The availability of online programs has allowed schools to reach students like never before. Students who cannot get to campus for traditional classes now have the opportunity to further their education in the online environment. This online boom has created a learning curve for both students and teachers. As I wrap up my fourth year of online teaching, here are some of the strategies that have helped my students thrive. (And saved my sanity!)
In this post, I’m going to touch on:
- Some things to consider when scheduling your assignments.
- The tools I use to record lectures.
- Tips for building relationships with online students.
Weekly Scheduling for Online Courses
Online students are a special breed. They are often over-committed and have crazy schedules. They need to have enough time built into an assignment to work around their schedules. I try to make sure all assignments are open for at least a week before the due date. If circumstances do not allow for a full week, I make sure assignments are open over the weekend. This may mean answering an email or two over the weekend for me, but it meets the needs of the online learner.
Consistent due dates are a must for online students. They need to know which days of the week assignments are due up front, and that should very rarely change throughout the semester. I personally use two due dates a week – Tuesday and Thursday. My students turn in labs on Tuesday and homework assignments on Thursday. I make tests due on Thursday and that is the only assignment for that week. That system may look very different for your course. I know plenty of online teachers who have totally different weekly plans – but they all agree on the consistency part.
Did I mention consistency? My students are conditioned to Tuesday and Thursday due dates for my course. If I randomly throw in a Monday due date (even if I email them about it, send out a Google Hangout reminder, post it on the calendar, and throw up some smoke signals), about 30% of them are going to miss it. They learn your routine quickly. So have a routine and stick with it.
Plan With the End in Mind
Before the first day of class, I sit down with my Google Calendar and fill in all of the due dates for the semester. The first thing I do is fill in start dates, holidays, and end dates. Then I use the end date to set my final exam due date. After that I work backwards. My last chapter is usually due one week before the final exam is due. For me and my 10 chapter curriculum, covering one chapter a week (except on test weeks) works well. It also allows me enough time to split the most math heavy chapter into two weeks.
Once I have the chapters in place on my Google Calendar, I go back and add in the assignments that align with that chapter. If I know my curriculum well, this process allows me to have an entire semester planned out in less than an hour. I find that doing it on the Google Calendar is much faster because I can make adjustments quickly by dragging assignments from day to day. Plus, I can easily share the calendar with my students. (Here is another post about how I implement the Google Calendar into the course).
Options for Creating Video Lectures
If you teach totally online, you’ll probably need to create some video lectures. There are so many options out there for creating lessons, and the best one for you will depend on the type of lecture you need to create. I teach chemistry, so a program that allows me to write on the screen works best for me.
I’ve used a variety of methods for my videos. I’m planning to put together a full post with details about video options, but here is the quick version.
I use a different method for my class video lectures than I do for my YouTube channel. My lectures are intended for a small audience of students who I have a relationship with. I want these to be a little more personal and less “polished.” My YouTube channel videos tend to be less personal and have tons more editing.
For my course lecture videos, I use an HP Tablet with an HP pen. The pen does an excellent job of writing on the screen and I am able to work out math problems in my own handwriting. I use PowerPoint to record. Then export the videos as mp4’s and upload them to YouTube. If I want my face to be in the picture, I use ScreenCastOMatic or Zoom to record.
For my YouTube videos, I use an iPad with an Adonit Pixel stylus. My iPad is an older version, otherwise I would probably upgrade to an Apple pencil. I use a program called Explain Everything. It is amazing. The best part is that you can stop any time, and rerecord a section without having to start over. I can even record the sound and go back later to record the writing. Explain Everything is available for PC, but has a monthly fee. It has a one time download fee for iPads. Totally worth it! I export from Explain Everything, move the video to my computer, edit the sound with Audacity, then merge the sound back in with Window’s Movie Maker (cause I’m old school and like free programs). It is a bit of a process, but I’m pleased with the results.
Building a Relationship With Your Students
Getting to know your online students does not come as naturally as it does for face-to-face courses. They lose out on your sparkling smile, corny jokes, and stories about your dog. You have to create opportunities to interact with them. You also have to let them know when they have room to be themselves, and when they need to be more formal.
I have students introduce themselves on a Padlet board (which is embedded onto our Moodle page) at the beginning of the course. They share their educational goals and something they are interested in. I always jot a summary of their responses down in my gradebook. These are items I can use to build a relationship with them throughout the semester.
Find out what your students want to be called and use that name when communicating with them. There is something about being communicated with by name. It grabs their attention and lets them know that their teacher took the time to know their name. This is a tiny shift that makes a difference in how students will receive communication from you.
I use Google Hangout as a classroom chat program. I try to make this a comfortable space for students to communicate. They are free to whine about course material, ask each other questions, and share study tips. My only rule is that they cannot post direct answers to assignments on the Hangout. I allow them to discuss homework problems in generic terms (something like: look at the example on page 324), or troubleshoot lab experiments together.
Email With A Smile
Email tends to be a little more formal, but still needs to have a conversational feel to it. This is often the main way that your students will reach out to you. It’s important that they trust you to not be an ogre when they need help.
My mom (who was a seasoned educator) always taught me to answer the phone with a smile. I try to apply this same concept to my emails. If I am about to spout off an unkind response, I take a break. That unkind response may totally shut your student down for the rest of the semester.
If I have a tough message to share, I usually try the sandwich approach. Say something nice. Get to the point. Say something nice.
I end almost every email, no matter what the content with: “Please let me know if you have any questions. Have a great day.” Even if heart of the email was that they need to get right with themselves – it lets them know that it is not personal. I need them to change a behavior, but I’m here to support them along the way.
Which brings me to my last piece of advice. Invite your students to contact you. The average student (and more importantly – the struggling student) is intimidated by you. They need to feel welcome to reach out to you with questions.
Plaster phrases that welcome communication all over your course. Some of my favorites:
- Let me know if you have any questions.
- Please let me know if I can help you with anything.
- I look forward to hearing from you.
- Please feel free to contact me with any concerns you have.
My students probably think they have Flo from Progressive as a teacher, but that’s OK. They reach out to me when they need help. They ask meaningful questions. They don’t feel like they are learning chemistry from Khan Academy. I can live with them thinking that I’m nuts in the meantime.