Preliminary Thoughts on Best Practices for Online Courses, Part One

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Late last summer, I began to teach my first online course to undergraduates at The Ohio State University.  In the process of developing it, I found very little assistance available to me in the form of best practices or suggestions on how to create a good online course.  My colleagues who had taught online before were my best, and often only, sources of information.  Ohio State’s University Center for the Advancement of Teaching is apparently offering an week-long online course design institute this year, but attendees have to be able to attend all sessions in person, which is difficult if not impossible for those of us who are teaching online precisely because we are not physically in Columbus.

Over the past year, I have taught three online classes (two different courses), and I have learned a great deal in the process.  I am also currently a student in an online class, “Behind the Scenes at the 21st-Century Museum,” a free course offered by the University of Leicester in partnership with National Museums Liverpool (learn more about the course here).  This MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) has me thinking a lot about museums and what they can offer to our 21st-century societies, but the course has also helped me think critically about what makes a good online course.  What practices best facilitate student engagement and learning?  I have decided to begin a list of my own gleanings as to what makes a good online course, to which I will add as I teach and learn more in the future.

1. Make course videos absolutely as short as possible.  Students often find it exceedingly difficult to concentrate fully for the length of a typical class period (45 minutes to 1 hour), and short attention spans will only be magnified in an online course, in which there will probably be many more distractions at hand, not to mention the fact that there are no social repercussions for not sitting through the instructor’s video.

2. Make sure that the quality of audio recordings is solid.  Perhaps nothing is more likely to discourage a student who genuinely wants to learn from the instructor’s audio or video recordings than poor sound quality/background noise that causes distraction and/or makes the instructor difficult to understand.

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3. Be animated and enthusiastic.  This best practice applies to teaching in the classroom, but I think it is even more important in online courses because students are not physically present in the room with the instructor and thus have limited exposure to non-auditory cues such as body language.  An instructor can do a lot to convey excitement via body language, but usually most of that must be transferred to the voice in an online course.  Because, again, students are likely watching lectures in comfort of their homes, where distractions abound, instructors need to work even harder to engage students and hold their interest.

4. Be present in the course. One of the benefits of an online course is that the instructor can record lectures ahead of time, at his/her own convenience, and the students can listen to these lectures at their own convenience.  But I think that this can lead to the feeling that the instructor is not really present in the course – that he or she is just posting material on the Internet and then letting students do their own thing.  Engaging with students regularly on discussion boards can demonstrate one’s presence in the course, as can posting short videos periodically that were filmed especially for that class and that address specific student questions or concerns.  I have not done much with the latter in my own classes yet, but I hope to do so in the future.

5. Give students the opportunity to respond as often as possible and to as many components of the course as possible.  Posting a comment can help a student feel more engaged in the course, as well as help solidify what he/she is learning.  In my past courses, I have limited student discussion to the discussion boards, which are separate from the other components of the course.  If possible, in the future, I would like to allow students to comment on videos, course readings, and all other components of the course to facilitate a bit more interaction among them and with me.  “Behind the Scenes at the 21st-Century Museum” does this very well.

I have more to learn about online teaching (as I am sure that I always will!), and I will add to this list as I come up with more best practices.

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