Five Online Teaching Tips For Every College Instructor

You might not think you still need online teaching tips, but the first installment of the 2021 Read the Speakers Series, written by Dr. Nicole Davis, reminds you that, just like when you teach on campus, there is always more you can do to improve the quality of your online college course. Dr. Nicole Davis is an Assistant Clinical Professor and the Director of Supervision in the Applied Behavior Analysis Programs at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. During her tenure at Northeastern, Dr. Davis has led the efforts to integrate evidenced based methods for instructional design into the ABA course sequence, in addition to her leadership of graduate supervision for behavior analysis. She teaches in both the graduate ABA and school psychology programs, and has worked diligently to incorporate behavior analysis into a number of programs across the university.  Although Dr. Davis originally started teaching in traditional on -campus classes, the majority of her recent teaching has been online. This has allowed Dr. Davis to explore methods for transitioning the core features of effective instruction to online teaching. Her recent interests also include an evaluation of evidenced-based instructional methods for online teaching, and the application of behavior analytic technologies into online instruction. Dr. Davis has presented nationally and published on behavior analytic approaches to health-related behavior, avoidance, and learning in higher education.

I, like many educators, have felt the weight of designing meaningful, effective, unique learning experiences for students attending class over the last year. Although I’m more than grateful to be past the full-speed sprint to move online, experienced during the Spring 2020 semester, being at the 18.7 mile marker of a marathon does have its own challenges. 

We’re past the point of getting the content online, so students are able to access it safely. We’re past the point of realizing that online teaching and earning experiences are different than delivering such content online. We acknowledge the learning design and facilitating learning are separate and equally important. We can see the impact of remote learning on teachers, students, and families. 

Now what?

I’ve been so impressed with how teachers, faculty, administrators and students have modified their own behavior and expectations to adjust to the world recently. So many have jumped right in. 

I cannot begin to imagine how I would have approached this if I hadn’t designed online courses before. It can be so difficult to think about how to even start with such an undertaking. At this point I have a really structured approach to designing classes, which makes it so much easier for me to do so. 

One thing I’ve been considering is how to personalize courses for students and learners. Here are five tips that I’ve learned from various instructional designers, or attempted myself to make sure students get to connect with me as we learn online

Online Teaching Tip 1: Create content for this section specifically

Sometimes it’s easy to continuously run the same course repeatedly for online courses. You put so much effort into the design and development of the course, so why not use it, right? (This is only for those variables that were evaluated to be effective of course). Lately, I have begun leaving prompts in the courses I teach, noting that specific content will be added. This allows me to bring in current events (e.g., COVID), relevant examples I’ve recently experienced (e.g., COVID), or new phenomena that address the topics (e.g., COVID). *Note to self: You’ve used enough examples about COVID*

Although this may not increase the learning effectiveness of the course, it does signal that the instructor is in this particular section of the course. It can be difficult to connect with students, and this may be one avenue to explore. 

Online Teaching Tip 2: Keep your voice and image in the course

Sometimes the person who designs and develops a course is not who serves as the instructor for a specific section. In this case, the voice on videos may not be that of the instructor. Similarly, some courses may not include personalized elements.  

For each of these situations adding in quick videos at the onset, conclusion of, or both the beginning and end of a module/unit/lesson may add that touch. When building a course, I’ll add in prompts for instructors to upload a quick video describing a module and another wrapping it up. This not only gives the instructor the opportunity to share their own flare, but creates space to include class response into the media. Videos can relate back to student responses, or move the discussion forward a bit. 

Online Teaching Tip 3: Make connections on the discussion board

Discussion boards can get stale at times. I’ve noticed that when I’ve designed and facilitated boards poorly, responding is also poor. I know this is super surprising! 

Among many options to avoid this issue is a method that I’ve been utilizing lately. When students respond, I reply with more questions to the entire class. These may include questions focusing on one point in the initial post, asking for suggestions/recommendation, or challenges to go even deeper into the analysis. These questions are geared toward facilitating connections between the students’ posts, and has really helped avoid the standard of, “I really liked your post.” 

Online Teaching Tip 4: Use Humor

As you may be able to tell from this post, I’m not a stand-up comedian. However, adding humor into instruction is something that I find to be part of all of my on-ground courses. So, why wasn’t it included in my online courses? I have no idea. 

It is only within in last two years, that I identified this particular difference between my online and on-ground courses. When first teaching on-ground I read many studies suggesting benefits to including humor in the classroom, and honestly found it easy to do so. But online is much more difficult for me. Luckily, there are many resources to find videos and images to use as examples. Also don’t forget about your own videos. Heads up though; when you tell a joke to no one, the lack of laughter is powerful. How do I address this? I laugh! I’m told laughter is contagious, so I’m sure there is someone laughing along with me.

Online Teaching Tip 5: Just Respond

Responding to all of the communications that come in each day can be so overwhelming. If you’re like me, getting flooded with notifications that I have more messages can quicken the heart-rate. 

While it may be easier to ignore those notifications until “later” when it comes to my students, I’ve found that short responses “now” are more appreciated.  This was very uncomfortable at first, but now I will open my inbox, and respond to students as soon as possible. 

Of course there are those messages that require a bit of work. For these, I still send that initial short message, noting that I am working on it and when I’ll get back to them. Then, I can take my time to figure out how to best respond.