As the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to move classes online in the spring of 2020, this question became more important to teachers. In our first article on this topic, I covered the importance of being a caring teacher, how to create a presence online and how to switch your thinking from “course conversion” to “creative imagination.”
In this article, I offer three more tips to help teachers become better at online teaching.
Tip #1: Organize Your Course to the Nth Degree
I have taught for multiple universities, both online and traditional face-to-face. I remember becoming extremely frustrated with all the “extra” work these universities asked us to do. Like many other faculty, I began thinking, “They don’t pay me enough to do all of this extra work!” I used to wait until a week before the course began before logging into the course shell and uploading my syllabus and contact information. I treated the online experience very much like my traditional teaching—finish the syllabus and make copies to handout a week before class starts.
But that was then. Since then, I have been on the other side as an instructional designer assisting faculty in developing their online courses. It has been a wakeup call for me! Designing an effective online course typically requires five to six months. I would like to tell you that I thought this was ridiculous then and that I still do now—but I can’t. I have been convinced. I know more. I’ve become more aware of what is involved in designing effectively for online.
This is good and bad. The bad is obvious: This takes much longer than seems reasonable. The good? If you are willing to put in the effort on the front end to design an excellent online course, you save yourself a ton of time during the actual teaching of the course. So, I recommend sitting down with your content, really digging deep and asking yourself what you want to accomplish with your students, then thinking of creative ways to organize your course.
If possible, ditch the textbook approach of teaching each week chapter by chapter. Instead, think of a paradigm, a series of stories, an organizing framework or picture to give shape and structure to your online course. I once helped an instructor design her course on leadership, and she used a book about a tree. Each chapter covered a particular part of the tree. So, we used the tree to structure the course. Each module had a picture of that part of the tree (e.g., the roots, the trunk, the leaves), and we built around that structure.
Building an online course gives you that creative canvas to organize your work in ways you typically would not think to do in a traditional classroom. And doing so can really aid you in thinking through the content in ways that make even your traditional face-to-face instruction better because you’ve had time to really think through how to best organize and structure the content. So be deliberate and organize your online course to the nth degree. It will make your online course shine. It will make it memorable for you and your students. And it most certainly will make it easier to teach.
Tip #2: Press Every Button
This is going to sound reckless, but this is good advice when it comes to being a better teacher online. I still remember the time my wife was driving with my cousin in her car. She suddenly said, “It feels like the seat may be on fire.” After a bit of back-and-forth, my cousin informed my wife the car has seat warmers, and the button is off to the left side. They both laughed about it. My wife did not know cars came with seat warmers at the time. Needless to say, she now appreciates them. But how many people own cars that have seat warmers but don’t know it and never use them? Imagine what they’re missing? Imagine what else they might be missing out on by not pushing all the buttons? Does it have sport mode? Automatic sunshades? Stability control? Hyperspeed? What else does this thing do?
You may remember the days when you pushed the wrong button on the VCR or television set or remote control, and you had to call your kids or grandkids to figure out how to fix it. Online is not like this. There is very little you can mess up. And even if you do, many times you can undo what you’ve done. If you have ever skied or snowboarded in fresh powder, there is something satisfying about knowing even if you mess up, there will be a soft landing. I would encourage you to have this mindset when it comes to developing your online courses.
Push every button. Try everything. Fall down and get back up again. Call those who help with the learning management system you are using or sign up for one of their webinars or tutorials so you can learn how to do more.
The more you try and experiment, the more you push every button, the sooner you will enjoy the value of things you didn’t realize were possible. Did you know you could use this activity to grade every student in one fell swoop? Did you know you could toggle this little menu to download all their papers at once? Did you know you can privately provide feedback on discussion posts? Did you know the plagiarism and grammar checker is already built into the activity, and you don’t have to make them upload it to Turnitin? Did you know you could upload a Microsoft Word document with all your quiz questions, and it will automatically design a quiz for you?
These and other “surprises” await those of you who aren’t afraid to try everything and “press every button.”
Tip #3: Pace Yourself and Partner with Those Who Can Help
The last tip is simply to pace yourself and partner with those who can help. How long did it take you to learn all the buttons and features in the new car once you got it? Years! The same is true with online teaching. You can only learn so much at a time
In the beginning, the new car makes you feel like you’ve been put in the cockpit of a fighter jet and the controls are in a foreign language. So, just learn a few buttons at a time. Try a particular activity the first time you teach the course. The next time try tweaking it or using a different activity type. As you level up and broaden your awareness of what’s possible, your learning of the tools and resources will improve. A little learning each day, over a long period of time, results in exponential growth. So, pace yourself. Learn what you can and don’t overwhelm yourself thinking you need to learn how to do everything all at once.
Second, partner with those who can help. Many schools have instructional designers and eLearning teams who are highly knowledgeable about the frameworks for online teaching and learning. Think of them like race car drivers who are used to driving the online track over and over again. They know the course well, and they love nothing more than sitting in the passenger seat and coaching new drivers on ways to shift and bank and tailspin so they can feel the thrill of taking their driving to the next level. If your school has those experts, be sure to reach out to them. If not, seek out learning communities online and spaces where they discuss and talk about tips for online teaching and learning.
Todd D. Vasquez is an instructional designer with the Center for Online Learning at Fresno Pacific University. He has his Ph.D. in Theology from Loyola University of Chicago and teaches courses in philosophy, theology, Bible and ethics. He also has experience teaching K-12 and extensive expertise with Apple technologies.