Read the entire flip that course series on translating traditional courses for online delivery:
- Course Layout and Syllabus
- Communication Among Students
- Communication Between Students and Faculty
- Addressing Learning Styles
- Packaging Content
Third in a series on how to translate a face-to-face course into an online course.
Who would have thought that this concept, so central to the face-to-face classroom dynamic, would be such a necessary feature online, where perhaps none of your students are working at the same time? You might have thought of an online course more like those old correspondence courses, in which students sent you papers and you graded them and sent them back.
Today, we–teachers and students, both–expect a more sophisticated experience even in asynchronous environments, and communication is key to establishing the relationships that create the sense of being in a class. I will divide the topic into two areas: (1) communication among students and (2) communication between teachers and students.
Communication Among Students
At least three (3) of the “Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education” that I posted about last summer, principles generally known as the Chickering and Gamson principles, address communication. These principles are especially appropriate in online courses, where the lack of communication can leave students feeling isolated and contemplating dropping the course, and faculty feeling as if they don’t know their students.
In a classroom, we take for granted the opportunity to ask questions, wait for responses, and participate in the back and forth of Socratic dialog that can lead students through complex material toward knowledge and understanding. We don’t have to abandon our goals, but we do have to reconsider how to achieve them.
There were several things that I believe made the course so successful. One key was the blog discussions. Initially, the posts read as individual, unrelated, formal discourses, even though I had provided guidelines and a movie about how to participate in a blog discussion. So, for the first two weeks of the course I graded the blog discussions very strictly and provided a great deal of individual and team feedback. I tried to convey that these discussions were analogous to classroom exchanges in which they must build on the ideas of others. It took about two weeks of low grades and extensive feedback, but they suddenly “got it.” The blogs became surprisingly high-level, extremely energized discussions with application of course content, relevant life and work experiences, and examples from the students’ independent research.
While posting every day caused significant complaints from the majority of students in the first week, by the end of the second week most were posting multiple times a day to each of their team blogs. It was extremely exciting to see all of this interaction happening, and it exceeded my expectations. I had never seen this level of discussion in a class, even onsite. My boring class had become exciting and engaging!
The team element of the course was another key to success. My experience with students is that they tend to become cohesive over time, but these online teams did that and more. I saw the students come together and develop into organized learning groups. Everyone was consistently positive and supportive of each other.
Whether we would use free commercial blogs or the Blackboard Discussion Board, such development of students into a community of learning would be a good substitute for face-to-face discussions, as well as a good way to assess understanding. Notice that Corritore applied strict principles for participation and grading, which clearly communicated high expectations and resulted in those expectations being fulfilled.
The lesson here is that in order to achieve communication among students, you must convey clear methods and expectations, and you must guide students as much as needed until they are able to perform on their own.
Here’s a diagram and short table of findings from The Sloan Consortium on “Relationships Between Interactions and Learning in Online Environments” [no longer available]. Specifically, the section on interaction with classmates supports the idea of community-building, the one thing we fear will be absent online.
Here’s a more traditional article from Mary Ann Kolloff, Assistant Professor, Eastern Kentucky University on “Strategies for Effective Student/Student Interaction in Online Courses” (PDF). As this article suggests, you must design course activities in a way that allows you to stand on the sidelines observing as much as possible, so that you are not “overwhelmed with online teaching.” Just as in the classroom, you can become the only one learning the material if you cannot create situations in which students can develop their own understanding.
Update: Let me add this terrific article full of specifics on how to conduct a successful online discussion forum: “Dialogue-Intensive Learning“ by
Next, we’ll tackle the communication between teachers and students.