Before we get into the technology we should take a step back and consider what we are trying to achieve in a teaching episode or activity. Consider the desired learning outcomes or aim of the learning and what we would like students to be able to do during or as a result of that teaching episode or activity.
Just as you would in a physical classroom, the building of a community of learners is important to encourage productive learning environments. This is about building connections in a safe and respectful learning space. Looking to frameworks such as Salmon’s Five Stages and Garrison et al (2000) Community of Inquiry model (pdf) highlights one clear thing – the teacher as a leader and facilitator of a learning community is critical.
Putting this into action can be done using asynchronous tools we already have on hand. This includes the iLearn forums, iLearn messages and email with supporting material provided using online resources such as readings and activities such as the lesson, poll, book modules in iLearn (Note: to those reading this outside of Macquarie University, “iLearn” is what we call our Moodle LMS as of writing version 3.5).
Getting everyone started
Initial communications to students should outline the proposed approach to teaching and the tools that will be used and what they need to do to gain entry to the Unit. It is likely this will be in the form of an “announcement” through iLearn or an email message but it could also be a recorded message in iLearn. Take the opportunity to welcome students:
- State the unit name, code and offering.
- Introduce yourself and your role in the unit. It is a good idea to provide a link to your staff profile page and contact details.
- Provide a direct link to the iLearn Unit website.
- Outline what students will need to do in order to prepare for the first session, section or week of the Unit.
- Ask students to get their technology ready. Advise which tools will be used and provide links to suitable set-up and help resources.
- Aim to portray a friendly and accessible tone in the communication.
Additional advice is presented below regarding using forums or email to communicate with students.
Note: while it is common for staff to use email among themselves, students may be less likely to read it. Except for an initial communication inviting students to join your iLearn unit, we recommend you focus your group communication to students via iLearn ‘announcements’ and forums.
Online discussions – Encouraging connections
An engaging tutorial or seminar style session aims to build community, exchange views and gain insight into student understanding. This can be achieved using iLearn forums but these must be actively facilitated. The teacher has a key role to play in facilitating learning, encouraging the exchange of ideas and scaffolding an educationally safe environment. Some advice includes:
- Provide some ground rules for engagement i.e. ‘netiquette’. This could be a page, announcement or forum post. You may like to have students discuss these points or suggest changes to the rules.
- Have students introduce themselves early in the semester. Post prompting instructions letting students know they can cover as much or as little as they are comfortable disclosing. For example, their background, goals, personal interests, what they would like to get out of the Unit, a picture of a pet or hobby etc. Be sure to include your own post to introduce yourself.
- Start the discussion by posting promoting questions in the forum. These could be the questions you would have used in a tutorial style session. Include links to relevant resources as applicable (e.g. readings, websites, news items etc). But try to keep the word count to a minimum.
- As things progress, summarise discussions with a post of your own and refer to student’s contributions as you do so. You don’t need to respond to every single forum post. But you do need to have a regular presence in the forum to encourage students to engage with you and others.
- Post about contemporary events happening in the world that are relevant to the Unit. e.g. from journal articles, industry announcements, News, current affairs, society, sports, politics etc. These are good teaching moments that you can use to link the theory or content of your Unit to the world beyond the class. Ask students to react or post their own.
- Encourage students to answer each other’s questions. They may do this anyway but monitor the discussion to ensure inaccuracies don’t spread. If an inaccurate statement does appear, use it as a teaching moment and politely direct the thread in the desired direction.
- Use a polite and friendly tone in written communications. It is easy to misinterpret written communication via email and on forum posts. You may also like to use emoticons to help convey a lighter mood in written communications :-), 😉 , ^.^ .
Minimise communication traffic whilst maximising the benefit of it
Questions related to administrative issues of the Unit take up valuable time. Ensure the iLearn unit site is well structured with clear requirements and stepped instructions. The following guidance is offered in making the most of the communication opportunity:
- Establish expectations around response times students can expect e.g. within 12 hours during a weekday. Note – if you are running a time-limited assessment task then you should be available to respond to questions on a much shorter turnaround for the short period of the assessment.
- Establish a FAQ forum. Request students post Unit related questions to the forum instead of emailing you. Let students know that this is for the benefit of everyone. It also allows other students to step in and answer questions as well – but you will need to monitor this for accuracy. Let students know that if the matter is of a personal nature that they can still email you directly.
- Regularly check the forum(s) and respond according to the expectations you have set around response times. It is advisable that you check forums once per day. It is also a good idea to turn on forum email notifications for yourself so that any new posts to the forum will come to your email inbox – that way you can monitor the forum activity with less effort on your part. You may like to set up email filtering to direct posts from different units into specific folders.
- Don’t create too many separate forums. A critical mass of activity encourages students to engage in the discussion too.
- If you do receive Unit related questions via email kindly ask the student to post the question to the forum letting the student know it is to allow everyone to benefit from the response.
- If a student asks a question that is covered somewhere in the Unit materials – use this as an opportunity to politely point to where they can find the answer by providing a link in your response.
- Leverage the opportunity to update and clarify assignment instructions based on the questions you are being asked. Refinements to assignment instructions will pay dividends in terms of a decrease in your email and forum traffic over time. Clear assessment requirements and stepped instructions will dramatically decrease administratively focused questions coming to your inbox.
- Consider setting up a page of FAQs in your Unit that covers the most common questions relating to the Unit in general (assignment specific questions are best integrated into assignment instructions). The FAQ forum and emails you receive should be taken as action items to update your FAQ page, materials and assignment instructions accordingly. This pays dividends the next time you teach the Unit as well because FAQ pages and instructions can be rolled over to the next offering while forum posts do not.
Email Communication with students
While broadcast communication to all students in the unit can be done via a Unit announcement or direct email, be aware that students are likely to be overloaded with emails during this period.
- Try to limit emails to significant announcements, reminders or by collating multiple items into a short sharp list. Perhaps one sentence per action item – with a link to further information in the Unit website if required.
- Be clear in your message what it is you want students to do as a result of the communication.
- Place multiple items, points or criteria into lists – one item per line.
- Write sequenced instructions using numbered steps, one step per line. Avoid dense paragraphs when writing instructions. This applies to instructions that appear in your Unit too.
- Clearly title the announcement with the main message. e.g. An announcement about assignment requirements and a change of date could be titled “FIN1000 Assignment 1 requirements + revised due date 30 April 2020”.
- Try to maintain a friendly, approachable tone in emails, especially so for the first communication you send out to the class.
An online presentation of content, readings and resources may stand-in for what was a lecture or other sessions where teacher delivered content is provided. The shift to online carries with it the need consider how this material is presented.
- Break materials that would have been delivered in a lecture presentation into smaller chunks of content focused on an issue or piece of theory.
- Instead of a recorded lecture you could present it as an iLearn lesson activity that contains chunks of written content interspersed with review questions.
- Be concise with written content – remembering that you would speak many more words than you can realistically include in a written presentation without overloading it with text.
- Consider using static images, diagrams, sketches and photos instead of video to help explain your point without overloading bandwidth. See also “use of multimedia”.
It can be tempting to want to over compensate for a lack of a physical presence by providing loads of written material such as links to websites, journal articles, book chapters, news etc. However the extra reading can be too much given many students will take your friendly suggestions as an indication they must read it all. But they will be lacking the verbal guidance you may have provided in class.
- Provide just enough support materials for students to be able to respond to the task at hand.
- Provide clear instructions as to what you want students to do with the resource e.g. “Read about Roman plumbing on page 35 of the Smith (1990) article” (with a link to the article).
- Any optional or further resources should be clearly labelled as such. e.g “Optional reading if you have time: Page 26 of Blogs (2000)…. outlines where Rome sourced water.”
- Provide hyper links to things you refer to. This avoids wasting people’s time and makes it easier for you to keep track of what you are linking to at each point.
- Check that links work as a student outside the university network. This is best done on a second device and using the ‘change role’ to student feature in iLearn.
Use of multimedia
You may still use multimedia content in conjunction with asynchronous teaching techniques and text-based communication. However be aware that not all students may be able to access it and that you may need to provide alternatives. You may like to poll/ask students if they have any technical or other limitations in consuming video, audio or the proposed technology tool.
- Images: Be sure to label any images and include an “alternative text” description when inserting images in iLearn (iLearn prompts you to enter the latter as part of the process). It is a good idea to reduce the size of image files before uploading to fit the space in which you want to display it.
- Video or audio: Be mindful that multimedia content may not be accessible by all. If video or audio clips are to be used keep it short and to the point. Shorter clips interspersed with activities do a better job of engaging the audience. Shorter clips are also a little easier to download over limited connections. You may need to provide transcripts or static image sequence alternatives (e.g. for demonstrations).
- Simulations, augmented reality and virtual reality tools: These can make great supplementary materials but be mindful if plugin software is required to access it, if it will use a lot data or require a high bandwidth connection or even if the student has a suitable device!
There is a place for online video conferences
While this article has focused on low bandwidth options there is a place for the use of online video conferencing tools such as Zoom for real time interaction. These can provide students the opportunity to ask questions and get to know each other in a more immediate environment. A prior Teche post on using Zoom for online meetings is available. However it would be advisable to seek feedback from students via the forums with respect to the use of online videoconferencing becasue not all students may be in a position to participate. A reasonable compromise is to provide optional video conferencing sessions that are also recorded. It would be a good idea for these sessions to be backed up with a forum post in which you summarise the main points and questions explored during the live session. Using this approach means that those not able to engage with large video content do not miss out.
Further help for Macquarie University staff in using iLearn (Moodle, as of writing version 3.5) is available via the staff resource area for teaching technologies.
The Macquarie University faculty of Arts have put together a comprehensive collection of resources and advice on facilitating online learning units.
We welcome your suggestions of other useful resources in the comments below.