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Humanizing Your Online Course

Curious about how to increase student engagement in your online courses? Seeking ways to foster students’ engagement with you, your TAs, and classmates? Consider humanizing your online course.

According to Tips for Humanizing Your Online Course, instructors can “improve the learning experience as well as success and retention rates” by incorporating a few approaches. These include ensuring that the look and feel of a course site is designed to be welcoming and easy-to-navigate for students. Instructors can also strive to “infuse” courses with elements of their personality, “so that the students have someone they can connect to.” In addition, the article recommends instructors allow students to take a more personalized approach to discussion board posts. Finally, instructors can provide students with a degree of ownership in their approaches to assignments and other activities, such as allowing them to picking which discussions to contribute to (say by picking 5 out of 8, or the like).

Want to see a visual representation of how to humanize your online course? You’re in luck: an infographic, How to Humanize Your Online Class, details why and how to inject elements of humanized learning into your online courses. A webinar (and other related resources) from the author of the infographic provides additional suggestions on how to leverage technology to increase and maintain student engagement and connection.


Five Design Strategies for Online Group Collaboration

Designing group collaboration experiences for online courses that are effective, meaningful, and engaging requires planning and preparation. Course Design and Online Group Collaboration — What’s the Connection? outlines five course design strategies that can support students in achieving effective group collaboration. These strategies include:

  • Making projects relevant and challenging. Highlight the value, purpose, and real-world relevancy of projects and ensure they are complex enough to justify collaboration.
  • Providing clear and transparent instructions and expectations. Provide detailed instructions, including information on the purpose and benefits of a project.
  • Balancing the structure and flexibility of project tasks. Ensure roles and responsibilities of group members, as well as the parameters of the project, are clearly defined. Provide opportunities for student choice and control of project elements.
  • Planning the timing of group activities. Allow students time to build rapport and trust with their group members. Plan the timing of project elements in phases over the semester.
  • Providing suggestions for how groups can leverage technology. Provide suggestions for how to leverage collaboration, brainstorming, and online meeting technology to support collaboration.

Group Projects Need Team Charters

Having students develop team charters before tackling projects can be a great way to get collaborative assignments off to a strong (and successful!) start. As Use Team Charters to Improve Group Assignments details, team charters encourage students to not only think about what they need to achieve over the semester, but to also strategize how they will successfully attain those achievements. Having students establish team norms and project goals allows them to plan for success, while also preparing them for the challenges they may face while completing team projects. The article includes questions and prompts that can guide students in developing their team charters, such as how they will assess their team’s performance, how they will provide feedback, and what their ground rules will be for communication.


An Alternative to Office Hours

Office hours can be a great way for students to seek class-related feedback, guidance, and support. However, some students can find the one-on-one focus afforded by office hours to be intimidating, particularly if they are struggling with course content. A recent article, Office Hours Alternative Resonates with Students, suggests offering “course centers” as a supplemental alternative to office hours.

Instructors scheduled one- to two-hour blocks in empty classrooms, allowing students to drop-in both individually and in groups to work on whatever they wished. During the course centers, instructors and TAs made themselves available to answer questions and provide consultation as needed. As affirmed by surveys, this approach was preferred to office hours, with 79% of students agreeing with the statement, “Did having a course center in the class make you more likely to get help?” The author suggests that part of the appeal of course centers is that they allow students to work in groups and that they offer a more “laid-back” and low-pressure environment than class and office hours.


More on Making Groups Projects Work for Online Classes

A recent article adds to our developing knowledge of how to more fully support the success of group assignments and projects. 6 Online Collaboration Tools and Strategies For Boosting Learning details six strategies and six tools that can head off the frustration that can be associated with group learning.

As this article details, the six strategies include: 1) defining the expectations and purpose of group learning activities early in the semester (such as in the syllabus), 2) providing explicit instructions and direction for assignments (such as objectives and due dates), 3) keeping groups small enough to ensure consistent participation, 4) monitoring to assess when intervention is appropriate, 5) defining “etiquette” and expectations for group norms, and 6) devising assignments and projects that directly relate to the course’s topic and include relevant real-life examples.

The six tools suggested in the article include: 1) ProofHub, 2) MindMeister, 3) Google Docs, 4) BigMarker, 5) SlideRocket, and 6) Skype. These online collaboration tools can enable students to communicate more effectively, brainstorm assignment-related ideas, and simultaneously contribute to and develop documents and presentations.


Reaching Reluctant and Resistant Students

Wondering how to reach students who seem checked out? Two recent blog posts provide suggestions and guidance for how instructors can reach students who might be reluctant or resistant.

As The Reluctant Learner argues, students who are reluctant learners can appear unmotivated. However, often that lack of engagement comes not from low interest, but fear of failure and learned helplessness. Instructors can reach those students and inspire participation by incorporating self-reflection and scaffolding learning into smaller chunks – both can build learners’ self-confidence and aptitude. The author also suggests instructors convey their passion and enthusiasm for course topics, set high but attainable expectations, and create a collaborative environment.

Strategies for Preventing Student Resistance provides suggestions for how to reach students who might resist teaching strategies. To do so, instructors can find ways to increase “instructor immediacy” by reducing the “social distance between themselves and students.” Social distance can be reduced via eye contact, learning students’ names, and otherwise closely interacting with students. Research suggests that fostering this immediacy reduces student resistance and increases motivation and learning. And, as explaining the value of learning activities can persuade students to more fully embrace them (i.e., to not only complete activities, but to want to complete them), instructors might also consider delineating rationale and explanation for their teaching strategies.


Encouraging Full Participation in Groups Projects

For all of the excellent reasons to include group projects in courses—including how they can better prepare students to collaborate in the workplace—instructors can find them challenging. A primary challenge can be ensuring that all members of a group fully and fairly contribute to project submissions. One technique to resolve that challenge is to have students provide feedback on the performance of the members of their group; knowing that their group project grade will be influenced by peer feedback can be enough to inspire students to stay engaged throughout the semester. Qualtrics can be a great tool for gathering that feedback (UF has a campus-wide account).

Want some other ideas? Students Riding on Coattails during Group Work? Five Simple Ideas to Try provides suggestions for how further tackle the challenges of group projects. These suggestions include designing group projects into phases with multiple deliverables, which allows instructors to track how effectively groups are functioning throughout the semester. The author also suggests allowing students to have input on the project’s topic or focus, which can increase and maintain their level of engagement. Instructors might also consider incorporating individual submissions that relate to the group project, such as critical reflection assignments. In addition, the author suggests providing the opportunity early in the semester for groups to get to know each other and establish the norms (including roles and responsibilities) that will guide their collaboration. Finally, instructors should find ways to empower students to solve inter-group challenges, while also expressing a willingness to intervene when necessary.


Consider Using Your Webcam for Assignment Feedback

Are you tired of the typing and handwriting that typically goes into providing feedback on students’ assignments? Could Video Feedback Replace the Red Pen? argues that instructors should consider video-based feedback rather than the text-based variety.

Instead of providing written or typed comments, the instructor featured in this article extemporaneously records critiques using his computer’s webcam. While, as the article acknowledges, providing feedback via video may have drawbacks, students are reported to prefer video-based feedback, often “finding it clearer and seemingly more sincere than written notes” (a finding reflected by other recent research included in the article). The instructor and a colleague, who have been using this approach for about five years, find this approach to providing feedback easier and less timely.

Interested but don’t want to track down any additional tools to enable you to upload and share video-based feedback? You’re in luck: Canvas offers video and audio recording functionality in SpeedGrader.


Supporting Effective In-Class Discussions

As the author of Effective Ways to Structure Discussion points out, class discussions (whether online or in person) are most effective if they are structured by a “protocol that guides the interaction.” To support students in having effective face-to-face discussions, the author recommends three techniques.

  1. Starter and Wrapper. In order to fully and effectively participate, students need to understand the purpose of a discussion. The author recommends framing class discussions by kicking things off a with a question or comment and then wrapping up with some final analysis and comments. In addition, the author suggests that students can be the ones assigned to provide these starters and wrappers.
  2. Save the Last Word for Me. This discussion strategy involves building discussions around quotes drawn from course readings that students didn’t fully understand, which they then take turns submitting. The rest of the class offers their analysis, interpretation, and response to that day’s quote, enabling all students to develop and refine their understanding of that topic.
  3. Time for Reflection. To prevent instructors from unwittingly dominating in-class discussions, the author suggests incorporating time for students to reflect. Offering this quiet time after class discussions allows students to reflect on their understanding of that day’s topics and develop questions and talking points for future discussions.

Encouraging Critical Thinking

As Unlocking the Mystery of Critical Thinking details, “most faculty don’t know what critical thinking is or how to teach it.” While we assume that critical thinking is an inevitable product of teaching any complex and demanding topic, that is not necessarily so. As the author argues, instructors must “explicitly and intentionally design their courses” to develop students’ critical thinking skills.

As the author explains, research affirms that for a course to promote critical thinking skills, it must incorporate interpretation or analysis, as well as evaluation or judgment, of content that students have had time and opportunity to master. The author provides suggestions for how to ensure that students meet the “eight standards for critical thinking,” which include clarity, precision, and logic.

One way to explicitly and intentionally design a course to promote critical thinking is to provide students with the opportunity to tackle open-ended questions and problems via a variety of assignments and activities, such as simulations, debates, and roleplaying. In addition, students’ development of critical thinking is also promoted when they receive feedback, such as through peer review. Finally, the author suggests that instructors strive to model critical thinking skills for students.