With the outbreak of the COVID-19 virus and the ensuing rapid closure of public and private facilities, including schools and universities, many educators have been migrating their lessons and course offerings onto online environments. This is no easy task for those who have had no experience with online coursework.
According to data released by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES; 2019), 16.3% of all higher education students (both undergraduate and graduate) were enrolled exclusively in online coursework. However, 65.3% of all higher education students were not enrolled in any online courses, and 18.4% were enrolled in some (but not all) online coursework (NCES, 2019). Accordingly, while many institutions already provided some aspects of course delivery through a learning management system (LMS), such as Blackboard, Moodle, or Canvas, most coursework had been offered within a traditional classroom environment—which means a large number of courses were moved online in an incredibly short period of time.
An unfortunate reality for many institutions was that the COVID-19 pandemic forced them to become fully online seemingly overnight. For institutions with limited resources or with limited experience in distance education, moving into an online environment may still appear to be an insurmountable task; however, several easily implemented elements can improve the effectiveness of online course delivery. An important reminder is that developing quality online coursework requires time, effort, and patience, but these five recommendations can improve the quality, accessibility, and experience of those enrolled in online coursework.
Recommendation One: Intentional Communication
Because online learning means that geographic location is not a limiting factor to student enrollment, most online courses and learning are offered in an asynchronous format, meaning that instruction is not provided in real time, and feedback is not given immediately. Conversely, synchronous learning allows for immediate feedback and communication between the instructor and students enrolled in the course. Communication is vital within an online environment to ensure students remain connected with course materials—and communication is especially important in asynchronous courses to provide personalized contact from the instructor and to encourage student involvement with course materials. Thus, instructors must be intentional about communication: responding quickly to student questions, providing succinct yet sufficient directions, providing comprehensive feedback to students, and posting announcements and other course communications at least weekly (Darby, n.d.). Timely and responsive communication can engage students, indicating that the instructor is available and approachable with each student enrolled in the course, as well as with all the course materials.
Recommendation Two: Simple Navigation
Developing a fully online course requires all course materials to be available online, typically provided on a learning management system (LMS). Without access to necessary resources to learn, research, acquire knowledge and experience, and complete assignments, students will not be able to successfully complete the course. Further, these resources must be provided to students in a manner where they are easily located and retrieved (Darby, n.d.). A variety of online resources are available to assist course designers and instructors to develop consistent navigation within an LMS (Lake, 2016). Therefore, when designing a course, especially when adding content and resources into an LMS, instructors should take care to ensure that navigation both to and within their course remains relatively simple. Links should be clearly marked and periodically tested. Course structure should be clearly delineated and linked so that written assignments match reading assignments and course content is arranged intuitively in a logical manner. Because students will have varying technological knowledge and skills, simple navigation allows all students to easily access course materials.
Recommendation Three: Instructor Availability
Education in an online format provides a great deal of flexibility to both students and instructors. In an online environment, student enrollment and participation is not limited by geographic location, time zone, work schedules, or planned family activities. Unless synchronous sessions are scheduled into the course, students can complete assignments at any time that is convenient to them or their families. The same is true for instructors: they can grade, post announcements, respond to email, and complete other administrative activities at any time of the day. Therefore, it is a reasonable expectation that instructors will communicate with students in a timely manner. This does not mean instructors must be accessible 24 hours a day; however, instructors should respond to questions and other correspondence in whatever timely manner their university designates: for example, within 24–36 hours. In an online environment, as direct face-to-face contact is minimal, instructors must be readily available to answer student questions and concerns, as well as to communicate regularly with students to enhance the educational experience and to increase students’ connection to the course and their classmates.
Recommendation Four: Online Communities
Along with regular communication with students, instructors should strive to create an online community within their courses. Distance education is and should be more than posting reading materials and associated assignments. Quality online coursework combines various technologies and resources to create a dynamic and compelling learning environment. For example, assignments such as discussion boards and blogs allow students to interact, share ideas, and provide feedback to one another. These interactions can be similar to a classroom discussion; conversing in online chat rooms or discussion forums creates a learning community where students become actively engaged in the course materials and their education. Encouraging an online learning community calls for an innovative approach to learning: students can express themselves creatively through blog posts, videos, presentations, etc. The primary goal is to inspire collaboration and communication within the course, as well as provide a creative outlet for students to interact with course materials.
Recommendation Five: Realistic Expectations
A distinct challenge to developing online coursework is replicating a traditional classroom environment where instructors often exist as the expert to present information and answer questions. However, this is a mistake in online learning; the online “classroom” has distinct differences from a traditional classroom, and attempts to replicate this are not always practical. Therefore, instructors must maintain realistic expectations about online coursework. Best practices in higher education are evolving and some popular trends, such as the flipped classroom model (Brame, 2013), are highly compatible with online learning. For example, online learning is not conducive to lengthy video (or audio) recordings of lectures where students passively engage with the course material; instead, online learning encourages students to work independently, to problem-solve, and to discover multiple perspectives on various course topics. When designing and developing course materials for online coursework, instructors must remember to think like a learner—this is something that can be easily overlooked when rapidly transitioning from a traditional learning environment to an online environment. Developing online coursework takes time and effort, and the instructor should always carefully consider what is working well online and revise what is not (Darby, n.d.; Rottmann & Rabidoux, 2017).
With the growing popularity of online learning, many institutions began offering an ever-increasing array of online coursework, including many fully-online degree programs. Recently, online instruction swelled exponentially as the COVID-19 pandemic propelled many institutions to rapidly transition from traditional classroom settings to online coursework, and many were unprepared to do so. While the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily closed many institutions throughout the world, online course delivery can continue once campuses reopen. Continuing to improve, revise, and refine these online courses provides institutions with increased flexibility in the education opportunities they provide.
Brame, C. J. (2013). Flipping the classroom. Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching. Retrieved from http://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/flipping-the-classroom/.
Darby, F. (n.d.). How to be a better online teacher: Advice guide. The Chronical of Higher Education. Retrieved from https://www.chronicle.com/interactives/advice-online-teaching
Lake, B. (2016, April 22). 9 ways to make your course easier to navigate. Retrieved from Arizona State University website: https://teachonline.asu.edu/2016/04/online-course-navigation/
National Center for Education Statistics. (2019). Number and percentage distribution of students enrolled at Title IV institutions, by control of institution, student level, level of institution, distance education status of student, and distance education status of institution: United States, Fall 2018. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/ipeds/search/ViewTable?tableId=26394
Rottmann, A., & Rabidoux, S. (2017, March 15). 4 expert strategies for designing an online course. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/advice/2017/03/15/4-expert-strategies-designing-online-course