Online Teaching Tips, Tricks, and Ideas (Part 2)

As you read this, I am honored to say that I am donating my time and efforts to help train faculty at the Akilah Institute, the Rwandan campus of the newly chartered Davis College.  It is a privilege to work with these educators who seek to help women get a degree (and job placement) in a place where all of that is particularly hard for females. 

One of my challenges will be sharing effective practices regarding online learning with these professors.  But this will likely be even more challenging than I’m used to, trying to showcase the true power of eLearning despite power issues and extremely spotty web access. 

But regardless of how often they can or cannot connect, I intend to show them just how much learning can be increased when using the world wide web.  Not only is it likely the only way to scale learning beyond a classroom of three people, there are simply experiences which can be realized online that cannot happen in any other way.

Last week, I started to detail some of the potential uses of an online discussion area.  I tried to show the importance of tying good eLearning back to good teaching and learning architecture.  No medium can overcome poor design. 

So with that in mind, here are three more ideas to help make your online class a solid experience for both student AND instructor.


1.       Let them teach.  I often write about generative learning and the copious amounts of research showing how impactful it is.  Unfortunately, we see generative experiences in less than 10% of face-to-face courses, translating to almost 0% of online courses.  Instead, we see a lot of online offerings still telling students that there are different expectations for eLearners, including being able to read a lot or being self-motivated so as to overcome genuinely boring design. 

So let’s start to change all of that.  Regardless of your modality, start to leverage “Do First” learning tomorrow!  How?  Well, here is what that might start to look like, at least as an example from my class:

Remember, I teach a lot of communication classes.  One such class is Fundamentals of Communication.  It’s half public speaking and half general communication.  As students follow the exact same survey percentages as the general public, they both hate public speaking and they also believe that they are good communicators.  (Just about everyone thinks they are “better than average” as a communicator.  You do the math on that one…)

So one of the first things I ask my students to do is to sign up for a Teaching & Learning presentation.  They will sign up to deliver a “lesson” to a group of 5-7 people (live), record the experience, and upload it to our discussion.  As the lesson they sign up for is ahead of whatever week we are in currently, they must look ahead, formulate a lesson (which of course means going through the materials early), and try to find the salient points to pull out and teach to others.  What else does this do?  It forces anyone being thoughtful about the experience to try and find language that will help people understand better, determine metaphors and analogies to better grasp the concept, and try to identify assets to help clarify things.  So, regardless of how the lesson / presentation goes, this student has likely learned the upcoming concept with far more depth than most students ever do. 

But we don’t stop there.  The (live) audience is then tested to see how much the learned from the teaching moment.  This provides instant feedback to the presenter, letting them know where they succeeded and/or struggled.  (They almost always struggle for most of it.)  But as we know from generative learning studies, students who “do it wrong” the first time, actually learn BETTER than students who don’t do anything in or around the concept first.  So, in my class it’s a double lesson.  They get to learn what they may have misconstrued or messed up in regard to content, but also in regard to presentation.

This obviously is followed by a healthy discussion with their online class peers, who give them ideas or thoughts around things they could have tried or ways they could have presented.  (Those same peers must study the materials as well, if they are to produce meaningful feedback.)

All in all, the lessons are many, the teachable moments are everywhere, and the learning takes place between peers as well as using my consultation along the way.  While it took some tweaking and trying, it (almost always) produces far deeper learning than any lecture or reading I have seen. 


2.       Create a Devil’s Advocate.  I mentioned last week that I ask students to give constructive feedback throughout all discussions.  This must include references but also help for students who did not do something as well as they could have.  So, rather than 16 weeks of, “I totally agree with your point of view here.  Great post!” my online classes see commentary that is much more significant.  But often as a primer to the pump, I task 1-3 students with the task of playing DA each week.  Their job is to pick 5-7 posts per week and take an oppositional view to the notion that it was ‘great’ or ‘perfect.’  Let me give you an example – this is from last semester’s Speech 101 course:

“Alan, I see why you chose that topic for your narrative as it has a lot of potential to be exciting and mysterious.  But as we learned in class, it does not really fit the arc plot.  According to Snyder’s (2014) explanation, when I graphed your telling of the events, there really was not much creation of tension, which then meant there was no real climax.  That obviously means there was no build up throughout the exposition either.  So while I like the topic in general, I think that you provided a report and not a story at all.  I hope this helps as Dr. Borden wants us to go back and reconfigure our narratives.  For yours, I’d find a way to create that conflict sooner and bigger.”

Just as a quick juxtaposition, let me show you another post from that same student only two weeks prior to that (week 1):

“I like horses so much Amanda!  Wow, what a cool idea.  I’m so glad you were able to save her and I’m sure it did change your high school experience.”

In other words, this student, under the Devil’s Advocate role, really gave some of the wisest, most helpful advice possible. 


3.       Use Google Docs / One Drive links, etc.  Online teaching and learning in 2019 is SO much easier than it was when I was teaching hundreds of faculty in the late 90’s.  Embedded videos are a snap.  Connected gradebooks are the norm.  But that also goes for extending the online classroom.

I still hear professors lament how they want to create sign up sheets for classroom activities, thinking they must use a discussion board which is not even close to that kind of formatting.  But why?  Just create a Google Doc, Google Sheet (or if your school uses O365 and ALL students have access to it, use Word / Excel Online).  Make sure the ‘share’ settings are completely available to all, but send link (or even embed) the doc in your LMS pages. 

I even do this with non-doc sites.  There are countless cool sites out there which do clever little (or big) things.  I have my students create a portfolio of learning using their own Padlet.  I’ve had students create 3-D timelines in the past using Tiki Toki Timeline.  As a communications prof, there are a number of PowerPoint / Video connection tools I’ve used over time, simply embedding them into my course pages.

The ideas are numerous, but they do take a bit of planning and a bit of execution.  So give yourself a bit of time to prepare and work them in, knowing you may have to pivot at any moment!  But I hope you have seen a few ways to increase engagement, meaningful communication, and more these past two weeks. 

I may revisit this series throughout the term, but next week I’m really excited to share more about my visit to Africa.  Until then, I wish you all the best with your courses, regardless of the modality!

Good luck and good learning.

Jeff Borden