This interview, conducted in June 2018, provides you with inspiring insights into the engagement strategies that Dr. Marlo Steed, professor in the Faculty of Education, has been applying to the design of his online courses. Since Dr. Steed started teaching online 20 years ago, he has always had the learning experience of his students in mind, whom he wants to support through engaging online environments and learning activities.
Teaching Center: What motivated you to create your courses in an online format?
I think part of our motivation was to explore ways that provided more flexibility to our students who were out in the field teaching or somewhere distanced from the University for other reasons. We thought of online offerings as an appropriate attempt to accommodate for the differences in our students’ schedules.
TC: Where did you look for orientation on how to get started with online teaching at the time?
When we started almost 20 years ago, it was sort of cutting edge or bleeding edge since not many people were doing it. That meant that we didn’t have many resources to turn to. As it turned out, we were one of few who started exploring this option. Not long after we dove into online instruction, we shared our results in papers and conference proceedings, so that others could learn from our experiences. For my colleagues and I, teaching online was a good fit because we were coming to this with an interest in educational technology and we were very curious to investigate what tools were applicable to make that remote delivery a worthwhile experience for our students. We also came to this with a desire to explore its effectiveness.
TC: How many people are currently teaching online in the Faculty of Education?
In our program, the majority of education courses are taught face-to-face. There are a number of people, including Lorraine Beaudin, Ken Heidebrecht, and I who are teaching a small selection of courses online. We work closely together and when we are co-teaching sections of the same online courses, we discuss most steps ranging from the pre-planning to the actual implementation. Lorraine is experimenting with doing a core course entirely online during the Fall of 2018. In the Counselling program, the number of online offerings is much higher and most of the folks there teach online in some capacity since their students are often off-campus.
TC: Do you have a say as to what delivery mode you want your course to be taught in?
Yes, it’s usually a choice I make as an instructor, and that decision depends on how I want to approach a specific course. In some cases, the choice is to use a blended approach. Right now, for instance, I am teaching a face-to-face course that also has a significant online component to it.
TC: Based on your long-term digital teaching experience, what would you say are the top five crucial things one needs to consider for the planning stage of an online course or blended course module?
First and foremost, you’ll need a clear vision as to where you’re going with a course and what the overarching outcomes are that you want your students to achieve. I start matching up outcomes with tools once I’ve broken the overarching understandings down into weekly components with forms of assessment/activities. For me, the key to planning effective learning and assessment activities is to engage the learners in an ongoing way, much like you would in a regular classroom but now you are addressing those outcomes through online activities.
One of the key findings of our early online teaching exploration is related to how the instructor rolls out a major assignment/activity. We found that instead of presenting students with a large assessment/activity is was more efficient if done as a series of small assignments/tasks that built into a larger one. Otherwise students would have difficulties getting through it. For most courses, this translates into weekly activities/assessments and with this, students stay engaged as they can continuously and progressively work towards specific goals. This in turn, helps them connect with the online course, its learning environment, its content and also the participants in it; this becomes a weekly reminder they are in the class.
Typically with online courses, I will have mapped everything out before the course starts. Logistically, I still keep a certain level flexibility with the details of the plan, it seems there is always something that needs to be adjusted on the fly.
Another major challenge is the communication of the course goals and activities. The assessment/activity descriptions need to be spelled out and clarified on the front-end before day one. That’s tricky because it is easy to provide redundancy for the sake of emphasis. In an online course, this causes problems because the moment I have said something in two or three places to emphasize a point, any change you want to make will have to be updated in all of those places. I try to have detailed course outlines but avoid repeating myself in multiple places. I should also mention that that my course outlines are websites (Weebly) and I chunk that up into different section tabs like, Home, Background, Schedule, Assignments, Resources, and so forth.
One point I want to highlight, is the fact that planning is an ongoing process, in which fine-tuning can be done at any time. That’s the beauty of putting up information online. When I get feedback from my students asking for more clarity, I can quickly go back into our learning environment (website) and tweak the wording right there. I invite feedback from my students on the course/instructions and quickly follow up on it. If there is a major change to be made like updates in the schedule or the nature of an assessment/activity, I inform student by emailing them of the proposed change since the course outline represents a contract with the students.
Feedback is a way to make sure your communication is clear, especially when you are new to online teaching. That can be in the form of a peer reviewing your course before it starts or students telling you more about their learning experience once they’ve completed your course. Building in feedback can help you anticipate how students are going to respond and can shape changes to the course over time. For instance, I always administer a course evaluation for this purpose. I have also used exit-slip posts (e.g. on the video forum Flipgrid) for informal feedback as the course progressed.
TC: What kind of support do students need to be successful online learners?
Most importantly, students need to be independent because unlike face-to-face environments there is no instructor watching over their shoulders to see what’s going on. That means students will need to manage their own learning in terms of the time they put in or the initiative they take to ask questions.
There are ways in which I try to support my students like breaking things into smaller chunks. I hold my students accountable for doing something each week that represents their learning and their engagement for that time. The activities I set up are not separate from the assessments; they’re fused together so the student learning really happens as the students are doing their activities/assignments.
Another way to help my students is through the choice for tools that I use. An example for that is the web authoring tool I employ for the layout of my course (Weebly). I want it to look appealing and allow for easy navigation. If you want to see what I mean, feel free to browse my ED 4760 Communication Technology in the Curriculum course.
Another form of support is the feedback loop associated with the weekly assessments/activities. This provides me with a sense for how the student is progressing, but also gives me an opportunity to provide clarification or resources that will help move the student through the learning experience.
TC: Speaking about technology what are some of the tech tools that you use to facilitate your online courses?
The choice technology tools depends on the course and the outcomes. If I use too many new technologies, that can deter students from engaging with the course content, while too few can come across as monotonous. Students like variety, but key here is to ensure that the technology serves the purpose of helping students achieve learning goals while not overburdening them with irrelevant usage functions.
For instance, for collaboration type of assessment/activities where students need to share ideas, I like to utilize Google Docs because most of my students already use it and thus there is a shallow learning curve for them.
When I want the students to communicate with each other, I find that Flipgrid works well. It’s a free video discussion forum, where students create timed video vignettes instead of using text to participate in course discussions. Back in the day when I started teaching online, there were only text-based discussion forums. I really liked it at the time, but the moment Flipgrid was available, I realized how much I prefer that format. The video postings provide a great opportunity for participants to hear each other’s voices and facial expressions and that adds a new layer to nature of the communication.
For feedback on projects, I have used the teleconferencing software Zoom. It allows me to set up virtual meetings with individual students or with groups through web conferencing (similar to Skype).
I know of a few instructors that provide video feedback clips, but I rarely do that just because it is tedious and time consuming to setup and distribute. However, it can be a useful tool that enables one to provide feedback to students in ways that email never could.
I also frequently use screencasting software to create video tutorials for my students, particularly when a set of procedural steps might be difficult to follow. While simultaneously capturing my screen and voice, I can explain specific steps in a way that is easy for students to visualize. It’s important to understand that if you’re doing things online, the skill to mediate the workings of specific technology is absolutely essential. While in the classroom you can simply show students on a screen how things are done, in an online environment you have to demonstrate those things in other ways and I find that video tutorials work really well in that regard.
For most of my online courses, I create videos of me introducing the course and describing the expectations and assessments/activities. I think this provides a face and voice to the instructor. We know that good instruction is about the relationships with our students and this is a first step in doing that.
TC: Where do you go for training when you need to learn the functions of a technology that is new to you?
Google is an amazing source for technical training. In fact, most of my technology learning has come through searching and finding resources and videos online. To me that just-in-time learning is the most effective.
I’ve always been drawn to technology, partly because my field is New Media in Learning and Education, but I also think that technology provides us with powerful tools to do things that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. To use Flipgrid as an example, it can create a space for students to communicate with each other that really couldn’t be replicated easily through other means when they are working from a distance and have variable schedules.
While I know where to look for answers online, I also think that for instructors new to online teaching, they will benefit from interacting with more experienced online instructors. More experienced fold can give them a place to start and often provide that just-in-time support.
Generally speaking, it helps to have technological inclinations or at least an openness to learning more about current technologies but you don’t need to be tech savvy. More important is a willingness to take risks and explore. My suggestion would be to keep it simple in the beginning by only using one or two new tools. Once you become comfortable with those, you can start integrating more. However, more important than using a tool is knowing the reason why you use it and how it is helping achieve goals in your course.
TC: What are challenges in your online instruction and how to you address them?
An ongoing challenge is having students process the information that you provided them. In our current age of the internet, students often only skim read and don’t always follow written instructions. For one, I try to address that challenge by using good layout and visual design that chunks up information and directions with headers, bullet points and break down the instructions into steps where possible.
I also talk to my students about their reading patterns and encourage them to read the course outline more carefully.
Another feature to address the attention challenge is to present the information in a variety of ways. I pair text with videos that I create to make the overall course layout more interesting. My introduction videos and video tutorials provide alternative views of the content to give students a clearer understanding of the expectations. In all of that I make sure not to be redundant, so I design my front end to have all the information, but to be as concise as possible.
Last but not least, I also offer my students multiple pathways to demonstrate their learning in a course. One of the challenges for many folks who are doing online instruction is that they have all this content and the natural inclination to be disseminate it all to the students by the end of the course. As part of my design I, I’ve gone further and further away from that approach by getting students involved in creating something that elaborate on or goes beyond the content. Instead of me disseminating all knowledge, I put students in charge of learning the content. This is done by setting up activities and assignments that immerse them in the content through creating presentations, projects or representations of their understanding. I think it’s important for the instructor to step back and see what it is that is really crucial in fostering a broader understanding in students. Surely, facts are important and there are some facts all students need to know, but those probably won’t be the only things that we want your students to walk away with. So, when I design a course, I am always thinking how the assignments will help foster thought processes and the development of products that express their understanding. While students constructing elements (representations, presentations, projects, etc.), their engagement becomes visible to themselves and to me.
TC: How do you manage your time while teaching online?
I make a point to keep my time at home separate and the same goes for my weekends. During the week, I am available to my students every day. I value the interactions with my online students, but equally I prioritize my own time in the evening and on the weekends. While I have a passion for teaching and learning and being involved in online activities, I also have a passion for other parts in my life. I know this is not the case with some of my colleagues where they are online 24/7. That said there will be times when I have to respond to pressing matters in a timely fashion even during my “off” time. Overall, I think a good balance is essential in order not to become resentful or run down; the online teaching experience can be a blackhole that can consume every waking moment.
To keep expectations clear, I communicate my availability to my students at the front-end of the course by saying that I typically read my email once at the beginning of the day and will respond to any requests or question then. I also tell them that I won’t respond to emails or conversations over the weekend. I haven’t had any problems with students complaining about that convention when it was clarified early on.
TC: What kind of feedback do you get from your students?
Our students really see the value of this constructivist approach to learning; the creating and representing of their knowledge and their research. When you look at disciplines like chemistry and math there are definitely more challenges to taking a similar approach, but I think it’s possible. With the advent of the Internet and all the information that we have at our fingertips, we no longer need to primarily focus on fact regurgitation. The more important outcome is to help students be critical the information they retrieve and to enable them to solve contemporary problems by developing new ways of thinking and understanding.
TC: What supports do you consider crucial for instructors to do a good job in online instruction?
I think the biggest element to foster effective online teaching is just-in-time support. If you don’t get the answers to a problem you are facing at a critical time, it’s likely you quickly revert to what you’re comfortable with or what you know and that may not be the best approach to match your outcomes.
In addition to knowing who to ask, it is just as important to know when to ask questions because if instructors wait until the term starts, then it’s too late because in an online course everything has to be articulated at the front-end.
I think networking with other instructors is key but also being willing to engage in your own professional development is important. The tools and approaches for online teaching are constantly in a state of flux so maintaining currency with those developments will improve and refesh your instructional practice.
TC: What should institutional support look like for instructors who teach online or in blended modalities?
Institutional support for online teaching should provide opportunities to share ideas or providing tutorials could be useful for people new to online instruction. In addition, timely individualized mentor support may be what other people need. Say you’re teaching an online course next year, it could be a good idea to talk to someone with experience right now. First, you could brainstorm ideas of the approaches you will need to consider. As the course date gets closer, you could meet with a mentor again to talk about your course goals and identify specific tools that will help students reach those objectives effectively. At midpoint of teaching the course, the mentor review how the course is going and identify challenges that you are facing. These collegial interactions could foster a deeper reflection of the term. As a matter of fact, I would be happy to be a mentor to other instructors on campus who want to venture out into the online teaching world.
TC: Which aspects of flexible teaching and learning would be worthwhile of a more empirical investigation? Which (research) questions would you be curious to get answer to?
My thoughts have nothing to do specifically with online learning. For me, it’s more generic and the questions I ask myself can really be asked of any kind of course. I no longer view online or in-class teaching as deserving different investigations. I like to explore how teaching can make learning more effective and what tools are beneficial to help students develop their creativity, become confident problem-solvers and apply critical thinking.