about the course. If your syllabus is vague and open to interpretation, you put yourself in a position where students could question and appeal your decisions.
  4. Keep your course calendar as static as possible during the term. Ideally, an online student should be managing their time based on the calendar you have given them at the beginning of the term. Also, keep in mind that if you do have proctored exams and your students are trying to schedule times to take their exams at a testing center, they will hopefully make appointments well in advance based on your course schedule, and changing the calendar during the term may require scrambling on the part of your students to rearrange their exam appointments.
  5. Be direct but kind when communicating with students individually when they do something that violates course rules or exhibits a behavior that is unacceptable to you. Did they email you five times in two hours about what their grade was on an assignment they just submitted less than 24 hours before? Did they plagiarize another student’s discussion board post on the same topic word-for-word? Clearly explain the concern but carefully construct the message to be guiding – I try to keep in mind that what I write back to a student can support me later or be used against me.
  6. Be engaged. Post announcements frequently. Participate in discussions to provide guidance and to keep discussions on track. Provide rich feedback so students can review their work with the feedback and improve their performance. Students can tell if an instructor is actively involved in the class or if the instructor is passive, where the instructor is only grading and providing basic feedback. Students will make note on their course evaluations of how active you were in the class!
  7. Grade quickly, because students are expecting feedback quickly. Yes, that large research paper may take a week or two to grade, and students should be told that upfront so they aren’t expecting grades on that project immediately – YOU need time to read their papers, grade the assignment, and provide feedback! However, for short assignments, essays, and graded discussions, make an attempt to return grades within a week of the due date.
  8. Provide explicit expectations and directions for assignments. And this does include mundane details – if you have Microsoft Word on your computer(s), you need to make sure students submit papers in a format you can read! As you provide full instructions on the content you want to see in the paper, whether the paper is to be in APA, MLA, Chicago, etc. format, and other details on the content you want to see, don’t forget to direct students to submit papers in a format you can read. The older Microsoft Word format (.doc) and Rich Text Format (.rtf) provide formats that nearly all word processing programs can produce and open. The more detailed you are, the less questions about the assignment you may need to answer.
  9. Understand that students aren’t taking online classes in a “perfect” environment. Students’ internet connections fail. Computers crash. Browsers lock up. Be willing to work with students who contact you before the due date/time who need to re-submit an assignment or possibly retake a quiz due to technical problems.
  10. If you do teach completely online and you schedule live online office hours via Adobe Connect or some of Blackboard’s collaboration tools, don’t be shocked if students don’t use those hours. I schedule two hours per week where I am available via live chat for my students. If students aren’t utilizing that time, I spend that time grading or working on the course. Those are two specific hours I set aside just for my online course, and if students contact me during that time, great! If not, I’ve used that time productively.

These are just some of the things I’ve learned teaching online courses. If you’re considering teaching online classes, just remember these courses are a different experience for you and your students. If you need any assistance with your courses, please contact us at tlt-consulting@purdue.edu.

Brett Creech
Educational Technologist

About Brett Creech

Brett Creech is an Educational Technologist for the Consulting and Training Team within Teaching and Learning Technologies. He has been working with educational technology for over 10 years, including LMSs, web conferencing, 2-way video technologies, wikis, classroom technology, response systems, and more. He also has experience teaching online and in the classroom.
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