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Preparing Your First Online Course?

Instructors come to online teaching at different points in their career. If this is your first college teaching appointment, you need to read this article first. If you have face-to-face teaching experience, you'll find that much of what you know will translate in some form to the online classroom.

If you have taken online classes as a student, you already know that online classes can vary tremendously. Content delivery, course design, and course management work together to create your students' online class experience. It's not enough to be a "great teacher" if you hope to succeed online. You will need to be prepared, and your course will need to be optimized for the online environment. This article and the linked materials will help put you on a successful path.

Getting Started:

  • Know your LMS: Wichita State University uses the Blackboard Learning Management System (LMS), but there are several popular LMS services in higher ed. Before you teach online, you should read about your college's LMS and learn where to get training on its tools. WSU centralizes Blackboard training through the Office of Instructional Resources (OIR). Your college may provide significant training resources as well, but if not, you may need to do some Internet research to get you started.
  • Know your terms: Before you begin, you need to establish if your course is fully online or hybrid and whether your class needs to be asynchronous or contain synchronous elements. Asynchronous courses have no required same-time events such as webinars or class meetings (online or face-to-face). Synchronous events are often referred to as happening in "real time" and will bring all of your students together at the same time, whether they are joining online or meeting up at a physical location. Fully online classes have no required face-to-face contact including no required class meetings, tests, or outings. Hybrid courses have both face-to-face elements and online elements and generally allow for in-class testing.
  • Don't start from scratch (if you can help it): The chances are good the online course you are teaching has been taught before by someone else. Ask your department if you may get access to a previous version of your online course. Some colleges may have master courses for online delivery. A master course is designed to allow professors to offer an online course without having to develop materials themselves. Whether it's a previous version of the course or a master course, having these pre-loaded materials will allow you to see how an online course is structured. But remember, this is your course. Unless your college limits customization, you can do what you want with the material once it is loaded into your course area.

Plan Your Class:

  • Choose materials: Online classes offer variety in available course materials. In addition to traditional textbooks, you will easily be able to use open educational resources, websites, educational sites like Khan Academy, YouTube videos and other materials. Like many universities, WSU's libraries make most content including videos and academic articles available online as well. For many content areas there is so much free material available that you may find that you can dispense with a textbook. But to make the most of this content, you need to plan time to find what you want to use.
  • Know the workload: A typical college course has approximately 45 hours of total work per credit hour of class. That means a three credit hour class should have a total of approximately 135 hours of student work including lecture time, estimated reading time, assignments, and assessments. It's challenging to estimate 135 hours of student work, especially when you are not with the students for part of it. Because content is easy to add but time-on-task can be challenging to measure, some professors end up asking much more of their online students than their face-to-face students. Try to avoid that pitfall.
  • Consider interactivity: Student-to-student, student-to-professor, and student-to-content interaction are all important in online courses. Interaction of all kinds makes your course more dynamic, effective, and interesting for everyone involved. Courses with only student-to-content interaction are likely correspondence courses, and your college may not be accredited to offer courses in that model. If that is the case, you must ensure that you are also offering at least one other form of interaction in your course. You will want to try for all three kinds of interaction in your class by including a variety of activities such as:
    • Discussion boards (support student-to-student and student-professor interaction)
    • Assignments that receive personalized professor responses (supports student-professor interaction)
    • Text readings (supports student-content interaction)
  • Plan delivery methods, activities and assessments: Once you have chosen your materials and thought about interactivity, you are in a position to plan how you will weave the two together. Effective online assignments blend content delivery with activities and assessments. For example, you may ask the class to react to a required video in a discussion board or reflect upon a required reading in an assignment. The more you integrate course content with applied assignments, the more you will ensure your students are actually doing the work.
  • Outline course: Students perform better in courses with simple organization. To ensure that your course doesn't get unwieldy, try creating an outline for your content, much in the way you would outline an essay or article. Once you have a course outline, you can fit your topics into the LMS course structure provided to you.
  • Check for holidays and planned maintenance dates: Holidays count in online classes too. Check your college's calendar to make sure you are not asking for any assignments or class interactivity during holidays such as Labor Day or spring break. Also, all LMS systems undergo periodic scheduled maintenance. These dates are often announced long in advance of anticipated downtimes. Check your system announcements or contact your instructional design team for these dates. Make sure not to schedule tests or other required activities during system maintenance.
  • Plan your teaching schedule: Online classes have their own rhythm, and it's different from the face-to-face class. Because you will be doing all of your work (course building, answering questions, grading assignments, participating in discussions, etc.) in the same place, it can feel like online classes are more work than face-to-face classes, even when they aren't. It helps to structure your own expectations and then communicate your schedule to your students. For example, consider this plan:
    • Daily during the workweek: check for and answer student questions. (Student questions may come to a question/answer discussion board, your personal email, a class message system, etc. Check all of the tools that you use regularly.)
    • Once or twice a week: spend time grading that week's assignments providing personalized comments when possible/necessary.
    • Twice or three times a week: interact with students as a group by posting announcements, participating in discussion board, etc.
  • Augment your syllabus: Online students rely more heavily on the syllabus than you may have come to expect. The more guidance you provide in your syllabus, the better. At a minimum you should add information about your teaching schedule, your anticipated response and grading times, and your expectations about their online behavior ("netiquette").

Build Your Class:

  • Contact your instructional design team: Unless you have no other options, you should not plan to develop your first online class alone. Most colleges and universities have an instructional design team to help you with training, advice, and possibly even labor. Wichita State professors and GTA's should contact the Office of Instructional Resources as soon as they get an online teaching assignment.
  • Use the LMS tools: Learning your LMS can seem daunting, and sadly, about a quarter of all professors do not like their LMS (no matter which one they have!). Yet if you take the time to learn your LMS's tools, your course will be richer and less likely to have technical problems. Also, you and your students will be able to rely on your college's technical help professionals to troubleshoot your technical issues. The more you rely on outside tools, the less help your college will be able to provide you.
  • Build in accessibility: It is relatively easy to ensure accessibility in your online class. By building accessible materials from the start you will save yourself time and effort, and in the process you will be presenting a class all your students can learn from equally.

Teach Your Class:

  • Establish and maintain presence: Your online students need you. You are more than someone who curates content and grades assignments. You are their professor. Successful (and popular) online professors cultivate their online presence and work to interact with their students in overt ways. Post regular announcements, participate in discussions, and consider adding short video lectures where your students can see your face.
  • Keep notes and gather materials: As soon as you start teaching your first online class you will wish you had done some things differently. That's okay! Luckily, the online class itself is a great place to keep track of the changes you would like to make. By creating hidden folders, you can keep notes, materials, assignment ideas, and other changes right there in your class so they are available to you when you make changes for next time.
  • Respond to feedback: If your students provide you data on the class, take it seriously. Many online professors are not as savvy in an online class as some of their students. Let your students help you and give you advice about what you can change now or consider changing later in your class. Even if you don't plan to take your students' advice, acknowledge it and thank them for it.
  • Refer technical problems: You are a professor in your content field, not a technical help desk. Learn who your students should contact in case of technical problems and provide that information in class. Don't expect that you will need to solve technical issues yourself. If you are a WSU professor and need help knowing who to contact, or if you want to have an LMS administrator check to see if a student's claims match up with the digital evidence, contact OIR, and we can help you.

Teaching online can be rewarding, and an increasing number of professors teach online for most or all of their load. If you find that you like it, you'll need to keep up with technological and pedagogical advances. Continue to explore Wichita State's Office of Instructional Resources training website for additional articles and resources.