Blog from October, 2016

The Academy asks instructors to be visibly present in their online classes six days a week.

And yet, one of the most frequent complaints from online students is that their instructor is not present. However, when the Faculty Evaluation & Coaching team investigates, we typically discover that the instructor has been present — just not in a way that students can see. That is, the instructor is present — but invisible to students.

How can you make sure your students know you're there?

(star) Post comments in public spaces (star)

  • You can work in the "All Posts" space or do your critiques from the "Assignment Grades" page.

Students can tell you've been present when they open a topic and see...

your post
in an assignment
or discussion topic

an Instructor Update
for an assignment

an alert on any student's post
that you have responded with
a comment or other feedback

an alert on an attached image
that you have marked it up with
the whiteboard or the Notes tool

Note that all these instructor actions generate notifications, so the student receives additional evidence of your presence. (Learn more about Instructor Presence.)

Posting only private grade comments gives students the impression that you're not present.

Here's what such a class looks like from the student's point-of-view.

  • When the student opens a topic and uses the "Instructor" sort, she finds no evidence of instructor participation — aside from her grade. (The "Instructor" sort brings to the top the teacher's posts and comments and other feedback.)

  • The Grades page displays only the feedback for this individual student. Grades comments are always private, so students can't see each other's feedback. 

  • Opening up the grade details makes clear that the instructor has posted private comments and nothing more for the entire module.


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When it comes to discussion participation, are your students stymied?

Veteran instructor Andrea Jost (GLA 601: The Art and Ideology of the 20th Century) offers these suggestions to help her students figure out how to take part in the weekly conversation. 

Download this document —
and share it with
your students

Guidelines for Students: What to say in the discussion?

why discussion is important

For your instructors, your participation in discussions is the first and most direct way to "hear" your voice, to know what you are taking away from the materials, and to find out how they can help you more, if needed. Since they don't "see" your face in class, they get to know you through the conversations in the discussion. This is our classroom, where we meet, exchange ideas, and get to know each other.

If you don’t know where to start, begin with the question

  • Take enough time to read the question carefully, even if it seems straightforward.
    • What is it really asking?
    • How is it related to what you learned during that module?
    • Is it asking for a specific "correct" answer, or is it open-ended, asking for your interpretation or opinion?
  • Is anything in the question not clear? Restate the question in your own words and ask for clarification for something that you feel needs more detail or further explanation. Ask the instructor to rephrase the question or give examples.
  • Try to connect it back to the content; that's your first step toward an answer.
  • Take some time to think about how the question connects with you directly, your work, your understanding. What personal experiences or connections do you have, and can bring to the conversation? That is another way to start participating.
  • If you still don’t think you know how to reply, start by sharing how you felt when you read the question.
    • For example, was it daunting? Share your first impression.
    • Did you feel you would not be able to come up with an idea or a solution? Share that as well.
    • Or, was it confusing? Did you feel you were not sure where to start, or only got partially through your reply? Explain what confused you.
  • State where you are coming from and how far you got. Ask others for their opinion.

If you're still stuck, let your classmates inspire you

  • Take time to read what others have already posted.
    • How are they approaching their answer?
    • Are they giving examples from the module?
    • Are they doing extra research?
    • Are they sharing experiences from their own work?
    • Are any of the other answers inspiring you to add something?
  • If you feel more comfortable that way, start with a comment or a follow-up question to a classmate's post, before answering the original question.
  • If you are commenting on your fellow students' posts, state what you found interesting, unclear, etc. and ask for more details.
    • If you agree, state why and give an example from your own experience that connects you to the original statement.
    • If you have a question, restate what you are asking about and be as specific as possible.
    • If you feel hesitant about posting, ask your classmate for suggestions or about how they approached the question.

How might you adapt Andrea's ideas to your class?

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Students complaining about their grades is a fact of university life. But you can reduce grade complaints significantly by being proactive — and making sure students have no reason to complain.

Try out these best practices: 

  • Post clear expectations, guidelines and/or rubrics for assignments. (Learn more: Posting Class Policies.) These criteria provide clear standards against which students' work can be measured. Without this, grades can seem arbitrary or confusing to students.
  • Rubrics help both in clarifying standards and in communicating feedback to students. If your class does not already include rubrics, you can take advantage of our many resources for creating rubrics for your assignments.
    • Discuss the rubric with your students before you use it.
    • Even better, let them try reviewing a sample assignment using the rubric; then discuss that process with them and answer any questions. Did they reach a consensus about the work? 
  • Some instructors find it helpful to provide additional tips and guidelines for each assignment. Something that can be especially helpful is to include an estimate of the amount of time required to complete the assignment successfully. How to do this?
    • You could create an Instructor Update (in a course topic).
  • Ask students to break down a complex assignment into its component tasks, assign a time estimate to each task, and then schedule each of these tasks.
    • You might create a discussion topic in which they post and discuss their task breakdowns and schedules.
    • The first time around — especially with beginning students — you might provide a sample task breakdown, which students can use to schedule their work.
  • Ask students to complete process questions for each assignment, to encourage them to recognize and reflect on the steps required for completing successful work. (Learn more: Assignment Process Sheets)
  • Grade early and regularly. Students are more likely to hit the target if they have more than one shot. Give students an early opportunity to learn your standards early and keep them informed of their progress throughout the semester. Don't wait until midterms, or worse, the end of the semester, to let students know where they stand on the core skills and ideas being taught in your class. Learn more: Fair, Transparent & Meaningful Grading

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So you've done all these things, and some students are still complaining?


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You asked for it — and here it is!

This new tutorial walks you through an efficient workflow for critiquing and grading assignments.




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Looking for a great way to make a richer, more personal connection with your online students? Try video!

 This tip comes from a blog post by Josh Murdock, an instructional designer at Valencia College in Florida. He uses weekly video updates to keep his online students engaged. He notes, "Students have given great feedback on this type of video announcement. Students say they feel more connected, understand expectations better, and get a better sense of the assignments each week."

Josh explains:

I have created weekly updates via webcam for my online educational technology courses for a few semesters now... I tend to follow a similar pattern each week for the video announcements.

    1. Discuss the previous week with any type of encouragement or reminders needed.
    2. Discuss upcoming week assignments with particular details on assignments, best practices, and questions you typically get from students on the various assignments.
    3. Highlight something new and refer students to my Tips and Tricks section for a weekly extra on a tool or information.

This type of video announcement is easy to produce using a basic webcam, sometimes recorded directly to YouTube as an unlisted video. Unlisted setting allows you to easily share the link or embed without having the video searchable or showing up on your YouTube channel...

Don’t forget how important audio quality is when recording; consider using a microphone instead of the webcam microphone, depending on its quality and clarity. Create a simple script or outline to follow each week as you record, this will help you keep on track and not forget that detail you wanted to discuss.

This type of video announcement lets your students see their online teacher, which is often rare in a fully online course... It’s also important to include a transcription... for students needing access to a text version, until auto transcription improves.

Feeling more connected to the course always is always comforting for students, especially those taking their first online course or struggling to understand assignments based on text directions and examples. [Text was edited slightly. Read Josh's original post.]

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The composing interface in our LMS provides several ways to record and post video in your online class. Both students and instructors can post video in the Discussion (in posts or comments). Instructors can also use it in creating a Global Topic, posting an Instructor Update, or critiquing an image with the Notes tool. Visit our newly updated page on Using Video in Online Classes to learn about techniques and best practices for using video in your online class.


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