Making sure your online course has what it needs


For a lot of us, this Fall will be our first experience teaching fully online. This shouldn’t be like emergency teaching in the Spring. We can be ready.

I think it’s unfair to students if, yet again, we bumble through online teaching. What can do we do to make sure that our courses are designed to engage students and support their learning?

What works in a classroom often doesn’t work online, and what works online often doesn’t work well in a classroom. A lot of us will be stretching our skill set as instructors. At the very least, we can learn what is supposed to work online as we design our classes.

Even though it might feel like we are surrounded by newbies to online teaching, some of us are downright pros. Now is not the time to overlook the distilled lessons from educational research about effective online teaching practices!

Let me cut to the chase and point to a few resources that will help you figure out if your class has what it needs. Whether you’re going synchronous or asynchronous, you’ll want to make sure that your online classes will have elements that effectively engage students in learning.

I suggest that you use a rubric to size up your course before it goes live. Many pros at online teaching have developed a comprehensive set of criteria that you can use to evaluate your own online course. The good ones haven’t been pulled from thin air, and they’ve been validated through research that has measured the student learning outcomes.

Maybe check out the rubric from Quality Learning and Teaching, which is cleanly laid out here by the folks at CSU Chico. Once you’ve built your course, you can go through the various categories of the rubric and see how your course matches up. If you’re missing a piece that the rubric says is effective, then you can think about adding it in to your course.

Rubrics often have three categories, “bad, good, and great.” (Well, this one says “baseline, effective, and exemplary.” but you get the idea. Others are things like: basic, emerging, and advanced.) You don’t have to have have 100% “great” in all categories. But I think it’s useful to shoot for a minimum of “good” in all categories.

I think the Online Teaching Toolkit from the Association of College and University Educators looks really helpful, and can work as a step-by-step guide to building a good online class.

You might have heard of the Quality Matters nonprofit organization. These folks work in a huge number of universities and promote, as the title suggests, quality online teaching. Among folks who do faculty professional development, I’ve gathered that there are mixed feelings about QM. But if your campus is already shelling out to them, it might be worth making avail of their resources.

If you’re looking for more criteria for good online courses in addition to the stuff from QLT, ACUE, and QM that I just shared, a quick google for criteria/rubrics/evaluation/assessement of online courses will give you a lot to deal with. It seems many universities are doing it their own way.

There are so many folks who have assembled lists of resources to help out. And then there are the lists of lists. I’m not inclined to go too far down that road, but I do think that this list of ‘quick tips’ for online teaching, from Georgetown’s faculty professional development office, is really handy. Also, POD has assembled a big list of online resources for laboratories. If you’re not sure what you’re doing in every one of your labs for teaching online (and, if you are, wow, I’m impressed!), this looks supremely useful.

Please be sure to build in accessibility and equity. This pandemic is exacerbating educational inequities. Keep in mind of the constraints and challenges that some of your students are dealing with all the time, and how they can be even worse right now.

Before you start the semester, maybe it would be helpful to trade classes with a trusted colleague and size up one another’s courses? There’s no substitute for fresh eyes.

(Oh, and if you think this tidbit was helpful, consider picking up the very reasonably priced Chicago Guide to College Science Teaching, which I wrote to orient new STEM instructors and provide fresh ideas to more experienced folks.)


2 thoughts on “Making sure your online course has what it needs

  1. Link not right for distilled online education.

    • In that one, I intended to link to my prior post about science education research denialism. Is that link not working for you?

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