Organizing Your Online Course

Creating a Culture of Engagement in Your Online Course

“One of our biggest challenges is curating the online learning space in such a way that students feel confident that they’re going to be able to access all the resources needed to successfully complete their assignments,” said Alyson Snowe of the Community College of Rhode Island. 

Showing a picture of an extremely messy office, she compared it to how students might feel when entering an online learning environment for the first time. “Expecting anyone to navigate our space would be unrealistic.”

The third installment of ACUE’s six-part Effective Online Instruction webinar series, presented in collaboration with the American Council on Education (ACE), the Association of Public & Land-Grant Universities (APLU), the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), and the National Association of System Heads (NASH), focused on Organizing Your Online Course. Snowe, April Mondy of Delta State University, and Michael Wesch of Kansas State University discussed how to plan your courses from a student’s perspective.

Snowe advised instructors to minimize the need for clicking and scrolling. She also reminded participants to establish the learning objectives upfront. “Students should know what they need to do and when and where they need to do it.”

Wesch agreed. “Keep everything clean,” he said. “You have to be thinking about not just organizing your class—you’re really organizing people’s lives.” He also advised faculty to get students away from their computer. “Your class is not online; those are just the instructions.”

That’s why Wesch handwrites and even draws out plans for his course and presents them during his video sessions. He also adds time estimates for assignments next to the pictures and instructions so students can plan ahead. 

“Encourage them to do something outside of class,” he added. “Connect with someone. Something that benefits their mental health.”

Mondy reminded faculty of the stakes. “When students get frustrated in an online environment, that impacts their engagement. It also has an impact on their success if we’re unable to organize the class effectively.”

Acknowledging that every class is structured and formatted differently, Mondy advised instructors to organize them “with a sense of direction.” She offered a visual sequencing for organizing courses:

What do I want my students to do first

Where do I want my students to go next

What do I want my students to avoid

What do I want my students to do last

In discussing pitfalls, Wesch shared a digitized paper syllabus that he used early on in his teaching. Students, he said, would have to go find files referenced in the syllabus. Mondy, meanwhile, encouraged instructors to avoid being too “texty and wordy.” She suggested they find different media for sharing content, such as videos and images.

In terms of engagement and “outsmarting” students who might skip over the content to the assignments, Snowe encouraged instructors to “provide students with relevant, meaningful content. Many students are struggling to manage work and families, so I don’t assign anything that doesn’t have great value for students.” From the beginning, she tells students what they’re going to gain from the work.

Mondy even has her settings configured so students aren’t able to access the assignments until they’ve gone through the content.

“From the moment I started teaching online, I knew the bar had been raised tremendously in terms of how engaging my content needed to be,” Wesh agreed. “Create a culture of engagement—don’t just try to trick them.”

For more advice on how to organize your online course and a complete video and transcript of the webinar, visit our Organizing Your Online Course resource page. You can also share your own thoughts and ask the experts your questions.

For faculty looking to delve further into online learning strategies, check out ACUE’s micro-credential courses.

Planning and Facilitating Online Discussions

Planning and Facilitating Quality Discussions

Moving courses online with little-to-no advance warning has presented myriad challenges to instructors and students alike. One particularly difficult aspect to recreate in a digital environment is discussions. In the webinar “Planning and Facilitating Quality Discussions,” experts Ludwika Goodson, Viji Sathy, and Flower Darby explored the advantages of an online setting and how to continue to have fruitful conversations in this forum.

This was the fourth installment of ACUE’s six-part series, Effective Online Instruction Webinars, presented in collaboration with the American Council on Education, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, the National Association of System Heads, American Association of State Colleges and Universities, and The Council of Independent Colleges.

Goodson noted that there are some benefits to holding discussions online. “You can see how students are thinking,” she said. She added that some of the more reluctant students are inclined to participate in this forum over an in-person one. She also advised setting up an online office and giving it a name that encourages students to frequent it, such as the “Jazz Lounge” or “Green Room,” as well as establishing a virtual study hall, where students can share difficulties and collaborate on solutions.

Goodson offered a series of principles for holding online discussions: communication guidelines; directions, questions, and challenges; wait time; and whether or not to grade. For example, in the first instance, she suggested that writing in all caps comes across as shouting.

Sathy, who teaches quantitative courses, noted that one challenge of transferring to an online format is keeping a peer-instruction component in place. To that end, she holds micro-discussions, in which students work together to solve a problem. She suggested including very specific prompts and providing structure so students are clear about what they should be doing.

“Students need to understand expectations,” she said. 

Sathy also advised setting up a discussion forum for students to post and answer questions. This, she said, is especially useful for quieter students and those who feel self-conscious about asking questions in class. Instructors can “like” correct or helpful responses they see from other students. 

“Think about access to questions,” Sathy added, explaining that if a student asks a question that others might have, the instructor should send the response to the entire class. 

Darby agrees that discussions need structure and advises offering “all the support and guidance we can give students” possible. 

Through online discussions, she opines, “we can interact with our students in the moment.” Her suggestions include exploring how students can relate to current events.

However, she cautions that online discussion don’t just happen naturally but require intentional thought and planning. Like her co-presenters, she encourages instructors to communicate clear expectations (“help students know exactly what you want them to do to foster success”), schedule strategically, and provide feedback. She suggests using rubrics or checklists to grade, such as Linda Nilson’s Specifications Grading approach.

In the question-and-answer portion of the webinar, many participants wondered how instructors can ensure that students are engaged, participating, and posing quality questions and answers.

Goodson commented that many LMSs allow instructors to see which students are participating and how often. As an instructor, she said you can also highlight what’s coming up in discussion and acknowledge what a student has said. “Ask another question to encourage deeper thinking,” she suggested. She also raised an example of a fashion design course, in which the instructor challenged students to search for their favorite design online and explain why they chose it, comparing it to the original examples. 

“Focus on ‘discussable’ questions,” Darby added. She encouraged her colleagues to ask students to write about themselves and how their experiences interact with course concepts. This, she said, promotes “natural engagement” and fosters more authentic engagement, along with academic integrity. “You can’t Google your own experience,” she remarked. “Focus on the relevance of what we’re asking students to do.”

“We should be clear about why we expect engagement,” Sathy added. “What students stand to gain.” 

“It’s important to consider all the ways students can participate.” For example, Sathy experiments with polling and repolling students after a discussion about the answers. She also makes poll questions available to students who aren’t able to participate synchronously and encourages students to text her with questions.

The presenters also discussed topics such as inclusivity and addressing hurtful comments and language in discussions. “ The instructor needs to create guidelines and remember that these comments are in writing,” Darby said. She suggested deleting particularly upsetting comments, as well as reaching out to the person who was targeted and the perpetrator.  “You need to make everyone feel safe.”

To watch the full webinar or read a transcript of the session, visit our Planning and Facilitating Quality Discussions resource page. You’ll also be able to access additional materials and join in the discussion. For faculty looking to delve further into online learning strategies, check out ACUE’s micro-credential courses.