I have been teaching online courses at the post-secondary level since 2006. Here is what I have learned so far:
1. Learning can happen anywhere. It can happen in the classroom, in the kitchen, and on a Red Bull-fueled road trip. It even happens online. In fact, when all else is equal, you might learn more in an online class, according to a 2010 meta-analysis by the Department of Education.
2. Of course, the above study focuses on ideal conditions. In the real world, the average student in an online course is busier, less prepared, and less dedicated than the average “traditional” student. See this article.
3. An online classroom is a different medium than a traditional classroom. You can’t take your traditional syllabus, roll it up, and stuff it into a USB port. You have to engage students differently. You have to learn new skills.
4. Students greatly appreciate hearing your voice. I create animated/narrated PowerPoint slide-shows, screen-casts, and audio lectures. Human connection established (sort of). Also, as this study implies, podcasts are better than professors at certain things. And don’t you want to be in heavy rotation on your students’ iPods?
5. When you record a lecture, don’t mention page numbers or current events. (Don’t say, for instance, “I can’t wait to chow down on some 4th of July barbecue this weekend and listen to Justin Bieber’s newly released album, True Belieber, but first let’s turn to page 722 in the 3rd Edition of Morris’ Introduction to Economics.) That way, when your textbook edition changes along with the calendar, you can still re-use old lectures. Basically, you can recycle yourself, a practice that is no different from showing up to class every semester and telling the same story about the time you ran into Michael J. Fox at the Piggly Wiggly.
6. Message boards are crap. They are sprawling, out-of-control rhizomes. (I know, I know, rhizomes are actually trendy metaphors for awesome postmodern awesomeness. Whatever. Put down that copy of A Thousand Plateaus you think you’re understanding and wake up to the real world. Rhizomes are fruitless weeds.)
7. If you’re going to use message boards, get out ahead of the crowd and start replying to students right away, or be the first one to post. You need to control the discussion early on and avoid feeling overwhelmed when you log on and find fifty posts waiting for you. (I know, I know, be a rhizome, man, let the chaos unfold—No, yank it out by the roots!)
8. Design matters. Too bad Blackboard is the North Korea of Learning Management Systems. That’s okay. There aren’t many rhizomes in North Korea. However, you can still follow basic design principles to ensure your students will navigate the site successfully. I like the C.R.A.P. system created by Robin Williams (the designer, not the comedian). Contrast, Repetition, Alignment, Proximity. I’ll let you explore this some more, but let’s take “repetition” for example. I put the assignment due date in the link title they click on. I also put the due date in the actual assignment description, on the syllabus calendar, in the portion of the syllabus calendar I post under “course content,” and finally I post it under “announcements.” (Copy-and-paste was made for this kind of work.) If you’re an advertiser, you want your message on a billboard, a radio ad, above a urinal, and flapping behind a skywriter.
9. Weekends are not for working. You have a graduate degree, for Pete’s Sake. Don’t work on the weekends. Tell your students your week is over at 4:00 Friday afternoon. You don’t check email on the weekends. You don’t log on to Blackboard. You don’t respond to emergencies. You watch True Blood and drink margaritas. See you Monday morning. I don’t care if students do all of their work on Sunday night. That’s when I clip my nails and teach my children Swahili. That’s just what you do when you have a graduate degree.
10. Don’t let the 37 log-in prompts fool you, Learning Management Systems are connected to the internet. You should be, too. Share articles, videos, and lectures that are relevant (or not) to your course. People like the internet, I hear. Open Culture has a staggering collection of relevant material, including 500 free online courses from top universities. For crying out loud, why are bothering to teach your students about positive psychology when you can have Martin Seligman do it? You think you know more than him? Besides, it leaves more time for True Blood and Margaritas!