Top Ten List for Online Pedagogy

Over the years, I’ve done quite a bit with online pedagogy, and now we’ve come to a time when people are getting degrees in it, but I still can’t point faculty to a single resource where they can learn about it quickly. So here I’m going to list what I (and possibly I alone) think are the top ten tips for online pedagogy:

1. Emphasize your strengths

In our Program for Online Teaching workshops, the first thing we did was ask participants to think about what they did well, and what they enjoyed, in their on-site classroom. We discovered a few things.

Good lecturers not only love to lecture, but they do it well. They tend to be organized and enthusiastic, even charismatic. At a time when lecture gets a bad rap because it isn’t considered “active learning”, a good lecturer inspires students to become interested in the subject, and provides a professional role model.

Those who love class discussion, or student-led activities, revel in the chaos that can ensue, and are experts at facilitating. Their classrooms tended to be dynamic.

Faculty who like variety tend to do several different things during a class session, and keep the energy going by transitioning to different tasks, connecting them all together.

Any of these approaches (and many more) can be effective online. The question should always be how the technology can be made to do what you do well as a teacher. So a lecturer might focus on creating narrated slides or video lectures. Someone who loves class discussion might work on creating dynamic forums and alternative programs for discussion (see #4 below). Those who mix it up might create many different tasks each week.

2. Work on your weaknesses

If your lecturing isn’t so good, try making short mini-lecture videos or narrated slides for particular issues or problems in your class. This can be particularly effective for areas where students have trouble, covering those things that never seem to be understood completely in class.

If discussion is your bugaboo, look at your motives for doing it. Do you want discussion to have students review content? Then create more of a posting board, and don’t worry too much if they don’t “talk” to each other. Do you want discussion to be a place where students interact? Then design for social interaction instead of deploying a typical “one post, two reply” format. Do you want to use discussion for students to create something together? Consider ditching the discussion board for something more collaborative, like Google Docs (keeping in mind #4 below), or use it for posting things that everyone will use.

If you’re not technologically savvy, but would love to add video clips and animated images to your class, set aside some professional development time for yourself, and start searching the web for how-to videos and free programs to try.

3. Organize effectively

Sometimes fancified as “course design”, course organization may be the most important factor in your online class. If students cannot find their way around, they may get frustrated, which prevents learning. On the other hand, if it’s too obvious where you click-click-click, students become task-focused, jumping through the hoops. This may be exactly what you want, but it may not.

Think about breadth versus depth. A “broad” organization has many course menu items, but fewer clicks to material as a result. A “deep” organization has very few main menu items, but lots of clicks to go deeper into activities and pages. Think which is more appropriate for your class.

Be aware that the Learning Management System can work against your best intentions. For example, I prefer a simple organization, with few main course items, one main page with the weeks listed, then the information and activity links on those pages. But Canvas keeps adding more and more to the “super” Canvas menu, just to the left of my class menu, making it cluttered.

Although newspapers may seem antiquated, print journalism has useful norms. For example, despite the flattening of much information on the internet, the size of headings may still be helpful. Also, think above and below the fold. Students understand they have to scroll to get all the information, but they still look at what’s at the top first. Remember that journalistic pyramid — the important information should be at the top (and the email corollary: people read their inbox, not their email).

All this goes double when creating instructions. If your instructions are lengthy, then the activity isn’t intuitive enough, and should be rethought.

4. Use only one cool tool

You just discovered VoiceThread, and are thrilled at the possibilities. Or Pinterest – wouldn’t that be a great learning tool? How about Flipgrid? Students could do discussion that way instead. Or Google Docs – they could collaborate.

Learning Management Systems, even when they integrate their tools (Canvas uses LTIs, some of which integrate with the Gradebook and Assignments), require a lot of back-end upkeep. They need codes and updates, and you need to learn how the tool works and be able to answer student questions. If the tool you like doesn’t integrate with the LMS, then it will require students to have their own username and password. It may be difficult for you to track their progress.

So my rule if you are using an LMS is: One Cool Tool.

This may seem like a practical or technological consideration, but it is also pedagogical. There’s a reason you like a particular tool — it does something for your students that no other tool can do. So the question is how important that something is to the class itself. Does this tool enable students to do something significant to your discipline, in a way that is somehow easier or better? Then it deserves to take center stage, even to have the course built around it.

For example, my cool tool at the moment is Perusall, a group annotation program for documents. Although I use discussion boards for students to post things, the social interaction and collaborative learning take place in Perusall. It’s also where the reading comprehension happens, where students get help from each other understanding the reading. Deep reading is an important goal for me. Adding some other cool tool might dilute this one.

5. Assess responsibly

Depending on external pressures, it may be necessary to assess vast quantities of student work. But quite a lot can probably be done as “formative” assessment, quizzes or tests that are low-stakes (or even no points) but help build knowledge for larger projects. Assessment, even if it takes place separately, can be integrated into learning.

Again, it’s important to design assessments around your own pedagogical goals. If you want fact retention, repeated quizzes (or quizzes with retakes) may be desirable. If you want application of content, essays or visual projects with rubrics might work better. If you want everything to build up to one big project, there are ways to organize that with signpost assessments along the way.

Prompt feedback is more important, I think, in an online class than in the classroom. Students do not like the feeling they’ve just thrown their hard work into the void. If there are assessments that test facts, they should show the score immediately, and the answers revealed as soon after the deadline as feasible. The more individualized the assignment is, the more you need to provide feedback beyond the score. This can be done with rubrics, if you’re good at writing rubrics (see #2 above if you’re not). Individual feedback can be sped up with templates (where you have a text file of common responses you can copy and paste). The template approach used to be in vogue, but is now discouraged, because it seems to not be individualized. But my sense is that if the student work has patterns, there is no reason why the feedback shouldn’t also.

6. Encourage exploration

There are few subjects that cannot benefit from having the student pursue their own interests, even if in only a small way.

One way online teachers do this is to offer choices, either between or within assignments. Students can gather their own sources, visuals, or information, either with guidance or from an instructor-prepared list. They can choose topics for projects.

For my classes, students contribute cited visual sources to a discussion board, then use them to write their papers. This gives those who want to pursue their own interests that opportunity, and those who don’t can write based on all the sources available.

7. Act strict but be lenient

The syllabus may be strict on deadlines, not because one is dictatorial, but because we are professionals. Medical appointments, court dates, church weddings — one cannot miss these deadlines. If you do, you must pay, because the professionals involved have other things they could be doing . Despite over a century of arguing over whether teaching is a profession or a semi-profession, I think that indicating strict deadlines implies your time is important. I am always strict in front of the group.

However, students’ time is often beyond their control. At community college, they usually have family and job commitments. And at every college, unexpected things arise: illness, family emergencies, accidents. Being flexible with the individual is appropriate, to whatever extent you think reasonable. Accepting late work should be accompanied with an understanding that it is a favor of your professional time. This does not mean adjudicating excuses. I pretty much accept any request as coming from a responsible adult, and grant what I think is appropriate time, usually with a “just this once” caveat.

So I’m a dictator on the syllabus, and a marshmallow when an individual asks me a favor.

8. Use visuals

Pictures in online courses should not be decoration, but rather integral to either the navigation of the class or to understanding the information the class contains. They can also be an alternative to text, particularly in testing or collaborative work. Proximity is good: an image next to text describing it, a diagram inside the quiz question.

Not everyone is great with visuals (see #2), but screens and screens of text are mind-deadening. It’s death by scrolling. And I promise no one will read it (see #3).

9. Don’t get all professional

Resources posted for students need not look like they were printed at Cengage or filmed in Hollywood. Instructor presence is best expressed by, if I may exaggerate, you in your pajamas in ugly blue lighting with your dog barking in the background. Immediacy and humanity are more important than production values. If you have a great idea because you just read the students’ posts and it led you in some bizarre direction in your ideas, fire up the webcam and let them know.

Similarly, one of the most effective text documents I’ve seen is an instructor’s uploaded article with her own notes scribbled in the margins. Learning is active, so if our resources are too, that’s OK.

10. Be true to your discipline and transparent in your teaching

The biggest objection to teaching online is that the faculty member feels they cannot do justice to their discipline in the online environment. So this really ties back to #1 — no professor who feels this way should ever be forced to teach online, because it’s likely they are right: that professor cannot be true to their discipline in an online class.

But we don’t always have a choice, and some of us must teach online to have employment. So know that it is possible to be true to your discipline online, by focusing on the aspects that are essential to you as a practitioner and scholar.

So again, deciding what’s important to you must determine the design. You’re a facts person, you want drill and drill and test, because that’s how you teach best. Go for it. Spend the time to make fantastic test banks, with images or diagrams too if appropriate. Set timers for everything if your method demands it. But let the students know why that’s the method, why it’s successful, why you want them to be successful. At the other extreme, you may want exploration, for students to do things themselves, to lead the way. Create collaborative spaces, get them blogging, whatever it is that fulfills your goal. And let them know why you’re doing that, your philosophy of constructivism or whatever it is that drives your pedagogy.

So that’s it. Twenty years of teaching online distilled into a top ten list. 🙂

3 comments to Top Ten List for Online Pedagogy

  • jmm

    Your reasoning is so cogent and your approach to online teaching is the only one I’ve seen that acknowledges it’s not a magic wand but just a different set of chalkboards. I think you could have a second career in teaching-online-teaching, if you wanted it.

    • Lisa M Lane

      The only thing that’s magic about online teaching is that it can be done from any distance at all. Everything else is just…teaching. And thank you. 🙂

  • Bethanie

    Twenty years and a fantastic list! Thanks for sharing, it’s a good reminder for us who teach online.