May 8, 2015

Online Teaching Tips: Instructor Accessibility

(This is one article in a series offering tips for teaching online. The suggestions and ideas shared are based solely on my personal experience teaching online for many years, and not on any "hard" research.)

Teaching online is different from teaching in a face-to-face classroom in a variety of ways. One often-overlooked difference is the access needs of online students to the instructor. 

When I began teaching online, I tried holding regular "office hours" via online text and video chats, sitting hours by the computer waiting for my students to "arrive" in the chat or video call who never came, only to receive emails or chat requests from students an hour or two later or the next morning, when they were able to be online, asking for help. It struck me that adopting the same accessibility policy I had for my face-to-face classroom for my online classes - i.e., having set office hours on set days of the week - will not work for my online students. With access to the course varying across students from day to day and week to week, there was no way holding regular office hours at set times would serve my students' needs.

To best meet these needs, then, I adopted a policy of being accessible to my students 24/7. I try to remain accessible to my students when they need me, and not when it is merely convenient to me. Evenings? Absolutely! Weekends? All the time (that's when my online students seem to work in their courses most commonly). Middle of the night?!? If I am awake, and see/hear the message, yes, though such requests are rare (contrary to popular belief, students do sleep!).

To foster my accessibility, I inform students the best way to contact me is through a direct message on Google+ (a social media communication platform. Students in my online courses are required to have a free Google+ account). When they do connect with me through Google+, I receive a audible notification on my mobile device that informs me immediately a student needs assistance. While I can and do receive student requests for help through email, I receive more emails from a variety of sources on a variety of subjects than direct messages through Google+, so an email notification may be more likely to be missed if it arrives with other messages, and consequently its response may be delayed (for my personal well being, I try to tackle my email only once or twice a day!). That is, when I hear the notification sound for a direct Google+ message, I know a student student needs my assistance right now.

When able, I respond to each student's request for assistance immediately. Doing so allows me to communicate with students while they are still online, working in the course. Often, my reply evolves into a back-and-forth "conversation" with the student during which issues are resolved, and others frequently come to light. Email is much less immediate, and if your email reply is delayed even by one day, the student may not see your email for several more days, depending on when s/he is able to be online. Consequently, the immediacy of your assistance is lost, and as a result, may prove far less helpful (and more frustrating) for your student. 

Has making myself accessible 24/7 for my online students a significant burden? Not at all. Usually, after the first week or so, the frequency of student questions drops off dramatically. In fact, making myself more accessible has actually saved me time, in that I no longer sit for hours by the computer waiting for students to "show up" at scheduled office hours. And, if you have crafted carefully your course syllabus, course schedule, and assignment instructions, everything in your online course should work smoothly, for the most part, without the need for frequent instructor direction. 

I feel it is important, as a teacher, to do all that I can to help my students succeed  in my course - online or otherwise. Making myself readily accessible to my students when they most need me is a small step I can take to help secure student success.

April 20, 2015

Online Teaching Tips: Document Everything!

(This is one article in a series offering tips for teaching online. The suggestions and ideas shared are based solely on my personal experience teaching online for many years, and not on any "hard" research.)

I apologize in advance for this post. It is somewhat cynical and paranoid, and you may even think the recommendation is unnecessary and overkill, but when teaching online DOCUMENT EVERYTHING! And I mean EVERYTHING.

I'm sorry to say, but some students will try to get away with doing very little in a course, and place the blame for their negligence on their ignorance of the course requirements. It seems like it happens at least once for every course I teach online. I've lost count the number of times students have denied having received notification of an assignment due date - or that the work had been assigned, at all! - that they didn't receive my email, or that an online "chat" we had two days ago never took place. 

I have found the best way in dealing with these students is to respond quickly to their allegations with documented evidence refuting their claim (see, I told you this would sound cynical!). You must do all that you can to protect yourself from false allegations that may be escalated to your supervisor(s).

It begins with developing and publishing highly detailed course documents - syllabus, course schedule, assignments, etc. The more detailed these documents are - and provided you specifically instructed students to read the documents, and that they are accountable for ALL of the information contained in those documents (yes, you should be explicit in stating that students are to read the documents!) - you can offer a quick rejoinder of where information is located ("In the syllabus under the ASSESSMENT section, the second paragraph clearly reads, 'No Late Work Will Be Accepted.'"). Your position is bolstered if you also can indicate when these documents were available for review by students (e.g. "The syllabus was emailed to all students on [date], and was accessible on the course Learning Management System site three days before the start of class..."). Even better, some LMSs can indicate when a student accessed specific course materials ("...and you accessed the course syllabus on [date]."). So, be very explicit in both the content of your documents, and your instructions to students in how to use the documents.

All communication with students should be documented, including "announcement" posts, email messages, online chats, and video calls. Do not delete any announcement postings. These often contain critical information for which students are responsible, and usually have some sort of time/date stamp on the posting. As mentioned above, be clear with your students that they are responsible for all of the information posted in announcements (this may be an issue for some students who do not login everyday. Nonetheless, if the expectation is that all students are responsible for the information posted, then you are in a better position to address any "extenuating circumstances" individually). 

"Carbon copy" (CC:) to yourself all emails that you send to students. I copy all student email communication to a separate email account that gets assigned to a specific class folder. Then, if I need to find a specific email, I can simply search within that folder. I recommend not "Blind carbon copying" (BCC:) email messages to students, simply because I want them to see (if they are interested), that I have retained a copy of the email thread (yes, I have had to print out entire conversation threads for administrators). 

Following an online chat, I copy/paste the text of the entire conversation into an email, or a separate document, then share that conversation with the student, while keeping a copy for myself. This provides the student a record of what was shared in the conversation that they can then use in the future should they encounter a similar situation, but also provides you a record of the conversation. So, this can serve as a resource for students and an artifact for you, should you need it. Similarly, video chats can be recorded. Screencast-o-matic provides an easy, inexpensive way of recording your computer screen (Free for a limited recording duration). This video then can be shared with the student, and kept as future resource. If nothing else, audio record your video conversations (using Audacity or alternate sound recording program).

Finally, for every assignment a student submits, make a copy. Depending on how the assignments are crafted, and given the asynchronous nature of many online assignments, some students may attempt to "change" their assignment after submission, or claim that they never submitted the assignment because they didn't know about it. Depending on how you might use the copied document (e.g., are you going to make comments on your copy of the document or the student's original submission?), you might be able to simply take a screenshot of the document, and save the image file, or paste multiple image files into a single document. This works well for exam responses, too. Simply create image files of student responses for exam item responses or Gradebook entries.

Keep these files at least a year, but perhaps even longer (I suggest up to 4 years). I did have a student who went to the administration 3 years after having taken a course I taught (as she neared graduation) asking for the course to be dropped (and a failing grade removed), claiming she never got started in the course and just forgot to drop the course from her schedule. When I was asked by the administration whether she in fact did begin the course, I was able to produce documents that demonstrated the student did in fact work in the course, but stopped working a few weeks in based on the record of her accessing course documents, email communication threads, and gradebook screenshot images. 

So, while far and away most students make every effort to work diligently and responsibly in your online course, you may encounter the occasional student who alleges "unfair," "inequitable," or "biased"  instructional practices, or simply make claims that "they didn't know." By carefully crafting detailed and explicit course documents and instructions to students, and by documenting ALL interactions with students, you can build an evidentiary case that may protect you against such allegations and against student claims of ignorance of course policies and procedures. 

April 9, 2015

Online Teaching Tips: "Getting Started" Email

(This is one article in a series offering tips for teaching online. The suggestions and ideas shared are based solely on my personal experience teaching online for many years, and not on any "hard" research.)

When I first began teaching online, it seemed that the first week of my online courses was the most difficult for students. It seemed I was continually answering "logistics"-related questions - How do I find the syllabus? Where are assignments posted? Do I need a text for the course? Am I required to login at certain times? Etc.

In addition to replying to each student's questions as quickly as possible, I would try to post my "answers" on the course's site Learning Management System, where all students could see my responses. I failed to understand at the time, however, that "going to class" for an online student is not the same as going to class in a face-to-face environment. Because online students often fit their coursework into their busy previously-established schedules, they might not even be able to access the course until several days after the official "start" of the course. Also, it has been my experience that students (in general) tend to ask questions before seeking solutions to their problems on their own. So, many of the postings I made to the LMS Announcements page frequently went unread. So, I needed to find a way to get students "up to speed" in my course sooner, anticipating the questions they may have, so that they can jump directly into the content when the course actually begins.

I decided to develop a "Pre-Semester Getting Started" email message in which I would address many of the "first week" logistic issues students experience. After answering so many questions from students in the past, I had a good idea of the kind of information students needed to get started, but I tried to imagine what I would need to know if I was just starting an online course (perhaps for the first time):

  • What is the course going to be about? 
  • What am I going to need to work in the course - text, other materials?
  • How is the course structured?
  • How do I access the course content?
  • How do a navigate and work in the course?
  • How do I contact you if I need help?
In addition to answering the questions above, I always include links to the syllabus and course schedule AND I attach both documents (PDF) to the "Getting Started" email. 

Here is an example of a "Getting Started" email I send to my students.

I keep the formatting simple (no fancy fonts or bold/italicized formatting), since some prefer not to receive richly formatted emails, and all of this "emphasis" may go unnoticed. Also, I use links to connect students to other resources that will help them get started in your course, such as YouTube videos or text sites.

I keep a draft of the "Getting Started" email in a Google Doc that I can revise, as needed, before each use, then copy/paste the message into an email message (remember to review the pasted message to make certain all of the links are active). 

The email message is sent 7-10 days prior to the start of the course to the student email addresses listed with the school. This time frame gives those who don't check their email very often a chance to see it before the start of class (I know that email often is not the best means of communicating with students, particularly when emailing to a school account, but until an alternate method of communication is established after the start of the course, it is the best and most convenient means available). Perhaps it goes without saying, but when sending a mass email, please place all student email addresses in the "BCC:" ("blind carbon copy") address box. This helps maintain student privacy. Also, include your email address(es) in the "CC:" address box, so students can see your email address(es) directly, and so that you have a record of when each email was sent.

I keep an ongoing list of those students to whom I've sent the "Getting Started" email. Each day following this initial mailing, I check to see if any new students enroll in the course, and send the same "Getting Started" message out to all newly-enrolled students. 

Also, if I am using an LMS, I try to have the course site accessible 3-5 days prior to the start of the course to allow students an "orientation" period before the course begins. If I am opening up the LMS site early, I state in the "Getting Started" email when the course site will be available, and how to access the site.

Though I've never asked directly whether or not students find this "Getting Started" email useful, I can only surmise that it has given the reduction of email inquiries I receive from students during the first week of course.

April 7, 2015

Online Teaching Tips: The Online Syllabus

(This is one article in a series offering tips for teaching online. The suggestions and ideas shared are based solely on my personal experience teaching online for many years, and not on any "hard" research.)

Having taught in both face-to-face and online environments, I have learned that it is necessary to craft your syllabus differently for an online course than for a face-to-face course. That is, if you have taught a course face-to-face previously and are moving the course online, your old syllabus probably won't fit the needs of your online students. 

For me, there are 2 principal functions of the syllabus: 
  1. To detail important course-related policies and procedures necessary for students to navigate and work effectively and efficiently within the course.
  2. To protect the instructor from accusations by students that important policies and procedures were never explained or were misunderstood. 
Because teaching online changes how you interact with your students - you do not have the benefit of explaining the course materials, procedures, or policies to all of the students at once and answer any questions immediately - both functions need to be as detailed and explicit as possible. 

Yes, it is possible to "amend" or "explain" your syllabus through instructor posts or emails to students, but with the indeterminate and inconsistent manner in which many online students access your course, because of their schedules, your posts or emails may go unseen for days or sometimes even weeks. Also, if you continually find the need to explain your course procedures or policies to students to the point that a broadcast post is necessary, it is indicative that this information should be included in your syllabus. Add to this the decreasing likelihood that your syllabus will be accessed or read after the first week or two, it is important to get your syllabus right the first time.

Because your online students access you and your course content in a slightly different way than they might if they were taking the course in a classroom, your syllabus should address these differences. While all syllabi should include course description, learning objectives, assessment policies, etc., there are certain "tweaks" and additions to this information that should be addressed in your online syllabus

Communication with Instructor
A traditional syllabus likely will have a telephone number and email address, along with office location and a list of office hours. While these are fine to include in your online syllabus, you must consider how students would most easily and conveniently communicate with you when they are working in the course. 

Electronic communication of some sort likely will be most convenient. Including your email address is a must. But, if you are open to using social networking for your course communication, include your Google+, Twitter, Facebook, Skype, or other username, as well. Giving your students multiple means of communicating with you accommodates the varied backgrounds and technology expertise of your students. Direct Google+ messages work best for me. But however you choose your students to communicate with you, clearly state your preferred method clearly in your syllabus. Also, if access is an issue (e.g., you only have email access until 4 p.m. daily), you should inform your students that responses to inquiries sent using that limited mode of communication will be delayed and by how long.

Office Hours are a bit more complicated. I have attempted a number of different strategies over the years to accommodate office hours - regular times for online chats (Instant Messaging) and online video chats; varied times for online chats; random "pop-in" availability, etc. But, what I have found is that during these times, very few, if any, students take advantage of office hours. While this is not too different from student participation in office hours in a face-to-face classroom, it is likely that the varied times students access the course will leave you listening to the crickets chirp while you wait (this is particularly odd while waiting for someone to join a video chat!). 

I ask my online students at the start of the semester when they are most likely to access the course. If there is some general consensus to access times, I attempt to place an office hour during those times. However, I more commonly see students accessing course content at all hours of the day and night, so having a set office hour likely is not useful for many of your students. Instead, I simply state that office Hours are available upon request. 

Technical Issues and Computer Requirements
Technical problems will arise teaching online. While I experience far fewer these days compared to 5 or more years ago, they do crop up. It is important to instruct students where to turn when they need assistance, whether it is you, your school's computing HelpDesk, publisher support pages, or somewhere else. This information should be clearly stated.

Likewise, you should detail what the minimum computing requirements are for this course, including all necessary applications, web accounts, computing specifications, and preferences. These requirements *may* be slightly different for PC v. Mac (I have not had any Linux users yet), so include both. Also, be very clear on your preferred web browser. For me, Internet Explorer has never worked well with my courses, so I always recommend using the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, or Safari (for Mac).

Course Navigation and Course Content Access
This likely is the most important aspect of your syllabus for your students. They need to know how to get around and work in your course. Be as detailed as possible in your instructions, trying to anticipate problems students may have. Use step-by-step instructions with images, where possible. Or, even more useful, in addition to the written instructions, create a quick YouTube video or two students can watch that demonstrates how to navigate and work within your course environment. 

Login/Attendance Expectations
If you anticipate requiring students to work in your course environment at certain times or a certain amount each week, this should be made very clear, along with a statement of how not meeting this requirement will be addressed. I would strongly encourage avoiding establishing any such access policies, given that many online students are working your course into their varied, changing schedules. Don't make them fit into your schedule. It is much easier for you to accommodate their schedules, than it is for them to accommodate yours.

Assignments and Assessment
Again, details are important here. Be clear on all of the following:

 - How to access assignments
 - Work submission guidelines and procedures
 - Late work acceptance policy
 - How final grades will be assessed (not each assignment, but in general)
 - How and when to expect instructor feedback

It is a good idea to describe generally what assignments will be required (e.g. Discussion posts, two reflective essays, and an infographic), but best to leave detailed assignment instructions out of the syllabus, and instead place them in separate documents that offer not only assignment instructions, but could include assignment rationale, expectations, submission directions (include a direct link to submission location, if possible), and assessment procedures. Including this information for each assignment in the syllabus moves beyond the scope of the syllabus.
Disclaimers and Statements
Always include a notice about your willingness and ability to accommodate students with documented disabilities. Require them to contact you at the start of the semester. If your school has an "academic honesty" policy, please include a statement notifying students that they are bound to that policy in all of their work in the course. Finally, if you plan to use copyrighted material (e.g., displaying excerpts from books or articles, the presentation of audio recordings or videos, or exhibit photographs), include some notice indicating that copyrighted material will be used in the course to promote content understanding, critical thinking, and skill development.

Make Syllabus Web Accessible
You cannot assume all of your students have Microsoft Word, or Excel, or another (expensive!) software package to access your course documents. Students today use a variety of word processing applications that may or may not be compatible with other applications. Simply uploading a Word document may present access problems for some. So you will be best served if you craft your syllabus with web access in mind. 

You can use the Word feature to convert your document to a Web page (simple formatting only, no graphics) or a PDF. Or, even better, use Google Docs or Word Online to create your syllabus. These are already web-based document creation tools, which makes documents created using these tools Web compatible and easily shared using automatically-generated URLs. Or, consider building your syllabus on a wiki or Web page from the start, avoiding the word processor entirely. 

Use Hyperlinks
You are creating a document that your students likely will view through a web browser. Take advantage of the ability of most the feature of most word processing applications to include hyperlinks in your document. Include direct links to your email address and social networking profiles, course schedule, technical support links, "getting started" videos, links to purchase required materials, and any supplemental websites or resources used. Also, don't link only once. is is, if you include a link to your course schedule once on your syllabus, it should be linked every time.  

Craft to Protect Yourself
This sounds cynical, I know, but students will inevitably contact you at some point stating they were not informed about a course policy, or did not know how to access an assignment, and could not complete it. The detail you put into your syllabus not only facilitates student success in your course, but it also helps protect you from these types of statements. Because you can reply to a student, "The syllabus clearly states that..." protects you should the student escalate the situation to your immediate supervisor. 

March 19, 2015

Online Teaching Tips: Separate Syllabus, Course Schedule, and Assignment Instructions

(This is one article in a series offering tips for teaching online. The suggestions and ideas shared are based solely on my personal experience teaching online for many years, and not on any "hard" research.)

There is a school of thought in teaching (online and otherwise) that says put EVERYTHING into your syllabus for your course - contact information, policies, procedures, assignments, deadlines, assessment information, etc. Everything! It all goes into the syllabus. By stuffing a Syllabus full with all class-related information, the document becomes unwieldy, less flexible, and consequently, less useful for the student. Rather, separating the Syllabus from a Course Schedule and from assignment information can be a more useful option for students. 

There is no disputing the importance of the syllabus. In the syllabus should be placed those course policies and procedures the student must know in order to succeed in navigating and working within your course. These policies may include communication with the instructor, assignment completion and submission, late work policy, "attendance," accessing the course and relevant course materials, grading/assessment, and technical troubleshooting, among others. The document should be sufficiently detailed to provide students the tools and information to be able to work effectively and efficiently in the course in those first couple of weeks. Anticipate what the students will need to know in order to work practically within the course, and do your best to minimize opportunities for student confusion or misunderstanding on how to function effectively in your course. 

Here is an example of a Syllabus I use for one of my online courses. Note the use of bookmark navigation links at the top of the Syllabus to help students access the information needed most directly, and hyperlinks to relevant external materials throughout the document (if you are teaching online, take advantage of hyperlinking whenever possible):
MUS 253- History of Jazz ONLINE
I try to be as explicit as possible in my Syllabi. But, no matter how detailed I believe I am in the Syllabus, I find myself answering the same questions from students repeatedly, the answers to which are explicitly stated in the Syllabus. This leads me to believe that, if students access the Syllabus, they rarely read it in depth. And, if they do read the Syllabus, they rarely return to the document after the first week or two of class, or during the last week of class, as final grades loom large. So, for me, including assignment-specific instructions and assignment due dates are best handled separately from the Syllabus. 

Face it. Everyone is busy. Many students take online courses because these courses fit best into busy schedules. That is, online students typically plan coursework around their already-established daily or weekly schedules. The most important course-related information most students need then, after learning how to get started in your course, is what needs to be done and when. Using a separate Course Schedule can provide this essential information in an easy to understand, easily accessible format. 

Because the Course Schedule is likely to be the most-used course document, it should be as explicit and as useful as possible, but minimally should include the following items:

  • Dates for the entire term - weekly or daily, depending on how your course is structured
  • Topics studied - broken into daily or weekly topics, depending on course structure
  • Where the work is to be completed/found (if in a text, include inclusive page or chapter numbers; if a discussion, indicate the discussion name and its location)
  • Assessments with clear due dates
Spreadsheets work wonderfully to display this type of data in a clear, concise format. Also, they offer the further option of using color to help organize and display the information in a more useful manner.

Here is an example of a Course Schedule I use for one of my online courses:
MUS 253-History of Jazz Course Schedule
In this Course Schedule, I use color to indicate each week, assignment content locations, spanning of assignments across multiple days/weeks, and to highlight important assessments.Also, where possible, consider including hyperlinks from the Course Schedule directly to assignments or resources students will need. If the documents are publicly available on the web, linking is quite easy. However, hyperlinks become much less useful if the materials are locked on a Learning Management System or within online learning environment where authentication is required for access. Typically, linked URLs will not be passed through after a login, making hyperlinking to materials behind locked systems much less useful.

Another feature of spreadsheets that is very useful is the ability to "freeze" rows and columns. Placing heading information in a "frozen" column or row allows a student to scroll through the Course Schedule without losing access to the header.

For the same reason Course Schedule information is best separated from the Syllabus, details for specific assignments also should be separated. Including detailed instructions for assignments within the Syllabus makes the document very cumbersome to use by the students, while diminishing what I believe is the principal function of the Syllabus - to describe course policies and procedures. Also, creating separate instructions affords the instructor the flexibility to change or adapt an assignment's instructions depending on course or student needs, without having to alter the Syllabus directly. Over time, if the course is taught again, assignments are more likely to change rather than course policies or procedures, so having that flexibility makes future preparation and course deployment easier. Further, by creating separate instructions for assignments, these separate assignments can be hyperlinked on a Course Schedule, giving students direct access to the assignment without having to wade through a lengthy Syllabus to find the assignment information.