Structuring Your Time in an Online Course
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Structuring Your Time in an Online Course

By Leslie Alvarez, Director of the Office of Teaching and Learning

In addition to the stress of this moment, being confined to our homes, and (some of us) finding ourselves homeschooling offspring, you are about to start a new quarter of teaching online. When you’re accustomed to seeing your students regularly and designing in-class learning experiences, making the shift to a virtual environment can be confusing. Because faculty are being asked to make this shift quickly, you may be tempted to use short cuts like doing EVERY class on zoom, or, by over-assigning work because you feel like students should “do more” because they’re not in a traditional classroom.

As the director of the OTL and someone who is currently teaching online (yet prefers face-to-face, F2F), I’d like to offer some advice on how to structure your online classes.

1) First, if you haven’t already grappled with this—you won’t be able to do everything you do in a F2F setting. The OTL team has interacted with so many faculty who have made amazing and creative changes to their courses given the time we are in. These faculty have adapted assignments and found imaginative approaches to reaching their learning goals in ways they previously hadn’t considered. Ask yourself: What can you let go of? What are others in your professional community doing?

2) Second, it doesn’t all have to be synchronous.  In fact, it shouldn’t. You’ve been hearing a lot about synchronous (doing sessions on Zoom) and asynchronous (posting lectures, assigning readings, running discussion boards, accepting assignments). Synchronous is not necessarily better. And, relying too heavily on synchronous approaches can perpetuate inequity. Zoom is an amazing tool but takes a steady and consistent internet connection. Not to mention, it takes significant emotional energy from everyone participating.  One way to address this is recording Zoom sessions, which we strongly recommend. For more information about mitigating inequity in online settings, see Scott Leutenegger’s recent blog.

Using Kaltura to record lectures or other asynchronous approaches should also be part of your spring plan. Assigning things offline means students can take advantage of times of day when their internet is better. They—and YOU—will have more freedom to access the class around duties at home like caring for children and other loved ones.

But I thought everything had to be synchronous to count as distance education? NOPE. There’s some confusion that is leading faculty to believe that every class session has to be live. This is not at all the case. For Federal and HLC guidelines you just need “to support regular and substantive interaction between the students and instructor”. This is what sets “distance education” apart from a “correspondence course”.

At the OTL we recommend no more than 50% of your course be synchronous.

The OTL provided a self-paced online course created by Indiana University for “Canvas teaching online: Designing and Teaching for Impact in Online Courses”. Module 4 discusses what “regular and substantive interaction between the students and instructor” can look like:

A few examples of student↔faculty interaction include

    • providing feedback on assignments, learning journals, or other reflective activities
    • participating in discussion forums or chats
    • sending frequent announcements to summarize the previous week or describe the next week
    • providing online or telephone office hours
    • mentoring individual learners
    • working with small groups of students assigned to help teach portions of the course (peer teaching)”

Notice, FEW of these require synchronous interaction! In fact, here are some examples of how I do this in my own classes:

    • Sending a weekly announcement/email on Monday, “Welcome to Week X” that summarizes the weekly plan
    • Providing feedback to students on their submitted work—something you would do anyway in a F2F
    • Sending a follow up announcement/email after grading an assignment to summarize what went well and the areas of challenge

3) Third, resist the urge to assign MORE! This will only hurt you and your students in the long run. If you keep the focus on learning outcomes rather than coverage, it opens up new possibilities beyond assigning more.  See Jared Del Rosso’s recent blog for some great points about avoiding busy work. More is not always better, especially in an online setting. And don’t forget, you’ve got to grade everything you assign.

4) Fourth, when you do use Zoom, try to use it well. There are ways to structure your time in Zoom to maximize engagement. For ideas, start with the video entitled, Teaching with Zoom: Keeping students engaged and learning, co-hosted by Alex Martinez and Jae McQueen.

Lastly, on behalf of the incredible team at the OTL, we’ve got your back! This is an unsettling time for many of us. Folks who have been teaching for years find themselves a beginner in a world they thought they understood. Experiencing the world as a beginner and being stretched beyond our comfort zone is a good reminder of how our students feel on a regular basis. Here at the OTL we have been impressed by and grateful to the faculty who have been vulnerable with us, sharing their struggles as we move through this time. We also have been humbled by faculty creativity, resilience, and generosity. Thank you for allowing us to think WITH YOU about creative ways to get through this change. We will continue to support you in the days and weeks that come.

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