Teaching your expertise online can bring you new friends, new money, more knowledge in your own field and a network of new colleagues. You already have experience and expert skills in your field that other people would love to learn. Whether your expertise is marketing, journalism and media, or book keeping, there are people out there who are just starting out and are looking for someone further along the path to guide them. Here are seven concrete steps you can take to set up a smooth running course that people will love.
1. Start with the end in mind
One of the most influential habits from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey is start with the end in mind which is also the main principle of backwards design. When beginning any course design or redesign, ask yourself these questions:
- Where should my students be by the end of this course?
- What skills, habits, practices and connections should they have made?
- What would be the outcomes for students?
Depending on the size of the course, a 12 session course might have 4-6 major achievable, observable and measurable learning outcomes. From there, you could define units with sub-outcomes that work towards or achieve 1-2 of the major outcomes. Then breaking it down further into course content and enabling activities.
2. Create authentic assessment or self-assessment
Creating the assessment as the second step is borrowed from test-driven development in IT and saves a significant amount of time and effort when creating an online course. Firstly, by focusing on the assessment first, you will be able to quickly and easily tie it directly to the learning outcomes (while they are still fresh in your mind) saving a lot of design time. The assessment, like the outcomes, should be assessing real world skills, application, analysis, evaluation and creation skills (rather than the straight recall of knowledge). If your student had to do or produce something in the real world (without the aid of your course), what would that task be? Have your students do or produce that or a miniature version of that task for assessment. Finally, create rubrics, checklists or self-assessment questions that would assess the level of expertise or performance for that task.
3. Design active learning and scaffold into steps (cognitive presence)
All activities throughout the course should work towards assessment which are assessing the learning outcomes through means of scaffolding the learner from beginner to advanced while practising the new skill and getting peer and instructor feedback. To achieve this, break down the learning objectives into units, then lessons, and finally into enabling activities in bite-sized chunks that elicit active exploration and critical thinking through application.
Assignments and learning experiences that use analysis, evaluation and creation skills help students build proficiency and skill. Begin by providing scenarios, problems and challenges and provide the content or have the students find the content at the right teachable moment (just-in-time) making each learning experience much more memorable.
When putting together the units of the course, always remember the 3 part rule of introduction, body and conclusion. Introduce the unit, what they will learn and most importantly, why these learning objectives are important. Scaffold the learning activities into steps or challenges with increasing difficulty that include practice, peer and teacher feedback and assessment or self-assessment. To help students connect core concepts to learning experience, summarize each module at the end of the unit and offer a preview of the next module, laying the groundwork for new concepts and skills.
4. Provide Rubrics, Checklists and Crystal Clear Instructions
Your online students won't be able to ask for immediate clarification as they could in a face-to-face environment, therefore it is crucial to communicate clear expectations for assignments by providing the assessment rubrics, clear instructions, checklists and tutorials for software. Having tutorials and/or step-by-step instructions for the learning management platform (along with any other software the students are to use) is particularly essential in the online education world.
Also remember to keep textual passages uncluttered by breaking up long paragraphs into smaller digestible pieces with techniques such as:
- Using dot or numbered points.
- Breaking it into steps or tips.
- Use of headings and sub headings
- Use of bold and colour highlighting
- Leaving white-space, divider lines, diagrams or images that could break up parts and help students visualise the separate parts.
- Using audio or video recordings of the expectations, example and/or instructions.
- Having one or two examples or an average example that the students are to critique and give feedback for.
Without instant access to the expert or course designer, all the students have is that one webpage or series of webpages with instructions, videos and images to base their progress through the learning activities on. Double-check it or have a friend review it to see if everything is clear and they know exactly what they should do.
5. Build in collaboration and community building (social presence)
Online learning doesn't have to be a solo nor isolating affair. To counteract feelings of isolation, design learning activities that build a sense of community. Have icebreaker forums where students introduce themselves and tell of their prior experience. Encourage students to reply to other students questions or give structured or unstructured feedback on other students work. Have a mastermind, question and answer or student presentation live class a few times during the course. Some learning activities or a fair portion of the whole course could be in smaller groups where they can co-create knowledge together. Apart from all these suggestions, whole classes can also build knowledge together online (see Step 6) further connecting cohorts of students together.
6. Building in Learning Checks, Knowledge building and reflection on learning (cognitive and social presence)
By this stage you have major assessment pieces, units, learning activities and collaboration built in to your course, however, there is one last design element needed which is a sense of progress or milestones for the students to realise that they are progressing and advancing in their knowledge. Consider adding frequent self-assessments and checklists or reflections to encourage students to relate what and how they’re learning to their life and help them connect prior knowledge to new skills and concepts. Students could reflect on progress, achievements and challenges in a journal, blog, short podcast, or even in a presentation to the other students. The form of the reflection could serve as an item for teacher feedback, for example a podcast provides spoken voice where the teacher could give feedback on pronunciation, flow or structure of spoken work.
Students could also co-create knowledge for checking each other such as contributing to a knowledge base or glossary, writing annotations in a social bookmarking or collaboration tool, finding and presenting a blog article, video or podcast on the given topic justifying why they chose it or how they would use it. This could be posted in a forum or presented in a live session for closer community building.
7. Active teacher presence
Through steps 1-6 you have a great course design with social activities, knowledge building and realistic assessment and learning objectives. When it's finally time to run the course, there is one last step to consider which is the virtual presence of the teacher. With online courses, it can seem like there is no actual human teacher following along and guiding them. It is very important to provide prompt and frequent constructive feedback that guides and models performance.
To have a stronger sense of presence, try using audio or video feedback or have live peer or teacher feedback sessions with small groups or individuals. Other ideas include:
- Having an office hour where students can drop in and ask questions.
- Having a Q&A forum and answer any unanswered questions regularly.
- Provide weekly emails of the tasks and reminders for the week.
A regular and strong sense of teacher presence not only lets the students develop essential skills and knowledge, but also reminds them that even online you are a positive and caring influence in their lives.
When you start with the end in mind, design authentic assessment and bite-sized active learning with crystal clear instructions and guides, all built around a community of learners that reflect on their learning and build knowledge together, your sparkly new online course will be ready to run. As long as you remember to be present in voice, video and feedback throughout, you will end up with the smoothest and most enjoyable course on the market.
Belinda Allan is an education advisor who is dedicated to empowering lifelong learners. By exploring the intersection of technology, personal development and learning futures, Belinda uses her expertise in education, IT and AI to guide individuals in creating the course or training program of their dreams. With a focus on how AI can drive productivity and well-being in the ever-changing landscape of education and work, Belinda will help you unlock your full potential.
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