Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Three ‘MUST HAVE” best practices in teaching online courses

If you came to read this posting to find a definitive list of best practices in teaching online courses, then please accept my apology.
I will not be compiling the large golden list of best practices in online teaching. Why you might ask? Well – because there is no definitive list. There are far too many variables in play in the online classroom (or any classroom really) to be able to represent all the best practices in online teaching in a short list. However, I do want to take a moment to discuss some findings by a research team who studied groups of online students at South Texas College and West Virginia University’s College of Human Resources and Education. What they focused their research upon was asking students in online courses very simple questions about the instructor behaviour:
  1. Please describe one thing the instructor did that helped you to succeed in this course.

  2. Please describe one thing the instructor did that hindered your success in this course.

The results are fascinating and you can read them all in detail in the original publication (pdf). However, summarized briefly are the four major perceived instructor actions that were responsible for course success:
  • Providing feedback that helped students understand their strengths and weaknesses.
  • Focusing discussions on relevant issues
  • Encouraging students to explore new concepts
  • Helping students clarify their thinking

Now, summarized briefly are the three major perceived instructor actions that hindered course success:
  • lack of feedback that helped students understand their strengths and weaknesses
  • poor communication of the important course topics (i.e. lack of course and lesson objectives, and lack of clear links between course material and the course description)*
  • poor instructions on how to participate in course activities/assignments*

If you examine these two lists you can make some additional observations which distil down to the three ‘MUST HAVE’ best practices:
  1. The topic of ‘feedback’ appears on both the positive and the negative list. That demonstrates how critical this item is to students. It’s a must. The distance instructor must be highly skilled in providing timely and detailed feedback. Furthermore, I will argue that this feedback has to be perceived by the student as being customized/personalized feedback for them. It’s not enough for the distance instructor to mark all the assignments with a simple number grade and then to broadcast to the class a message with the general strengths and weaknesses found in the assignments. Each student’s assignment must have specific and detailed feedback on it for the feedback to be perceived as positive success factor by students.
  2. The remaining ‘course delivery’-type points are focusing discussions, encouraging students and helping students clarify thinking. This type of feedback can be more class-based in nature. Well placed messages in the discussion forum guiding the discussion, introducing a relevant current event or highlighting the merits of a particular discussion point can go a long way. All these items can be done publicly for the entire class to see and benefit from. So the instructor must have a public presence in the online class.
  3. Note that the last two items marked with the asterix (*) in the negative list are instructional design weaknesses. They can be easily corrected with some additional up-front effort refining of the course materials prior to the delivery of the course. As an instructional designer I have experienced some instructors groaning when I have suggested to them that they formulate course objectives and lesson objectives. I’ve also heard similar groaning when I have provided feedback stating that the course assignment materials are not detailed enough, that a rubric would help or that a model solution might be useful to students. It’s true that formulating these support components of the course take time and that for some instructors the task is onerous because they are content-experts not instructional design experts; however, the findings in this paper clearly show that lack of attention to the instructional design components can be directly detrimental to perceived student success.

So despite this not being the definitive list, I certainly feel that these three findings that I have grouped together above are valuable best practices for the distance instructor in online courses. What do you think?


JohnO said...

The study was conducted at South Texas College and West Virginia University.

JohnO said...

The study was conducted at South Texas College and West Virginia University.

Eric Tremblay said...

Hi John. I have now added 'West' in front of Virginia University. Thank you for highlighting the error. Have a great day.

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