Eleven Ways to Improve Online Classes

I sit in front of the computer, staring at the screen. I have a general syllabus with little more than standards and goals. The university is giving me a crazy amount of freedom to design this online course. I shake my head, unsure of what I will create.

Initially, I think about my own experiences in taking online classes. Read some information. Answer questions in a discussion board. Write some papers. I rarely felt that I knew my classmates or my professors — even if they interacted with me often. In some cases, the class felt more like an online book club than a place where we were learning together. There were some exceptions. I remember the project-based learning we had in one of my NAU classes and the multimedia creation we did in another.

I step away from the computer and go for a walk. Without thinking about it, I open Voxer and ask a few friends what they would do. I check a message in our Write About thread and check for an update on Trello

As I slip my phone into my pocket, I am struck by the stark contrast between the connected world of building a startup and the fairly closed-off world of an online course on Moodle. As I continue to walk, I think about my favorite classes I took online. They were the ones that felt more like my professional learning community and my mastermind group and the collaboration that I am doing in co-founding startups.

Fixing Online Classes

It has me thinking about what it would mean to improve online classes. A few ideas come to mind:

  1. Use multiple platforms. I’m not against using an LMS as a central hub. However, I think it’s valuable to experiment with the types of productivity tools you will actually use outside of a classroom. Use Google Docs to share ideas, create surveys, and ask questions. Use Google Hangouts to meet as a group.
  2. Go project-based. I haven’t figured this out entirely with my first class but my hope is that we can go fully project-based in the same way that my face-to-face class is. In fact, the asynchronous nature of online classes actually means there is a better potential of creating a project-based culture that mirrors the way people actually work on projects.
  3. Make something together. I use a collaboration grid with co-creating and communicating on separate spectrums (x-axis) and multimedia and text on another spectrum (y-axis). This has been an effective way to think through collaborative tools that allow students to co-create.
  4. Embrace a synchronous/asynchronous blend: I love using Voxer because students can speak back and forth in the moment. However, if they miss it, they can listen to it later. The same is true of using a Google Hangouts On Air.
  5. Make it more connective. We tend to treat online instruction as if it is a linear process and we don’t do enough to link things back and forth and connect ideas, resources, discussions and content creation in a seamless, back-and-forth nature.
  6. Incorporate multimedia. It’s a simple idea, but I create a short video at the beginning of each week and I encourage students to create video and audio as well. This has a way of making things more concrete. There’s something deeply human about hearing an actual human voice. I know, crazy, right?
  7. Go mobile. I don’t simply mean use a smart phone. I mean assign some things that allow students to get out in the world and create videos, snap pictures, or simply experience something without technology that they reflect on later.
  8. Find connections outside of class. If you are on Twitter or you are blogging and you have a network of people you can reach out to, then do it. Ask them to join a discussion or leave a comment or join a hangout. I love the connected community and I want to expose my students to some awesome people I’ve met online.
  9. Get input from veteran faculty. I know this sounds counterintuitive in a culture that celebrates youth and perpetuates the myth that younger means more tech-savvy. However, I have a list of things that I am trying out because of a professor who has been at my school for awhile. She has been thinking deeply about this subject for a few years and she’s sharp.
  10. Figure out where technology works better. The other day, I was talking to a professor about an online class on classroom management. It’s tough to do that in an online format. However, video recording one’s approachable and authoritative voice can be a great tool for reflection. Use Sketch-Up to design classroom space. There are certain areas where the tech version works just as well or better than the off-line version.
  11. Embrace technology criticism. Look, there are things that suck about our digital world. There are real problems with staring at a screen and missing the world. So, find ways to incorporate media criticism into the online classes you create.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers to online learning. For what it’s worth, I am a huge fan of using a blended approach. However, my experience in interacting with the connected community has taught me that we are far more human online than we’d like to believe. I value the relationships I have with teachers I’ve met on Twitter and through blogging.

If someone had told me as a child that I would be co-creating two technology platforms with people who lived on the other coast (you know, the coast that gets up way too early) I would have said that they were crazy.  If someone had said that people who lived many states away would save my teaching career in the darkest moments of teaching, I would have called it a science fiction utopia.

But it’s here. We are connected. And for all that is wrong with our digital presence, there are great things happening every day. I want my students to experience a glimpse of that in their online courses.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.

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One response

  1. Hi Kate Colleran ,
    This was a outstanding informative post you have shared on this page about the online courses because this Knowledge in a India’s leading training networking Platform to provides courses for students, working professionals job seekers and corporate employees with placement assured but but I have NOT taken every single one of these, so I cannot fully vouch for all of them. If you do take one and it’s full of smarmy or BS,you must check the material of your study is related and also helpful in your study ,other your waste your time and loss of money .
    Thanks.

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