Online Teaching Tip #29 – Why the First Weeks of Your Course are So Critical

Why the First Weeks of the Semester are so Critical

Here’s a quick way to get a picture of student participation in your class:

1. Click on your participants list in your course site.
2. Then sort you students by their last access date.

Here’s what you’ll likely see: most students are logging in once a day, or every other day. However, there will be one or two students who have not logged in for some time. With rare exception, these students will be struggling in the class.

Another interesting correlation is between professor engagement and student engagement. In courses where the professor logs in less often, and communicates less often, you’ll find that students access the course site less often, and that the number of days between logins increases. In short, professor presence directly impacts student presence. And the early days of the semester have the most impact on this dynamic.

Here are a couple ways your online engagement impacts the online classroom, especially in the early weeks of the semester:

1) You set the tone and the culture
In the first weeks of the course, you have an opportunity to set the tone of communication and the culture of the online classroom. This happens in your emails, by engaging introductions, facilitating online discussions, and adding custom elements to the course. Sometimes—but, not often—you may need to email a particular student to explain how they are coming across in their discussion posts and to give them some pointers on etiquette. In an online course, a student became accusatory and belligerent toward another student in an online discussion forum. Because the instructor was engaged in the discussions, he was able to intercept the behavior early in the semester and reset the tone of conversation in that group. At the end of the semester, the previously hostile student sent her professor a note of gratitude for making the course an excellent learning experience.

2) You have the opportunity to establish your presence in the online classroom
Supposedly, you have about 20 seconds to create a first impression in the face-to-face classroom. Students form opinions quickly, and those can be tough to change. In the first few weeks of an online course, students will figure out whether or not their instructor is really an active participant or a monitor; then, they will adjust their own engagement to match. If that social presence is not established early on, it’s a hard thing to course correct.

Email is a powerful tool for this. Timely responses and short, checking-in emails tell students you are interested in them as individuals and available to them as a resource for learning.

So, be engaged from day one so that you can set the tone and establish your presence in your online classroom.

Online Teaching Tip #28 – Calendar Your Baseline Participation

How Much Should I Participate?

One of the first questions I get from those who are new to teaching online goes something like this, “How much time should I be spending in the online classroom?” It’s hard to really give an accurate number because classes differ greatly depending on the subject matter, assignments, and individual teaching style. With that said, I think that a good baseline is to devote the weekly time you would have been in the face-to-face classroom to your online classroom. This may seem obvious to some, especially veteran online teachers, but it’s a very new and helpful baseline for those new to online teaching. So, if you teach a 3 credit hour class, put three hours in your calendar to participate and administrate your online course each week. I really mean to put it on your calendar and treat it just like an appointment.

You may be thinking, “Three hours is not nearly enough.” It may not be, but you have to start somewhere and have something to measure against as you feel out just how much time you need to really spur on your learners.

Finally, it’s important to note that this is not time for grading; it’s time devoted to interaction via discussions, email, and whatever other means you have chosen to engage your students.

Online Teaching Tip #27 – Dealing with the Disconnect in the Online Classroom

The Disconnect

Because we don’t see or hear our students in the online classroom, we can begin to forget that they exist.
Or, at least, we feel less connected to them. This is one of the challenges of both online courses, and courses that meet fewer times in the semester. When students feel this disconnect, they start to disengage. When teachers feel this disconnect, they loose the motivation to cultivate the learning environment of the online classroom. Some have pronounced this disconnect as the permanent fault of online learning, but I think that is a premature conclusion. There are ways to build warm connection with students online, but it takes different strategies and requires higher level of intention.

Here are a five ways that you can create more warm and personal connections with your students:

  • 1 – Student Photos: Go into your course participants list and look at their photos. Read the bios that some have created on their profile page. Follow links to explore their blogs and websites.
  • 2 – Introductions: If you have a course introductions forum, become an active participant in the discussion.
  • 3 – Notes: Print off your participants list and keep notes beside the name and photo of your students. This might include current life circumstances like, “Child is recovering from surgery” or “Working 3rd shift” that give you insight into the world of a particular student. You can mine the student introductions and profiles to begin your notes and add to them as you communicate over the course of the semester.
  • 4 – Use tools that allow you to see one another. We were created to recognize faces and voices. It’s an essential aspect of being human. Many courses require only text responses and assignment submissions. Take one of those assignments, like a threaded discussion, and tweak it so that it requires the posting of audio or video responses. One of our favorite tools for this is Voicethread.
  • 5 – Individual Emails. This doesn’t scale well. It requires an investment of time and care. However, when we think back to the teachers who have invested in us and made the most impact on our lives, it was because they gave us individualized attention. You may not be able to do this for all of your students, or even many of them this semester, but choose a few to contact directly via email. This is where your notes on individual students becomes a goldmine. Check in with them as learners, and find some way to encourage them.

There are more than just these five ways to connect, but these are a great place to start.

Online Teaching Tip #26 – Your Tone Matters in Teaching Online

A Story of Miscommunication

I was working with a vendor who was quite terse in his emails. He came across as curt, and I started to assume, because of his communication style, that he was rude and that he didn’t care much for our business relationship.
Then I had the opportunity to spend over an hour on the phone with him as he tried to figure out a technical problem for us. Just hearing his accent explained a lot: he was from New York. If you have friends or relatives from that part of the country, you know that they communicate differently, and to an outsider, they can come off as brusque. Because of the tone of his online communication, I drew the conclusion that this guy didn’t care much about supporting us. It turns out that he was willing to go the extra mile when we encountered a real technical issue.

If you are brief and to-the-point in your grading comments and emails, you’re likely to get misinterpreted by your students.

I see this dynamic at work between online instructors and their students. If you are brief and to-the-point in your grading comments and emails, you’re likely to get misinterpreted by your students. This is especially true if you have high expectations, and believe your students can do excellent work. If that’s the case, you are going to have to explain to your students a bit about how you communicate and how you grade.

Here are a couple ways to help your students understand your tone online:

1) Send out a “How I Communicate” email. Explain how you might be perceived, tell them a bit about your expectations, and be sure to communicate your belief that they can rise to meet those expectations.

2) Send out a  “How I Communicate” video. If they can see your face and hear your voice, they will begin reading that voice into their email communications. You’ll seem less distant, and you’ll be able to overcome some of those limitations of text-based communication.

Online Teaching Tip #25 – The Power of Invitation

invitationOne of your primary roles as an online teacher is the role of invitor. I’m not even sure if that’s a real word. If it is, perhaps it should be spelled inviter–but that just doesn’t look right. So, we’ll go with invitor. In the face-to-face classroom your very presence invites communication (I’m assuming you’re normal and not unpleasant). In the online context, you have to inject social presence into your instructional style. One of the best strategies is to use invitation in your communication.

3 Ways to use the Strategy of Invitation in your Online Course

1. Include an invitation to respond in your weekly emails. Examples: “If you need further clarification, just drop be an email.” “I’d like to hear how your weekend went” or “…if you need any assistance on the current assignment.” Now, you may be concerned that twenty students will reply, but that rarely happens. The students who need help or who want to connect with you will email you. The rest will understand that you are open and available, there when they need you.

2. Use invitations in assignments. At the end of larger assignments invite students to ask you for focused feedback. For example, at the end of a ten page paper, invite your students to pose one question to you about the subject matter, and to ask you to examine a specific section of their assignment. This requires your students to be more reflective about their own work, and it helps you to address areas of weakness that the student wants to improve.

3. Invite them to ask for more. Sometime assignments don’t require detailed feedback. Specifically, I’m thinking of threaded discussion grades. I’d rather spend my time in the discussion rather than writing lengthily comments to each student. I’ll do this for the first discussion, then I’ll simply give students a grade, refer them to the rubric, then invite them to contact me if they need more detailed feedback.

Online Teaching Tip #24 – Give Them Structure

structure2I’ve been touching on some common bad habits that online teachers fall into. Tip #22 addressed the bad habit of checking email as the first thing you do in your teaching day or week. Tip #23 addressed the bad habits that flow from an obsession with covering material. The final bad habit in this set of three is the habit of dropping resources and assignments into a online course site without some kind of framework or method. I can’t tell you how many sites I’ve seen that look like a pile of links. As a student, this is very disorienting.

A lot of this goes back to how you’ve designed and organized your course site. Your students need course structure that makes sense. Here are 3 quick tips to keeping your online class site structured.

1. If your site already has that, then use it. If it doesn’t then create topic headings (in Moodle these are called “labels”) where you keep assignments or readings in a common area.

2. When you add new resources or a new assignment, be sure to contact your students and let them know where they have been placed on the course site.

3. Finally, when adding resources, be sure to give them a title that makes sense to your students.

Online Teaching Tip #23 – A Bad Habit To Avoid

questionIf you’ve read through some of these online teaching tips, or read my book, Excellent Online Teaching, you’ve picked up on the fact that I believe good online teaching is built on good habits. You’ve probably had a teacher in high school or college who got by on charisma. You didn’t learn much from them, but at least they were likeable. That kind of teacher won’t last a semester online. Teaching online demands that we jettison bad habits and build a repertoire of good teaching habits. I try to stay on the positive side of things, but nn Online Teaching Tip #22, I addressed a particular bad habit that can derail your entire week. In this tip, I want to address another one of those bad habits, and offer some alternatives.

To set this up, I need to reference a conversation I had a few weeks back. I was talking with a student who had recently graduated from a well-respected school. Reflecting on his years of education there, he said:

“I was surprised that they (my teachers) didn’t really care to hear my questions; it’s like they didn’t want me to think on my own.”

I’ve been trying to figure out the bad habit behind this one. Was it his instructors’ failure to really listen?  Perhaps. Maybe it was that they just didn’t care about him as a person? No, that’s not it. I think it’s a problem, really a habit (surprise, surprise) that we all have a hard time with: that we are driven by a need to cover as much content as possible.

When I first started teaching, I was aghast at how little my students knew about the subject matter. I felt like I needed to do two years of work just to get them up to speed. Then I had to teach everything that we were supposed to cover for that year. So, I fell into really two bad habits:

1 – Thinking that teaching = covering content

2 – Thinking that the responsibility of learning was on my shoulders (I was teacher-centered).

The result is that you don’t have time to listen to your students. You forget that they have questions. Inquiry wilts on the vine while we pour content over them in the hope that they’ll absorb it. I call this one a meta-habit because it generates other poor teaching habits. Howard Hendricks, one of my favorite teachers of teachers has said:

If you want to cover something, then use a blanket.

learner-centered-teaching-book.jpgWhat’s the alternative?

1. Get a copy of Maryellen Weimer’s book Learner-Centered Teaching. Or you can read my extended book review here on this site.

2. As you facilitate your online courses, get in a habit of asking generative questions. What I mean by generative question is asking questions that stimulate inquiry.

3. Ask yourself, “How am I asking my students to use the content this week and not just to understand it.”

Online Teaching Tip #22 – Never Check Email First

Checking email at the internet kiosksIf you want to be conventional, be sure that the first thing you do at the beginning of the week is to check your email.As an online teacher, I’ll explain two big reasons why this is maybe the worst habit you could begin.

1. It puts you into a reactive mode instead of a proactive one. Essentially, you’re derailing yourself by allowing your student’s problems and legitimate needs drive you. You want to be driven by the things that got you into teaching. Instead, read something that is going to make you a better teacher. Or sit down and just write out the three goals you have for your online teaching this week. Better yet, identify the one or two tasks you could accomplish that would make the biggest difference for your online learners–then do them (before checking email). Steven Covey said that we are 5000 times more productive when we are being proactive instead of reactive.

2. If your checking email first, you’re probably allowing other people to set the emotional tone for your week. Most emails don’t start with, “I just wanted to thank you for…” or “I just wanted to give you…” –they start or end with a problem. Starting your day trying to solve problems is a drain. Starting your whole week that way on a Monday morning is even worse. Instead, start with a work activity that is going to give you perspective and energy.

What habit could you begin at the beginning of your week teaching that would be proactive, give you perspective, increase your productivity, and give you energy?

photo by barnaby jeans

Online Teaching Tip #21 – Engage More

unavailableYour online students presume that you are unavailable. That may sound harsh, but it’s one of the realities of teaching in the online context. What follows that belief is that your students will leave you alone. There are always the exceptions, the students who proactively email you every week, but most are content to believe that you are merely monitoring the course. It’s up to you to dismantle that belief (that you are unavailable) by making the first move and engaging your students. Student evaluations consistently give higher scores to instructors who are intentional about engaging their students.

How to Engage Your Online Students More (than you are right now) – 4 Ways

1. Know your means of engagement. Class-wide messaging, email, assignments, gradebook, skype, phone, letter (if you want to really get their attention). Make a list and know what’s available to you.

2. Create basic engagement habits. I recommend that you have at least two: your weekly email that goes out to the entire class, and that you work through your class list and send out a personalized email to every student in the course during the semester. Put it in your calendar, otherwise it just won’t happen.

3. Tell them. In all of your communications, remind them that you want to hear from them and are available.

4. Reply. I hate that I even have to include this one, but I see this way too often. Make a commitment to your students to return their emails, and set the expectation for a reasonable time frame. I recommend 48 hours. See Communication Expectations in online teaching Tip #8.

Online Teaching Tip #20 – When You Feel Overwhelmed

tempOverwhelm comes with the territory of the teacher. But the online classroom is especially fragmenting. I think this is due to the fact that we work with so many intangibles. Instead of a stack of papers, we have a set of online submissions. Instead of a series of conversations in person during a set time before or after class, communication with our students is distributed across our weeks, often in short replies to their emails, and embedded in online discussions. It demands more of our mental capacity. And when the demand on our mental capacity increases, the temperature on the overwhelmometer rises.

I was talking with a good friend this week who is teaching his first online course, and he is experiencing this in full force. I’d like to share with you the two pieces of advice that I shared with him.

When you are overwhelmed by your online course(s)

1. Give yourself permission to keep things simple. My friend is developing his course while teaching it. He’s teaching week one, while creating content and learning activities for weeks two and three. You can feel the weight of this can’t you? I told him to keep his course as simple as possible, to put 25% of his energies into development and 75% of his energy into facilitating the course. Student evaluations tell us this over and over: course design is important, but how we facilitate the course is what really matters to them.

2. Focus your teaching energy on the top 3 habits of the excellent online teacher.  The first is proactive communication. Be consistent with getting out your weekly email, and prompt in replies. The second is to be prompt in your grading. Put assignment grading in your calendar so that you can make sure it gets done. The third is to give your students meaningful and useful feedback in discussions and on larger assignments.  If you are overwhelmed, I want to be that voice of assurance that says, “You don’t need to work yourself to death this week; just figure out how you can engage these three things well, and you’re going to be okay.”