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May 10, 2020

How do you know your online or hybrid course is good-enough?

It looks like at least some of us will be teaching online or hybrid in the Fall. This semester was in the salvaging mode; not utterly failing was a victory. In the Fall, students will expect a little more from us, because we will have had more time to prepare. This is an attempt to offer a description of a minimal threshold for Fall 2020. What is a good-enough course for the next iteration? The list is highly subjective, so ignore it if you can. However, if you buy into the question, but not the answer, that would be a good thing.

1. If it is not interactive, it should not be synchronous. If you simply lecture, with some Q&A at the end, record your lecture and make Q&A live, or move them to Canvas. There is literally no point in every student listening to your lecture at the same time. ALL students understand it, even if they don’t dare to say it. Consider getting rid of lectures altogether, or only reserve them for critical moments you want to explain. But if it is just your PowerPoint, trust me, it does not need a narration. Don’t waste your time developing long lectures; instead invest it in creating assignments and assessments. However, if your typical lecture is packed with engagement moments, if every few minutes you ask for examples, offer mini-assignments, group discussions, demonstrations, etc. – go for it. There is nothing wrong with highly engaging synchronous class. I always thought it was too time consuming to prepare, but you may be a much better lecturer than me (which is not hard).

2. No busy work. Again, students immediately recognize busy work. It is something that you ask them to do to fill the learning time. Always tell students what is it they will be practicing, and give an example or a good description of a successful performance. I know this is hard; perhaps the hardest part of course design, especially for an online course. As you shrink class time, it feels like you have to keep them busy for about the same amount of time doing something. Unfortunately, SOMETHING does not cut it. Explain in simple terms the purpose of each assignment: “I just want to know if you all understood the X concept and can apply it correctly.” “You will be practicing the very important skill of Y.” “I need to make sure you can recall the basic facts of this unit.” Prioritize quality over quantity. Yes, we use the Carnegie unit to measure seat time; it is simply an administrative convenience. However, steady progress toward a specific skill and knowledge is really the point of teaching. There is no direct relationship between length of work and learning. Only intentional, well-designed work contributes to learning.

3. Provide feedback without working yourself to death. Because online and hybrid instruction involves more independent work, some instructors feel they have to grade it all, or least provide feedback to every sentence a student writes. This can quickly become an unsustainable burden. Students rarely understand this concern, unfortunately, and may expect the same. Do not over-promise feedback, do not overwork yourself. Instead of individual feedback on everything, use three life-saving shortcuts: self-assessment, peer-assessment, and spot-check feedback. The first two are self-explanatory; just make sure to give them some clear criteria, otherwise it will all be “I like your point,” and “Good job.” The spot-check feedback works like this: browse through student discussion, short texts, and identify a few common errors and strengths. Give students a whole group feedback, without naming names, but make it clear you are there, and read some of the stuff, but not every single word. That would eliminate the need for tedious, repetitive feedback that has fairly low effectiveness, but can devour your time.

4. Make relations work. You know the “I am not a robot” checkbox? Well, you have to prove to students you are not a robot. While they know that at the rational level, you have to somehow convince them on the emotional level that you are a real human being that cares about them. There are many ways of doing it, from welcome videos, to weekly messages to each class. Here is one of the best quotes about the role of relationships in learning motivation: "Students in a closed-circuit-TV class on campus felt no need to pay attention out of courtesy to the instructor." People are often oblivious to the critical importance of the "courtesy to the instructor" mechanism. It does not just automatically appear in online environment, and has to be created. It often does in the f2f world with its social norms evolving over thousands of years of personal interactions. Practice the intentional pedagogy of relations, and learning will follow.

I just re-read my short checklist, and of course, most of it applies to the f2f teaching just as much. Well, good teaching is good teaching, regardless of the medium. In education, medium is not the message. If you reasonably can check off all four benchmarks, you’re good to go.

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