By Oliver Dreon, PhD
Almost 25 years have passed since Chickering and Gamson offered seven principles for good instructional practices in undergraduate education. While the state of undergraduate education has evolved to some degree over that time, I think the seven principles still have a place in today's collegiate classroom. Originally written to communicate best practices for face-to-face instruction, the principles translate well to the online classroom and can help to provide guidance for those of us designing courses to be taught online.
1. Encourage contact between students and faculty. Students need to know how to contact their online instructors and should be encouraged to communicate with us when needed. In my online courses, I identify multiple means of contacting me (email, Skype, Twitter, etc) and clearly post times when I'll be available to chat during online office hours. While few students utilize the online office hours I provide, offering this time communicates to students that I am available if they need assistance and that I value this interaction.
2. Develop reciprocity and cooperation among students. For those of us who believe that people learn through socially constructing their understanding based on their experiences, this principle is critical. Online courses should not be independent study classes. Online instructors need to build collaborative structures into their courses to promote student-to-student interaction. In my experience, I find that students who feel isolated in an online course have difficulty being successful. In my online courses, I incorporate collaborative and interactive ventures early on. I also try to foster discussions where students communicate with one another, share ideas, and debate concepts. While interacting with the instructor is important in an online class, it is also important that students have a space where they can discuss concepts with one another as well.
3. Encourage active learning. Learning is not a passive activity. For students to learn, they must actively engage with the content in thoughtful, purposeful ways. As you develop your online course, consider ways to build active learning into the course content. This can include utilizing tools with a course management system (discussions, for instance) or other tools (GoAnimate, Animoto). But active learning isn't limited to technological avenues in online courses. Someone teaching science online could utilize hands-on lab activities developed with common everyday items. Someone teaching psychology or sociology online could have students conduct observational work at a park or at the mall.
4. Give prompt feedback. This can be tricky, especially with instructors teaching larger online classes. While grading hundreds of papers can be overwhelming, students need to receive prompt feedback to know whether they are being successful or what they need to do to improve. If you have a few larger assignments in your class that you know will take more time to provide quality, constructive feedback, communicate this to your students. You should also include some smaller assignments that will not take as long to assess. While some experienced online instructors use the course management system to build automated responses into their courses, I believe that some students still need personalized feedback on their work that comes directly from their instructor.
5. Emphasize time on task. Learning takes time. Students and faculty working in online spaces need to realize this. Just because an online course may be more flexible schedule-wise does not mean that it won't require a significant time commitment. It's important for instructors to communicate expected time commitments but also be realistic with their expectations. Assigning students to read a 500 page book in a day may not be completely realistic. Have high expectations but respect students' need to have time to interact with the content and learn.
6. Communicate high expectations. While it's important to have high expectations for students, it is also critical that these expectations are clearly communicated to students. Likewise, it is helpful to communicate clear expectations for participation and for interaction. Do you want your students to log on daily? Do they need to submit assignments in a certain format? Is it okay for them to use emoticons in their discussion posts? These are just a few of the areas that online instructors need to consider as they develop an online course for the first time.
7. Respect diverse talents and ways of learning. Students learn in a variety of ways. While there will undoubtedly be some text-based content in an online course, it cannot be the only mode of delivery or assessment. Draw on the host of multimedia options available online to deliver content to students and to assess them. Instead of typing out some long lesson on the Middle Ages, check out YouTube or Vimeo for some available videos. Or better yet, use a screencasting tool like Jing to record a customized lesson. Instead of assigning a ten-page paper, have students create a video where they demonstrate what they've learned.
Dr. Oliver Dreon is the director of the Center for Academic Excellence at Millersville University.