Online Teaching Tips, Tricks, and Ideas

At the institute, we are often asked to review online experiences, including performing course audits. So, personally speaking, over twenty five years I have likely seen 2-3,000 working courses from a review perspective, as audits have been a part of almost every job I have ever held.

As such, I have truly seen the good, the bad, and the ugly. As a proponent of eLearning, I must admit that this view has not always been ideal, often leading to demotiviation rather than confidence, let alone excitement. Because when you know the genuine power and potential of good online teaching and learning design, especially when you have working examples, seeing the lions share of experiences being such poor quality is frustrating.

(Before this becomes too much of a downer, note two things. First, if a person who genuinely knows what “good teaching and learning” looks like audits face-to-face courses, which I have also done in the hundreds, the ratio of good to bad is no better. Second, I will start to provide some solutions here, so this is not simply lamenting.)

So how can we architect learning through an online medium that promotes the best learning practices? How can we engage our students in ways that are meaningful and authentic? How can we do both of these things without needing to spend so much time online that it becomes untenable?

While not even close to exhaustive, the here are three discussion ideas may help start to change your perspectives, actions, and improve your satisfaction with eLearning. If you really noodle around with this, you may notice that these discussion ideas play a major role in an eLearning course, if leveraged properly. This makes the experience a lot more fun for both the teacher and the student…

  1. Set Student Expectations: I know this is old news by now, but it underpins everything that will come next. So, for my online classes, this means telling my students of the expectations I have for their interaction and participation. I expect them to have a DISCUSSION in my classes, not simply post on a forum and walk away. How does that happen? There are the basic logistics: post 5 times per week, over 3 different days, starting on Wednesday and finishing no later than Sunday. But there is substance too. Posts must include citations and/or references to relevant learning information. This can be from the book, but even better is an outside resource to share. Posts must also include criticism of other students or ideas in a supportive, but reflective manner.

    Note that student expectations should NOT be: “Online learning requires students to be more self-driven, self-motivated, and/or responsible for their learning, so…” That expectation is trying to make students overcome bad design!

2. So let’s talk design for a moment. If the truest sense of “flipped learning” has little to do with where homework is filled out and everything to do with flipping the affective, cognitive, and conative aspects of learning on their respective heads, then design matters far more than a lot of people realize. It’s not just about visual design, nor is it about instructional design alone. It must include learning design, which means a student-centric, brain-centric framework must be in place. This means including desirable difficulties, generative learning, spacing effect to promote use of the forgetting curve, and so much more!

From my experience, I have tried to emulate the best of the best here. I have seen classes where the professor asks students to build something independently first (leveraging Generative learning), then present it in the threads to others, creating all kinds of teachable moments. I’ve seen profs start the semester with a group project, even though students don’t have enough information to make them work as they’ve never really ever been taught group communication or project management, only to use that safest of places to fail to generate an optimal learning experience. They then create a second group experience later which goes swimmingly. Or my personal favorite, the teaching discussion. I often have my (communication and/or education) students film themselves teaching a topic or subject from the week to peers, family, strangers, etc. The class then critiques them on both form and content, but think about that for a moment. The students must genuinely know the material in order to effectively comment on how it was taught to others, plus the student-teacher learns even more from sheer volume. And trust me when I say that the teachable moments which come from it are powerful and many. Yes, this takes a bit more time and strategic thinking on the front end, but the rewards on the back end are tremendous. Design matters!

3. That last one may have made you squint a bit. Yes, I expect my students to disagree, debate, criticize, or otherwise explain a differing point of view.


One of my favorite exercises is a TED Talk Tournament. Everyone picks a TED Talk which they feel is particularly good, then each week, one talk is voted “off the island.” Students look at the week’s communication suggestions, then apply them to the videos being debated, ultimately deciding that one did not leverage the findings from that week’s materials. Of course, the students who see their videos potentially on the chopping block try to argue the pro side, which also means they often dig through a lot of research and expert opinion to find a way to view their video in another way.

Before going further, let me stop and say that this is hard. It likely takes 3-4 weeks before most students are willing to step out onto this ledge with me and another 6-7 weeks before they are any good at it. Students generally do not like to give another colleague “bad” news (unless they can do so anonymously, but that is another blog post...). This is part of the reason sappy, sugary, non-substantive posts which agree with everything, act as if every word is amazing, and sees complete alignment, are so common with students. (And also such bologna.) So what does this look like?

I talk from day 1 about being a community of learners. I also discuss the fact that nobody is perfect - ever - and that improving is based largely on conflicting information. What did I do wrong? What do others perceive I did wrong? How can I do it better?

As all posts in my discussions start around an activity, solving a problem, debating a subject, or presenting something to the group, everything is subject to this kind of constructive feedback. But for those students who just won’t budge, often due to the mental hurdle of calling out someone else’s behavior or product, I bring it back to the individual. I remind students (and eventually state this sort of thing explicitly via email, and eventually in a discussion if it comes to it) that they look foolish when they praise a bad post. It suggests they cannot think critically or that they have not done the work in class to know what “good” even looks like. I remind them that respectfully communicating conflict in a depersonalized way is a higher-order thinking concept, so it shows off just how savvy they really are. Etc.

Next week, I will add another set of tips, tricks, and ideas. I will be doing this from Rwanda (which will lead to many blogs and articles I’m sure) as I talk with faculty at Davis College about the most effective teaching practices we know of, regardless of modality.

Until then, see if some of these thoughts can help you supercharge your discussion boards. Just remember one thing before you start redesigning anything. Just like it takes students multiple attempts to do something proficiently, let alone with mastery, give yourself a bit of time and leniency to make some mistakes along the way. How you enforce, grade, promote, and utilize discussions will ebb and flow over time, but doing so in a highly interactive way may take a few tries.

Good luck and good learning.