Instructional Design Tips

The growth of online courses continues to rise at an exceptional rate. The non-traditional or working student can now "attend" classes on a schedule that fits his lifestyle and responsibilities. A popular misconception among students, however, is that online courses are easier and take less time to complete. This is generally not true, especially if the course is pedagogically sound and thoughtfully designed. It takes a great deal of careful planning and preparation for the instructor to develop an engaging course - a course that fosters learning and keeps the students interested in the material.

One of the reasons online courses typically have a higher attrition rate when compared to face-to-face courses is the isolation and disengagement that can occur in an online environment. It is more difficult to build community and active engagement remotely, but it is not impossible. Below are some instructional design tips and best practices that will help you in developing and delivering an effective course rich in structure, engagement, and pedagogy.

Technical Specifications Up to Speed?

Encourage your students to verify that their particular computer has the correct software to run Blackboard (UofL's Learning Management System) fully. Under the Help tab on the student's Blackboard home page, there is a "Test Your Browser" function. Require the students to complete this task by a certain date. If you are requiring any special software, please let the students know first thing so that they may download or purchase that software.

Are Your Expectations Clear?

Ensure you are clear about your expectations for your students. This is why an online course syllabus is typically much larger and more detailed in comparison to a traditional syllabus. If you expect them to login three times a week to check for assignments or announcements or actively participate in a discussion board, be sure the students know that. Assign points to such tasks much like you would in assigning points to classroom group participation.

What About My Syllabus?

A detailed syllabus will go a long way towards conveying your expectations and will give your students a sense of your presence in the course. Be very specific - some online syllabi are as long as 30 or more pages in length. Let the students know how often you expect them to log in, the rules of communication, your availability, the turn-around time they can expect for you to respond to their email notes, your expectations regarding class work and test integrity, etc.

Is Your Course Easy to Navigate?

Developing your course so that it is clear how the students are to proceed is vitally important. Ineffective or confusing navigation can be extremely frustrating for students. Organize your course so that the student has little doubt how to begin. It is good to create a "Start Here" button or a "Welcome" announcement that describes what the students are to do now that they are in the class. Organize the materials and assignments in a clear and consistent manner, e.g., by date or by chapter. Post course materials under headings and buttons that seem logical and intuitive. Remove unused buttons. Ask a student or colleague to review your course before actually going live and use that feedback to sharpen it.

What About Netiquette?

Inform students of the "rules of engagement" when it comes to online communications. For example, it is not acceptable to use "texting lingo" like LOL or BRB; instead students should use proper English and correct grammar. Attacking someone with whom a student may disagree is completely unacceptable as is the use of inappropriate or foul language. Penalties should exist and be listed in your course syllabus.

Do I Teach the Same Way as I Do in the Classroom?

Your role as an instructor changes from the "Sage on the Stage" to the "Guide on the Side" - a transition that is difficult for many. In an online course, your role becomes more of a facilitator for learning than the sole source of learning. You are guiding your students by having them actively participate in engaging assignments, virtual group work, and other activities that promote the learning process.

Your availability, however, is extremely vital to the success of the student. They need to know that you are ready to help and are "present" in the course. This can be achieved by timely responses to emails, participation in the discussion boards, and perhaps even virtual office hours. Some instructors will open up a chat session at a given date and time to allow students to come by for a "visit." (Be sensitive to time zones!) Also, be sure to follow up with students who don't seem to be participating or are lagging behind in their work.

Are You Starting "Too Fast?"

Since some of your students may not have taken an online course before, they will likely be unfamiliar with Blackboard and therefore may have some trouble just getting started. Perhaps start with a short, ungraded online assignment to ensure all students are able to log in and perform basic functions. One of the easiest examples is to create an "Introduction" discussion board where you ask the students to introduce themselves to each other. And then ask them to find another student with whom they seem to have something in common and post a response to them.

How Do I Modify My Class For Online Instruction?

Having students read the text and then review the PowerPoint presentations you've uploaded is probably not the recipe for an engaging and effective class. If you are set on using PowerPoint, then convert them to Adobe Presenter format where you can add audio narration. Add URL links to relative sites, create a Wiki and allow the students to build a repository of related materials, add links to YouTube videos, create active work groups, and post thought-provoking and open-ended questions on your discussion board. Try to think of any interesting way to engage your students - step out of the box!

But Can't I Use PowerPoint Presentations?

Have you ever sat through a friend's slide show of his vacation? If you have, then you know that by slide # 10 or 11, you're ready for it to end but your friend still has a few hundred pictures to show you! This same principle holds true in keeping a student's interest with the PowerPoint you've worked so hard to create. Be careful not to simply place lecture notes on slide after slide and expect the students to read them. Chunk the information into smaller units, perhaps using audio, illustrations, and photos to enhance your presentation. Convert your PowerPoint into Adobe Presenter format and you'll be able to add audio for each slide. The more senses you can touch the better the learning environment becomes.

Are Discussion Boards Really That Useful?

Sometimes discussion boards can be better than classroom discussions because students who may typically not speak up in class will actively participate in written communications. International students, too, may also feel more comfortable because they have time to write an appropriate response which may not be possible in a fast-paced verbal conversation. In other words, discussion boards give your students time to think and compose a fuller and richer answer to a question. You should monitor the board although there is no need for you to respond to every posting. Address errors or points of clarification by interjecting occasionally - the students will then know that you as the instructor are paying attention to what they're writing. If you ask open-ended questions, you can avoid the yes/no answers that some students tend to give. Provide examples of the kind of responses you are looking for. It is very important to assign points to the discussion board activity - otherwise your students will likely avoid it.

What About Using Chats or Other Real-time Tools?

Although the use of a chat session may appear to be good practice, please be aware of the downside. If you have students in different time zones (perhaps even international), you will have to coordinate a time that is most convenient for the majority - do you then penalize the students who perhaps could not make it? Another pitfall that occurs with chat sessions is the flurry of responses and perhaps even confusing threads of discussions all occurring simultaneously. One person may be responding to a question you asked 10 minutes ago while another student may be engaged with you on another topic altogether. And using chat sessions hinders the fundamental principle of distance or online learning - taking a course anytime, anywhere.

Two effective ways chat sessions have been used are as virtual office hours and as exam review sessions. You may want to post office hours in which you are in a chat room and are available for any discussions your students may have. This goes a long way in building your presence in the course. Also on nights before exams, you could consider holding a virtual test review session to help those students who are struggling.

Do Copyright Issues Pertain to the Online World?

Although the Delphi Center may be able to help you determine copyright usage, it is best if you contact Larry Raymond at 852.5099 for clearance assistance. You can also check out the excellent Copyright website that UofL has created at louisville.edu/copyright

Questions or Problems?

If you have questions or problems with your course you can call the Help Line designed for faculty and staff at 852.8833. Your students, however, will need to call the IT Helpdesk for any problems they may experience. That number is 852.7997.

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