‘A Place for Rich Discussions’ – A Health Sciences professor on his enthusiasm for online teaching

Dr. Mark Zieber and Joerdis Weilandt

This conversation is based on an interview done in the Summer of 2018.

Mark was an early adopter of online teaching technology and has since very much enjoyed creating that virtual space where his students can “come out of their shells” and participate in vibrant course discussions. Find out more about his “relaxed” approach to teaching online.

TC:  What motivated you to teach online?

I’m an early adopter and everything goes back to the time when I did my Master’s at UBC in the late 1990s. At that time, UBC had developed WebCT, a virtual learning environment, to which I had easy access as a graduate student. I had my own practice course, which was great because I could ‘play’ around with it. I am a bit of a computer nerd, and developing an online course seemed like a lot of fun. Once I was hired as an instructor, I started using it as a teaching tool for my courses as well.

In the beginning, I used the online space just as an add-on to my classes, where I would be posting extra class materials. That’s what could be called a ‘softer’ blended approach and I taught that way for about two years. Then I came to Lethbridge, where the campus worked with the proprietary software Blackboard. Of course, I started using that virtual space as an adjunct for my classes here as well. At some point soon after, I collaboratively developed a course together with an educator from the UK named Paula Proctor examining the use of information within Healthcare. That course was designed with a blended approach and it quickly became very popular with people who were either doing practicums or needed more flexible access for other reasons. Gradually, we started doing less and less face-to-face until we reached a point where there was only one mandatory face-to-face activity at the beginning of a term. Eventually, we cut that out as well after too many students told us their schedules conflicted with the dates we had set for them. Since then I’ve been teaching that course fully online.

TC:  Were you the initiating force in your department to create more online courses across the Health Sciences programs?

I was definitely one of the first people in my faculty, but there are a few others that have been influential in shaping the blended/online delivery mode for our programs as well. I’ve always enjoyed it, because I find that if it’s done well, it’s almost magical how I get all or most of my students to contribute in substantial ways. I find it particularly helpful, for instance, when working with ESL students, because it allows those students to really come out of their shell and participate in our discussions despite their lack in oral English proficiency. In our online space, we can have these brilliant conversations because the pacing is more individual and thus, students can take the time they need to draft their contributions.

TC:  How do you address the concern some instructors have relating to the difficulty of designing authentic activities that engage online students in ways which will encourage them to create high-quality contributions?

For one, I make participation in my course absolutely mandatory, meaning I assign a big chunk of the total course grade to it. Sometimes I am conflicted having to ‘force’ my students to participate, but in my experience there’s really no other way to increase student motivation. The learning that my online students do happens through the discussion activities I assign to them. Knowing what these activities are worth, creates an incentive for the students to participate and by participating I do not mean just posting superficial work. Student work is evaluated based on quantity as well as the quality of the contributions.

My second measure in place is a descriptive grading rubric which I supplement with exemplars to demonstrate to my students what high quality participation means to me. When teaching online, I believe that an instructor has to keep a fine balance between being really explicit about expectations while also being flexible. When students do something that is a little bit quirky, unique or innovative in some way, I try to make sure that I recognize that for the good work it entails. Sometimes this means being flexible on how their participation fits into the boxes in my rubric.

Lastly, I give my students space to practice the early learning steps without any serious repercussions. In the first few weeks, they can try their participation without fearing whether they are doing “things right” or not.  I give informal comments in the first few weeks, followed by formal feedback at the midpoint of the course. The idea is that students should know exactly how they are doing. For the formal midterm feedback, I fill out the rubric including specific feedback for how to improve their participation, but I don’t assign a grade at that point just yet.

TC:  What methods do you use for student interaction in your online course?

I find that if I break up the class into groups of about 8-10 students, they are not overwhelmed by the quantity of discussion postings on a weekly basis. Sometimes there’s still a bit of discord, but it is manageable. One of my own roles in the process is to keep the conversations advancing by intervening at points when there is need to clarify confusing issues or to provide personal feedback to those who are unsecure about the standard of their work.

TC:  Do your students usually come to your course well-equipped for online learning?

Since the course I’m talking about is a third-year elective, almost all students have already taken online courses or blended modules before. Generally speaking they are familiar with most of the basics, including the environment as well as many of the learning activities. I can typically assume that they all know how to get on to Moodle and participate in the discussion forums. In the rare cases when students don’t have experience with Moodle, I make it clear that I can help them navigate the course environment.

One of my principal roles at the beginning of every course is to calm down student fears and insecurities relating to course requirements. I do that by communicating my expectations as clearly as possible. Sometimes I still need to find different ways to clarify the processes and expectations, but I try my best to make sure that all students know the value of participation.

TC: How involved are you when planning your annual reiterations of the course?

Having taught the course so many times over the years, its backbone is pretty solid. However, I try to update both my course content as well as the syllabus every time. I find that I can never quite anticipate all of the possible questions students will have. A better quality syllabus means that I am mentally prepared to answer all the questions at the beginning of the course.

I have to say that for the course offering this coming spring term, I will have made some significant changes to the workings of the course. I’ve been asked to increase the number of students to 65 this term, which is significantly more than previously. I will also need to work closely with a teaching assistant who I hope can assist me to keep the levels of student engagement high despite the growth in student numbers. There will be some new terrain for the both of us to explore since I have never facilitated learning in such a large online course before and I definitely want all of my students to have good and effective learning experiences.

TC: What do you consider essential in the planning stages?   

It’s absolutely crucial that you have all of your online course organized and really well set up. It is very frustrating for students if things are not clear. When the infrastructure surrounding the course is inadequate or links to external resources don’t work, it can be very frustrating for students. The conceptual ideas discussed in a course are complex in their own right, so you need to make sure that your environment is designed in a way that students can easily navigate through it to focus on the course work ahead. If an instructor wants to use a unique or novel technology, they need to make sure it really works and that students will have an easy time using it as well.

Before teaching another run of the course, I always go through all my units one by one to see whether they still align with the learning outcomes.  It is time-consuming to make sure that all of the components on your course really work, but it’s the best way to avoid frustrations on your end and on your students.

I find that the magic of online learning lies in a solid backbone (i.e. infrastructure, curriculum, activities and assessment), that and then allow students to be creative. When a solid backbone is in place, an instructor can have the ease of mind to teach the online course as flexibly as needed to cater to the respective student populations.

TC:  What does your backbone of your course look like?

I tend to organize thematic components which are designed a bit like a spider web rather than a classic Venn diagram. For all of the course unit topics, students need to find pieces of academic literature that will then become the foundation for the focused discussion in small-scale student communities. I think that the independent choices I allow students to make encourage them to develop their analytical thinking skills, because they will have to explain the rationales behind their choices to me and to each other. The crucial element in my facilitation is the feedback I provide to steer students into the ‘right’ direction. If necessary, I give my students personal feedback that is private, but I also join discussions with some directives to guide the work in the student groups. In the cases when individual students provide excellent work, I sometimes share that with the whole class to give the other students indications for good performance as well.

TC:  How do you manage your time while facilitating an online course?

It depends on the course setting. If I teach a graduate seminar with a small group of students, I can engage on a much more real-time-based basis to accommodate all students in that cohort.

I clearly cannot do that in the undergraduate course I’ve been principally referring to. One of my mentors in education basically told me that I shouldn’t be responding to every single student posting because that encourages students to only interact with me. They need to grow team skills and so I encourage peer interaction in addition to my course moderation. I try to be aware what is going on in these conversations every week, but I don’t look at every posting because I would just get overwhelmed. I look for general adhesion to the topic and provide feedback in the form of a summative posting that highlights the strengths of the conversations that week.

TC: You told us that your online hub is Moodle. Are you using any external technology in addition?

I don’t really use any additional technology because I want my course to be simple. What I do though is to invite guest lecturers or guest participants, sometimes from off campus and sometimes exotic places, who join the asynchronous forum discussions for a week. That way, I’ve been able to get a few real word class experts to participate for a week, which makes the learning more palpable for the students because they get to interact with the authors of some of the resources they are reading.

TC:  How do you invite external guests into your Moodle course?

It’s really simple – I request the set-up of an account from the Teaching Center. All I have to do then is to let the guest know how to get in. Sometimes I have to mentor the guest on how to participate, but many of my guests are educators themselves.

TC:  What kind of feedback do you get from your students with regards to their online learning experiences in your course?

I work with both the formal end-of-term student evaluations as well as the more informal feedback that I invite my students to provide me with. The latter is often very situational and I respond to those feedback comments immediately in order to solve the problems that need fixing there and then. Generally, the formal final feedback I get is a decent collection of really helpful information. Sometimes I learn what students really liked or didn’t like while at other times, I receive suggestions or even tips how to solve problems.

TC: What’s your suggestion to someone who is new to online teaching?

I find the attitude towards that delivery mode is very important. I would suggest to go at it with a relaxed mind, and by that I don’t mean lacking rigourousness, but being easy on yourself and easy on the students do the initial learning parts of the course. Teaching online requires great flexibility and openness on the parts of the instructor. Usually, students in my online courses want to do well, and so all I need to do is help them do that by designing authentic learning opportunities and providing relevant and purposeful feedback.



Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Digital Teaching and Learning at the UofL Copyright © by Dr. Mark Zieber and Joerdis Weilandt is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book