Recommendations for Online Course Improvements

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The following is an assignment for “EDUC 4250 – Foundations of Online Teaching and Learning” a course I am taking toward the PIDP at VCC.

Dear Colleague, 

I am reaching out to you as a member of the diversity, equity, and inclusion committee. I am hoping you can give me advice on addressing some of the issues that came up in my last class. I have had several discussions over the term with my colleagues and one of them tactfully suggested that I had designed a course that reflected the way that I like to learn. She thought I would benefit from learning more about teaching in diversity.

I just finished teaching for the first time. It was an online course and it didn’t go the way I thought it was going to go.  I did an anonymous survey at the end of the course and although, there were some positive comments, I can see I have a long way to go to improve the course.  I’ve included the comments in a separate attachment.

I worked hard to put together this course. I know a lot about the subject and am passionate about sharing my experience with the next generation. I expected I would be teaching young adults who share my passion and are looking to start their careers. 

At the beginning of the course, I asked students to introduce themselves in a discussion forum. Wow!  I quickly realized that the students were so different in so many ways. One woman has more experience in this field from her work in India than I do.  She said she needed a Canadian credential to work. Two students are working full time and are single parents of young children. (How are they going to manage the workload in this course???) One student who lives in a rural area does not have an internet connection and has to walk to the public library to use a computer. I didn’t expect that. I thought that all students were required to have the appropriate technology – at the minimum a computer. She uses her cell phone to access the course when she can’t get to the library. Another student said she is the first person in her family to attend post-secondary. She had an interesting story. She did not have a positive experience in high school and dropped out. She got her GED, or high school equivalency at the age of 35.

To be honest, I didn’t enjoy teaching this course.  Some students didn’t seem to care about the topic. There were very few posts in the discussion forums. During our first virtual class on Zoom, students were reluctant about turning their cameras on. I explained that it was important for us to see each other to get to know one another and insisted that cameras remain on. Even though I encouraged questions during my lecture, very few students posted any questions. Attendance at these synchronous sessions was inconsistent. This was a problem! Students who did not attend the synchronous sessions missed important information. They got low marks on the mid-term quiz and final exam because of it.  How are they going to learn if they don’t show up!

I encouraged study groups and asked students to connect any way that was convenient for them. I thought this worked really well.  Students chose to connect via twitter, facebook, Instagram, skype, or Microsoft Teams. I left this up to the students to set up and manage. I was surprised when I got a few negative comments about using social media. Most of the students are young – don’t they all use social media?

Another frustration I had is that I posted my office hours in several places in the course but nobody contacted me.  I really encouraged students to let me know if they had questions about the expectations of the course, or the content, or anything. This is a post-secondary course. I expected that adult learners would be able to take responsibility for their own learning.

I really appreciate any practical suggestions you can give me on how to improve my course as well as any insights you have about why I seemed to miss the mark.

Thank you in advance,

Bernie.

Student Comments


These are the open-ended comments provided by learners on an end-of-term survey that Bernie set up in Survey Monkey.


Please comment on what you feel were the positive aspects of this course.

  • The teacher is a subject matter expert. He is so knowledgeable and has so much experience. Bernie seems to really like the subject
  • I loved the synchronous sessions. It was great to hear Bernie’s real-life experiences. He is a good story-teller
  • I liked the study groups I have been in this program for almost six months and this it the first time, I feel like I made a friend.
  • I liked the predictable structure of the course – readings, discussion forums, quizzes, instructor led lecture in zoom. This is the way that I like to learn.

What topics or other elements (if any) would you like to see added to this course? Why?

  • More variety in resources. I am not used to reading a lot of academic writings. It was difficult to get through.
  • Some videos, podcasts, infographics might be useful.
  • Some examples of how this is used in other countries or from a different perspective. The resources were all from a western perspective. What do indigenous teachings say about this topic?

Please provide any other general comments you have regarding the course or the instructor.

  • Too much reading!!!! The amount of reading that this course has is overwhelming. What do I focus on? And, it’s so difficult to read these pdfs on my mobile phone.
  • This course was hard and way more work than I had expected.. This is the first course I have taken in xxxx and it seems that everyone has more experience that I do. I also haven’t read or written an essay in years. I spent more time in learning how to write an essay than in the course content.
  • This course was easy. I don’t really feel like I learned anything.
  • I have never studied online before and I was worried that I wasn’t “tech savy” enough to participate in the course. I was assured that I could do it. I really struggled. I had to get my son to help me navigate moodle and upload documents. I couldn’t participate in my study group. They chose to use Twitter to connect. I don’t’ know how to use it and have some concerns about privacy.
  • I really struggle with writing. It’s so hard for me to get my thoughts down on paper. I feel so stupid when I have to express my ideas in words.
  • it’s so unfair that I lost participation marks. I have had trouble with social anxiety in the past and giving my opinion in a zoom call is terrifying. 
screenshot of an email header

Hi Bernie,
Thanks for reaching out about your course and sharing your experiences as well as the feedback you received. In many ways teaching a course online is very different than in the classroom and I am happy to make suggestions for next time.
My answer got a little long so I attached an audio version you can download and listen to at your leisure. Please see the references for my sources and further reading at the end of this email.

Diverse Classrooms

We see a more and more diverse mix of students entering our courses. While this is generally a good thing, it does create some challenges. You asked the students to introduce themselves in the forum before class. I recommend spending some time in person at the beginning of the course getting to know your students as well as giving them an opportunity to connect. Those students that are new to online learning will likely have a hard time navigating a Moodle forum without instruction. This investment of time give you the opportunity to leverage some strengths and experiences that some of your students bring and also some of the challenges others face.
Students who have previous knowledge of the material can be great assets for you in classroom discussions as well in group work sessions. They can serve as tutors for weaker students and enrich your own teaching with their experience.
Online courses are a great opportunity for working students and those that have family obligations to update their education. This creates challenges though because some of the times these students can’t take part in real time. I suggest recording your Zoom sessions and posting your recordings in Moodle. If you need help with this, please feel free to reach out to the Ed-Tech department. Recordings have the advantage that students can catch up on parts they missed. They are also very helpful for those that had a hard time understanding the content the first time around either because of language barriers or tech issues.
The case of the student without a computer and wifi access is a hard one. The library has some loaner computers available for students in need. The IT department may have a solution to the internet access. Often, we see that wifi and computer access is an economic issue. If this is the case, please have the students contact the admin office. The colleagues at the front office have a list of places that can help with this.
Following an online course on your phone is very challenging. When you are designing your presentations, make sure your slides have a minimal amount of text and use a large font. Because typing on the phone is very cumbersome compared to a computer with a physical keyboard, you may want to submissions of assignments in alternative ways. I will get to this later.
Colleges see an increased number of mature learners and some younger students are not as computer and internet-savvy as we assume. Providing clear instructions by email and videos explaining how to use Moodle are very helpful to these students. Moodle has a helpful guide for students. You can find the link below (Moodle, 2023).
I have found it helpful to create short screencast videos about the main Moodle functions needed for your course in the introduction section of your course. That way students can find help quickly.
I know creating videos for your students takes extra prep time. But you can re-use these videos for future courses as well. In the long run this time investment will be very helpful,

Engagement Online

Taking classes online is a great way to make education available to students that can’t easily be present at the College. There are many reasons, students live far away, and rentals are very expensive, and work or family commitments make it impossible for some to be away from home. At the same time, we must keep in mind that this brings the classroom into people’s home. Often students feel reluctant to share images from their home with strangers. Many people are also concerned about being on camera because they don’t feel they look their best (makeup, bad hair day). Lastly some students don’t have a computer with a webcam, or the equipment or internet connection does not support video well. There are many reasons why people don’t want to turn on their web cams. I know from experience how difficult it can be as an instructor to speak to a room of black screens but it may just be something we need to get used to.
You could try to set rules and expectations, so people are prepared. I usually suggest turning on the cameras for the introductory meeting or you could ask people to show their video when they present. In the end we can not force someone to be on video though.
Discussion forums in Moodle are not very user friendly. Even in our PIDP classes where the audience are instructors, forum posts are usually not very well used, and participants tend to do the minimum. I recently listened to an interesting podcast where someone suggested using outside discussion forums like Slack to increase engagement (Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast, n.d.). The drawback to this is that you then introduce another piece of technology your students and you must learn how to use. If you are interested in this, I have included a link to a guide below this email (Slack, n.d.).
Setting up a private Facebook group for your class may be a possible solution (Lyons, n.d.). I know you had a negative experience with social media use in the last course, but the fact is that most students have a Facebook account and if the group is private, the posts do not show to anyone outside of the course.
Because people use Facebook in their private lives, sharing questions, ideas and opinions will come more naturally.

Office Hours

As mentioned, students that register for online courses often have different needs and schedules than students that attend classes in person. You may want to consider a more asynchronous approach to access.
• You could give your students the option to send you a message through Moodle either by text, video, or audio file. Make sure you answer these questions as soon as you can.
• The chat group mentioned earlier might be a good place for students to get their questions answered either by you or by their classmates.
• You can make yourself available before and after your online classes to answer questions or talk with students about concepts they are having trouble with.
• If you have students that have previous knowledge of the topic or can help others, you might be able to motivate them to become peer support for others.

Student feedback

I am sorry that you had negative comments on the end-of-term survey. May I suggest that you ask your students for feedback early and regularly during your course? One option for doing this is to ask them to fill out a short online survey every second week or so. That way you can address frustrations earlier and learn what works and what doesn’t. I wrote a blog post about this. I will put a link to it in the Resources section (Petscheleit, 2023).
It sounds like you had some great success with your study groups. Maybe next time you can group stronger and weaker students together to support them. Dr. Deutsch has a great explanation on how to set up groups in Moodle and I will add her video in the resources (Deutsch, n.d.).

Modes of instruction

Some of your students are new to college-type courses and some don’t find enough time for reading. Online courses give us the opportunity to serve content in different ways. Instead of assigning a paper to read, you could condense the important content into a short video (6 minutes seems to be the sweet spot). Instead of assigning essays, you can also give your students the option to hand in their assignments as presentations, videos or even audio files.
Have a look at a very important resource below. The Universal Design for Learning Guidelines UDL (Cast, 2018) is a very good place to find a lot of suggestions for your future courses. You will notice that all the content is also available as an audio file. This is a great example for offering the content in different modes.

Participation

Giving participation marks can be especially challenging in online courses. You can’t always see if your students are paying attention, some of them may even catch up to your content at a different time.
Rather than counting only the participation in class, you could also look at what contributions a student makes in the online forums or group settings. Rather than forcing your students to speak in class, you could suggest they use the chat function of Zoom.
Delivering your class digitally has one big advantage the Learning Management System logs when a student logs in and for how long. This makes taking attendance very easy. It will also tell you which student has downloaded the material or who submitted their assignments on time.
I added more information on how to do this in Moodle (Moodle, n.d.), Please reach out to our Ed-tech department if you need further assistance.

I know, creating a successful online course is very involved and needs a different skill set than classroom lessons. You put in a lot of work into the course already and you are very passionate about the program. I am sure with a few tweaks you will feel a lot better about teaching online and improve the feedback from your students.

I am happy to review your next course setup with you before, during and after it happens. Please reach out to me if you have any further questions.

Frithjof (he/him)

References

Cast. (2018). Universal Design for Learning Guidelines version 2.2. Retrieved from CAST: http://udlguidelines.cast.org
Deutsch, D. N. (n.d.). How to Create Group Activities on Moodle for Collaborative Learning. Retrieved from YouTube: https://youtu.be/jbaKIN3D5-Y?si=N2aRtNe2DSRgYPyz
Lyons, N. (n.d.). How to Use Student Groups on Facebook to Boost Connection & Learning. Retrieved from Course Storm: https://www.coursestorm.com/blog/student-groups-on-facebook/
Moodle. (2023, June 13). User quick guide. Retrieved from https://docs.moodle.org/403/en/User_quick_guide
Moodle. (n.d.). Attendance activity. Retrieved from Moodle: https://docs.moodle.org/403/en/Attendance_activity
Petscheleit, F. (2023, March 21). Feedback Instrument. Retrieved from Frithjof’s Blog: https://frithjof.blog/feedback-instrument/
Slack. (n.d.). The student and faculty guide to collaborating in Slack. Retrieved from slack.com: https://slack.com/blog/collaboration/student-faculty-guide-collaborating-slack
Teaching in Higher Ed Podcast. (n.d.). EDTECH’S ROLE IN HELPING STUDENTS FEEL ENGAGED, SAFE, AND PRODUCTIVE. Retrieved from https://teachinginhighered.com: https://teachinginhighered.com/podcast/edtechs-role-in-helping-students-feel-engaged-safe-and-productive/

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