What We Know Works
In general, there are many different ways to design online courses that work in different contexts, and many ways to design online courses that do not work in various other contexts. We are avoiding the term “best practices” here because online teaching and learning can vary in different contexts, making “best” a problematic term. We can offer a list of some things that we know will usually work better in most online courses:
- Spending time and resources to create a high quality learning experience (Lorenzo & Moore, 2002; Hayes, 2015).
- Creating lessons that focus more on active engagement and less on passive content consumption (Lorenzo & Moore, 2002; Hayes, 2015).
- If possible, especially in MOOCs, shorter course durations with simple, straight forward organization (Jordan, 2015).
- Less focus and time on videos to watch and/or text to read per week (DiCarlo, 2009; Guo, Kim, & Rubin, 2014).
- If possible, especially in MOOCs, one topic or module per week (Jordan, 2015).
- Completing the entire course design before the start date (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2001). Many institutions and companies require this in order to allow time for quality review. You can build flexibility and open ended activities into your course, but the structure for that should be there before the courses starts (see the section on “Planning for Flexibility”).
- Utilizing networked learning and interactive activities (Siemens, 2005).
- Instructors that participate in the social media outlets and discussion forums (Mathieson & Leafman, 2014; Zheng, Han, Rosson, & Carroll, 2016).
- Listening to and responding promptly to participant concerns (Groundwater-Smith, 2008; Khalil & Ebner, 2014).
- Connecting content with current events and current life experiences of the learners (Cercone, 2008).
- Well written goals/objectives/competencies accompanied by content and activities that align well with them (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2001).
- Clear communication for all aspects of the course (Warren & Wakefield, 2012).
Speaking of clear communication, we should take a minute to highlight that clear communication is important for all aspects of education. Communication is a foundational element of educational theory (Warren & Wakefield, 2012); without clear communication, learners can feel confused and discouraged. Many different theories of communication exist; the important thing is to pick one that works and stick with it. For those that need some guidance, one suggestion is the Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions (LTCA) theory developed by Dr. Scott Warren from the works of Jurgen Habermas. LTCA theory basically breaks educational communications down into four communicative types:
- Normative communicative actions are those that communicate knowledge that has been socially negotiated through time, such as social norms or expectations for student activities. While these actions are often based on past experiences, they can also evolve through time.
- Strategic communicative actions are probably the most familiar educational communicative actions for most educators. These communicative actions occur most often through lectures, textbooks, and other methods where specific reified knowledge is transferred to the learner.
- Constative communicative actions are debates, arguments, and discourses that allow learners to make claims and counterclaims. Constative communication is also where social constructivism and connectivism connects with LTCA theory, as learners come to agreement over constructed knowledge through these communicative actions
- Dramaturgical communicative actions are those that allow for expression. Learners can reflect or create artifacts that express the knowledge they have gained as well as who that knowledge makes them as a person.
The important aspect of LTCA theory (or any other theory you choose to use) is to evaluate what you are trying to communicate in various parts of the course and then make sure to communicate effectively without confusing communication styles. For example, don’t set up a blogging assignment that would require students to use dramaturgical communicative actions and then create long, detailed instructions requiring learners to use strategic communicative actions.
For more information on LTCA theory, see the theoretical framework sections of the following articles:
- “Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions: A Mixed-Methods Twitter Study” by Jenny S. Wakefield, Scott J. Warren, and Metta Alsobrook
- “Learning and Teaching as Communicative Actions: Improving Historical Knowledge and Cognition Through Second Life Avatar Role Play” by Jenny S. Wakefield, Scott J. Warren, Monica A. Rankin, Leila A. Mills, and Jonathan S. Gratch
Types of Communication and Interaction
Communication is an aspect of teaching that we all know happens, but many do not think fully through what that means. The types of clear communication you will want in your course will most likely flow from the underlying theories you subscribe to for the power dynamics and methodology of your course (see the previous “Theoretical Foundations of Learning” section). Looking across the literature, various researchers (Moore, 1989; Hillman, Willis, & Gunawardena, 1994; Anderson & Garrison, 1998; Dron, 2007; Wang, Chen, & Anderson, 2014) have identified at least 12 types of communication types that can happen in education:
- student-teacher (ex: instructivist lecture, student teaching the teacher, or student networking with teacher)
- student-student (ex: student mentorship, one-on-one study groups, or student teaching another student)
- student-content (ex: reading a textbook, watching a video, listening to audio, or reading a website)
- student-interface (ex: connectivist online interactions, gaming, or computerized learning tools)
- teacher-teacher (ex: collaborative teaching, cross-course alignment, or professional development)
- teacher-content (ex: teacher-authored textbooks or websites, teacher blogs, or professional study)
- content-content (ex: algorithms that determine new or remedial content; artificial intelligence)
- group-content (ex: constructivist group work, connectivist resource sharing, or group readings)
- group-group (ex: debate teams, group presentations, or academic group competitions)
- learner-group (ex: individual work presented to group for debate, student as the teacher exercises)
- teacher-group (ex: teacher contribution to group work, group presentation to teacher)
- networked with sets of people or objects (ex: Wikipedia, crowdsourced learning, or online collaborative note-taking)
Some courses will have one communication type for the entire class. Others will have a few types, while still others will have different types for each activity. Also, while some types of communication like “student-teacher” may lean towards certain power dynamics like instructivism, that does not have to be the only possibility. For example, student-teacher interactions could be constructivist if the student is teaching the instructor, or possibly even connectivist if a learner is bringing their instructor into a networked learning experience.
The important issue to think through is what kind of communication types you will need to accomplish clear communication in the power dynamics or methodologies you desire for your course, and then which communication types will you need for individual assignments in your course. For a discussion on applying power dynamics, methodologies, clear communication, and communication types to specific assignments, see the later section on “Connecting Activities to Theory and Communication”. Additionally, for a deeper discussion of the communication issues touched on here, see the communication sections of “From Instructivism to Connectivism: Theoretical Underpinnings of MOOCs” by Matt Crosslin.
Planning for Flexibility
Many instructors like to have a well-structured and planned out course, while others prefer varying levels of flexibility to change the course content, structure, and/or activities based on many factors (such as current events, flexible lesson schedules, learner interest, etc). When we refer to having a course completely designed and reviewed by the first day of class, this refers to all of the content and activities that you already know will be a part of the course. For some courses, this will be all of the content and activities. For other courses, this is more of a “plan” or “outline” of what could happen depending on various factors.
Planning for flexibility in your course can be challenging, but the benefits will often make up for the difficult parts. Mia Zamora and Alan Levine refer to this as building a “Course Spine” that outlines the major course elements, but leaves room to fill in details as the course progresses (Levine, 2018). Other ways of looking at this concept include “student-centered learning” and “problem based learning” depending on how the course is structured. Various ways to design your course to utilize these ideas will be explored throughout this book. Additionally, Chapter 13 is dedicated to more advanced course design methods that fall into these categories, such as Self-Mapped Learning Pathways and Rhizomatic Learning.
One thing to keep in mind: there is a difference between “planning for flexibility” and “I ran out of time, so let’s make this up at the last minute.” Flexibility should flow from what you want your learners to accomplish in the course, not from your lack of planning ahead. In many cases, planning a well-designed, flexible course design could take as much time (or more) as writing out traditional instructor-focused content and activities.
Humanizing Online Learning
A larger concept to keep in mind is the isolation that can occur to learners in online learning, away from the immediate contact created by being in the same physical location as other learners. Some learners may prefer this distance, while others may feel the effects of the isolation. The idea of “Humanizing” an online course is basically the process or creating ways to connect learners with each other and the instructors across the distance of online learning.
One helpful way to organize and think about humanizing online learning is through the Community of Inquiry (CoI) framework (Arbaugh, Bangert, & Cleveland-Innes, 2010). CoI basically focuses on increasing three “presences” to help learners construct personal meaning in learning as well as to collectively confirm mutual understandings: teaching presence, social presence, and cognitive presence.
Teaching presence is a large portion of what this manual is covering: designing and facilitating a course in ways that clearly communicates how learning will occur, effectively humanizing or increasing the presence of the instructor. Examples would include clearly defining expectations, creating avenues to encourage learner agency, and timely feedback to learners. One good way to make sure this happens is create a schedule for you to communicate with your learners, via email or other methods, and then make sure you stick to that schedule.
Social presence focuses on the learners in the course, helping them to see themselves as an individual “real person” that can actively and safely participate in the course. Many of these concepts are also covered in this manual. Examples would include drawing in participants, creating low-risk ways for them to express themselves, and establishing Codes of Conduct (see the chapter on “Utilizing Social Learning”).
Cognitive presence is a bit more abstract of a concept, but it basically covers looking at the entire learning process for ways to encourage students to think about their learning, reflect on that learning, and sharing their learning process with others. Examples would include encouraging learners to take ownership of their learning, building in reflection activities, and creating avenues for learners to share and interact with those reflections (for instance, by blogging).
For more information on CoI and Humanizing online learning, see these resources:
- The Community of Inquiry main website
- “Humanizing Online Learning” 2 week course by Michelle Pacansky-Brock
- Humanizing Online Learning and Teaching compilation edited by Whitney Kilgore
Synchronous Interactive Sessions
One possible way to foster teaching presence is to schedule time for synchronous interactive sessions during your course. This could include virtual office hours, live sessions, unhangouts, or other ways for you to connect with your learners virtually “in person.”
The basic idea behind these sessions is that you choose a time to meet, a synchronous service to utilize (usually one that is free to use and allows flexibility to use video and audio if you choose), and set some parameters for what will happen at the session. Will it be a teaching session where learners listen to what you have to share? Will it be a Q&A/Office Hours type of session? Will it be a group work/discussion session where learners interact with each other? Depending on how you want to structure the session, make sure your tool can handle the service you want to utilize.
Virtual Office Hours will typically be a time for learners to ask questions. This will typically involve scheduling a recurring time each week for people to come ask questions online. If you are teaching an online course, we strongly suggest you set virtual office hours. Most online chat or video tools will have a set of options that can handle the “one-on-one office hours” format, but if you want to have more of a group Q&A, you might want to use a tool that can handle multiple users at once. Also consider recording the sessions for those that can’t make it.
Live Sessions can be used for anything, from group discussions to online lecture sessions. If you are intending to broadcast information, you can use a tool that allows learners to watch more than interact (screen sharing is also a good option to make sure is available in the tool you utilize as well). If you want to field questions, be sure the tool you use has an option for that functionality (look for text chat, polling, and other interactive options). Again, consider recording the sessions for those that can’t make it.
Unhangouts are less structured sessions that allow learners to connect with each other as they like. This is more learner-centered that other sessions, but allows for more self-determined learning designs.
Online gaming and virtual reality are two emerging ideas for online interaction. Many have heard of Second Life, which in the past was used for more nuanced online interaction. Tools like Second Life are still around, and are sometimes used in online learning. These tools are not for every course or topic, but if you have a compelling educational idea for using them, you should explore the possibilities.
Some issues to keep in mind:
- Online synchronous tools can cause accessibility issues for some learners – keep that in mind when choosing tools.
- Make sure to think about what times would be best for your specific learners in your course, and maybe have alternate times for those that live in different time zones or that work various schedules.
- Make sure to record the sessions as much as possible for those that cannot make it for various reasons.
- As much as you want to encourage learners to turn on their cameras or identify themselves to help them connect with each other, make sure to leave open the option that learners can also be anonymous if they choose. Some learners are shy or have other reasons to not reveal fully who they are online.
- Try to communicate as clearly as you can about the session before it starts. What will be covered? Can you take a poll beforehand to see where students are? Should they come with one thing specific to share or ask? What will happen if the tool you choose to use crashes or doesn’t work?
- Make sure you offer a good reason for learners to be there. Don’t just repeat what is in a book or in the course already. Cover new material, have learners interact with each other, or do something that gives the learners something they can’t get in other areas of the course.
Some possible tools to use:
- Zoom: Zoom has become a popular video conferencing system. It has the flexibility to allow large numbers of people on a single conference call, giving participants flexibility and ease of use. The free version does have some limits if you are in a larger course that you should take into consideration:
- Skype: Skype is a popular program for making online phone calls, but it can also be useful for virtual office hours and smaller group discussions.
- MIT’s Unhangout: MIT’s Unhangout is “an open source platform for running large-scale, participant-driven events online.” Participants gather in a lobby and then are sent to breakout rooms to interact with each other.
- YouTube Live: YouTube Live took over for Google Hangouts on Air, with a focus on broadcasting live events. This is a good tool for broadcast (with some limited ability for questions from those watching), or for smaller online interactive meetings of 10 people or less.
- Institutional Tools: services like Canvas and Blackboard could have various tools bundled with them at your institution or company, so check to see what services you might already have access to. Your institution might also have other tools like Adobe Connect as well.
What We Know Does Not Work
Finally, we offer a list of some things that we generally know will not usually work well in most online courses, also known as “pitfalls to avoid”:
- Making your course content videos too long. People generally only have a 5-8 minute attention span. (Guo, Kim, & Rubin, 2014)
- Having too many videos or too much content in each week. Participants generally don’t have time for a massive amount of content consumption, and they often don’t remember much of it if they just passively consume it. (DiCarlo, 2009; Guo, Kim, & Rubin, 2014)
- Creating too much of the course structure “on the fly.” Flexibility is always a good idea in teaching, but working on the main structure of the course design right before the course is supposed to go live can decreases quality considerably (Dick, Carey, & Carey, 2001). Remember – there is a difference between “planning for flexibility” and “I ran out of time, so let’s make this up at the last minute.” See the previous section on “Planning for Flexibility”
- Instructors that ignore social media or don’t even allow learners to set-up or utilize any social media avenues. Social media is one of the a few ways to increase “teacher presence” in courses. (Mathieson & Leafman, 2014; Zheng, Han, Rosson, & Carroll, 2016)
- Low quality content or video, or recording videos when a video is not necessary. Online course participants generally have higher demands on quality than in the past. (Lorenzo & Moore, 2002; Hayes, 2015)
- Complex structures with excessive numbers of modules and topics covered. You generally want to stick with one topic / module per week, with a streamlined, easy to follow structure – especially in MOOCs. (Jordan, 2015)
- MOOCs also have a few extra pitfalls to avoid:
- Replicating a full college course as a MOOC. Learners have varying reasons for taking MOOCs, from just wanting a preview of a topic to gaining a certificate. (Milligan, Littlejohn, & Margaryan, 2013)
- Long course duration. The longer your MOOC, the higher the dropout rate will be. Eight weeks is really the upper limit of MOOC duration, with 5-6 weeks being ideal. (Jordan, 2015)
Please realize that no course is perfect. You will probably not do everything that works and avoid everything that does not work in every course offering. The ideal is to look at the items on these lists as goals to strive for. For instance, your course is not going to fall apart if two of the videos go over 8 minutes long. We have just learned from experience that forgetting too many of the things that work or doing too many of the things that don’t work will cause more learners to drop out or even complain on social media or course evaluations.
Dealing with Student Issues
At some point in your course, you are going to run into learners that have some type of problem: they may not understand something, or have gotten behind, or any other common student issues. You should probably decide now how to react to issues. Some instructors tend to take an approach of catching and shaming learners that have issues. You may have read an article or blog post lamenting how many have grandmothers that pass away each semester, or how learners try weird excuses to get out of due dates, or how various life issues bleed into the class. These instructors usually take a very hard line stance that involves not believing learners.
Certainly some learners will lie at some point about something. However, creating an atmosphere that assumes this from the beginning will tend to add more tension than is needed in a course. We would generally encourage you to take a stance that gives learners the benefit of the doubt, showing compassion instead of suspicion.
A lot of this boils down to how you handle course assignments and deadlines. There may be some required assignments or assessments that are given to you by the institution. Others will be under your control. One way to deal with late work and excuses is to look at assignment grading as more of a conversation than a one-time “gotcha!” event. For example, allow learners to turn assignments in for early feedback before deadlines. Create avenues for learners that genuinely get behind to be able to catch up. Ask yourself: Are you more concerned with them learning the content, or learning a calendar?
To Grade or Not to Grade?
Of course, many student issues arise from various aspects of grading or assessment in courses. Many people work in institutions or companies that require grades. However, not everyone does, and even many places that require grades leave it up to the instructor on how to calculate those grades.
For several decades, many educators have been questioning the practice of grading (Kohn, 2011; Sackstein, 2015). Sometimes this is because the grades have to include things that have nothing to do with what the learner actually learned. A student that completely understands the concept of a lesson, but runs a few days late can potentially earn the same grade as the person that really doesn’t get the concept but follows all the technical instructions perfectly. Other educators object to how grades are a reflection of how well learners can game the grading system rather than learn the content. Still others object to the unnecessary competition that society creates around the highest grades, and the pressure that puts on learners. There are many reasons to find grades problematic.
But is it possible to have a meaningful class without grades? There are many different ways to look at this. Some instructors will allow learners to create the grading system for the class. Others will allow learners to grade themselves. Still others will abolish grades altogether and replace them with things like badges, certificates, and other forms of alternative certification (see the section on “Certification and Badges” for more information on that). There is a range of responses to the problems that many see with grades. If you are thinking of taking a different path with grading in your course, here are some resources to consider reading:
- “What’s the Problem with Grades?” by Alfie Kohn
- “Why I Don’t Grade” by Jesse Stommel
- “12 Alternatives To Letter Grades In Education” by Terry Heick
- “Ungrading My Class – Reflections on a Second Iteration” by Maha Bali
Whether or not you are going to grade your students, have them grade themselves, or go grade-less in your course, you will still need to take several issues concerning how you design your assessment (or your learners’ self-assessments) into consideration. See the Chapter on “Assessment and Grading Issues” for more details on those considerations.
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