In spring of 1999, I taught my first course
online; it was an experimental course called "Contours of Cyberspace," and
I had taught it one time previously in the classroom, with selected
portions online. I was also pilot testing a course management system, in
this case WebCT. These tips were developed out of this first experience,
in response to a request to lead a faculty forum on teaching online.
Things that Worked for Me
- I sent out a "welcome" email message a couple of days before class
was scheduled to start. This served as a heads up and also gave
students an opportunity to login and familiarize themselves with
- I put all of the activities for the
week in a single web page.
This seemed to work well for most students.
- As part of the first week's activities, I had students introduce
themselves to the class in the discussion forum, and modeled
the type of introduction I wanted. I think this really personalized
things, and helped students "remember the human" in their
discussions. [There were no incidences of flaming in my course,
which may or may not be a result of this activity.] I also had
students read about 'net etiquette (netiquette), and although we
didn't discuss the subject of netiquette, I did spell
out my expectations for communications.
- To encourage discussion and prevent people from "hiding,"
I divided the class into groups of 6-7 students, trying to mix
things up a little (making sure I didn't get "clusters" of people
who all had the same major, were all in the same year, or already
knew each other). Each group was assigned a different discussion
focus for the topic of the week.
- Because students were assigned discussion topics, I gave them
an opportunity to focus on their own interests in several short
(2-3 page) papers related to the main topic for that week. For
example, in the week we talked about electronic commerce, I had
them profile a company doing business over the Internet. Each
student had to provide a context for the company by also
discussing its competitors.
- Because I had taught this course once before in the traditional
manner, I was able to consider very carefully what benefits the
online environment might provide. The level of student-to-student
interaction was extremely high, and meant that I didn't need to
lecture, that I could instead facilitate. For me, this was a huge
- I invited my colleagues to serve as guest lecturers, which
gave me a bit of a break from the discussion forum, and allowed me
to concentrate on grading papers. Some guests were more active than
Things I Would Do Differently Next Time
- I would try to give students at least two "breaks" from the
weekly discussions, substituting an individual project or something
they can do on their own. I noticed a definite fatigue factor
around week 6 that continued until the end of the term.
- I would wait until Week 2 to set up groups. This would give
students an opportunity to interact with the entire class, and
would give me a good idea of who the enthusiastic and reluctant
participants are, so that I could distribute groups more
- I would hold regular "virtual" office hours in the chat room.
Most chat software has a "ring" feature that will notify you when
someone enters the chat room, so that you can continue working on
other things. I would also establish a "Virtual Office Hours"
forum in the discussion area, where students can ask a question
(privately or via the forum) and I could respond so that everyone
in the class can read the answer. I would allow anonymous posts
in this forum.
- Rather than doing group presentations [there were two], I
would have each group compose and post a summary of their weekly
discussion in a discussion forum set aside for that purpose.
I think part of the fatigue I saw was just from students trying
to read every group's discussions.
Things to Think About (Words of Caution/Wisdom?)
- How comfortable are you with technology? If you're not a
technology "wiz," do you have someone you can rely on for support
(and I don't mean the Computing Center help desk)? There's a
whole new layer of student-instructor interaction in the online
environment; students rely on you for
technical advice as well
as your content expertise. If you have a resource person available,
list them on your course web site as a support person, and specify
what kind of support they will provide.
- What can the online environment provide for your students
that the traditional classroom can't (or doesn't)? Are there
aspects of your traditional course that could be enhanced in the
online environment? Don't forget that there are different levels
of "online-ness" that you can consider in your courses.
- In an online environment, you don't have the luxury of
verbalization, which allows you to say a lot in a short span
of time. Written communication needs to be concise, clear, and
carefully worded. Make sure that instructions are clear, and
don't assume your students will "get it." Have someone else
read your instructions and follow them, if possible, to make
sure you haven't left anything out or made references to
something that isn't really there.
- When choosing to use the online environment, consider privacy
and security issues. I felt it was important to provide my students
with an environment that would simulate the privacy and security
of a traditional classroom as closely as possible. My course web
site was passworded, and students were able to engage in
discussion with each other without the world looking on. This is
one of the big disadvantages of using something like Motet, and
one of the major advantages of using courseware such as WebCT