Jeremiah Parry-Hill—During the spring semester, RIT’s Teaching and Learning Services hosted a series of workshops for faculty new to developing online courses. After each faculty member taught their newly designed course for the first time, we asked them to write a reflection on how the course went and how they would improve the course before the next offering. With their permission, we’ve taken those reflections and distilled from them 10 tips for improving an online course.
1. Ensure that your course has a coherent structure and that materials are well organized.
- “I think the most valuable thing I did was to make the structure of the course as coherent and sensible as I could. I tried to put a structure on the course, and then I stuck with it.”
- “All the real work was done in advance, so I could spend my time simply housekeeping and being responsive to student questions or problems.”
2. Put extra effort into ensuring that students understand what is expected of them.
- “While due dates were available prior to the course beginning, very few students actually paid attention to them. I received a number of emails from students who ‘didn’t realize’ a particular assignment or module quiz was due.”
- “I will create a quiz to test their understanding of the syllabus. Many students contacted me with simple questions that could be easily answered by carefully reading the syllabus and reading news items I posted.”
- “Instead of using the news feature, I may also send out emails with announcements, as many students did not take the time to read the news feature and I ended up repeating myself in multiple emails.”
- “I worked on [providing clearer criteria for grading writing assignments] each week by posting clarification on the discussion boards and providing students the opportunity to revise and resubmit work after I gave feedback.”
3. Send regular whole-class communications.
“I send e-mails twice a week. The first one introduces the concepts and the relevant assignments for the week. Then a mid-week check-in e-mail clarifies any student concerns, deals with administrative issues, and provides reminders about longer term assignments that they should be preparing for.”
4. Remain responsive to student snags.
“When technical issues arose, I knew that on an accelerated schedule they needed to be resolved very quickly or the students’ progress would be hampered and they would become even more frustrated.”
5. Ask students to lead discussions.
“I think that having the students act as discussion leaders added the most value. The students felt that having one week in which the class was relying on them to be an expert in the subject really put pressure on them to know the content backward and forward.”
6. Stay flexible. Be ready to adjust deadlines and grading policies and deadlines in response to student needs.
- “One adjustment that I had to make was to adjust my grading rubrics. It was clear that a number of students were not proficient in the English language, and so I had to come up with a number of strategies to enable these students to succeed. For example, I changed my grading rubrics to shift the focus from overall writing quality to more incremental improvements in academic writing.”
- “If I teach this course again as a 5-week course, I will adjust the due dates and the module lengths to avoid having any assignments due during the weekend, even if that means having students do more work during the week.”
7. Be familiar with the myCourses environment. Make sure to preview your course as a student.
“I probably would have benefitted from sitting down with a myCourses specialist, since the major problem I had in teaching the course was wrestling with the quiz [submission views] and not knowing what my students could or could not see. The second week I released the quizzes so students could see them after they were done, but apparently students didn’t realize that [they had access to the quiz results]. It was one of the primary issues students mentioned in their evaluations.”
8. Take time zones into consideration.
- “I think the only thing that I would have liked would have been how to better plan for students in different time zones. Using timed tests and deadlines made for some confusion (for example, was it fair that the student in California had from 5AM – 8PM to complete an exam while those in EST had from 8AM – 11PM?).”
- “After the first dropbox closed, I accepted late assignments because although I posted that 11:59pm was the deadline, I did not indicate that this was Eastern Standard Time. I made this clear for all future assignments.”
9. Some students will be unresponsive. Have a plan for reaching out to them.
- “My changes for the next time around will be directed at the students who failed to participate in discussions and who did not revise. To target these students, I am considering requiring revisions of writing assignments as well as requiring and grading discussions. I also must be more emphatic about the demands of the pace early on and send email reminders about important dates (add/drop and withdraw dates as well as assignment and revision deadlines).”
- “I was frustrated with two students who did not respond to emails and received an F in the course. I might ask for additional contact information next time, such as a phone number.”
10. Provide timely feedback on assignments.
- “I generally provided feedback for all assignments within 24-48 hours. This feedback was comprehensive, and was intended to help students with a similar assignment for the following week.”
- “I viewed my grading and the feedback that I gave students as something that added value to their learning. In this way they better understood what I was looking for, what they were doing that was ‘on point,’ and how they could make improvements.”
- “I taught an accelerated 5-week summer course. The biggest challenges were keeping up with weekly grading and monitoring students’ progress on a daily basis to make sure they were all staying on track. However, students’ appreciated my commitment to their learning. They responded quickly to my concerns and improved their performance.
A well-designed course pays dividends.
One of the faculty shared the following: “A comment like this from a student inspires me to continue to improve my teaching. The student says: ‘The class was very interesting, even if I didn’t think it would be at first. The work didn’t feel like work because I enjoyed the class so much. I wasn’t a big fan of seeing short time frames to complete assignments, but these small time frames helped me to stay connected and engaged in the class all week long, instead of just once a week.’”