Education Goes Online: Ideas for Getting Started

Preparing to suddenly move all instruction online due to Covid-19 can feel overwhelming to faculty. How to get started? Here’s one doable solution for teachers without previous experience: create an asynchronous online class using two simple tools: a blank webpage and a discussion forum.

In fact, when it comes to interaction, collaboration and overall quality, I would even argue that there are advantages to using this design over attempting to create new packaged content to post online or use real time tools to deliver webinars.

If your school uses a learning management system and help is available from your technology department, ask them to create a virtual classroom template with a blank webpage and a discussion forum for each week of the course.

The menu might look something like this:

Week 1
Course Content      (Blank Webpage)
Discussion Forum (Discussion Forum)
Week 2
Course Content
Discussion Forum
Week 3
Course Content
Discussion Forum

Log into your course shell and go to the first week’s blank webpage, find the edit button and add text and/or links to material you want your students to study during this week. For example, you can include reading assignments in print materials, lecture notes you may have previously planned to deliver on the ground, links to open access literature and media that address the topics for the week, and instructions to help students research topics and learning resources on their own. The page does not have to look fancy or be entertaining for good learning to occur. Also, it is an advantage to be able edit, update and customize this content page for your specific group of learners as you go.

Next, set up the first week’s discussion forum for substantive interaction and collaboration. At the top, post open-ended discussion questions or assign projects that you want your students to submit during the week. Provide specific instructions for using the forum. For example you can have each student add a personal thread to post their discussion messages or projects and to receive feedback from others during the week. I ask students to post their initial discussion comments or project by mid-week, after completing their readings. After that, they will read their classmates’ contributions and offer feedback in their threads. Discussion and collaboration will build throughout the week asynchronously. Inquiry will deepen and projects can be shared, critiqued, revised and improved with input and participation by peers and moderation by you within the threads of the discussion forum.

The discussion board menu may start to look like this as the week progresses:

Jay’s Project (or Comments on this week’s reading)
Martin’s response to Jay
Shiva’s response to Jay
Joe’s response to Shiva about Jay’s project
Jay’s response back to Shiva
Jill’s Project
Jay’s response to Jill
Martin’s response to Jill
Martin’s Project
Jill’s response to Martin

In my online classes for teachers, projects such as differentiated lesson plans are posted in the discussion forum. This allows them to read one anther’s lesson plans, ask questions, trade ideas, consult and learn from one another. With feedback, students may revise their project, posting the final version at the end of their thread for the week. Likewise, students have collaborated on student case studies, classroom management, and grappled with problems from the workplace with support from colleagues.

If you will be grading online discussion, you can develop a grading rubric to clarify expectations for your students much as you would for other assignments. For example:

  • 15 Points: Student posted 3 or more discussion messages during the week. Comments contained insight and supported argument with reference to readings. Replies stimulated discussion or answered questions raised by others. Disagreement was expressed respectfully; writing conventions were appropriate for an academic environment.
  • 10 Points: Student contributed at least twice during the week. Comments partially addressed topics with supported argument. Replies partially supported discussion. Writing conventions, appropriateness or respect for others could be improved.
  • 5 Points: Minimal participation. Contributions require substantial improvement in clarity, adherence to topic, writing conventions, appropriateness or respect.
If you will be teaching online more than a few weeks, it will be more practical if your virtual classroom has a grade book feature and you learn how to sort (gather) all the forum contributions from one student together at the end of the week to make it easier to evaluate the student.

All in all, remember that teaching online does not require you to produce new digital multi-media about your subject for students to consume. Your essential goal is the same as for teaching on the ground: to facilitate an active learning experience in which students can access expert knowledge from a variety of sources and have opportunities to get feedback, solve problems and collaborate with others. This is something teachers already know how to do.

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