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“Online education is not magic dust to be sprinkled on top of traditionally designed courses.”

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computer labWhen I read this from Phil Hill in a recent article from The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “What 5 Tech Experts Expect in 2014“, I wanted to jump out of my chair screaming “Amen!” Having taught writing courses online now for a couple of years, I can now wholeheartedly agree with Mr. Hill, and I’m so glad someone said this so bluntly. But, I wonder how many instructors are actually listening and if they even know what to do about it.

These last few days I’ve been working with my online courses, prepping them for launch. It’s tough work. And I completely admit that the first few times I taught online, I was guilty of sprinkling the magic dust. I reviewed my assignments from my face-to-face classes, slapped the explanations into a Word doc, and posted them on the content-management system (sometimes BlackBoard, sometimes my own wikis). It wasn’t until I took a few courses from the Education department that I realized I was going about it all wrong. Funny thing, students don’t tend to learn that well just from reading text, reading comments, and posting to a blog. I know, hard to believe.

So, after I took some online course development classes, I realized I wasn’t fully engaging my students with the content or each other. I wasn’t taking time to consider what my students were bringing to the course. I wasn’t trying to re-create an environment similar to what they would receive in a classroom, one that is dynamic, inviting, warm, and welcoming. I wasn’t encouraging us to get to know each other beyond our text-based writing. But, before I took some classes and knew what I could be doing, I had not idea how to even go about creating such an environment, or that it was important that I do.

A 2011 survey from the NCTE finds that online writing instructors want students in online writing courses to be most prepared for “technology orientation, time management skills, and the ‘ability to be successful'”. Let’s face it. Most students aren’t receiving any kind of training before they come to our online courses. So, their ability to be successful relies on our ability to help them be so. Sadly, most writing teachers aren’t trained to teach specifically online either. Sure, colleges and universities offer training sessions and modules, but how often we do take advantage of them? Or, how often do we just think, “I can do this without attending that”?

So, I thought I’d offer just a few of the points I’ve learned along the way (yes, that means by trial and error).

Run your course. Just as in your face-to-face setting, you can’t just show up to the room on the first day, hand out all the materials, and wave goodbye. If you want your students to be engaged, you have to be engaged. That means communicating with them frequently and consistently. I send out an email every week (some instructors send out videos, others PowerPoints) to remind students of what’s coming up. Sometimes I send out videos on the upcoming unit to help orient them on what they should be watching out for. Whatever method you decide to use, it allows you to be present, and online students rely on that.

Be flexible. Again, if things went awry in your traditional classrooms, you’d have a plan B ready. Same goes online. You might have to communicate that plan B with online students more than in a traditional classroom, but don’t panic. You can adjust (and should) when you need to.

Be proactive. Help your students manage their time. That doesn’t mean log in each day and track who has logged on and who hasn’t. But, it does mean take notice. Many content management systems like Blackboard have built in alert systems to help you do this. You can track grades, log ins, submissions. You’d stay on top of your students in a face-to-face classroom. Online, there are tools to help you.

Recognize difference. In an online environment, it can be difficult to gauge how your students learn. You can certainly always ask by sending out a first-day survey. The results can help you adapt your content. But, it’s important here to understand that learners learn differently. This might seem obvious, but it’s worth taking a glance through your content and considering how many different ways you’re delivering information. Are you solely using Word and PowerPoint? Are you incorporating any audio? What about video? Using different channels to present your course ideas allows students to tap in to their own strengths as learners, which is important in an environment where they lack that traditional, one-on-one, face-to-face assistance from you.

Be timely. I have been a student in an online course when I didn’t receive feedback from the instructor for several weeks. It’s really frustrating. In an online class, students are somewhat on their own from week to week, and if they don’t have any gauge about how they’re doing, they’ll assume the worst. Be timely with your feedback and your emails. I’ve had to work really hard at this, and it’s probably the most time consuming part of teaching online. But, your students rely on you to know how they’re progressing, so don’t leave them hanging and uncertain.

Provide access to support. You may not be the Blackboard specialist at your school, but you need to have done enough homework to know where to send students if they have issues. Provide them with the links they need to tutors, IT assistance, learning centers. Quick access to these support systems can help in panic situations.

Revise your course. Be willing to change your course, your technology, or your assignments. End-of-term reviews (even mid-term) can help you figure out what’s working and what isn’t. Don’t be afraid to pull the plug on something if it just isn’t coming together.

Provide clear goals and assessments. I think we sometimes forget how much talking we do in a traditional classroom. We talk through assignments, goals and assessments pretty heavily. It’s important in an online environment to do the same. Outline assignment goals. Detail learning outcomes. Provide clear rubrics. All of this information is helpful to online students because they really don’t know what to expect and are forced to try to interpret it based on the content you provide. The clearer your assignments and expectations are, the better.

I’m sure there are many more we could talk about here. Below are some links to site with more information about course design. But, I hope these few were helpful. Even if they were purely reminders. They were for me. In fact, as I run through them now, I realize I have yet to do some of them this term. Teaching online is a challenge to be sure. But, it isn’t the result of magic dust.

Helpful sites:

Center for Research on Learning and Teaching (University of Michigan)

Hanover Research Council: Best Practices in Online Teaching Strategies

Blackboard: Online Teaching Strategies

Inside Higher Ed: 7 Strategies to Make Your Online Teaching Better



  1. Rocque Bowen says:

    I am attending classes at Walden U. I am just starting out with an online Masters Program in Instructional Design and Technology. Part of our unit is to have a blog where we access blogs with the same or similar subject matter. I included a link to this article on the blog I set up because the content is very valuable. My first instructor had years of experience and was great with her communication with us. She was so helpful that it made the course very enjoyable.
    It has to be challenging to teach people who you do not see face to face. You have to make some type of connection with them. When you go into this environment as a student you often wonder if they really even will care about your success since chances are they will never get to know you beyond the eight weeks of assignments.
    There is a lot of blind trust that goes into being a student in this type of environment.

    • You are so right. I’m not sure as instructors we realize the trust factor that goes in to taking an online course, especially the blind element of it, from the student perspective. Also as instructors, we wonder about the same questions. That’s why, as you say, the connection element is so important. Thanks for sharing this, I will be looking forward to content on your blog!

  2. […] first is an article by Meredith Singleton titled “Online Education is not Magic Dust to be sprinkled on top of Traditionally Designed Courses&#….  This article emphasizes the importance of instructors to fully engage online students in the […]

  3. I agree with this article and this post. With so many people having to go to school online due to the busy nature of our lives, I wish more professors would put the same emphasis and work into their online classes that they put into their face to face classes. Very insightful, I look forward to reading more posts.

    • Thank you for your comment. Teaching online is time consuming, and I’m not sure if instructors are always prepared for that. For some, that means starting off behind, trying to catch up from day one. That can make it difficult to put the same effort into those online courses. Hopefully articles like this and those websites with great tips can help newcomers out.

  4. […] “Online education is not magic dust to be sprinkled on top of traditionally designed courses.&…. […]

  5. This article was right on point. In your article you shared information we have concerns as online student. The most difficult part of the online class for me is not having that face to face settings. Taking online class is much more time consuming. Based on your article you know what to expect from an online education experience. Thank You!

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