Fundamentals of effective online teaching practice
Effective online teaching is an extension of good teaching practice, just in a different environment. The fundamentals are essentially a series of principles about how humans can best interact online to create an effective and inclusive learning environment.
The principles below are based on the work of Garrison, Anderson and Archer (2000), Chickering and Ehrmann (1996), and Darby and Lang (2020), as well as countless others in our circles who have been sharing their ideas and resources for decades.
1. Communicate – use a welcoming, inclusive tone in announcements and emails. Set expectations about communication such as preferred methods, typical time to respond, where to send questions, and boundaries for interaction that are reasonable for both students and instructors (avoid the temptation to always be online). Plan to send a global announcement at least once per week, check and respond to email and discussion forums frequently throughout the week
2. Plan for a mix of synchronous (e.g. live virtual classroom, Teams, chat) and asynchronous (text, discussion forums, announcements, emails, problems, readings etc.) activities.
a. Limit synchronous interactions to things that require live demonstration, dialogue about difficult topics, collaborative problem-solving and others with a real pedagogical need for this type of interaction; always have a backup plan for technical difficulties; recording live sessions is normally advisable (depending on content)
b. Use asynchronous learning where possible to limit bandwidth and get around timezone challenges. This can include pre-recording mini-lectures (chunk into discrete concepts), notes, learning guides, and other downloadable content
3. Plan each week of learning activities to actively engage students in the learning process; clearly describe for them what they should be doing throughout the week. On average, plan for your students engaging in 6-9 hours of learning activities per week (here is a useful calculator for estimating that), including lectures, watching videos, readings, working on assignments, independent research etc. Emphasise time on task over ‘contact hours’. Design opportunities to engage deeply with learning in authentic contexts, rather than surface approaches.
4. Write or record (video, audio) short weekly overviews outlining key learning activities for the week
5. Use more than one assessment approach to evaluate students’ achievement of the course learning outcomes – consider alternatives to traditional exams for some of your assessment. Wherever possible, consider more authentic assessments that allow students to demonstrate performance in an applied context through non-disposable assignments. Provide a low-stakes opportunity to practice assessment, especially for exams
6. There is no silver bullet to resolve all concerns about academic integrity – it requires a multi-strategy approach including building a culture of integrity, pedagogical approaches, assessment approaches, technology, and education on academic responsibilities. Start by trusting your students – if they have chosen to study in summer and fall 2020, they likely genuinely want to learn. Some will attempt to subvert any steps you put in place, but this is no different to the on-campus setting; don’t punish or negatively label all students for the behaviour of a few.
7. Provide prompt feedback on assessment
8. Office hours are required by the collective agreement and a critical support for online students. Set aside time for responding to questions each day and offer a time to be available synchronously each week. Be flexible with how this support is made available and offered. Use the virtual classroom, MS Teams, phone, discussion forums, or email to respond to student questions - the point is to be available for questions and support.
9. Model the behaviour you expect from students, through emails, announcements, starter and wrap up discussion posts, and make that modelling visible (i.e. explicitly discuss the model)
10. Consider carefully what technology your students will have access to. Many will be trying to work on a phone or tablet, may be sharing a device, and may have poor internet access. Before using high bandwidth tools and practices, consider whether there is a low cost and low-tech alternative. Consider surveying students in the first week or before class starts to find out what technology they have access to and their experience in online learning.
11. Practice pedagogies of care: These are unusual times and we need to care for ourselves, and our students to get through them. That means making pedagogical decisions that are based in caring and grace. You won’t get this online teaching thing perfectly right the first time through; it is an iterative process. Do what you reasonably can with the best interests of your students and yourself in mind. Trust your students. Expect that many students will be experiencing trauma and dislocation, may be caring for loved ones, and may be facing financial distress.
12. Check in with students personally if you notice them disengaging – try to help them stay focused through frequent feedback, contact, and monitoring engagement in the Blackboard dashboard. Allow space for guided independent learning wherever possible.
13. Consider principles of accessibility and Universal Design for Learning (UDL) in all your pedagogical decisions.
1. Post a short introductory video about the course and yourself; open a discussion forum for students to introduce themselves and encourage them to share only what they are comfortable
2. Be visible, available and responsive to your students through multiple modes – email, discussion forums, virtual classroom, MS Teams, but set boundaries
3. Create a water cooler discussion forum as a place for students to share and connect
4. Encourage students to communicate, collaborate and share what they are learning with each other; use smaller group activities where feasible to build community and connection between students
1. Use a backward design process – start with your learning outcomes, then design assessment to evaluate them, then the supporting learning activities and content; where do we want to go, how will we know when we’ve arrived, and how will we get there?
2. Use a table, concept map, or visual syllabus to map the content of the course (lectures, textbook chapters, videos, other readings, assignments, learning activities etc.) to the learning outcomes and make this available to students to help them see the course at a high level; make the purpose of class activities and assessments explicit
3. Design your Blackboard (LMS) course site with a consistent and simple layout e.g. one folder per week containing all the content for the week and an explanation for what to do with it, assessment all in one folder, use the library resource list tool (Leganto) for collating readings and other resources
4. Collect and curate a diverse range of resources/content to support learning in the course – go beyond a textbook to include other relevant and/or up to date readings, Open Educational Resources (OERs), websites, news reports, online videos, instructor-created content, simulations, virtual labs, cases; your library liaison can help find resources and address copyright questions about content you want to use online. Consider moving to an open textbook or other no-cost solutions to increase accessibility of resources and costs to students
5. Use discussion forums to create community, encourage student-student engagement, support learners who have English as an additional language, provide space for students to process before responding to a prompt, provide a space to explore large, messy questions/challenges
6. Encourage metacognition by embedding questions and activities that help students to reflect on their learning – e.g. small formative quizzes, problems, reflection prompts
The Office of Open Learning, University of Windsor www.uwindsor.ca/openlearning