For faculty teaching online, one of the most persistent challenges is finding ways to generate the same level of interpersonal interaction possible with students in person. Such engagement is essential for student success.
In one study published in the journal Computers & Education, researchers from Columbia University’s Teachers College observed various elements in 23 online courses at two community colleges. They found that the top factor determining students’ grades was the level of interpersonal interaction between students and the instructor and among students themselves. Although that study was conducted a few years ago, its findings resonate today: Students who interacted more received a full grade higher than those who lacked interpersonal interaction.
Instructors who are less experienced with remote learning may need guidance to ensure that online courses address both interpersonal and pedagogical aims. In a webinar hosted by University Business in July, the discussion focused on key strategies to do just that.
“Meaningful interactions — teacher–student and student–student — are very strong and important drivers” of course quality, as well as the perception of course quality, said panelist Cheryl Chapman, the department chair of career education for Coastline Community College in California.
“This point cannot be overstated,” she said. “It’s extremely critical. With course content and assignments, you want to build meaningful interactions throughout the course.”
Chapman offered three ways to optimize and humanize online course design.
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1. Maximize Clarity in Online Course Structure and Navigation
Even highly engaging content will be hard for students to absorb if the instructor has set up a course in a confusing manner. Clear course navigation is critical, and the type of rubric that an instructor chooses, whether free or paid, can have a big effect on the user experience.
To plan an online course, Chapman recommends that instructors start with the end in mind: First, figure out which learning objectives instructors will assess students on and what students should learn in the course. Then, link lesson and chapter objectives to these objectives. In addition, each module or unit of learning should be sequential and easy to find. One of the advantages of online learning is that students have all the material at their fingertips, which makes it easy to review as needed — but that only works if the process of locating it is easy and intuitive.
2. Add a Personal Touch with Videos by Students and Instructors
Student feedback has shown that when students perceive that an instructor is making an effort to engage with them online, students are more likely to put energy into the course.
“Show and share, and don’t be afraid to be ‘out there’ in your online course as much as you would be in the classroom,” said Chapman.
At the very least, she said, she recommends that instructors create a one-minute introduction video and a three-minute course tour that explains the navigation and syllabus. Other ideas include announcement and encouragement videos throughout the week, spontaneous videos when an instructor comes across something relevant to share and videos that provide feedback on student work.
To spur more interaction, ask students to share their own video work: introductions, presentations, practical skills demonstrations and peer reviews after students upload a first draft of a project.
3. Ask for Student Feedback Throughout the Course
Continuous improvement is important for helping instructors develop their own skills teaching online and for adapting a course to the needs and preferences of a specific group of students. The flexibility of online courses allows for more options and opportunities to adjust course content and/or structure during the semester based on student feedback. Anonymous surveys, for example, help instructors gauge how students’ perspectives may change over time.
Student input is especially helpful for those new to teaching online. To really gain an understanding of students’ experience, instructors might even consider taking an online class in an unfamiliar subject themselves. This can yield valuable insights into the challenges that may arise for online students and help instructors figure out how to be proactive in addressing them.