Engaging students in an online environment—Katherine McManus

SFU’s Writing and Communications program is increasingly shifting away from in-person classes and toward online courses, which are less expensive to run and can better accommodate adult students with rigid work schedules. An added advantage (and challenge) is that students from all over the world can attend these courses. My in-person indexing course for the program this spring was cancelled, but I’ve been asked to teach the online offering later this year. I’ve taken plenty of online courses but have never taught one, so I was keen to learn some best practices from Katherine McManus, who directed the Writing and Communications program until her retirement this past December and has been heavily involved in developing the program for the IC Clear certificate in plain language.

Online courses, McManus said, aren’t like old-fashioned correspondence courses, where students get the material and work on it on their own time. As online instructors we have to keep students engaged and on the course’s timeline. We’re also not trying to replicate the classroom. “We’re not trying to replicate anything,” said McManus. “We have to create something entirely different.”

1. Be present

Most students—as well as instructors—are used to walking into a room and listening to a person; the online classroom is unfamiliar and can cause anxiety on both the learner’s and teacher’s sides. To alleviate some of that anxiety, be sure to welcome the students. Before the course begins, send a welcome note to students from your email address (but be clear that the online classroom won’t open until the course actually begins). That way the students have a place to turn if, for whatever reason, the course management system (CMS) doesn’t work. Other ways to establish your presence in the classroom are to

  • be the first to post in the “introduce yourself” area,
  • be clear about how often and when you’ll check in on the class,
  • when students discuss topics, provide guidance—let the students know you’re there, and
  • intervene quickly if someone begins to hijack a discussion.

2. Create community

It can be hard for students in an online course to get to know one another. In courses shorter than three weeks, creating a true sense of community is practically impossible, but for longer courses or courses with difficult topics, giving students a chance to feel connected to each other helps them get value out of the course. Encourage them to introduce themselves, and post a specific question for each of them to answer, such as their favourite movie or their reasons for taking the course. Set up a problem-solving forum, like a repository of YouTube videos related to the course material, for example, that students can post to. Develop one activity where small groups of students must work together, but keep the stakes low to minimize anxiety.

3. Share clear expectations

These students are adults who have paid to achieve specific learning goals. Be specific about what they will learn in the course and how. Each week’s content should start with an outline of that session’s learning outcomes, assignments, activities, and discussions. Not only will the students appreciate this concreteness, but it will also make assignments easier for the instructor to grade. The learning outcomes should match the evaluation criteria. Canvas, the CMS, accommodates a grading matrix where you can keep track of both.

4. Avoid sameness

Use a variety of assignments and activities to encourage learning:

  • Include opportunities for students to find and post interesting articles or videos.
  • Encourage discussion in various ways—for example, you could have pairs of students interviewing each other or students taking a topic “to the street” and then reporting back to the class.
  • Depending on the content of the course, assignments could be games.

McManus said that students spend a lot more time learning in online courses: they end up following links down a rabbit hole and reading much more than they would for an in-person course.

5. Use synchronous and asynchronous activities

McManus doesn’t completely agree with this “best practice” of online teaching; for busy students or students in far-flung locations, scheduling synchronous activities—where the class participates in the activity at the same time—can be a burden. Break the class into small groups of three or four for synchronous activities, taking time zones into account when creating the groups.

Make sure when developing the content that you allow people to complete the course without having to worry about time- and location-dependent activities.

6. Encourage informal feedback

Ask students partway through the course to tell you if they’re keeping up with the material or if they want to know anything specific. As an activity every other week, for example, you could ask students to describe

  • the most interesting they they’ve learned so far
  • what they thought was a waste of time.

This feedback could be via email or through a survey—you don’t want it to become an open discussion.

Often the questions you’ll get about the assignments are good feedback in themselves. If more than one student is confused about something, that’s a clue you might have to adjust the assignment. The advantage of the CMS is that all questions are captured in writing, and you can refer to them later. Post common questions as announcements so that students who are wondering but not asking still get the answer.

7. Invite reflection and response in your discussion topics

  • Don’t ask yes/no questions.
  • Don’t ask questions for which there’s only one right answer.

Make it clear to students, if you’re awarding marks for discussion participation, that simply agreeing with a previous answer isn’t enough—they have to add to the discussion for credit. In Canvas, there’s an option to bar students from seeing what others have said about a topic until they’ve posted their own comments, which has the advantage of preventing latecomers from feeling discouraged that what they wanted to say has already been said but has the disadvantage of possibly yielding a slew of very similar answers without expansion on the discussion. Close a conversation at a specific time (e.g., two weeks after it’s opened) to make sure you don’t get students scatter-gunning the forums at the eleventh hour of the course to get participation credit.

8. Use technology that is easy for the learner to master

Hours of extra learning can be involved for students unfamiliar with technology. Give students time in the first week to familiarize themselves with the CMS. Avoid having students use software outside of the CMS to create content like maps, charts, and videos.

9. Combine core concepts with personalized learning

Core concepts are outlined in the learning outcomes. For advanced courses leading to professional certification, encourage students to apply those concepts to increasingly complex projects—perhaps some they’ve brought in from other aspects of their lives or from their work.

10. Plan a good closing

Online courses often just end, and everyone just stops talking to one another. You’ll make a better impression if you plan something specific for the end of the course—maybe an online chat (bearing in mind that some students might not make it) or an informal final discussion topic where you post closing thoughts.

For courses that have complex subject matter but where you only have the time and resources to cover the basics, McManus suggests using a “going deeper” feature: teach students the fundamentals but give them an opportunity to learn more if they’re interested. “Going deeper” not only adds value to the course in the students’ minds but may also be a good way to end the course.

5 Responses to Engaging students in an online environment—Katherine McManus

  1. Hi, Iva,

    Thanks for this post. I am a participant in the IC Clear project and have shared this link with my classmates.

  2. Hi, Iva.

    Thank you very much for this. I’m also in the IC Clear project, and this post will help me as I work with a colleague to design an online technical-report writing course.

  3. I’m glad both of you find it useful! I’m envious of your involvement. I wish I had the time to pilot the courses.

  4. This is a supremely useful post, Iva, especially for those of us who teach at SFU but couldn’t attend Katherine’s course. It’s also interesting to hear that SFU is moving away from in-person to online courses. Like you, I and a number of other instructors have seen their classroom courses cancelled recently, but no one from SFU has explained (to me, anyway) why. Now I have some idea. Thanks, as always, for being an invaluable sharer of information.

    • Glad you find it helpful, Frances!

      I really, really hope they won’t do away with in-person classes altogether. I know some students learn better in a physical classroom, and I enjoy the face-to-face interaction.

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