Best Practices for Teaching Online

Dozens of professors and others at one university share their ideas and examples for online learning across disciplines in a new book.

November 29, 2017

Indiana University East delivers 50 percent of all credit hours online, and administrators say the campus, which has offered online courses for 10 years, boasts distance education students from 47 states, the District of Columbia and more than 15 countries.

To share what they’ve learned during the past decade about effective online pedagogy and instructional design, 42 online instructors, researchers and others at the university in Richmond, Ind., collaborated to publish Best Practices in Online Teaching and Learning Across Academic Disciplines (George Mason University Press).

According to one of the book’s writers and its editor, Ross C. Alexander, it highlights best practices, engaging approaches and digital technologies. The 16 chapters include examples from courses in humanities and social sciences, natural sciences and mathematics, and professional programs.

Here are some insights and examples from the book.

Developing Effective Communications

Not surprisingly, three professors teaching communications studies courses online had a lot to say about how best to communicate with students at a distance. Rosalie S. Aldrich, Renee Kaufmann and Natalia Rybas said they find it helpful to send a “module update” at the beginning of each week regarding the topic and tasks to be covered. Instead of just emailing the update to students, the instructors suggested a more engaging approach: creating a video discussing the tasks and posting it as an announcement in the institution’s learning management system.

The professors said other effective ways of communicating with online students include:

  • Providing step-by-step instructions for assignments and technology use with clear assessment rubrics.
  • Creating weekly to-do lists.
  • Offering exemplars or models from students in previous classes.
  • Creating question-and-answer discussion posts for learners to ask questions of the instructor and their peers.

They also suggested:

  • Setting times to meet with students via phone, chat and videoconferencing or on campus.
  • Responding to students with “messages of support and understanding.”
  • Providing feedback on all assignments.
  • Strategically participating in discussion forums. The professors wrote that students become more involved in online discussions when the instructor creates patterns of timely participation, feedback and support.

To ensure productive interactions in discussion boards, instructors need to set clear expectations and criteria regarding posts, the professors wrote. Beyond forums, they encourage student-to-student communications by:

  • Requiring peer review of presentations, papers and other assignments.
  • Placing students in small discussion groups.
  • Assigning group work such as projects and role playing.
  • Creating a class or group wiki pages where learners can contribute.
  • Using chat rooms in the LMS.
  • Using social media sites like Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
  • Sharing proposals, reports and other student work in the public spaces of the LMS.

One of the authors also wrote that she requires students to find “buddy groups” of three or four classmates, or she assigns the groups. Pairs present problems when one student doesn’t participate or respond, but, she said, if one student doesn’t participate in a buddy group, the others can move forward with the assigned task.

Employing Popular Games

After students in his in-person history courses talked with him about the popular series Drunk History (on Comedy Central) and Epic Rap Battles of History (online), Justin Carroll added a strategy game called Sid Meier’s Colonization to his upper-level online course. Colonization is a challenging strategy game based on early European colonization.

Carroll asked his online students to play the Colonization game and follow the advice and examples of the narrator John Smith. The assignment, grounded in both primary and secondary readings, evolved into a larger online wiki project in which students collaborated as a class to create a guide to colonization of North America.

In the end, the chapter’s authors -- Carroll, Christine Nemcik and Daron Olson -- said the assignments for building the guide required students to demonstrate their knowledge, negotiate game-play strategies and work to build agreement, and learn to critically analyze popular culture and communicate its flaws effectively.

Testing Oral Competency

At the onset of offering language courses online, some Indiana East faculty members expressed concern about how students could build oral competency. So, instructors teaching online Spanish courses tested students’ spoken language capabilities using exams created by Versant, a Pearson company, at regular intervals. Faculty members Dianne Burke Moneypenny and Julien Simon wrote that the exams were effective; at the end of their first-year Spanish courses, online students performed as well as the face-to-face students in vocabulary, fluency and punctuation.

Indiana East online language courses have synchronous and asynchronous components. If students attend live sessions and participate, they receive full credit for that session. The professors said this model is similar to face-to-face language courses, where a student’s every utterance isn’t graded or corrected, but is given immediate feedback in a low-stakes environment.

Moneypenny and Simon wrote that asynchronous activities are easier to plan. Just like in face-to-face courses, online students are expected to complete by specific due dates the same activities, such as writing compositions or reviewing audio or video recordings.

Creating Informative Videos

The consensus among studio arts instructors at Indiana East was that online learning couldn’t match face-to-face education because students have to be “talked through” the technical aspects of the physical work.

Professors found that studio courses that are most suitable for online delivery include exercise-based beginning-level courses, like drawing fundamentals, and classes that use digital applications such as graphic design and photography.

Instructors Carrie Longley and Kevin Longley wrote that they teach these courses with instructor-generated videos (IGVs) using a video or phone camera. “With easy accessibility to photo- and video-editing software on the World Wide Web [and] with minimal reach and practice, one can make effective high-quality IGVs,” they wrote.

The Longleys said that focusing the camera frame on the drawing surface allows all students to see the same view. They said this is difficult to replicate in a face-to-face classroom, where students are gathered tightly around the instructor’s easel trying to get a clear view.

Also, with videos, still images can be inserted at any point and the professor can reference historical artworks and draw visual relevant connections -- things that can’t easily be done in a face-to-face drawing class, the instructors wrote.

Finally, in-person class demonstrations typically last more than an hour and are impossible to repeat for an absent student. On the other hand, the Longleys wrote, their video demonstrations are about 20 minutes and can be viewed at any time.

In some modules, a discussion page can be created to allow for students to critique one another’s artwork. The page can be embedded with Padlet, a free online application that serves as a bulletin board where images and comments can be posted. The authors also said Padlet is a useful tool for storing and organizing a student’s work.

Lastly, art students can document their work with a digital or phone camera or scanner, and the resulting image files are uploaded to the LMS. One benefit of assessing students’ work within the LMS, the instructors wrote, is that all submissions can be saved into one file, allowing the assessor to view all images at once or one at a time.


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