Making Online Courses Interesting

When students take an online course, they don’t have the benefit of meeting with the instructor, or even other students, in person.  Because of this disconnect, it’s easy to see how students can feel left behind or alienated.  Would you like some ideas on how to help motivate online learners?

After several semesters of teaching online classes, I’ve had the opportunity to try varying techniques to see what works and what doesn’t.  One thing that I’ve found that works well for me is posting a weekly announcement that I call “Tech Notes”.  The content of the tech note usually doesn’t relate to the topic of the week; instead, it refers them to other information or links on items students may find interesting or useful.  For example, one post I make at the beginning of the semester deals with the future of glass technology; it’s a short video clip produced by Corning.  This is what the post looks like:

Have you wondered what the future may look like? For most of us, either our parents or grandparents can remember what life was like before computers and cell phones, tablets and laptops. Things like Google and the Internet weren’t even dreams.

Corning, a company most of us think of when we think of kitchen glassware like baking dishes, is advancing the future of glass technologies. Watch this interesting video to learn more about what they’re doing, and how it will impact the future of technology.

There are several other things that can be done to motivate online learners.  I like to post a picture of myself so my online students can see what I look like, and I also do a small post about my hobbies and interests so I don’t seem so remote.  In addition to having weekly discussion topics, students are required to respond to at least one other student’s post, to help foster discussion.  I like to provide extra feedback to online students, since there isn’t that face-to-face connection like with in-person classes.  From what I can tell, it’s paying off – here’s a quote from one student from last semester:

Thank you so much for the online class.  I’ve taken online classes  before, and none of them have provided as much feedback as yours.  It was very helpful and I loved the Tech Notes.  Thanks!

I really enjoy my online classes and learn a lot from my students.  Hopefully these suggestions will be helpful, as they do seem to work well for me.

One thought on “Making Online Courses Interesting

  1. Or, if one is just starting out — this is from Faculty Focus – a helpful resource for educational purposes:

    Top 10 Rules for Developing Your First Online Course

    By John Orlando, PhD

    Years of helping faculty pass to the dark side of online education have taught me a few simple rules that I brow beat (in a collegial way) into all new online teachers.

    Rule 1: Provide Extra Detail in Your Online Syllabus
    Most of us spend much of the first day of class going through the syllabus, taking time to elaborate on different points, and answering questions as we go along. Online classrooms lack this time, and so the syllabus must be more detailed than it would be for a face-to-face class, especially when it comes to procedures. You can also preempt problems and save time answering questions by creating a discussion forum devoted to common questions about the class itself.

    Rule 2: Begin with Community Building
    Despite appearances, online education is (should be) a fundamentally communal endeavor, with discussion taking center stage. But discussion requires trust, which can be built through community-building exercises. Some educators even recommend spending the first two weeks on community building, asserting that it will pay for itself in better performance over the remainder of the course.

    Rule 3: Design for the Web
    I remember building my first online course by transcribing the lectures from my face-to-face course into text. Somehow the students managed to get through them, bless their hearts. But, of course, the online environment is fundamentally visual, built on videos, interaction, exploration, etc. All effective communication requires an understanding of the rules of that environment. Don’t view the online environment through the paradigm of the face-to-face environment. Rather, design for the web.

    Rule 4: Account for Different Systems
    It’s easy to forget that web pages operate differently on different browsers, and especially on different devices. Ask your instructional designers to go over your course to confirm that everything will work on different systems. It’s a good idea to check in with them before designing content so that they can give you a template that will work.

    Rule 5: If Someone Can Say it Better Than You, Then Let Them
    The first time I taught medical ethics, I wrote a long description of the Human Genome Project for my students to read. It took me hours and was boring. Then I discovered that the National Institutes of Health (NIH) had a beautiful website covering everything in my document and more. I could have saved myself a lot of time and provided better content by sending them to the NIH website.

    Faculty often think they must develop every piece of content from scratch, but nearly all of the information in their head is available somewhere else. Use the web to your advantage by curating, rather than creating, content whenever possible.

    Rule 6: Use a Consistent Format
    Humans are fundamentally pattern-recognition animals, meaning that we will look for patterns to help guide our actions. Create a template of what you will want from students in each module and follow it. It might be that your modules start with a video overview of the material, links to various content, three discussion questions, etc. Changes in midstream invariably lead to students missing content or assignments.

    Rule 7: Remember the Workload Parameters
    Some faculty seem to think that they need to “make up” for the online format by assigning extra work, or maybe the cornucopia of material available on the web makes them want to assign all of it, less a student miss some detail that they may need 20 years down the line. Either way, faculty commonly assign too much content in an online class. If you assign too much, students will only view part of it, and the part they choose as more important may not be what you think is most important. Define a workload range and stay within it.

    Rule 8: Provide Content in Different Formats Whenever Possible
    While the premise that people have different learning styles is somewhat controversial, I’ve found that different people prefer different types of content. For this reason, as well as ADA purposes, it’s a good idea to present content in different formats whenever possible. This could be as simple as providing a transcript to accompany a video.

    Rule 9: Mix Content and Activities
    One disadvantage of the traditional college lecture is that it separates content from engagement. The teacher talks for 50 minutes or longer, and the students engage with the material later as homework. But this is not how we learn. We need practice and reflection every 20 minutes or so to move knowledge from our short-term memory to our long-term memory. In the online classroom, systems like VoiceThread or Articulate Storyline are ideal for allowing teachers to intersperse activities with their content to enable immediate application and better retention.

    Rule of Rules (10): It Takes Longer Than You Think
    All faculty members, including me, underestimate how long it will take them to develop online content. I tell faculty to develop their content during the semester prior to the course going live, earlier if at all possible.

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