There are a growing number of learners online. The recent report, The Changing Landscape of Online Education (CHLOE) from Quality Matters, shared that “more than 2.1 million fully distance undergraduates (12% of total) and 770,000 fully distance graduate students (26% of total) are online learners.” Over the last three years, I have been working completely online as a faculty member and with a distributed research group. I am also fortunate to collaborate remotely with scholars and practitioners to study talent development in higher ed (e.g. mentoring). Much of my work centers around how we support working and learning online in higher ed. Besides investigating how learners persist in open online environments (Veletsianos, Reich, & Pasquini, 2016) I am also concerned with how networked experiences impact/influence our higher education practice. Previously I shared how I support online learners, but many of you might not realize I instruct A LOT of students each academic term. So this post dedicated to the behind the scenes way to scaffold the LOGISTICS of teaching a LARGE ONLINE COURSE and how to support MANY DISTRIBUTED LEARNERS. This post comes with a strong caveat: I am still learning. Always.
First, identify your instructional NEEDS as you organize your large online course. You will need to establish a team of support, that might include: instructional designers, instructional technologist, graders, industry mentors, and/or teaching assistants (TA’s). Do you need help grading assignments? Is there one project you want external reviewers/peers to support, evaluate, or be a part of your lesson? Will you need aid in encouraging social learning through discussion forums, team wikis, or other group activities? Are you looking to redesign a section or project in your course? Try to set this up before the term (if available/teaching assignments are set early enough) and continue to assess the pulse of my teaching team support. I am grateful for colleagues who have joined my class to present, speak, mentor, or offer peer review of final projects. I have also been quite fortunate in working with some amazing teaching assistants/graders (repeatedly) from our doctoral program over the last few semesters. Now that these folks have to focus on their own research scholarship to Ph-inishe-D their dissertation, I am currently thinking about how I manage remote workers for distributed instructional support. Here are my “notes” for training/onboarding new online learning TA’s & graders:
- Setting Expectations: Establish standards and norms within the instructional support team – including orientation to the course site, review of learning modules, a copy of syllabus with key points highlighted, learning outcomes, and course schedule.
- Grading Tools & Resources: Identify the means and methods for grading and learning support — this includes division of labor into cohorts/sections, grading rubrics for all assignments, and sample feedback to give for each course activity/assignment.
- Communication: Organize time and/or spaces to “talk.” This could be a regular meeting schedule to host a synchronous web conference/phone/Skype chat, open/online office hours on-demand for 1:1 meetings, backchannel conversation (e.g. Slack, Yammer, Google chat), and send regular reminders to the group by email for longer instructions/information.
- Shared Digital Work Spaces: Outline virtual spaces to support the instructional team. Virtual teaming can help with grading, e.g. shared Gooogle Docs for feedback/comments/suggestions for assignments, shared file system for saving assignments/projects, and other spreadsheets/collaborative tools or platforms you might use to “work” beyond the learning management system(LMS) or course site.
- Learner Support: Create common communication practices among the team (group email) and expectations for responding to learner messages/email is critical. To be firm and fair, we must be consistent with assignment deadlines (I hold a no late work policy, outside of health/emergency situations) and we do our best to answer messages from learners in 24-48 hours and TA’s/graders copy (“cc”) the lead instructor on email conversations with learners. Each course has a “Peer-to-Peer Support” discussion forum where learners can ask questions, get advice, post articles or resources, work out issues from a module, etc. with their classmates. The TA’s and I will “check-in” on these to see if all questions have been answered with the correct information. Finally, we identify when and how synchronous online meetings (group advising, mini-lessons, or office hours) should occur — based on the section of the course and/or inquiries for assignments.
Second, organize your online course WITH your learners in mind, that is your direct instruction, learning objects, and engagement activities. Similar to the planning notes I shared about the instructional team management, offering similar strategies for support are key for working with my online learners (listed above). Here are my notes for what my regular
- Start with Orientation: Think about both pedagogical design and delivery as you structure a large online course. Consider how will orient, support, and communicate with your learners over the semester. Introduce them to sections of your syllabus, key areas to move through the course, and where to get access to help on campus and online. Also, be sure to identify the learning spaces, support resources, and design components required to be an effective learner within your course.
- Get to Know Your Learners: Assess who is in your class. Do you know who is in your class? Why are they taking this course? Is it required, an elective, or other? I often have my students complete a Google form to share information about themselves and experiences with online learning, the subject matter, and to identify their own learning goals at the beginning of the term (e.g. from Spring 2017: http://bit.ly/ltec3010sp17). Understand where and how your learners are approaching this course and their motivation/goals for the semester. Keep their goals and backgrounds in mind with your learning content.
- Share Valuable & Timely Information: Produce weekly reminders of readings, activities, and assignments help to provide multiple insights and ideas around the topic of the module or week’s lesson. Often I collect (and tweet) multiple resources on a class hashtag ( e.g. my instructional design/facilitation course hashtag #LTEC4440) and I will highlight a couple of key readings/articles/videos/podcasts in the regular weekly course announcement/email that is pushed out to my students. that might be relevant for my students.
- Build a Community of Support: In a scaled online course, you need to set your learners up to interact with peers online to enhance their social interaction and offer assistance. If you do not set these up, then you are setting up yourself for multiple messages, open boundaries, and unrealistic expectations for all in a large, distributed course. Consider looking at your learning activities and curriculum design to see if you currently support the followings types of interactions to offer more engagement in your course (Sheridan & Kelly, 2010):
- Learning–content interaction: Do your students engage and interact with your course content to make dig deeper into the subject? How are you helping learners make meaning with learning objects they interact with online? Are they reflecting, curating, discussing, applying, or analyzing your course materials and not just consuming information? Learners who interact with learning content tend to get a higher grade (Zimmerman, 2012).
- Learner–learner interaction:. Peer support is everything in online learning. I leverage the Peer-to-Peer Support for discussion forums, team projects, research proposals on wikis, feedback on video presentations, and more! Your learners often like to collaborate and share ideas on challenging concepts with multiple platforms. How will you support this type of virtual teaming?
- Learner–instructor interaction: How are you “present” in your online class at the instructor? Being visible online is critical for your students learning outcomes. Learners often are motivated and enthusiastic about your course, if they see you are present online. This might be participating in discussion forums, offering video or audio feedback to assignments, summarizing modules in advance, and perhaps offering synchronous (+recorded/archived) online class meetings for feedback, questions, and more. I keep track of announcements and media files that I can utilize in the future with very little edits and related transcripts for accessibility needs.