Strategies for online college course development

by Julie Dodd

Teaching online continues to grow as an integral part of college curriculum.

Rob Marino recording lecture

Rob Marino records a video lecture for Writing for Mass Communication. Mario recorded the lectures in the University of Florida’s Center for Instructional Technology and Training.

Almost every college instructor uses some online element even in face-to-face classes. Instructors use course management systems (CMS) to send announcements to their students or to collect and return graded assignments.

Some courses are hybrid or blended, with instructors using online components to replace what would have been conducted in class – giving quizzes or having students work with a partner or team online.

Virtual office hours can be held in an online chat room, giving students the opportunity to ask questions and receive feedback without having to deal with all the logistics involved in going to campus for face-to-face office hours.

If you talk with undergraduate students, many will report having taken at least one completely online course. According to Babson Survey Research Group’s “Online Report Card: Tracking online education in the Unites States,” about 5.8 million college students were taking at least one online course during fall semester 2014, and the number continues to increase.

Rob Marino and I met to talk about our experiences in teaching online. Marino has been teachng online courses at College of Central Florida since 2013 and at the University of Florida for two years. In addition to his class teaching, Marino is the adviser of Patriot Press, the CFC newspaper.  Marino was selected as the 2017 Distinguished 2-year Newspaper Adviser by the College Media Association.

I developed the online version of Multimedia Writing for the University of Florida online degree in Public Relations. I had taught face-to-face for a number of years. I received the Online Excellence Education Award for “Instructional Design” in 2017.

I aked Marino to talk about his four years of teaching online courses.

What do students like most about online courses?

“The flexibility,” Marino said. Students don’t have to come to class and can work on assignments any time of the day – or night. Online courses also help students make progress on their degree even when they are off campus on an internship or study abroad program.

What are some of the challenges for students with online courses?

Marino identified three issues:

  • Some students don’t watch the video instruction before starting the assignment or don’t read the directions for the assignment. So their performance on the assignment is poor.
  • Some students don’t read and follow the grading rubric.
  • Some students are poor time managers. In a writing course Marino teaches online, some students work on the assignment only during the two hours before the final submission deadline. They haven’t allowed time for revising or for asking and receiving meaningful feedback from peers or the instructor.

As an instructor, what do you like about teaching online courses?

Rob Marino recording video lecture

Rob Marino records a video lecture for each course module. Each module also includes a reading assignment and quiz and a writing assignment.

“Like the students, I enjoy the flexibility,” Marinso said. Teaching online lets him have more control of his schedule. He can balance the online courses with his face-to-face teaching. He can work on the online courses at night.

Marino also discussed that online teaching eliminates some of the challenges of face-to-face teaching with student behavior, such as having students not paying attention or not participating in class discussion or activities.

Online courses also can provide gradebook assistance. For example, with the e-textbook for the course, students take quizzes at the end of the chapters and their scores are automatically uploaded into the digital gradebook for the course.

Online courses also enable the instructor and students to adapt more quickly to emergencies, such as school closing due to hurricanes. That just had happened to Marino with Hurricane Irma.

Some online courses have multiple sections, with the different sections being taught by graduate student teaching assistants or adjunct faculty. What are strategies for those who are supervising multi-section online courses?

Marino recommends that if section instructors are selected prior to the start of the semester that they can be given access to the course to see the course structure and see how students are progressing.

Marino explained that Canvas (the course management system used by the University of Florida and many other universities) has an option that allows him to see section grading averages for all sections so he can compare how each instructor is grading his or her section. By monitoring the section grading week-by-week, Marino can talk with any instructor whose grading is different from the other instructors.

He also sets up the course gradebook so that all the instructors can see the grades in all the sections. That gives them the opportunity to compare their students’ performance and their grading as instructors with the other section instructors.

What are some issues to consider in developing online courses?

Divide the course into modules. Give the students one to two weeks for each module, depending on what is required to complete the module.

Stagger the time throughout the semester to open the modules. Don’t open all the modules at once, Marino advises. Even though some students may want to access the next module as soon as they complete a module, having multiple modules open at the same time will cause confusion.

Make weekly announcements through the course management system, including links to the module and the assignment. Don’t think that just having the modules clearly listed within the course structure is enough.

Use the chat room feature of online courses to let students ask questions and receive feedback. If the student wants to ask a question without others seeing it, the student can send a direct message to the instructor.

Any other advice to those teaching an online course?

Take advantage of tutorials and college support staff to help you learn how to use the course management system and develop online course materials. Most colleges and universities have instructional designers to help you in creating online courses and implementing best practices of online learning.

Know that it will take two to three years of teaching the course and revising it to get the course to where you’d like it to be, Marino said. After creating a course, Marino makes tweaks and adjustments to assignments and directions as the course progresses.

When Marino and I met, he had just come from the campus studio where he had retaped some of the lectures for the course, which were originally recorded two years ago. Marino made the new recordings to reflect changes in course content in those two years and to improve the instruction provided by the video lectures.

So what is our final advice about online teaching?

We both agreed that online teaching will be part of almost every college instructor’s teaching assignment – whether teaching a totally online course or a course with online components.

Whether you are a graduate student teaching a section of an online course or a faculty member asked to develop an online course, look at this as a learning experience for you, too.

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Interested in learning more about the process of putting a course online? Read my post “Online teaching requires planning.”

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