Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence: Teach Your Online Course

Center for Advancing Teaching Excellence

Teach Your Online Course

Consider the student experience as you implement your online course. Imagine what they will see, hear and read as they navigate the digital space. By experiencing the class from their perspective, you can determine what needs to be communicated, how best to communicate it and when to communicate it.

Questions & Answers

A. The first week of class is especially important in an online class. Online students often look for early access to the class so you should publish the course two or three days before the official start date (to avoid getting lots of email).

Here are a few recommendations for how to start the semester:

Post a Canvas announcement to welcome students to the course before the first day. Be sure to publish the course first. Otherwise students will not receive a notification about the announcement. Provide details about the structure of the course (synchronous vs. asynchronous) and any information about what’s going on during the first week, anything they should prepare, and anything that is due.

Record a video or screencast video reviewing the syllabus.

Consider recording a screencast of the Canvas course, showing where to find recordings, assignments, study guides, Zoom meetings, etc.

Hold optional synchronous information sessions during the first couple of weeks of class or even before class officially starts so that students can see you, talk with you, and ask any questions they might have.

Include role expectations in your syllabus and/or your first announcement. What role will you play? How will you engage in their learning?

Provide students with a clear indication about the amount of time they will spend each week on the class (e.g., 40 minutes for reading and 20 minutes for discussion board posts).

Give students the opportunity to introduce themselves. A Canvas discussion board works well for this. Encourage them to include video or a selfie photo.  Be sure to check out all videos or selfies as they post and/or review before they are posted to make sure that the content fits the norms you’ve described for engagement with others in the class.

If you are placing students into small groups for discussions (recommended for large classes), send out the group lists within the first couple of weeks.

A. For distance education (i.e., > 50% of course instruction occurs when students and instructors are not in same physical location), the DOE requires that "instructors must maintain predictable, regular, and substantive course-related interaction with students, commensurate with course content and credit hours," including at least two of the following:

  • Direct instruction: instructor engages with students in classroom-based interaction (in-person or via technology).

  • Discussion: instructor facilitates student group discussions on course content.

  • Information: instructor explains or responds to students’ questions about course content.

  • Assessment/feedback: instructor assesses and/or delivers feedback on student assignments.

Instructors must monitor students’ academic engagement and proactively engage in substantive interaction with students, either on the basis of such monitoring or upon request by the student.

A. Clear, consistent communication with students is key to a successful online course. One way to strategize this is to set up a communication plan that you share with your TAs, so that everyone knows how communication happens, how often communication happens, and what that communication looks like.

A communication plan might include:

  • Weekly announcements that post at the same time each week describing tasks, deadlines, any relevant details that students need to know that week.

  • Checklists are a great way to communicate what students need to be doing with their time each week of a course.

  • Naming practices such that every item (uploaded files, assignments, etc.) is described in exactly the same way across all elements of the course (syllabus, announcements, Canvas). This way students know exactly what file they should be looking at, what assignment is what, etc.  Even slight differences in a name can be confusing to students, particularly because they can’t ask you in class what you meant by “x” on the calendar.

  • Asking for student’s preferred names at the beginning of the semester and then using a student’s name for all communication (e.g. responses to questions/email, grading). The only time that students are not named individually is for announcements where the material is for the entire course – otherwise all teaching staff use student names.

  • Let students know when each member of the teaching team will respond to emails, be available for quick questions, etc.

There are a number of ways to create presence and connection with students through communication in an online course. For example, a first assignment could be “Introduce Yourself” where everyone in the course, including the teaching team, introduces themselves, answers a set of similar questions, and then includes a short video introduction. These could be posted in a Canvas Discussion so everyone can see everyone else’s introduction.

They can also ask each other questions to get to know each other better. The introductions remain available throughout the semester so students can go back and watch the videos again to get to know others in their group or who they are having a conversation with on a discussion board. Another first assignment could be a set of quick course meetings between a member of the teaching team and a small group (3-4) students.

Every member of the teaching team should hold consistent office hours. Whether this is weekly at the same time through Zoom, weekly appointments through calendar management systems, such as the Canvas Scheduler or Calendly.  Students should know where to find the list of available office hours and how they can connect with members of the teaching team for office hours.

Create a special discussion board space where students can ask each other questions so you don’t have to answer all of the questions. In large classes, Piazza can be an effective tool for enabling students to ask and answer each other’s questions.

Set up a clear practice by which students should communicate with YOU. Inbox messages through Canvas can be a little dicey, especially replies where someone is added to the message. So if you prefer to use an email client outside of Canvas (e.g., Outlook or Gmail), tell the students so. It is a good idea to ask students to send any message to the instructor and to TAs together, unless there is a good reason not to, such as confidentiality. This way everyone knows what’s going on and what the issues are in the course. In case of grade complaints, it prevents students from playing one TA or the professor against another.

A. Help with initial group formation rather than allowing students to form their own groups or randomly forming groups.

Several weeks (or days in a short summer session) before the final project is due, have students submit a short proposal, pitch or research plan identifying what theory or method they will use, what they want to study, and why the theory or method is appropriate for this topic.

Use that information to group students by shared interests. Inform students which group they are assigned. Consider having students formulate and submit as an assignment, a plan for how they will work together as a group.

For upper division courses, or courses with an independent inquiry flag, allow students to decide how they will meet and collaborate.

In lower division courses with younger students, you can require students to collaborate in Slack so you can pop in and monitor how they are progressing. Or build in a few smaller milestones where they submit parts of the overall project to ensure they are staying on track. Or offer a recommended timeline suggesting what they should have completed by certain dates.

Consider providing a handout suggesting a procedure to follow or explaining what it means to do the tasks you are asking them to do (e.g., what it means to identify and then use a theory or method to explain the persuasive power of a text). Provide examples of student submissions from past semesters so they can see models of excellent work.

Set clear expectations of what should be done independently and what should be done collaboratively. Provide opportunities for students to periodically assess their own performance and the performance of other group members. This might be done in a personal reflection or as a survey asking each student to rate their own and their teammates’ level of effort.

Let students know that if it becomes evident that a group member is underperforming, the instructor may choose to lower their individual score on the group assignment or fire them from the team leaving them to complete the assignment alone.

If students will be presenting their group’s work, don’t dictate the format. Let them choose whether to use PowerPoint, Keynote, Prezi or something else. In a synchronous class, you can use Zoom and allow students to share their screen. In an asynchronous class, you can ask them to record the presentation with Panopto, Screencast-o-matic, or any other tool they choose. They can post their presentation in a Canvas Discussion for other students to see and provide feedback. Frame it in terms of a fair or museum walk. You can create a separate threaded discussion for each group’s topic so they are easy to find. Giving some points for writing, comments, questions, and feedback provides an incentive for community interaction and involvement.

A. Faculty are expected to hold office hours for online classes. Recurring weekly sessions are vital to the success of any online course. Canvas and Zoom give you several options. You may want to structure them informally at the same time each week so individual students or groups can show-up on a first-come, first-serve basis. Or, you may want to allow students to make appointments for one-on-one tutoring or to discuss special circumstances. Zoom lets you do both.

Some students may be unfamiliar with Zoom and hesitant about barging into a meeting that is underway. So, you may want to describe briefly in your syllabus the process for accessing the Zoom meeting. You should tell students what to expect when they enter a general meeting (how to deal with the waiting room, mute, etc.) and how to set up an appointment or to wait for admission when the professor is engaged privately with another student.

Within your Canvas course, you can schedule recurring weekly Zoom meetings for the entire semester. One of the benefits of a weekly Zoom meeting is that students always know when they can find a member of the teaching team to ask questions. Just like in-person office hours, you may find it convenient to open Zoom (with the chime notification turned on in the participant panel so you know when a student comes into the Zoom meeting) while you work on other tasks.

If you want to allow more than one student into the room for group work or for an “open” discussion, simply admit them from the waiting room as soon as they join. If you are having a group meeting and a student needs to have a private conversation about grades or a sensitive issue, you and the student can go into a breakout room while other students continue in the main room and wait for you to return.

If you want to meet with only one student at a time, you may ask students to enter their names in the text chat when they join the meeting. That way, the sequence in which they arrived is clear (like lining up outside your office door). Ask them not to use the chat feature for personal conversations because it is serving as a virtual sign-in sheet. Then you take the first person into a breakout room for a private conversation. When you are finished, return to the main room and take the next student into the breakout room. It’s important to make sure students know that if they don’t see you in the main Zoom meeting, you are in a breakout room and you will be back shortly.

Canvas has a Chat function that allows you to have real-time text chat with students. The chat feature is disabled by default and must be enabled using the navigation controls. Chat is useful for quick questions from students. There is a toggle you click to hear an audio alert when a new message comes in. Be aware that everything in the chat is visible to the whole class, so it is not appropriate for private conversations.

Scheduling tools, such as the Canvas Scheduler or Calendly, let you set up 5-minute, 10-minute, 15-minute, etc. blocks of time when students can sign up for an appointment. Scheduling tools help ensure that you know when students need to speak with you, and you aren’t necessarily sitting around waiting for students to come to virtual office hours.

It’s important to demonstrate your availability to meet with students in office hours and in scheduled private meetings. Remind students of your scheduled office hours and reinforce that you welcome their requests to meet with you outside those times. Use inviting language, such as, “Please don’t hesitate to ask if you want to schedule an appointment.”

A. Think about how you will incorporate multiple types of engagement in your class: Student/student interaction, teacher/student interaction, and TA/student interaction.

Be sure to introduce yourself and the TAs at the beginning of the course. Record an intro video, or post a picture of yourself on the homepage of your Canvas course to increase your social presence. Give students an opportunity to introduce themselves to each other. This can be done using the Canvas Discussion tool. Both you and your students can record audio or video directly into a discussion post.

Get to know your students. Consider offering a small extra credit assignment early in the semester that requires students to meet with you one-on-one outside of office hours. Provide a list of questions (e.g., major, what got them interested in this major, what they find interesting or have enjoyed learning about the subject matter, and what they have found not so interesting.) This adds a more personal connection and helps them see that, even in an online course, they can meet with the professor to discuss course objectives and questions.

Cultivate a learning community by incorporating small group discussion using breakout rooms in Zoom or Canvas Discussions. Create discussion threads for students to ask and answer questions about the course or off-topic discussions, such as favorite foods or music. For class-related content discussions, develop prompts that stimulate dialogue and exchange of ideas. Encourage students to create study groups.

Give students flexibility and choices. Allow them to propose alternate assignments or research topics. Don’t dictate which tools they use to create presentations or record video. If you give frequent quizzes, drop the lowest quiz grade. Provide a “Time Bank” where students can have a two-day grace period for one assignment or two one-day extensions for two different assignments.

Solicit feedback from students (and TAs) throughout the semester regarding their experiences. For example, it is helpful to send out a mid-semester survey to students regarding how their online learning has been thus far and what could be improved. Be sure to tell students what changes you are making in response to their input. Create opportunities for students to reflect on their successes, not just any challenges they may have. Encourage students to have fun. Ask them to give their teams creative names, or share their favorite radio-safe song and make a class playlist.

A. The end of term is a very busy time and an online course can get buried in the mix, especially if this is a student's first online course.

Maintaining your online instructor presence through the end of the semester is important to keep students engaged and on track. Consider communicating important due dates (e.g., final exam/projects) early and offer reminders a day or two out from important due dates via Canvas announcements.

Concluding Message: When everything is done, including final grades, send a concluding announcement or email. Tell students their grades are final and remind them of your policy for grade disputes.

Offer any concluding thoughts about the content of the course and how you think the semester went.

Summarize how students benefit from the knowledge they acquired. Suggest courses where they can continue learning about this subject. Tell them what you enjoyed about interacting with them during the semester. Invite students to stay in touch.

Improving eCIS Return Rate: Online courses must use the electronic Course Instructor Survey (eCIS). Return rates are notoriously low.

Share this short video about giving meaningful feedback with students.

Demonstrate that you value student input throughout your course. Some ways you can do that include:

  • Conduct a mid-semester evaluation and use student feedback to make adjustments in the course.

  • Poll students to get input on their preferences and needs.

  • Invite student input outside of polls and surveys.

  • Explicitly and repeatedly tell students you value their input.

Tell students that their feedback on the eCIS is important because it is used by the college and department as one way to evaluate your teaching and you use student input to improve your teaching.

  • Add a statement in your syllabus.

  • Discuss it in your course introduction.

  • Remind students as the end of the course approaches.

Send multiple reminders to students through the Canvas messaging system and/or announcements.

  • Early warning before the eCIS window opens

  • When the eCIS window opens

  • Last chance notice just before eCIS window closes

Include a link to the eCIS in your Canvas course and in your reminder messages.

Consider giving a point-based micro-incentive worth ≤ 0.5% of the overall course grade to the entire class if 80% of students complete the eCIS. Research shows that point-based micro-incentives are the single most effective tactic to improve student evaluations. A class-wide micro-incentive can be as effective as an individual extra credit micro-incentive, and it is easier to administer. You can require students to submit a screenshot of the eCIS completion confirmation screen as evidence that they completed the survey.

If you offer point-based incentives, it should be only one of multiple ways to earn extra credit. Students should be able to earn all available extra credit through other means. This should be part of a holistic array of approaches for improving response rates. Another approach would be to add a bonus question to a final or last exam if the proportion of responses meets a threshold.