How to Teach Online/Distance Education Courses Successfully. Sunah Cho

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1 How to Teach Online/Distance Education Courses Successfully Sunah Cho Instructional Designer/Project Manager & Instructor Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology University of British Columbia Introduction Researchers and educators have emphasized the significant role that an instructor plays in the success of online courses (In this paper, online learning is defined as distance education). However, much of this expertise arises from what Tony Bates (2005) refered to as a Lone Ranger approach, which focuses on the development of an instructor s individual work and a set of generic skills or techniques to be mastered for teaching online courses, often overlooking synergistic relationships with partners in teaching and learning. In particular, pairing experienced and novice online instructors as partners has great promise for providing an environment where best practices can be passed on and major pitfalls can be avoided. In this paper, I present practical guidelines for teaching online courses as an integral partnership, aligned with a constructivist paradigm as the conceptual foundation. Seven guidelines are suggested for instructors who teach online courses for the first time. The guidelines have emerged from my experience as a novice online instructor for a graduate course for students in geographically diverse locations. These suggestions have added richness of my experience as an instructional designer/project manager, which involves helping instructors become comfortable with online teaching. Taken together, these experiences and reflections represent a possible path for new online instructors to follow. Course Description and Contextualization The course ETEC 510, The Design of Technology Supported Learning Environments, is the focus of this paper. It is a core graduate course in the Master of Educational Technology program (MET) at the University of British Columbia (UBC). The MET program was the first fully online program in Canada and offers three program options including a Master s Degree and two specialized graduate certificates. The MET program started as a joint graduate program of UBC and Tec de Monterrey University (Tec) in Mexico and its structure and design of MET courses models a contextually responsive, constructivist approach to learning using high quality course materials and innovative learning technologies (Gaskell & Miller, 2007). The program has attracted students from more than 30 countries (for details, see The Master s program requires four core courses and six elective courses for completion. ETEC 510, The Design of Technology Supported Learning Environments, explores constructivist and sociocultural theories of mind, learning and instruction, and their significance for the design of educational technologies and environments. The course asks students to work in groups to design a technology-supported learning environment by applying the learning theories and models they learn from the course readings and from various interactions with peers and instructor. Threaded discussion forums were used for weekly discussion and group work and Design Projects and Wiki Design were provided for collaborative or individual project publication. In January 2010, we decided to combine two sections of the course for the efficiency of course management and the opportunity to increase the richness of sharing resources. I was teaching this course for the first time; thus, merging the two sections and sharing the same course shell with an experienced teacher provided me with learning opportunities and provided students with additional opportunities to Copyright 2011 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 1

2 share their experiences and build knowledge. By making comparisons and contrast between the two sections, we discussed and shared strategies through frequent communication channels. It is necessary to note that collaboration and cooperation is required not only for students but also for instructors. This collegial partnership between an experienced and new instructor had a positive effect on the quality of teaching and helped to reduce wasteful trial-and-error. Seven Guidelines Guideline One: Build a Partnership with both your colleagues who have online teaching experience and an instructional designer who puts all resources together and eventually helps free you from the burden of technology. In the context of the distance education at UBC, the role of the instructional designer is multifaced, ranging from leading a project to understanding teaching epistemologies and to helping faculty to select technologies as a partner in teaching and learning. This partnership provides powerful benefits. The collegial practices and fair partnership help both parties to devote resources necessary for ongoing professional development and teaching improvement. Even though collegial support and pedagogical discussions are important in the educator s profession, collaboration among teachers is not always emphasized due to different personalities, backgrounds and pedagogical beliefs. However, a collaboration and collegiality between experienced and new instructors will ultimately leverage student learning and course quality. The new instructor even gains psychological support from the experienced instructor (Stansbury & Zimmerman, 2000). The collaborative process and relationship help the experienced instructor to get rewarded and inspired by confirming his pedagogical principles and ongoing development of his teaching skills. According to Oblinger and Hawins (2010), a partnership between faculty members and instructional designers brings high quality and flexible education experiences. No one denies that you are the content expert, but you don t have to be a master of the various technology tools. It is certainly beneficial if you are good at the technology but you don t have to be a Lone Ranger. A cooperative relationship with the instructional designer will help you to share responsibility for achieving the goals you want to achieve from your course. Guideline Two: Send out a Welcome Message through students s before the course starts. Welcome messages before the course starts will help you to check in with the students and get students prepared for the course. Communicating through an outside course shell can sometimes help to gain students attention easily for fast communication. There are no specific rules on how the welcome message needs to look like. Here is an example included for my teaching. Information about the course instructor Information about the course access: You should include login instructions to access the course. General information about the course and main activities Expectations on the first module/lesson: You don t need to explain the objectives of all the modules, but introduction of the first module/lesson will help students gear up for this course. Tips for successful student learning: Your ultimate goal is to help student learning, so some advice on how to succeed in the course will be useful. Information about communication policy: Communication between instructor and students is essential, in particular, in a distance-learning environment. Thus, communication policies such as how to communicate with the instruction and how soon a reply from instructor can be expected should be included. Reply to confirm the welcome message to be received: This can confirm that the instructor uses the correct address and provides an opportunity to interact with students for the first time in the course. Copyright 2011 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 2

3 Once the confirmation s are received, make an list in your account so that you can them whenever you want to make any urgent or consistent communication whenever in need. Guideline Three: Convey Specific Timeframes for discussion and reflection. The assessment of student participation in a discussion forum is a cornerstone for successful learning community development. Whether the discussion forum is open for the duration of the course for continuous and on-going input or it is conditionally released for weekly discussions is dependent on what you expect from students. Personally I prefer time-released discussion since it helped me to keep all the students on the same page, so the students could maintain a certain level of focus on the active topics. My colleague (experienced instructor) and I set up the conditional release discussion forum as shown in Figure 1 but allowed students to lead their discussions. Each module consisted of General Discussion, which was open throughout the course, and specific topics related with each module opened only when the module was active. We took a role as facilitators in the discussion rather than sages on the stage. In the course, students were required to answer weekly-based topic questions related to the module objectives. By answering the questions, students shared their ideas and experiences and expanded their knowledge through the course. It is often seen that participation in discussion is mandatory in graduate context and it weighs about 10-20% of students final grade. This conditional release option improved students quality discussion at the right time within the proper pace. However, unlike the discussion forum, it is recommended that the course content should be released at the beginning to optimize the autonomy of individual student learning. Figure 1. Discussion Forum Guideline Four: Maximize your Presence. The instructor s presence facilitates quality student discussion and helps students feel they are being supported. The Instructor s presence is presented through instructor s participation in online interaction with students, course design, facilitation, direction and feedback that encourage the cognitive and social processes for learning (Garrison & Anderson, 2003). Stein and Wanstreet (2003) suggested instructors may want to compensate for their lack of physical presence by increasing their electronic presence through or discussion postings that acknowledge the group s input. For example, regular reminders and course management help students to manage their workloads and predict the instructor s expectations. This regular, timely and consistent contact will optimize your presence. Another way for the enhancement of your presence is to convey a tone through paralinguistic cues or emoticons that can help make plain text humorous and relaxing when you interact with students. These small additions enable you to easily infuse your personalities into the course and your presence can be optimized in the text environment. Guideline Five: Manage your Time and Teaching Load systematically and effectively. Do not be overwhelmed by the online teaching load. Instead, be flexible with your working time for various tasks. The teaching load is closely related with the speed and depth of feedback you provide. Regardless of the types of feedback, information or acknowledgement (Graham et al., 2003), prompt and timely feedback is crucial for student learning progress. However, overloaded time management and overloaded teaching load may thwart you from providing feedback or help in a timely fashion. This is one of the pitfalls of Copyright 2011 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 3

4 distance education for learners and instructors. Many instructors report that their preparation and instruction time for online courses takes two to three times longer than face-to-face instruction (Berge, 2001). However, sharing resources and developing teaching strategies through collaboration with the experienced instructors will certainly help the new instructor to avoid any unnecessary mistakes and to prepare and teach the course more effectively. You might need to set up your time frames on when to check your course, to respond to your students during the day and to provide your feedback. You might want to prioritize your response depending on the urgency of matters. For instance, checking was the first thing in the morning I did since most urgent and individual issues were usually delivered to my personal rather than being posted on the course website. Any issues posted on the course website were sometimes supported and resolved by peers even before I read them. Creating small group work and fostering group dynamics can encourage students to interact and learn from each other. Even certain technical and administrative issues can be resolved by peers who have already experienced the same issues before. If the group work and student interaction is properly designed, it will reduce your participation and intervention effectively. Ragan and Terheggen (2003) provides extensive strategies of effective workload management for the online environment. Most importantly, setting deadlines for learning activities is crucial for students online but how and when you respond to students activities is the very issue you need to plan ahead. Guideline Six: Make Evaluation an Integral Part of students learning experience. Assessment is an important part of the learning process because it reflects the learning goals through various activities and media. One of the course assignment activities in the course was Design Wiki, where students engaged in collaborative knowledge building with their group members. The key assessment criteria for this activity was to encourage students to engage in collaborative knowledge building with their peers. Another assignment was Design Project, which was situated and authentic, so students felt that they were being evaluated for work that was meaningful to them in their professional context. Guideline Seven: Continuous Maintenance drives course quality and helps you teach the course successfully. Any dead links or suggestions recommended by students during the course should be updated and taken into account for the next course offering. Most updated course contents convey accuracy and caring for student learning. Students are also your partners who contribute to the course quality and course management. They also help you enhance your learning as the course instructor. During the course I taught, a lot of the primary material was created by students, in the discussions, their sharing of resources, the Design Wiki and the Design Projects. The course was never the sum of its static parts: the dynamic presence of the students and their work/dialogue drove the learning and built the community in the course. Discussion and Conclusion A large body of principles and guidelines for teaching online courses provides a practical and effective lens of best practice for new instructors. Graham at al (2001) provides seven lessons for online instruction corresponding to the popular framework of Chickering and Gamson s Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education to evaluate their own online courses. The seven guidelines I introduced are not based upon a large group interview nor survey but a rather anecdotal experience gained from my teaching experience where I learned that online teaching can be successful when an integral partnership plays with colleagues who have taught online courses already, the course instructional designer and students. This partnership is a win-win approach between a new instructor and an experienced instructor and these partnership practices and activities are well aligned with the constructivist paradigm. When you teach an online course for the first time, the first step you can take is to identify the resources you have in your department or in your institute and find a way to connect yourself with the resources. At this early stage, it is imperative that you spend time talking about learning instead of technology with your Copyright 2011 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 4

5 colleagues who have already taught online courses. While the technology will play a vital role when you teach the course, you want to ensure that you select the technologies to support what you want students to learn. An instructional designer plays a role in leading the instructor to articulate the goals of the course and helping to establish the technologies that will be used. In some sense, the instructional designer serves to relieve your concerns over technical burdens in order to allow them to focus on student learning. References Bates, A. (2005). Technology, e-learning and distance education, London/New York, NY: Routledge. Berge, Z.L. (Ed.). (2001). Sustaining distance training: Integrating learning technologies into the fabric of the enterprise. San Francisco, CA: Josey-Bass. Garrison, D. & Anderson, T. (2003). E-Learning in the 21st Century. London: Routledge Falmer. Gaskell, J., & Miller, J. (2007). Constructivist approaches to developing diverse communities of learners online: Examples from the MET Program. The Fourth Pan Commonwealth Forum on Open Learning. Retrieved from Graham, C., Cagiltay, K., Craner, J., Lim, B., & Duffy, T. M. (2001, March/April). Seven principles of effective teaching: A practical lens for evaluating online courses. The Technology Source,. Retrieved from Lazarus, B. D. (2003). Teaching courses online: How much time does it take? Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 7(3), Oblinger, D., & Hawkins, B. (2006). The myth about online course development. EDUCAUSE Review, 41(1). Retrieved from Ragan, L. C., & Terheggen, S. L. (2003). Effective workload management strategies for the online environment. Retrieved from Stansbury, K., & Zimmerman, J. (2000). Lifelines to the classroom: Designing support for beginning teachers. A WestEd Knowledge Brief. San Francisco, CA: WestEd. Stein, D. S., & Wanstreet, C. E. (2003). Role of social presence, choice of online or face-to-face group format, and satisfaction with perceived knowledge gained in a distance learning environment. Midwest Research to Practice Conference in Adult Continuing and Community Education (pp ). The Ohio State University. About the Presenter Dr. Sunah Cho is an Instructional Designer/Project Manager for the Centre for Teaching, Learning and Technology at the University of British Columbia (UBC). She is also an online instructor for the Masters of Educational Technology at UBC. She provides leadership in the application of educational technology and research to the design and development of distance- and blended-learning courses. Of particular interest is developing effective interactive learning environments and extending partnership, as an instructional designer, in teaching and learning. Address: West Mall UBC Vancouver BC Canada V6T 1Z4 Phone: Copyright 2011 The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System 5

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