The most important thing to know about teaching asynchronously online?
May 6, 2016 7:55 AM   Subscribe

You guys helped me a lot when I went to teach my in-person undergrad class at a local college. Now I am teaching a graduate level class which is online and asynchronous (a six week "intensive" three credit class about tools for library advocacy). If you had one piece of advice for someone who was new to teaching grad school online to make the most out of it, what would it be?

Please note: I am mostly looking for things that will help me craft my syllabus, make the experience rewarding for my students and have effective outcomes. I am comfortable with the topic. I have a good rapport with the university, but they're pretty hands off; the other people I know there teach in-person classes. Would prefer positive "This is helpful to know/do" examples and less "I took a terrible online class, don't be terrible." advice. The more constructive the better. Thank you!
posted by jessamyn to Education (11 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
If there are discussion questions that students are expected to respond to, move around the time of day that they get posted -- some in the morning, some later in the day, etc. If they get posted every morning at 11am, the person who has a daytime commitment that doesn't allow them to do coursework is never going to get the chance to be involved in the early conversation, and while there are usually things someone can add later to any discussion, there's a lot less chance of them getting engaging replies that will encourage them to continue.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:21 AM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

There may be pressure/expectation to react to every student's every post. When you can, let the students have their say, and then try to limit your own comments to drawing out the threads of things the students have hit upon and building on them. The tendency my wife sees very strongly in her online teaching (100% of her job now) is that students will, instead of engaging with the information under discussion, will for various reasons tend to dogpile anything the instructor says and parrot it back as a proxy or replacement for doing their own thinking (because it's easier).
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 8:25 AM on May 6, 2016

Think carefully about how you structure/organize all your content within the course management system. Then be extremely consistent, explain the organization to your students as part of the first class, and always mention where something will be when you talk/write about it. E.g., don't just say, "In the readings this week..." Say, "Your readings this week are linked in the 'Additional Materials' section of Unit 3, and you'll be reading about..." Each and every time, seriously.

The platforms I've used have been clunky and nonintuitive to navigate, but at the same time they're extremely flexible and open, as far as where you want to actually put stuff. The result is that instructors set up their classes in insanely different ways, and yet there's no way to tell from the system itself where something might be. It's extremely easy for students to get frustrated and waste a ton of time looking for stuff, especially if they're taking more than one online class concurrently.
posted by unknowncommand at 8:41 AM on May 6, 2016 [2 favorites]

This isn't always possible, but I found live sessions really helpful. I had ones that were not mandatory to attend and then a recording was supplied for all who couldn't come. We were expected to engage in the conversation/ask questions during the session and then complete a few after-viewing responses. I think those that didn't attend the live session had an extra section to complete to take the place of the live discussion. Even when classes didn't have live sessions, newly created recordings (you can tell when someone is just reusing a recording year after year) were the next best thing.

Discussion boards are always tedious, so anything you can do to reduce the "Great point!" "Thanks for posting!" responses is to your advantage. Often there is a requirement to post a certain number of times and people get overwhelmed/lazy. I found it helpful with the professor specifically encouraged us to engage in conversation, to build on what others were saying, and to post original thought rather than parrot back main points of an article or just say "I agree!" Sometimes the requirement was just to post a certain amount of times but that one of those didn't have to be an original post (ie they could all be responses to others' comments). That helps if main points have already be well-laid by others and it is truly more fruitful to engage those ideas directly than to make the same points all over again.
posted by LKWorking at 8:43 AM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Create rubrics! Rubrics outline what the expectations are for assignments (including discussion boards) and (depending on what LMS you're using) you can use them for quick grading and feedback. Asynchronous depends SO MUCH on instructor feedback-- no feedback is taken as "good job, keep doing what you're doing", which can be true, but may only be half true. Providing as much context around grades and your expectations is one way students get to know your teaching style.

Incorporate multimedia into your lectures and discussions, but avoid lengthy lectures. Lectures should be broken up into 10-15 minute long segments with visuals. You don't have to show your face, but narrate a PowerPoint or actively navigate a website. Encourage responses and presentations in video format (you can use something like Flipgrid or students can link to a YouTube video they create).

Source: I am an instructional designer for online courses at a large research institution. Feel free to contact me with questions!
posted by thefang at 8:44 AM on May 6, 2016

Do you hold regular office hours via chat? I do this for my online classes. I try to offer one session during evenings because a lot of my online students work.

My best online classes as a student had some kind of synchronous component. Perhaps you can have them all log on to a group chat at a reasonable time (evening or weekend; set up a time with a doodle poll so the most people can attend) once or twice during the semester to talk about an article, or to work on group projects (if you are having them do group projects). If there are group projects, make sure you have dedicated spaces for them on the forums to talk privately among their group, although a lot of my students use GroupMe for this.

Building in activities can be challenging online, but I'd encourage you to attempt splitting them into groups and having them walk through some kind of activity or activities related to the class once or twice - maybe not as a large formal assignment, but to spur discussion. For example, have them lead discussions about the weekly readings in small groups.

The book Collaborative Learning Techniques is excellent and every technique has instructions for implementing online. The older edition is really not much different from the new edition, and it's much much cheaper, if you plan to buy a copy. I use this book for every lesson plan I create, whether the course is online or in-person.
posted by sockermom at 8:47 AM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Really small items that deserve a little thought if you have control over them:

Minimize the number of discussion forums. Have one place where everyone can talk, not divvied up into separate forums for each week. This keeps conversations from being cutoff as you move into a new week.

If there is a deadline for turning in assignments, set it at the start of the day, not the end. At midnight on the East coast, it is only 9 p.m. in Los Angeles, and I am still working. Someone in Honolulu hasn't even gotten home from work yet. By 9 a.m., everyone has had a chance to finish up and go to bed.

Good luck!
posted by SLC Mom at 9:16 AM on May 6, 2016

Although not graduate level... I've had success with weekly journals. I let them write free-form, almost little blog posts (300-500 words usually). They share and comment on links, current events having to do with the class, reactions to assignments, etc.
I always comment on each entry. A few students enjoyed it so much they kept writing even though they fulfilled their points.

If you put content in weekly folders, put a little description under the folder heading listing what is actually inside so they don't have to click around looking for a specific assignment they know is somewhere.

On your syllabus make a clear policy about unforeseen technological problems.
posted by starman at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2016

I've taught a couple of online courses, and I would say the biggest thing is that communication has to be WAY more explicit/clear than in an in-person class. Not that you don't need to communicate in an in-person class, but I find it's even more important to really lay out expectations, deadlines, etc. because students can't rely on those few minutes before/after class to ask questions or clarify little things they are confused about.

I would also think really carefully about how you want to structure and grade discussion/forum postings. I have found this this trickiest party to actually make them useful. Really think about what you want these to accomplish and give students very very clear guidelines in terms of what you are looking for in terms of both main posts and replies to other students.
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:14 PM on May 6, 2016 [1 favorite]

Some other ideas:

Make sure you work to build the sense of community in the class. A good introduction or warmup activity can be really helpful. I like to do one that has both a formal and an informal component. The formal component should match your course topic, so you might ask things like "Why are you interested in library advocacy," "Do you currently work in a library or as an information professional; if so, where," "If you have a website, share the address with us and tell us a bit about how you developed it," etc.

The informal component can be something like, "Use the letters of your name to describe yourself; here's mine: Justice of the peace, Early riser, Sincere, Smart, Animated, Maker of interesting things, Notices details. When you've completed your initialism, read through the others and respond to a classmate with whom you share a common skill, attribute, or interest!" This is a little silly but gets students to know one another, making everyone more relatable as a person. I also encourage them to upload a picture/avatar early, so that we can all "attach" a face to the screenname.

I also like to have two forums dedicated to things that aren't specifically related to the week's discussions: a coffee shop forum for chatting about off-topic things (travel, hobbies, etc.) - this might not be as necessary for your class, since it is short in duration. And a "Teacher's Room" forum is good for people to ask questions and for you to post updates related to the class, like signing up for assignments or changes in schedule or questions about due dates.

I also find it really helpful to give very clear guidelines about what I expect in substantive discussions. I tell them something like: "High quality discussions have participants that take an active role in inquiry and collaboration, building knowledge within the community. I expect you to support the development of knowledge, find ways of presenting differing points of view respectfully, and be willing to share ideas that are not fully formed. Your posts should move beyond agreement or disagreement. Successful discussions create a product that is greater than the sum of its parts." In addition to that longer description of what I want them to achieve in discussions, I give them a list that includes general examples, such as:
  • Move beyond brainstorming
  • Respond to the questions of others
  • Consider multiple approaches and perspectives
  • Share new insights from the discussion
  • Support your ideas with evidence
  • Raise new questions
  • Share and explore confusions
  • Etc.
Finally, in some classes I have had a group of students act as the discussion facilitators and moderators every week. Then, I ask them to provide an assessment of their own work. In fact, having students assess themselves and one another is a very effective way to build cohesion in an online course, I've found.

Good luck!
posted by sockermom at 2:40 PM on May 6, 2016

I always make the mistake of assuming my students are more tech-savvy than they really are. I've learned to be explicit about how to find and do things on my course site. Link to the same resource from multiple places - maybe one page that is a list of all resources used in the class, and then link again from within specific lessons. Write out step-by-step guides for processes that you might think are no-brainers, like how to submit a paper or create a link within a discussion post. Make videos of those same step-by-step processes too. If your school already has these kinds of resource created, verify that they apply to the way you do things.

If the CMS you are using allows it, work through some of your lessons using the student view of your course.

The first assignment in all my online classes is a scavenger hunt kind of thing, where students have to locate specific pieces of information within the course site - like, "On what page is the syllabus located?", or "What is your instructor's phone number?". Every other assignment is locked until they get a perfect score on this first one. It serves two purposes - it makes the student actually look around the course site at the beginning of the course, and it eliminates a lot of excuses for not completing work because a student couldn't find the syllabus or the calendar or the assignment list with the due dates or the participation policy or didn't know how to reach me because they "couldn't find it."

Remember cross-platform compatibility with your content. And then you can be reasonably sure that somebody will use "It won't open on my Mac/old cranky Windows machine from 1998" as an excuse. (Maybe not with grad students, hopefully.)

Be explicit about your turnaround time on emailed questions, etc.

One of my coworkers grades online assignments by recording her thoughts, and then attaching that recording to the student's submission. Much faster for her than writing out her comments, plus the student gets to hear what she sounds like, which adds a personal touch that some students really need. She uses a mic on a stand that sits on the desk in front of her, so she can still use both hands on her keyboard/mouse.

The biggest complaint I hear from online students at my school is it feels like they are all alone, and don't get any "help" from their instructor. Some of that is definitely due to some startlingly poor instructors at my school, but it's also a perception that students sometimes have in general about online courses, especially if they are first-timers, or already have a clear preference for face-to-face classes. So you might be fighting that perception regardless of your level of interaction. Not sure if I have advice on that score, just a thing to be aware of.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 3:58 PM on May 6, 2016

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