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Written for: www.EducationDynamics.com
Over much of history, education was conducted in a traditional “lecture” format largely due to the cost of books and the centralization of information in the instructor. Even today, shifting to a non-centralized, online format can seem foreign both to students and teacher. However, a solid structure of communication practices can turn this situation around and leverage the open format for a stronger learning experience.
To accomplish this, it’s important to set the tone right out of the gate. Rather than assuming students will automatically read the course syllabus and/or trying to “push” the information flow, include a required syllabus scavenger-hunt in the very first communication. Include precise questions about what assignments are due when. Ask them to locate the class discussion forum and detail the expectations for student participation. Also include questions about the composition of the class itself. For instance ask them to list the cities where all the participants live, the gender percentages or what’s the most popular major in the class. Too often the participation model is introduced through lecture. Not only is a scavenger-hunt a fun icebreaker but it immediately models the style of discourse.
Always include a scavenger-hunt item that requires the class to identify at least one technical support resource. At most colleges there is a combination of live-chat help, email help and a toll-free number. Are there specific hours/days that the help-desk is open? What happens if the help desk is not available or not responding as quickly as the student hopes? Require the class to create an email-tree or back-up method of posting or sending in homework assignments. Do not make yourself the technical support for the class nor make yourself the point of first contact for breakdowns in inter-student communication. While most students in the online environment are self-motivated and individually driven, you may encounter the occasional “my dog ate my homework” student. In modern parlance this usually takes the form of “the file won’t upload” or “I emailed that to you last week.”
Allowing any form of these excuses inhibits the spirit of self-discipline that is essential to a successful distance-learning course. Problems in this arena shouldn’t be viewed as laziness or malice on the part of the students (a mind-set which is counter-productive) but rather as a sneaky virus that threatens to infect a class of well-intentioned learners.
Consider including a tech-forum where students can post the solutions to common problems. This strengthens the sense of community and provides yet another opportunity for students to share their knowledge –not only with each other but with you.
Keep lines of communication flowing both directions. Instructors can find themselves locked into a simple cycle of posting assignments and sending feedback without any of the benchmarks and assurances that are expected of the students. When you receive assignments, acknowledge receipt with a quick email. This cuts down on the “but I emailed it to you” or similar excuses described above and provides an opening for students to initiate conversation with you. After each assignment, post the grades anonymously so that students can put their own performance in context. Also post the percentage of class-members who sent it in on time (don’t mention specific students by name if they did not). This creates positive peer-pressure that helps induce a sense of team-work but also gives you as the instructor an early warning if something is wrong with the class community. For instance, I once had a class in which only 40% of the students got the paper in on time. I immediately put the regular agenda for the week on hold. It turns out that a fundamental concept was unclear to the majority of the class and, frustrated, many of them just “checked-out” on the assignment. Without the regular, personal contact of an on-ground class, a missed concept can snowball into a class-wide collapse. Ideally, we should be able to spot a common question in the discussion forums but from time to time a problem can appear and blossom into a crisis in a very short time.
To ensure the success of the online model, instructors need to place an almost equal emphasis on communication structure as they do on content. Without timely intervention in the situation described above, the class could suddenly experience an overwhelming number of drops, lessen your standing as an online instructor and ultimately hurt the enrollment numbers of the school.