Strategies to manage your online courses

Contributed by:
Sharp Tutor
The big challenge for online instructors is that the very nature of online education amplifies the importance of properly addressing these management issues while throwing a few more additional obstacles into the mix. Choosing the right communication tools and protocols, addressing technology problems, managing student expectations, and building community are just some of the issues that can stretch online instructors to the breaking point.
1. 11 Strategies for Managing
Your Online Courses
Featuring content from
Effective Group Work Strategies for the College Classroom. •
2. 11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses
Much has been written about the challenges of teaching an online course. While not dis-
counting the unique (and sometimes frustrating) aspects of the online learning environ-
ment, it could be said that, despite the numerous differences, many of the same course
management strategies that are essential to success in a traditional classroom also apply in
the online classroom. These strategies include the importance of a strong syllabus, clear
directions, well-organized materials, and timely feedback.
Of course, the big challenge for online instructors is that the very nature of online
education amplifies the importance of properly addressing these management issues,
while throwing a few more additional obstacles into the mix. Choosing the right commu-
nication tools and protocols, addressing technology problems, managing student expecta-
tions, and building community are just some of issues that can stretch online instructors
to the breaking point.
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses was created to help online instructors
tackle many of the course management issues that can erode the efficiency and effective-
ness of an online course. It features 11 articles pulled from the pages of Online Classroom,
• Syllabus Template Development for Online Course Success
• The Online Instructor’s Challenge: Helping ‘Newbies’
• Virtual Sections: A Creative Strategy for Managing Large Online Classes
• Internal or External Email for Online Courses?
• Trial by Fire: Online Teaching Tips That Work
• The Challenge of Teaching Across Generations
It’s important to keep in mind that you’re not the only one who may be a little anxious
about going online. Students often have anxiety when taking their first online course. It’s
up to you to help them feel more confident and secure, all the while keeping your
workload at a manageable level. The course management tips in this report will help.
Rob Kelly
Online Classroom
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
3. Table of Contents
Syllabus Template Development for Online Course Success ........................................................................................4
Virtual Sections: A Creative Strategy for Managing Large Online Classes ....................................................................7
Use Participation Policies to Improve Interaction ........................................................................................................8
On the Road Again: Keep Your Computer Happy! ......................................................................................................8
Making Visible the Invisible ......................................................................................................................................10
Internal or External Email for Online Courses? ..........................................................................................................11
Trial by Fire: Online Teaching Tips That Work ..........................................................................................................13
The Challenge of Teaching Across Generations ..........................................................................................................15
10 Ways to Get Reluctant and Downright Scared Students Enthusiastic About Taking Online Courses ......................16
Playing Catch-up: How to Come Out From Behind When an “Unexpected” Broadsides Your Efforts ..........................18
The Online Instructor’s Challenge: Helping ‘Newbies’ ..............................................................................................19
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
4. Syllabus Template how the online section will be different from a face-to-face
section. In explaining the pedagogy and design of the
course, students will have a clearer understanding of how
Development for Online the activities and resources are used during their learning
process. The students should also be offered a self-assess-
Course Success ment tool that evaluates their preparedness for taking an
online course.
By Ken Hess, James Falkofske, and Carol
Bormann Young Communicating with the instructor
An online syllabus should clearly explain how students
should contact the instructor for various types of questions.
nvesting time up front specifically detailing all aspects Students should send email only in situations where the
I of the online course will reduce the need for follow-up
and will provide students with a greater sense of
security and a more accurate set of expectations about the
questions or concerns are of a private nature. All other
questions about content, assignments, or processes should
be posted to the appropriate course discussion board so
course. Student anxiety can be reduced when clear expec- that all students have the benefit of the instructor’s answer.
tations are detailed at the start of the course.
There are three basic principles that will help reduce the Policies and procedures
amount of classroom management time required in online The syllabus serves as the policies and procedures
courses: manual for the class. It is best to err on the side of overex-
1.Provide a thorough syllabus and course schedule so plaining versus underexplaining your expectations. Do not
that students have clear expectations. be afraid to duplicate information in several areas as they
2.Provide online discussion areas specifically designated apply to your policy sections. Also, where possible, provide
for students to post questions about the content and hyperlinks to the institution’s Web pages that give further
assignments. support to the policies you have stated (e.g., plagiarism,
3.Provide rubrics, samples of assignments, and specific student conduct, withdrawal deadlines, etc.) (Vail, 2006).
assignment instructions so that students are aware of Failure to provide details regarding course operations and
the specific formats, requirements, and expectations for practices will likely cause confusion for students and
submitted work. develop into a stressful environment for students and
faculty alike. Since students can choose to work on assign-
Developing your online course syllabus ments at any time, they need instructions that are clearer
We recommend that your online syllabus specifically and more detailed than those for a traditional face-to-face
include the following elements: class. Any confusion regarding assignments, formats, or
• Thorough explanations of policies and procedures processes might lead to work being done incorrectly or not
• Detailed expectations and formats for assignments at all. The quality of submitted work might also suffer as a
• Clear instructions for communicating with the instruc- result of unclear directions or lack of samples.
tor on private matters versus questions of interest to all Comprehensive instructions for assignments and detailed
students in the class information about instructor availability will help avoid
• List of assignments and locations of relevant rubrics or questions and problems students might otherwise face.
examples When designing a syllabus for an online course, commu-
• Course schedule (or location of that document) nication within a department or curriculum unit is useful in
• Specific technology expectations and basic trou- establishing departmental expectations, policies, and proce-
bleshooting dures. The common language that results can be designed
• Resources and services that the institution provides to as template text (Jugdev, 2006), which can be copied and
online students pasted into course syllabi. This template text reduces devel-
opment time for future syllabi and provides consistency
Structures when informing students of rights and responsibilities.
It is important that the syllabus clearly indicate the struc- Template text, where appropriate, should contain links to
tures and materials that will be used within the course.
This information should include the textbook, the location
of important documents and guides, and an explanation of
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
5. FROM PAGE 4 Resources
official Web pages that contain conduct and policy state- Campus services and resources offered to online students
ments. should be listed in the syllabus. Examples of these services
might include contact information for online tutoring, in-
Assignment expectations formation technology help desk Web links, library and
In a face-to-face classroom, the details of assignments writing resources, and locations of any on-site computer
and reasons for policies are often explained orally. In an laboratories that online students can utilize.
online environment, this information should be written It is helpful to publish the syllabus before the class
directly into the appropriate syllabus sections. Any elabora- begins so that students are better able to understand
tions that would be spoken in a F2F course need to be technical and other expectations before registering for the
written into the syllabus of an online course. Try to antici- course (Rossett, 2005). Some online class schedules have
pate questions that students might have, and answer those the ability to add notes or hyperlinks to syllabi, and this
questions preemptively. Having clear structures within the feature should be utilized where available.
course site for students to ask questions and receive hints
will benefit all students and reduce your email traffic. Key sections
The following list details sections that we recommend for
inclusion in an online syllabus.
Failure to provide details regarding course I. Structures: This section contains course description and
operations and practices will likely cause a. Where to find information and assignments in the
confusion for students and develop into a b. Explaining the pedagogy (how online is different from
face to face, and the purpose/objectives of each assess-
stressful environment for students and ment)
faculty alike. c. Course objectives and competencies
d. Course-specific instructional materials and associated
costs (texts, software, workbooks, etc.)
II. Communication: This section contains expectations for
Technology requirements student interaction with the faculty and the course site.
An online syllabus must address the specific technology a. Preferred methods (questions about course or assign-
requirements, expectations, and processes that students ment instructions are posted to discussions; personal
should follow. Included in this list would be the instruc- and private topics sent through campus email account
tor’s expectations for student knowledge of software, with appropriate subject line)
access to computer hardware and software, access to b. Response times (from instructor to student)
Internet connections, and specific skills that students c. Structure (subject headers/from which accounts for
should have. message formatting)
Instructors should create a page that contains sample d. Frequency (updates and logins expected per week)
files for the various media and documents that are used in e. Campus location for FAQs regarding online courses,
the course. This page would also contain links to the textbooks, and resources
browser plug-ins needed, allowing students to “pretest” f. Detail level expected when asking questions
their computers to verify compatibility with the course
content. III. Policies: This section details specific course policies,
The instructor should also prepare a list of alternative as- procedures, and expectations.
signments or delivery methods to combat online “snow a. Expectations of students regarding prerequisites and
days” when the course management system might be technical/research skills
offline or certain tools unavailable at assignment deadlines. b. Netiquette
For example, instructing students to directly email assign- c. Late assignments
ments if the course homework dropbox is unavailable d. Extra-credit assignments
would be beneficial to specifically state in a syllabus.
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
6. FROM PAGE 5 resources that may be used in the course.
a. Campus computer services and labs
e. Attendance b. Information technology helpdesk
f. Online snow days (what steps to follow if a specific c. Library resources
tool within the IMS is unavailable) d. Tutoring resources
g. Plagiarism and copyright policies e. Writing labs
h. Disability statement f. Online course support
i. Preparation and study time; any required online times
(synchronous chat or Web conferencing) This structure should address most situations for
j. Special administrative deadlines (drop/add/with- teaching an online course; instructors may feel the need to
drawal/refund) add additional sections to address specific needs of their
k. Incompletes course or to meet their departmental or college require-
l. What happens in Las Vegas… (confidentiality of online ments. It is not advisable to leave out any of these sections;
discussions and peer-reviewed assignments) however, this information might be better organized in
m. Student permission forms for use of projects as future different documents that are linked to the main course
examples (ability for instructor to share or use syllabus.
samples/examples placed into the course by students, As a means of assessing student understanding of the
with or without names) syllabus, we recommend that students take an online quiz
addressing syllabus content.
IV. Assignments/evaluation: This section details expecta- Readers are welcome to download, modify, and use this
tions for assignments and activities in which students are
document as desired. All of the information on the site may
earning points, and describes the methods by which grades
be used without charge under the Creative Commons
are determined.
License for noncommercial, educational use.
a. Clear instructions
b. Learning objectives
c. Samples and examples, and/or grading rubrics
Bush, L. (2004, February 5). Constructing an Online
d. Due dates and file formats (MS Word or .RTF, APA
Syllabus. Retrieved October 26, 2006, from the Center for
citation style, etc.)
Learning and Teaching Excellence website.
e. Instructor grading and feedback timeline
Editors, (2005). Course Design, Monitoring Help Ensure
f. Minimum competencies for passing of class
Academic Honesty. Online Classroom. Jan 2005, 1-3, 2p.
g. Expectations for group work, peer review
Editors, (2005). Interactive Syllabus Improves Course
h. Online discussions expectations, including the
Accessibility. Online Classroom. Jun 2005, 4-8, 2p.
Jugdev, K., Hutchinson, M., and Lynes, S. (2006). The
i. Length, quality, number of posts
ABC’s of Online Course Syllabi: Anticipate, Build on
ii. Interactions meant to build on previous posts
Objectives, and Collaborate. Distance Education Report. Vol.
iii. Timeliness of posts to ensure a “conversation”
10 no 9, p. 6.
i. Grading scale and standards of work quality
Palloff, R.M. and Pratt, K. (2003). Constructing an Online
V. Technology requirements: Syllabus. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
a. Internet connectivity Rossett, A. (2005). Moving Online: How to Make Your
b. Hardware Web Dream a Reality. Training and Development. Feb 2005,
c. Software p 14-15.
d. Browser plug-ins Sull, E. (2006). The 10 Key Rules for Managing Time in
e. Verification of IMS (methods to verify that the Online Teaching, Online Classroom. March 2006, p 6-7.
student’s computer successfully functions with all tools Vail, K. (2006). Back to Basics: How to Run a First-Rate
needed within the IMS) Program. Distance Education Report. Vol. 10 Issue 3. p 5-6.
f. Textbook publisher sites (and method to access or
register) Ken Hess and Carol Bormann Young are professors with
g. File management and backups Metropolitan State University, Minneapolis, Minn. James
h. Antivirus software Falkofske is the director of online learning at St. Cloud
Technical College. @
VI. Resources: This section documents campus and library
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
7. Virtual Sections: A the class with the intent of having the students work in
“teams,” which is often the rationale for grouping students,
I split the class with the intent of grouping students into
Creative Strategy for multiple sections for the purposes of chat and discussion
Managing Large Online Here’s how I set up my virtual section. With my class
size of 40, I split the class into two separate groups.
Classes Students with last names ending in A–K were placed into
Group 1, and those with last names ending in L–Z were
placed in Group 2. For each week of the course, I set up a
By Lisa Panagopoulos, MS CE separate set of discussion boards for Group 1 and another
set for Group 2. The groups also had their own set of
hen there are more than 25 students who weekly chat rooms as well. Approximately 20 students
W regularly participate in an online course, the dis-
cussion boards and chat rooms can become over-
whelming for students and difficult to manage for the
were placed into each group, which is what created the
two “virtual sections” within my single course.
When splitting online classes into groups for the purpose
of more manageable interaction, only the chat and discus-
instructor. Weekly chat rooms become crowded, which
makes it difficult for everyone in the chat room to keep up. sion components are affected. This is good news for the in-
Weekly discussion boards become populated with so many structor. E-mail, lecture notes, assignments, assessments,
postings that students and faculty feel inundated with the and all other course components are visible to the entire
amount of information to read through and/or reply to. class. No additional modifications were made in order to
While the discussion and chat tools are critical to success- keep track of the “groups” for any other component of my
ful online courses, creative strategies need to be identified online course.
to help manage large online classes. Incorporating virtual sections into my online course came
with some minor added responsibilities that needed to be
addressed. Once the course had started, it was important
that I was aware of any students who were added late to
the course. These students needed to be quickly placed into
one of the groups, so that they would have access to a dis-
As a way to avoid having my students
cussion board and chat room. Also, by splitting my class
possibly feel overwhelmed and inundated in into two groups, I was responsible for conducting two
chats per week, rather than just one.
my course, I came up with a simple solution With that said, I feel that the commitment I have
invested into creating the virtual sections has been well
to managing the challenge of such a large worth it. I have noticed that when students were a part of a
smaller class, the overall quality of the interaction within
course—I created virtual sections. the course improved immensely. The result has been more
meaningful interaction that is more manageable for all
In a recent semester I found myself with 40 students in Lisa Panagopoulos is an instructor at the University of
my Introduction to Information Systems Course. As a way Massachusetts Lowell in the IT department. She teaches
to avoid having my students possibly feel overwhelmed computer-related courses both online and on campus. She
and inundated in my course, I came up with a simple also teaches the “Introduction to Online Teaching Strategies”
solution to managing the challenge of such a large course— course to instructors as part of the UMass Lowell Online
I created virtual sections. The “virtual section” is a way to Teaching Institute. @
achieve all the benefits of a smaller class within a large
To create my virtual sections I used a feature available in
most course management tools that allows the instructor to
split the class into multiple groups. Rather than splitting
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
8. Use Participation students to post at least one message to each discussion.
Thompson also looked at the time of day that students
accessed their online courses. “Before I started the study, I
Policies to Improve would assume, based on informal conversations, that a lot
of this work or maybe even the bulk of it would occur
Interaction during the workday when students had access to
computers, going online during breaks or before or after
By Rob Kelly school when they had better connections. What I found out
was that the two most common times were between eight
and nine and between nine and ten at night.”
ne instructor’s study of student participation in This finding was somewhat surprising to Thompson.
O online discussions in two of his asynchronous
online courses over a five-year period has yielded
some interesting results that have influenced how he
However, because his courses were asynchronous, this did
not have any effect on the way he conducted these courses.
If he decided to include a synchronous component, this in-
conducts his courses. formation would give him an indication as to when
John Thompson, associate professor in the computer in- students might be available.
formation systems department at Buffalo State College,
employed the user-statistics feature within the Blackboard
course management system in the courses he taught online
through the University of San Diego. The courses were six-
week asynchronous graduate-level education courses
mandated by the State of California for teacher certifica-
On the Road Again:
tion. In each course, discussion was a significant
component that counted for 41 percent of each student’s
Keep Your Computer
final grade.
Not surprisingly, the incentive to participate in the online
discussions encouraged participation, but simply By Errol Craig Sull
mandating participation and making it a substantial part of
the course grade does not guarantee the quality of partici-
pation that adds to the learning experience. Well, it’s that time again: summertime, and thus more
For example, the University of San Diego requires that online instructors are on the road than at any other time of
each student post seven acceptable messages—those that the year. Of course, in addition to the “usual suspects” of
advance the discussion in some way—each week. The clothes, money, cameras, etc., that will tag along, that in-
majority of students met this minimum requirement each dispensible umbilical cord to the classroom will also be
week, but Thompson found that approximately half of the coming: the laptop. For the class and its students can’t be
postings occurred in the last two days of the week, which left alone for too long; it and they need you, and thus your
often made the discussions less productive than they might summer journeys hither and yon must include that portal
have been otherwise had students participated throughout of connection to both.
the week. “Left on their own, students will have a dispro- In this column, I offer you the latest tips to keep your
portionate number of postings in the last couple of days in hassles with online teaching to a minimum while you
the week. You really need to take a look at that. If that’s enjoy a well-deserved break or two during these warm
OK with you, that’s fine, but what I find, if left on their months:
own, students have far too many postings done to satisfy a • Bring a laptop first aid kit. On the road you may not
requirement,” Thompson says. have access to a computer store, so it’s best to bring
To encourage students to post earlier, Thompson requires both your “this I need” and “this I might need” items
a minimum of seven postings from each student during the with you, including a can of air, screen wipes, Ethernet
first four days of each week. Thompson deducts points for and flashdrive cords, a small flashlight, contact infor-
failure to meet this requirement. mation in case of a computer problem, and an extra
In addition, each week had seven to nine discussions, flashdrive.
and Thompson found that most students tended to post
messages to the first two discussions and neglected the
others. To counteract this tendency, Thompson required
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
9. FROM PAGE 8 • Be up front with any late student correspondence
resulting from your travels. Nearly all online schools
• Travel with a cigarette lighter plug-in. Several airlines require that faculty respond to student correspon-
now provide outlets on board so laptops need not run dence—of any kind—within 72 hours max. If you
down their batteries. These are the same size and expect to have difficulty in meeting this deadline
shape as the old cigarette plug-in lighters, so you’ll because of an out-of-town trip, let your students know
need to bring an adapter to use them—but they will so they can plan accordingly—and will not think
help save your laptop’s battery life (for when you you’ve lost interest.
really do need it) and give you a tad brighter screen. • Additional air travel tips can prove very helpful.
• Bring along copies of important PC files. Do a Look into exit rows on planes if you have a large laptop
thorough check of files on your PC to determine which screen (these laptops will often not fit in the space
ones you might need on the road; copy them onto a available in other seating, except First Class); many
flashdrive. And don’t worry about bringing along those airlines allow you to purchase these, if available, online
“It’s very unlikely I’ll need these” files—you probably for a small fee. Don’t forget your power cord when you
will find you need at least one, and it’s much better to go through airport security (and keep your eye on your
have it with you than to bemoan that you could have laptop!). Finally, there is no need to worry about
used it but it’s back home. (By the way: always back exposing your laptop to the airport security X-rays:
up your data in case you and your laptop become these are very low level and will not harm your laptop
“separated!”) or its contents.
• Know the ins and outs of airport (and other) wi-fi • Protect your laptop from thieves. When not using
hot spots. The following four websites are comprehen- your computer, keep it locked in its case (this prevents
sive and include worldwide airports and just about someone from taking your accessories and/or laptop).
every other worldwide public location you can think Label both your laptop and case in the event it is stolen
of: or misplaced. Never let anyone use your laptop unless
o U.S. airports (free and for-a-fee wi-fi)): you are absolutely sure the person can be trusted. If you need to leave the laptop in your hotel room, keep
airport-wireless-internet.aspx it as unobtrusive (and out of sight) as possible; be sure
o U.S. airports (free wi-fi): your windows and doors are locked. • Carry proper documents. If you are leaving the
o Worldwide (bars, marinas, shops, etc.): country with your laptop, be sure to bring along proof of purchase, as well as register it with U.S. Customs
o Worldwide airports: (free and for-a-fee wi-fi): before you depart. Duty is levied each time you re- enter the United States with electronic equipment that
spot-airport-directory-browse-by-country.htm was not manufactured here, unless you can prove that
• Be aware of hotel’s Internet access policies. Most you owned the equipment before you left the States. To
middle-to-upper-scale hotels have Internet access in the do this fill out a Certificate Of Registration For Personal
rooms, but some have it available only in their lobbies Effects Taken Abroad (CF4457) for each foreign-manu-
or other public spots; and there are many hotels and factured product you are taking that has a serial
motels that don’t have any Internet connection. Check number. You can find a printable PDF version of this
this out before leaving on your trip, including any fees form at the U.S. Customs & Border Protection website
involved. (, and be sure to include the item’s
• Remember that laptops do not like liquid, sand, serial number in the Description of Articles box.
humidity, or heat. While laptops can go anywhere, • Keep a low profile. When using your laptop in a
don’t get careless and forget about their aversion to public area, try to find as much privacy as possible:
liquid, sand, high humidity, and heat. Be careful of you do not want someone having easy access to private
drinks being passed over your laptop and sitting too information you may have on the screen (especially
close to a pool with your laptop; also, don’t bring it to bank account numbers and passwords) or to offer easy
the beach: with sand, water, high humidity (possibly), pickings for someone out to steal a laptop. And if using
and heat in ample supply, your laptop is a disaster a PC in an Internet café or the like, shield the screen
waiting to happen.
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
10. FROM PAGE 9 which students have to tell the class something about their
past, their present, and their future. Over the years I have
from others as much as possible (and never leave any become accustomed to seeing the lists of three things
files on any computer but your own). appear on the discussion board, so I was surprised when
• Universal adapter and surge protector. If traveling checking the board one evening to see a short post from a
abroad, it’s imperative that you have a universal student in the class: “Are there any (insert racial designa-
adapter so you can use your power cord with another tion) in here?”
country’s electrical system (nearly always different I read it.
from ours). Also, bring along a surge protector to I froze.
shield you from any “hiccups” in another country’s I wondered if the term had been offensive to anyone.
electrical system. I wondered if anyone had read it yet.
REMEMBER: Treat your laptop on travels as if your I deleted the post and I wrote the student, asking why
favorite pet and it will remain loyal, dependable, and she had posted the comment. The next morning she wrote
healthy—for a long time. back: “Oh, I was just wondering if there was anyone else
like me out there.” She wanted to “see” who was in the
Errol Craig Sull has been teaching online courses for more class. She wanted a cultural connection. She wanted to
than 12 years and has a national reputation in the subject, make visible the invisible.
both writing and conducting workshops on it. Presently Online teaching is in a double bind as to how to balance
teaching online courses, he is putting the finishing touches the freedom of relative anonymity with potential isolation
on his fourth book—a collection of his online teaching activ- or the loss of diversity. Much has been written about the
ities titled Pebbles: A Most Unusual Approach to Very online classroom being a level playing field, but I wonder if
Effective Writing. @ a level playing field necessitates the stripping away of
gender, age, and racial and ethnic identities. How do we
honor diversity when we can’t see it? Should we even try?
I thought about my own online classrooms. The semester
Making Visible the after the war in Iraq began, the discussion board was lit up
with students heatedly discussing (and I mean discussing)
both sides of the issue. In spite of my vigilance in main-
Invisible taining a safe environment for students to openly discuss
hot-button issues, some students did make hostile remarks
By Denise Tolan about Iraq and the people of that country. Toward the end
of the semester, one of the students revealed that she was
an Iraqi woman who had married an American man 11
ow do great teaching moments happen? For me,
H great ideas usually come from watching bad televi-
sion. One night, I found a show on the Discovery
Health channel called I Lost It. The basic premise of the
years prior and had moved to Texas. In the following days I
got a lot of email from students who said things like, “If I
had only known we had a person from Iraq in class, I
would have….” Would have what, I wondered? Been more
show is that you hear the motivational tales of people who
thoughtful, sensitive, restrained, considerate?
lost weight. In the episode I watched, a woman told the
I thought of all the students I had taught in previous
story of her move to a small town in Colorado when she
online classes who hailed from Finland and Uruguay and
was 16 years old. The town had a population of 1,500 and
Uganda, and how they sometimes had names like Bob and
the woman and her family were the only African-
Shay and Ben—names that enabled the cloak of invisibility
Americans in the community. On top of that, this young
to remain in place. What if I had asked those students if
woman, at 16, was six feet one inch tall. Her discomfort at
they would share their diverse lives with the class? I would
being “different,” she recalled, was soothed by food. When
never pass up teaching opportunities like that in the face-
she graduated from high school, she enrolled in online
to-face classroom, so why should it be any different in an
courses because she wanted “to disappear and be like
online class?
everyone else.” She quit her online classes after a few
Of course, that is my emotional response to issues of
weeks because she felt “disconnected.” Hmmm, I thought.
diversity. But even in a practical sense, honoring diversity
It just so happened that while I was thinking about this
in an online classroom is critical. Each semester, I know
idea of “disappearing” into an online course, I also began
teaching one. Each semester I use an icebreaker during
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
11. FROM PAGE 10 want a rich cultural environment in all of my classrooms. I
want to learn and to grow and I want the joy of sharing
there might be some form of cultural distance in my new things with my students.
classroom, so I try to find a way to bridge those gaps. I I recognize the irony inherent in sitting on the couch
believe some students are at a loss in the online classroom watching a television show about losing weight. I know I
because of issues with language. Some don’t comprehend have to get up and move if I want to be on that show one
written sarcasm while some fear the permanence of day! But I also see irony in online teachers complaining
language and the power of the written word. My own about the lack of engagement in their classes and then
mother, for whom English is not the native language, takes rolling out the same class, semester after semester. Where
time to read every word of a document because, to her, the is the point in not utilizing the diverse backgrounds of all
written word means power. But while there are studies on students? Who knows—in the process, students might even
how to work with issues of cultural distance in regard to see themselves in one another and connect in a meaningful
tangible academics, it is the essence of culture that is often way. After all, for some of us, the cultural education within
ignored or overlooked in an online course. the classroom is the one that has the most impact once
So how can you incorporate cultural issues into the students leave us. I hope so anyway. That is why I teach.
online classroom? The discussion board is the place to
begin. Students can “reveal” themselves in a personal way Denise Tolan is an English professor at Northwest Vista
on the board. Ask a question every week on the discussion Community College in Texas. @
board that extends the ideas from a major assignment and
lends itself to exposing and honoring differences. For
example, if you are asking your students, as I do, to come
up with an argument of definition, ask them to also tell
you how a person from another race, gender, age, or other
able-ness might define the same issue. In another exercise,
Internal or External
my students go to the website and pick an
image from the photographic or editorial cartoon winners,
Email for Online
and I ask them to tell us what visual argument the author
has made. In another paragraph, they have to consider Courses?
what a person “other” than themselves might say in
response to that argument. It is astonishing how colorful
By David Reavis, CCP, PhD, and Charles
those black-and-white text blocks can become when Mohundro, JD, PhD
students are aware that who we are makes a difference in
how we teach and learn. hoosing the right tool for email in Web-based classes
Is posting a picture of each student enough to identify
culture in your online class? For mine, probably not. I can
see the differences in skin color and age and sex, but I
won’t see what it is that makes you who you are unless I
C can streamline the communication process for both
students and instructors. Choosing the wrong email
tool can frustrate everyone involved by requiring more time
and effort than necessary for communication. To make the
have the opportunity to hear you and learn from you. I best choice, instructors need to understand the differences
begin the semester with the Where I’m From poem. (It’s between internal and external email systems, and find the
easy to find—just Google it.) The poem is student-friendly mix of features that best supports the course objectives and
and allows them to talk about their families, their neigh- work habits of the students and instructor.
borhoods, the foods they grew up with, and the languages A Web-based course is normally supported by a course
they heard. I might have them do a culture collage—either management system (CMS). CMS features usually include
a PowerPoint or a Word document or any program whereby internal course email. Examples of CMSs include
they can introduce items and images that represent who Blackboard™, Angel™, and E-College™. These and other
they are. I also honor these cultural ideas by giving them a CMSs provide an email tool that is restricted to class
grade. Students see through empty gestures pretty well. members, and the email system is not generally available to
Okay—don’t we have enough to do? Students have outside communication. Alternatively, the instructor may
reading issues, learning issues, writing issues, issue choose to use an external email system, such as an institu-
issues—why should we care about culture in an online tional server (Microsoft Exchange™ or other system) or a
class? Isn’t this the one place I can stop thinking about client server (Outlook™ or Eudora™, for example).
who sits before me? I can only answer these questions for
myself: I want my students to be better global citizens. I
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
12. FROM PAGE 11 from a given class or student. With the internal system,
archiving rules are usually different and course content can
be more difficult to access after the semester is over.
Internal email External email clients also offer features such as stationary,
One of the benefits of internal email is that messages in advanced search capabilities, and auto-reply options that
the system are easily traceable. This means that the sender, are not available in many CMS products.
recipient, and class ID are easily identified. With internal One of the typical problems with using external mail
mail, the instructor does not have to decipher questions systems is that students might not clearly indicate their
such as who sent the message (because it came from identity or class membership when sending messages. It is
[email protected]), what class the message was about, or not uncommon for a student to send a question such as,
who the original receiver was. The internal system provides “Could you check my answer to question five on the quiz?
this context because only students in the Web-based class Thanks, Joe.” If the instructor was teaching one online
involved have access to the mail system, and the mail class with one person named Joe, and there was only one
system enforces traceability. Another benefit is that internal quiz in the class, then this question would be easy to
systems are not flooded with spam (unwanted commercial answer. Complexities arise when there are multiple
or malicious messages). The internal system is not directly students with similar names in an online class, multiple
connected to the Internet and cannot receive this type of classes for an instructor, or multiple assignments to which
email. The internal mail system is also inherently more the question might apply. This problem could be resolved
reliable than external mail. Messages are not lost when by replying to the student asking for clarification (which
there are connectivity problems because the system is self- would involve yet another round of emailing), researching
contained, and students have no grounds for claiming not student roles and assignments to try to figure out which
to have received messages from the instructor. Joe missed which quiz question five, or creating a class
Internal systems also suffer from some drawbacks. The policy that requires students to follow some procedure
first is that when an instructor adopts internal email for a when emailing the instructor. Such policies could include
course, he is committed to checking email in multiple putting the class name in the subject line of the message
places. He must check his regular email and course email. and requiring students to provide their full name on all cor-
When an instructor teaches multiple sections or classes, respondence.
this could mean several different email accounts. This
could create some workflow inefficiencies, depending on Making a choice
how the individual uses email. If the instructor does not The choice of internal or external email often hinges on
use email as a normal part of his or her daily activities, this the workflow habits of the instructor. If the instructor uses
may not present a problem. The majority of instructors external email infrequently or not at all, then internal
who use external email for numerous types of communica- systems might be the best choice. If the instructor uses
tion might find that checking email in multiple locations is external email as his “to-do” list, then using internal email
problematic. Another drawback is that internal email tools could cause extra work and confusion about what commu-
are not as robust as those of external systems. Creating nication has actually taken place for a given class. Other
folders, using previews, and applying themes to email are key factors that can determine which method to use are
only weakly supported in many internal systems. Some how email is used in the course and what students should
internal systems impose attachment restrictions, fail to expect when using email communication. It can help
offer HTML support, or do not offer robust spell-checking students if the instructor defines in the syllabus how email
features. In addition to these drawbacks for the instructor, should be used in the course. Setting limits can keep email
the student also might find it inconvenient to check email from becoming a bother to both students and instructors.
in multiple locations. There are valid arguments in favor of using email as a tool
to create a sense of participation in the course and a con-
External email nection with the instructor that enhances the learning
If the instructor chooses to use an external email system, process. These objectives can also be accomplished
he or she gets the benefit of receiving all email in one through other tools such as discussion boards, office hours,
location. When using an email client supported by the in- or chat sessions. Examples of how email might be used
stitution, all the normal archiving and retention operating include clarifying assignments, asking content-related
procedures are applied. This means that the instructor can
usually choose how long and where to keep email received PAGE 13
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
13. FROM PAGE 12 come to campus was modified over and over. Student
feedback was mostly negative. Students complained about
questions, and notifying the class of any changes in the the irregular number of times they had to come to campus
class schedule. Students might also appreciate knowing and the organizational methods used (they wanted nothing
how email will be used in an online course. If the instruc- more than a list of assignments), and they could never
tor plans to send out certain information via email only, seem to master the location of necessary functions, like
then students should know this from the beginning, so they mail and discussion boards. Students were frustrated.
can react (and read the messages) accordingly. If email will Faculty were frustrated. At the same time, administration
be used in the course to facilitate student-to-student com- wanted more Web courses. At one point the department
munication, internal email may work best because email recommended dropping the Web-delivered speech course
addresses are built in to the system. Ultimately, the choice entirely.
of internal or external email for an online course should be As a last resort, we attempted to restructure the course
based on workflow considerations and how email is used by creating a hybrid—presently half online and half on
in the course. campus. Students were now required to meet on campus
with the professor once a week. The results were amazing.
David Reavis is an instructor of management information Student feedback was much more positive. One student
systems, and Charles Mohundro is a professor of finance even commented, “I was really upset at first that I had to
and management in the College of Business at Texas A&M come to class once a week, but now I really see the benefit.
University-Texarkana. @ I think it helped me to get to have that contact with the
classmates and the confidence to know I had that face-to-
face opportunity with the professor if I needed it.”
In addition to more positive student feedback, student
Trial by Fire: Online retention improved as did student assessment scores.
Student retention improved 8 percent the first semester we
switched to the hybrid course, while posttest scores
Teaching Tips That jumped an average 20.5 percent. There was also a clear
decrease in student and professor frustration. As one
Work student said, “This was an excellent learning experience.
When I needed any help or information, it was always
By Lori Norin and Tim Wall readily available, and there were many sources for
Having found a delivery method that seemed to work
few years ago, our university started accelerating its
well, we began to look seriously at strategies, tips, and
distance learning program. Along with courses that techniques for using WebCT that would simplify and
televised lectures to area high schools, we began a enhance the teaching experience. We frequently discovered
fledgling online course program that used WebCT we were “overworking” the course management system.
classroom teaching software. Some professors designed Just because we could place a message, document, or link
courses that worked well, while others found that 100 in three or four places didn’t necessarily mean we should.
percent Web delivery didn’t work well for them. Early in There were so many tools at our disposal that we were
the program, our speech department experimented with a tempted to use them all. Frankly, that just confused
departmental online course, but it didn’t work as well as everyone—professors and students. Our next step, then,
we had hoped. was to look for ways to make the presentation less busy,
Initially, when our speech department was asked by our falling back on a lesson that all teachers learned a long
dean to put our basic course online, we resisted. In fact, time ago: sometimes less is more. At the same time,
our course was the last required general education course however, we didn’t want to simplify so much that we
to go online. We finally agreed to a Web-enhanced course. excluded useful techniques. Eventually, by trial and error,
It was a disaster: the professor was trying to master we learned the balance between too much and not enough.
WebCT; the students were trying to learn WebCT. One We also discovered that working in the electronic venue
student even commented, “I signed up for speech class, not required that we constantly be several steps ahead of our
WebCT.” More time was spent learning the software than
learning the content. The number of times students had to PAGE 14
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
14. FROM PAGE 13 that aren’t active. That way the students can’t “smorgas-
bord” through the course. Hiding menu elements (on the
students, who often are extremely computer savvy and left of the screen) also can be valuable. For instance, we’ve
quite likely to discover ways to plagiarize. Without found that if the students can see the “Discussion” tool in
engaging in cynicism, we adapted the Reagan philosophy the menu, they tend to open that tool to see what’s in
of “trust but verify” by using readily available software there. Since each discussion targets a particular concept,
such as student tracking and TurnItIn. In the process we try placing a discussion link in that learning module, with
also learned how to use feedback mechanisms to enhance perhaps a backup link in the calendar. Now you can hide
teaching. For instance, we discovered that a threaded elec- the discussion tool in the menu; students don’t need it.
tronic discussion on a subject like plagiarism puts students Otherwise, students may open the menu tool and start
on record as knowing what it is. After that, the standard surfing, resulting in questions about upcoming discussions.
excuses for plagiarism pretty much went away. Similarly, a A reverse of that situation is the practice of hiding
quick personal email is a handy way to find out what a something that’s been there for several days. If an active
student knows or needs to know about a subject. The assignment was due a couple of days ago, hide it and wait
professor can ask the student to summarize a concept in a for the questions about where it went: nagging by hiding.
return email. Then the professor, at a glance, can see the
gaps in knowledge and advise the student accordingly. Organizational methods
These are only a couple of effective ways in which There are a variety of content organizational methods
judicious use of software enhances teaching without that can be used; however, the week-by-week method
getting in the way. The trick, we found, was to use the allows you to use your calendar and your learning modules
software without becoming slaves to it. together. You can limit each learning module to a single
Along the line, we’ve discovered some techniques that week’s work and install links in your calendar. We found
work. If you’re new to the online course experience, espe- that students in the basic speech course responded espe-
cially if you’re considering a hybrid course, here are some cially well to this organizational method, most likely due to
tips you might find helpful. the built-in time management components. Students were
able to approach their public speaking preparation using a
Acceptance forms clearly delineated, step-by-step method. Also, this practice
Professors commonly pass out course outlines and tends to keep students where you want them to be in the
discuss class policies, and then ask students to sign a course.
contract or agreement that they will honor those policies.
Here’s an opportunity to use the hybrid situation both to Tracking tools
save paper and to simplify record keeping. Instead of In a classroom, how many times have you heard this: “I
handing out a syllabus on the first day, tell your class that simply don’t get it.” As a teacher, you wonder why, and
it’s online and where to find it. In addition, ask the you ask the student to clarify. In a hybrid course, you can
students to submit an acceptance form electronically. That use the tracking tool. We post our lecture notes on the
acceptance form then can be placed in each student’s elec- course site, and we track student reading. You can tell at a
tronic mailbox. Since the acceptance form is the first corre- glance what a student has read and how much time was
spondence of the semester, the form will go automatically spent. Let’s say you discover that a student has spent very
to the top of each student’s email list for easy retrieval. little time going over your materials (lectures, handouts,
Neither paper nor filing is involved. etc.). As a teacher who’s been around a while, you suspect
a similar lack of effort in reading the text. Instead of
Hiding elements sending a tedious email that paraphrases what you’ve
A website can be confusing if it publishes too much in- already published, you can send a short email that asks the
formation in a single screen or if it presents too much in- student to clarify.
formation in a short period. We’ve found that if we put too Here’s an example:
many items on a screen, students tend to surf through “Please tell me which points are baffling to you.”
them instead of working on the lesson at hand. Sometimes If at that point the student isn’t specific, here’s a typical
we want students to read ahead, but sometimes we want follow-up:
them to concentrate on a single lesson. That’s where hiding “Please review the lecture notes and text and then send
elements comes in. If you’ve designed all the lessons for a
semester and then put them on a Web page, hide the ones PAGE 15
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
15. FROM PAGE 14 environment to study, and other helpful weblinks, etc.
me an email that outlines your understanding of the major What now?
concepts that this assignment covers.” This is a mere handful of tips, and it is by no means a
By that time, the student usually gets the drift. complete list. As classroom professors, we try new tricks
regularly. Some we keep; some we lose. Don’t be shy about
Discussion tool using the same approach when you’re teaching your hybrid
Although you’ve already engaged the class in a discus- Web class. If you’re relatively new to the Web-teaching en-
sion, you can reinforce that discussion on the bulletin vironment, take our list as typical techniques you can try. If
board. After the class discussion, you can require the they don’t work for your students, discard them or modify
students to post their thoughts on the bulletin board. Then them to fit your situation. WebCT has a lot of tools: use
you can jump into the forum and ask the students to them your way, and don’t feel you must use all of them.
respond to other postings. This practice engages the Do what you do in class: put yourself in the students’ place
students who aren’t very active in class but who may have and see whether your presentation works; stay loose and
valuable input. As a bonus, sometimes the quiet students listen to the feedback.
start participating more in class discussions.
Lori Norin is an assistant professor of speech communica-
Humor and frequent communication tion at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Tim Wall is
While we don’t want to be in the stand-up comic an English instructor at the University of Arkansas at Fort
business, we can make it clear to students that we’re not a Smith. @
robotic part of the machine with a square screen. Often a
friendly or encouraging email that uses nonthreatening
phraseology can make a student feel more a part of the
class. An appropriate humorous comment allows the
student to view the professor’s lighter side, allowing for the
interpersonal component that is difficult to transcend over
The Challenge of
the Web. Also, consider that people check their computers
sporadically 24 hours a day. Don’t miss the opportunity
Teaching Across
that this around-the-clock access allows. If you have a
thought on the way home after a lecture, send it to the Generations
class. If you want to remind them to read a chapter, send
an email or publish a text block they can’t miss.
By Rob Kelly
Text blocks nstructors need to take steps to make the online
WebCT features the ability to publish headers and
footers. You certainly can use this feature to design a page
with standard banners like the name of the course. In
addition, you can use the text block feature to publish
I classroom a comfortable and supportive learning envi-
ronment regardless of students’ online learning experi-
ence or learning style preferences—a particularly important
consideration when teaching students from multiple gener-
urgent messages. If you have one message one day and ations.
replace it with a new message another day, be sure to Deborah Silverman, assistant professor of human
change the color of the text block. Otherwise, students may nutrition and dietetics at Eastern Michigan University,
assume it’s the same message and skim by it. teaches online and hybrid courses and has observed several
generational differences among her students, some of
Tips for the online learner which are due to the level of familiarity with the technol-
Adding a direct link on the home page that provides “tips ogy as well as their previous learning experiences. Among
for new online learners” can eliminate initial confusion and these differences:
provide students with a clear understanding of what the • older students tend to resist technology more than
online learning environment is all about. These links might younger students,
include such topics as Web etiquette, where to go for help, • older students are more likely to ask the instructor
thinking ideas through before responding, online learning
is not for everyone, creating a private and positive working PAGE 16
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
16. FROM PAGE 15 who grew up using informal text messaging.
“I think there’s going to be some challenges for faculty to
technical questions rather than relying on the understand the differences across generations, and we have
helpdesk, the responsibility to find ways to adapt our delivery and
• younger students are more likely to include URLs in engage our students or we’re always going to have this core
threaded discussions, and of students who are not going to be happy,” Silverman
• younger students tend to prefer video says. @
For many young students, the idea of taking an online
course is nothing new. They are often comfortable with the
technology as well as the student-centered learning envi-
ronment. For older students, the technology and the
pedagogy are obstacles. Many older students are used to a
10 Ways to Get
traditional, lecture-based learning environment and reluc-
tantly enroll in online courses only when there are no other
Reluctant and
viable options.
“There are some students who should never be in the Downright Scared
online environment. It’s sad because it’s often because of
how they have been taught face to face. They’re spoon-fed
learners who are not [inclined] to become self-directed
Students Enthusiastic
learners. That disturbs me because I’m in a profession
where we’re training practitioners who are going to have to
About Taking Online
take courses to maintain their credentials once they
graduate. Courses
Most of the courses in our profession are being offered in
By Errol Craig Sull
an online format, and if they aren’t happy using technol-
ogy, they’re going to have a difficult time finding ways to
be able to earn the number of continuing education hours orrest Gump might as well have been talking about
they need,” Silverman says.
Whenever Silverman has a new group of learners, she
has them do a learning styles assessment. “When I’ve got a
F the profiles of online students when describing a box
of chocolate: “You never know what you’re going to
get.” Indeed, in addition to the geographic, age, and other
mixed age group, I put in several different options. They mixtures, there is also a wide range of enthusiasms when it
have the option to read the textbook or view a video of the comes to taking an online course for the first time: from a
content. They can do the textbook reading and have some level of total comfort and ease in using computers to major
supplementary video clips that help to reinforce the fear and anxiety. Many teaching online don’t expect the
learning,” Silverman says. latter; there is a widely held belief that anyone taking an
When assigning group work to multigenerational group online course not only is tech savvy but also has no
of learners, Silverman makes it a point to group students problem in not being in a brick-and-mortar classroom
with similar learning styles and experiences so that they (where face-to-face interaction with the instructor is taken
are initially comfortable. As the course progresses, for granted).
Silverman lets students choose their own groups. As just about anyone who has taught online has discov-
There are many benefits to getting students from ered, this is a major misconception.
different generations to interact with each other regarding Many students are returning to the classroom after years
the course content. However, different cultural references away—and to an online course, to boot. There are also the
and language usage can be obstacles. Silverman, a member students who know little—and sometimes nothing—about
of the baby boom generation, feels that it is important for using a computer, freely admitting their high stress level at
her to keep up-to-date on the ways that her younger now having to do a course online. And there are students
students interact and to be able to provide cultural refer- who strongly maintain that the only way to learn is with an
ences that they can relate to. However, she reminds her instructor they can see, hear, and talk with right in front of
younger students to use standard language in the course
rather than the shorthand that is so common among people PAGE 17
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •
17. FROM PAGE 16 5.Write students often—and not as R2D2. Depending
on the online platform used (WebCT, eCollege,
them. All of this translates into additional work on the in- Blackboard, etc.) you will have opportunities to write
structor’s part—something necessary and noble, to be sure, students through chat rooms, discussion threads, team
but also something that can be minimized with a few projects, overall class announcements, and general
teaching strategies: email. Do this often: students—especially those who
1.That welcoming email is so important. If your first initially were hesitant about taking the online course—
email is too harsh or impersonal it can really bother need to feel that you are an involved, caring instructor,
those students already concerned about taking an not one who simply pops in once-in-awhile.
online course. Instead, welcome them with enthusiasm 6.Don’t hesitate to talk with students still having
and interest—and always let the students know you are problems. Sometimes, no matter how often you write
available and eager to help anytime. This approach will (to the class and individual students) there is still a
go a long way in making those anxious students feel need for one closer step: the sound of your voice. This
less anxious. can be very reassuring, very motivating—often beyond
2.Address possible student concerns before they’re what you can say in writing. And remind your students
brought up. I have what I call my Mini-Guide to of your willingness to speak with them throughout the
Taking X Course Online, and one of the sections course: if it’s a one time thing at the beginning of the
addresses some of the pre-course problems I know I’ll class students can either forget it’s an option or—
encounter from students (mentioned above). Just out worse—think you really didn’t mean it.
of curiosity, I kept track of the number of students who 7.Never accept computer awkwardness as an excuse
would raise these concerns before I included the for late assignments. Do this and you immediately
section and after—I had a nearly 25 percent drop in offer any student a convenient out for handing in late
hearing from students once I added this section. It’s work. In the Mini-Guide I mentioned earlier I remind
not going to address every concern, but it does help— students of one of my favorite quotes, from Clint
and every little bit allows for more focus on the course Eastwood’s movie Heartbreak Bridge: “You improvise.
itself. You adapt. You overcome.” Translation: if your
3.Anticipate student computer fears, et al.—and be computer is not working or you don’t have access to
ready for them. What I’m about to suggest serves two one for a few days, visit the library or use a friend’s; if
purposes: being able to immediately respond to most you are still learning how to become friends with a
pre-course student concerns emails and saving you computer, spend a couple of hours just getting to know
time. I type out a series of responses to questions it; etc. I remind students that in taking any course they
regarding lack of computer knowledge, not being face- have a responsibility to get the work in on time
to-face with the instructor, etc.; I have these saved in (barring unexpected illness, catastrophe, etc.).
one file called Student Pre-Course Concerns. When I 8.Have resource and contact information ready. There
receive an email from a student addressing one of may be times when there is a tech question beyond
these, I simply copy and paste my template response in your knowledge but one the tech department, your su-
my return email, tweaking it, of course, for that pervisor, or some other administrator will probably be
specific student. If you do this, have a friendly, I’m- able to answer. Have those folks’ emails, positions,
really-interested-in-your-problem tone—you want the phone numbers, and best time to reach on one sheet
students to feel you are not just giving a perfunctory that you can pull up when needed. Besides helping to
response. resolve the problem it has the nice bonus of showing
4.Never make yourself out to be a computer god. This you as an instructor both prepared and interested in
is one of the worst things you can do, for it gives his/her students.
already nervous students just that much more to be 9.Always “sell” the positives of online courses that
nervous about. No one is born computer-wise—in fact, landline schools can’t offer. This is a big plus in
it really helps to let the student know you once felt the helping anxious students somewhat overcome their
same way he/she does now (or at least were also once nervousness. Often, students are so focused on what
a computer neophyte). Your computer prowess will they are concerned about in taking an online course
come through in your helping students better under- that they forget—or may not even know—all the
stand how to navigate through your school’s computer
11 Strategies for Managing Your Online Courses •