Online classes are not on-ground classes.

I’ve encountered many colleagues since I started teaching online classes that express frustration with trying to move to the online format, and I’m sure their students feel it as well.  When venturing into a new and unfamiliar territory most people tend to fall back on what they already know how to do, even if it’s not an appropriate course of action.  I’m going to borrow a phrase from hazard management and call this epistemic uncertainty – built-in uncertainties in how to teach your class because there are now a whole host of unknown factors in the new environment.

Every new teacher feels this no matter which setting they get started in, though it can be more frustrating or even harrowing to change mediums once you feel comfortable.  So in order to clear some of my own thoughts on the transition and hopefully do something helpful to those who have or will have to make the transition, I’ve put together some tips for making sure you take a more optimal approach to online education by shedding some of the pre-conceived notions about what education should look like.  Consider them variables in your epistemic model that you need to look out or control for.

1. Participation forums are not like papers.  Yes, students have to type and yes, you should give feedback.  Keep in mind, though, how much you would step in to correct students during an in-class discussion.  You don’t have to give comprehensive amounts of feedback to each post, just guide them when they get off topic or have grammar and spelling errors.  It would be a better use of your time and energy to give that feedback on writing assignments where the students are more likely to need help in thinking critically and deeply about the topic.  Participate in the forums alongside them rather than responding later in the gradebook.

One favor you can do yourself is to have a great deal of feedback saved for later use.  Haven’t you ever found yourself repeating a certain lesson over and over again in your on-ground class, or hand writing the same reflection on a printed out paper?  Online, you can make full use of copying and pasting from class to class, or go a step further and find some clipboard manager software that will allow you to paste one or more sentences of feedback with only a few keystrokes.  Give unique feedback when it is needed, but also use your time wisely when there are common mistakes that many online learners make and can see the same feedback for.  

2. The use of multimedia is essential.  If you thought students were wont to zone out during an hour lecture, they most certainly will lose retention if all they have to do is stare at text on a screen.  Use images, videos, and interactive tools if you can find them to perforate the text and engage multiple styles of learning.  Not everyone is as avid a reader as the professor!

If you’re teaching a psychology class, show a video of the Milgram experiment to illustrate just how it affected the participants and illustrate why we don’t do those kinds of experiments any more.  If it’s geology, there is any number of videos showing how subduction works far better than words ever could.  YouTube is a great resource, as is Khan academy.  There is a lot of riff-raff and pseudo-evidence out there, but you are the expert and can parse through the less useful or less correct resources.

3. Organization.  This is important in all aspects of life, but even more so in online classes where how you like to organize the folders on your computer essentially gets put on display for everyone in the class to see and navigate.  Despite how conventional you might think your approach is, everyone organizes their class differently. 

Probably the most important part of this is due dates, since you won’t get one hand raise in class and then answer it for everyone but rather 30 emails in a day.  Create one document with all of the due dates on it before the session starts so that both you and your students have something to reference.  If your students are expected to do a lot of participating, it is handy to create a spreadsheet (I print mine out) and record their marks the first time you read the post.  If you want to give specific feedback, star that mark or use some sort of shorthand.  Don’t waste your time by forcing yourself to read all the posts a second time when grading.

4. Don’t be held to arbitrary time limits.  For an on-ground class, we would see how much information a student could regurgitate in an introductory class, or how well they could exercise their critical thinking brain muscle in a limited period of time.  Ask yourself when you set a time limit on an online quiz – am I doing this out of habit, or is there a specific pedagogical reason to limit the time students have to find and regurgitate the information back to you?  There may be, but there also may be a better way to help them retain that information.

For example, in many of my lessons the quiz covers a chapter in the textbook, but many of the terms they need to know they are asked to reflect on or use in the discussion forum(s) for the week and later on in a writing assignment.

5. Know your LMS inside and out.  This is probably the most difficult one for some people.  Your students will get lost in your learning management system (LMS) and it will be immensely frustrating for both parties when they come to you for the compass that will guide them the way out.  If you care about your students learning, and I know you do, they should not be held back by a technical error.  Yes, it is their job to figure it out in the end, but if you aren’t able to offer them at least a couple of pieces of sound advice on those navigating problems it will be all to easy to associate your class with a negative reaction, regardless of the source of their distaste.  This is not like an on-ground class where showing up to the classroom or your office hours will solve the problem – it has to be solved via email usually.

Most LMSs offer online training in how to use their system.  Blackboard, Moodle and Desire2Learn, the biggest three, all do.  Taking those up front will be more of a time investment, but you will save an immense amount of time later on trying to help with student problems.

6. The first time you teach a course, any course, online, it will take much longer to prepare than an on-ground course. While it is true that any class you teach for the first time will take longer, this is even more dramatic for an online course and with much less fall back room.  If your lesson isn’t ready when class starts on-ground, you can BS your way through that day.  If your lesson isn’t ready in an online class, your students will not get the benefit of that lesson.

The flip side to this is that, if you take the time to get it right the first time, there will hardly be any prep the next time around (or the next, or the next, etc.).  I’ve been teaching the same course in world geography for about 4 years now, and where an on ground class would require me to lecture at least 3 hours a week, now those three hours are practically gone from my time commitment to the class.  Instead, I work on improving the written or visual parts of the lesson a little bit more each time I teach the class.  This past semester I taught four sections of that world geography class online – a heft commitment if it required me to lecture 3 hours per week per section.  But, since all the work to present the material is done in advance, my energy went to giving feedback and participating in the forums.  It took 10-15 hours per week to teach all those classes.

A caveat to this is that many institutions have pre-prepared “shell” courses that you are expected to implement.  These are sometimes very helpful and sometimes burdensome or even suffocating.  If your apprehension is high enough, it might be a good idea to seek out adjuncting at an institution where they design the course for you.

Hopefully, if you’re reticent about online learning my experience can serve as an introductory translation to teaching them.  These are just some epistemic uncertainties I’ve become more certain about over the years, and I’ve listed them in an effort to help new online teachers make sense of some of those “unknown unknowns” in online education.  Every class is different, and every teacher is different too.  My closing plea is to read about other experiences like my own if you are slated to teach online for the first time and figure out how things will be different for you in that setting versus the traditional on-ground.  It is different, and you shouldn’t try to force some conventions of learning or teaching to fit in different arenas.  It is different, but it shouldn’t be scary. 

Zach Rubin, 2018