The importance of instructor or student interactions in online courses seems to always be at the base of major discussions concerning distance learning. In fact, you might be hard pressed to find a conversation about online learning in which the interactions between students, course content, and the instructors is not viewed as almost paramount to the success of the course. However, what is rarely discussed in those meetings are strategies for managing those interactions, which are certainly equal to if not of greater importance to simply recognizing the value of the interactions in an online course. Therefore, the purpose of this article is to present some definitive strategies for managing some common instructor-student interactions in an online course. In terms of course management, online instructors will typically have some type of framework in their heads or a brief “to do” list, but such a plan usually does not give the instructor measurable data that can be used to evaluate the effectiveness of the course or make testable predictions concerning changes that might be implemented in future courses. In all likelihood, if you don’t have some written plan that outlines how you will manage instructor-student interactions in your online course, it will be difficult for you to measure your efforts (instructor presence), the course will be less responsive to change, and the level of autonomy required of the learner might be unnecessarily and unknowingly increased, all of which, could result in a negative learning experience for students. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a plan of the mind is not useful, it just means it’s not testable.
Managing an online course is similar to the process of putting together a puzzle in the sense that online courses also contain individual pieces that must be joined in a particular way before the pattern is revealed. In terms of online courses, that pattern that is ultimately revealed could be aptly described as the Actual Representation of the Planned Curriculum (ARPC). The ARPC is not a published model, but a simple model conceived solely for the purpose of this article that let’s us wrap our minds around the ultimate question concerning online courses – Was the curriculum actually presented as planned? What this suggests is that although the planning phase of an online course does not appear to have boundaries, the presentation i.e., delivery of the curriculum online has clear and absolute boundaries, and by not considering those boundaries as major part of the curriculum planning phase will likely produce undesirable circumstances for your students.
In the ARPC model, the PC (Planned Curriculum) is the curriculum the instructor or department planned to deliver online, and the AR (Actual Representation) is the collection of methods, teaching strategies, and technology tools that were actually used to deliver that curriculum. And as mentioned earlier, those two parts can diverge quickly if they are not considered together during the planning phase. Another way to visualize the ARPC is as some collection of predictive design principles used to measure student learning in an online course. Of course, the easiest way to visualize the ARPC pattern is to draw it (Fig. 1). In this respect, the first step in creating a course management plan is to conceptualize the individual pieces then put those pieces together to reveal the pattern, the ARPC. The illustration shown in Figure 1 helps us to visualize the overall pattern of interactions in the course, but to understand how the course should be managed; we also need a description of how each piece fits into the pattern.
Figure 1. A diagrammatic representation of an example ARPC with eight pieces.
In the example ARPC all of the pieces are connected (indirectly) to each other as indicated by the common border they share with the centerpiece (two faces encapsulated in an oval). In a diagram of the ARPC for your course there might be pieces that do not connect to all other pieces, and that’s fine, but it’s likely each piece would connect to at least one other piece. In this particular ARPC, all pieces share a border with at least two other pieces and that implies something about the strength and continuity of the course. Pieces that do not share borders are more difficult to manage and tend to agitate the online learning experience in unexpected ways. The strength of a direct connection between any two pieces is related to the size and shape of the border overlap between them. For example, the ‘Course Review’ piece shares a large border with both the ‘Design’ and ‘Announcements’ pieces indicating those pieces are directly connected and therefore will be managed as such. In contrast, the ‘Course Review’ and the ‘Grades’ pieces are only indirectly connected, which indicates that the pieces in between them must play important roles in bridging those pieces. As a mode for presenting some definitive strategies for managing instructor-student interactions in an online course each piece shown in the example ARPC was discussed in terms of responding to the following questions:
Before the course is made available to students your might consider reviewing it using a checklist with clearly defined checkpoints. You are the primary course reviewer and should be willing to review every aspect of the course. If you are unable to accomplish that task or the mere thought of it deters you from trying then it is likely the students will feel the same way. In addition, someone else (colleague, TA) should be asked to review the course and provide constructive feedback. Obviously, once the course has been taught a few times it will not be necessary to conduct a detailed review of every aspect of the course, but it should be realized that certain aspects of the course should always be reviewed. The ‘Course Review’ piece, along with ‘Grades’ piece that will be discussed later, is a major component of managing an online course. Not only does it represent a major piece that occurs before and after the course is delivered, it has a substantial impact on the ‘Design’ and ‘Announcements’ pieces because it creates a logical transition between them. Ultimately, the purpose of reviewing a course is to evaluate all the aspects of course design, and the very first announcement sent to students is essentially the official confirmation that the course has been reviewed and is ready to be delivered to students.
A simple method for reviewing the course is to construct a checklist derived from the ARPC that serves as a place for reviewers’ to provide comments concerning each piece (Table 1). When reviewing the course it’s also good idea to review it as if you were a student. Especially, if you have adaptive releases or other conditions that have to be met before a student can move forward
Table 1. A simple checklist aligned to the ARPC with some examples of feedback.
If a course review was not conducted or it was not effective then it is likely students will encounter problems and contact you about those problems throughout the semester, which will then require you to send announcements or emails to resolve the issues. Indeed, many of the instructor-student interactions that take place in an online course originate with the ‘Announcement’ tool, which is usually a more effective tool for communicating with students than email. In contrast to email, when you send messages via the ‘Announcement’ tool these options are available:
There is a very important connection between the ‘Course Review’ and the ‘Announcements’ tool because the first announcement you send is essentially a confirmation to your students that the course has been reviewed and is ready to go. Similarly, the ‘Announcement’ piece is directly connected to the ‘Discussion’ piece because in the act of sending announcements you will undoubtedly initiate discussions and for that you will point students to the ‘Discussion’ tool in Canvas. For example, in the first announcement you might initiate the student-student interactions in the course by sending students to the ‘Discussion’ area of the course to introduce themselves to the class or discuss some topic related to the first content module. In subsequent announcements, you might remind students to post/reply to specific topics, and occasionally, you’ll need to remind students that their questions related to technical issue or course content will be answered when they’re submitted to the appropriate discussion forums. The ‘Announcement’ piece is also directly connected to the ‘Collaboration’ piece for similar reasons. Many online learners will prefer to communicate with you in a simulated face-to-face environment, which requires the use of some type of synchronous communication tool, such as, Canvas Conferences. Therefore, at the end of each announcement you should have some standard comments about when/where students can join scheduled Collaborate sessions. This will be discussed more in the ‘Collaboration’ section.
The purpose of the first announcement you send to your students is to simply bridge the transition from the ‘Course Review’ piece to the ‘Discussion’ piece and only needs to include:
Each subsequent announcement you send to students should follow a similar pattern. For example, every announcement might contain the following sections:
In a typical online course you should expect to send weekly announcements, and the exact times those messages will be sent should be documented in the management schedule (appendix-a).
The act of discussing something with another person in an online environment is not limited to the ‘Discussion’ tool although it is usually associated with it. In Canvas, person-person discussions could also occur through blogs (asynchronous) or synchronously through Canvas Conferences, which will be outlined more in the next section. Regardless of the tool being used, the act of discussing something usually starts with a question or a statement about some topic, and continues forward as a series of responses to the initial topic and subsequent responses.
Discussions are an essential component of effective online courses because they facilitate many different types of interactions, such as, instructor-student, student-student, and student-content. The ‘Discussion’ piece is directly connected to the ‘Announcement’ piece for reasons already mentioned in the last section and directly connected to the ‘Collaboration’ piece because once students have discussed some topic in the Discussion forum they should be encouraged to bring those discussions to an online lecture session conducted using a synchronous communication tool, such as, Canvas Conferences, which will be discussed in the next section.
As the instructor your task it usually limited to setting up and moderating the forums. Setting up the forums includes aligning the discussion topic/question with the content, writing instructions, and explaining how the post/replies will be moderated and graded. Even if they are not going to be graded you will want to be clear about the incentive or students will be less likely to participate. Once the forums have been created and students are participating in them your role changes to moderator. The role of the moderator is typically limited to reading the post/replies, deleting inappropriate post/replies, and grading the post/replies. The tasks involved with reading and grading the post/replies should be documented in the management schedule (). In some cases, you may want to respond to the discussion posts or replies if students are not interacting at the expected level and if the expectations are unclear the achievements will be difficult to measure.
Successful implementation of synchronous communication in your online course can effectively build social learning groups (communities) and foster trust between you and the students. Indeed, a major concern instructors have with transitioning from face-to-face to online classrooms is the presumed end to those spontaneous in-class moments where students get to share awesome ideas with each other, which will perhaps always be the legacy of the face-to-face classroom. It is hard to imagine there could ever be technology that can truly replicate the unique and “humanly-real” experience of being in the classroom. However, there are reasonable alternatives that in association with other online teaching strategies could effectively promote spontaneity in an online class. For example, the synchronous communication tool in Canvas called ‘Canvas Conferences’ can be used to create a virtual classroom that at the very least, brings students together in a “virtual” space and time where they can see and hear each and exchange ideas just as they would in the “real” classroom. As described in the previous sections, the ‘Collaboration’ piece is directly connected to the ‘Announcement’ and ‘Discussion’ pieces. For example, a message sent as an announcement that leads students into a discussion might finish with “live” conversations in a synchronous communication tool. The instructor-student communication doesn’t always have to flow in that specific direction, but however you decide it will flow should be documented and clear to students.
Success of the online collaboration environment will be determined in part by the strength of your plan for managing the communication outlets in the online course, and the community of learners engaging in that environment. Here are three simple steps to initiate the process of building a community of learners:
(1) You initiate the process by sending an announcement to students introducing yourself.
(2) Students need to feel comfortable with their online environment and they need to trust each other. To encourage this you might consider having students:
(3) Once students have established some level of comfort with the course and some measurable level of trust with each other they will be more motivated to engage in student-student conversations about course content. Next ask students to:
(4) Finally, to sum up the community effort, students should be notified that a “live” QA session would be conducted using ‘Canvas Conferences’. The purpose of this is to wrap-up the conversation and solidify the comfort level by interacting with students in a more personal environment.
All sessions should be clearly listed in the students’ course schedule and the management schedule (appendix-a). In addition to hosting Collaborate session for the purpose of dealing with students’ questions or concerns, you should also consider using them to conduct lectures that promote student-student and instructor-student. For more information on conducting online lectures using Canvas Conferences, click here.
Grading like the ‘Course Review’ piece is a major component of managing an online course and has a substantial impact on the ‘Survey’ and ‘Collaboration’ pieces. From the student perspective, the grade they receive for an assignment represents the final point of reflection. At this point, students will reflect back on the implementation and management of the learning cycle and decide whether it was fair or not. Of course, students don’t think in terms of learning cycles or management, but they understand cost versus reward. If the assignment instructions were confusing, incomplete, or not aligned with grading rubric, and they received a poor grade, the cost will be decreased comfort and trust among students and a less effective community of learners. For this reason, the ‘Grades’ piece not only represents the end of a major phase of learning for the student, it also represents the first moment where you can objectively evaluate the ARPC.
The ‘Grades’ piece is not managed in the same sense as the other pieces, because as already mentioned it represents the final point of reflection in the learning cycle. Instead, the ‘Grades’ piece is more about evaluating the ARPC.
How you evaluate the ARPC is directly linked to how your course was structured. To understand this better, consider the example presented in Figure 1. Before you grade the assignment, ask yourself the following:
If you answered yes to all of those questions then you are ready to grade the assignment. If you answered no to any of those questions, you need to take that into consideration as you grade the assignments. Remember, at this point students are reflecting on the whole process leading up to the grading, and so should you. Now that you’ve considered those points, the next step is grading and providing useful feedback. Of course, to give useful feedback you would need a clear understanding of the process your students went through from the start of the course until they submitted the assignment, which is much clearer when you have a course management plan to reference. The most common feedback students’ get from instructors is why they missed points on their assignment. Of course, this is what students really want, but it’s not really useful feedback. If you have clear and concise rubrics then students should be able to figure out why they missed points. The kind of feedback that would be most useful to students would be comments about how they might interact more during the learning cycle. Clearly, if your assignments follow a well-defined learning cycle, you should be able to identify which part the cycle the student missed when you are grading his/her assignment. For example, if part of an essay assignment is to write, “How the views of my peers relate to my own” you might require students to use the discussion forum to express these ideas so they can write about them in their essays. If a student clearly didn’t express these ideas in his essay, then your feedback to the student might be to engage more in the discussion forum. Once you’ve graded the assignment and provided useful feedback it’s time to collect some data so you have empirical evidence that your plan is working or not working.
To understand this process better, consider this simple analogy – understanding student performance on a graded assignment without the use of statistics is like trying to understand how your cars gas mileage would be affected if you released some amount of air pressure from the tires. In both cases, you would want some data and you would want to statistically analyze that data. If the results of a statistical analysis of the grades for an assignment are not what you expected, then you should re-evaluate the ARPC and plan for modifications next semester.
Unless you have surveyed your students concerning your online course, what do you really know? Or put another way, can you honestly say your online course was successful without having acquired and analyzed any quantitative or qualitative feedback from your students? The answer must be no. We already know that frequent and useful feedback to students can serve to reinforce the learning goals and foster a positive learning community. But that’s just one side of the coin. On the other side, students also need opportunities to provide feedback to their instructors. Anonymous student surveys serve this purpose very effectively.
The connection between the ‘Survey’ piece and the ‘Grades’ piece is very direct. As previously stated in the ‘Grades’ section, you should plan to conduct some type of statistical analysis of the grades to determine whether or not your expectations for achievement were met. If they were not, then you start the process of re-evaluating the ARPC, and plan for modifications. But first you must acquire some honest feedback from your students concerning the grading process and the effectiveness of the online course as a whole. The connection between the ‘Survey’ piece and the ‘Design’ piece is also very direct. To understand this connection let’s imagine a hypothetical online course in which the instructor is able to solicit feedback from students on a weekly basis and then rapidly apply changes to the course in response to that feedback. That seems like a novel feedback mechanism, but is it practical? Given the constraints of time, it really isn’t. And it’s ineffective because course design does not function in a vacuum. There are too many aspects of course design to allow for a routine of making changes every time a student doesn’t approve. Instead, if would more effective to solicit feedback on issues that impact students the most, such as, course navigation, instructor presence, and feedback/grading of assignments.
By reviewing the responses given on anonymous student surveys you will get a better sense of why students are not performing as expected and you will be able to target and modify those specific aspects of the course that are keeping students from being successful.
Using anonymous student surveys as a tool to examine why students are performing a certain way is a “best practice” in instructional design. But if your course does not have a clearly defined ARPC it will be difficult to construct a useful survey i.e., surveys are not universal. To reiterate, a generic student survey is not likely to yield much useful information about your specific course. A useful survey will be tailored to the ARPC created specifically for your course. At minimum, the student survey should contain at least one question for each piece of your ARPC. Here are some questions written specifically for the ARPC in this article that would be appropriate to include in a Midterm Survey:
As indicated above, it’s easy to write useful survey questions when you have a clearly defined ARPC. However, if we want honest answers to those questions we must do a good job of presenting students with incentives for completing the survey. Giving extra credit points is a good incentive if the points are substantial enough, but that doesn’t necessitate they will answer the questions honestly. In addition to providing some incentive, you also need to be clear on the expectations. You can start by doing the following:
Ultimately, if your goal for teaching online is to provide students with a valuable learning environment, then you must implement student surveys in your course to solicit feedback, and must also have some plan for managing that feedback. Otherwise, you cannot honestly say your online course was successful?
How could ‘Design’ be a piece of the puzzle when it is itself a puzzle? After all, the word “design” is almost always paired with complex sounding words, such as, theory, discipline, model, or process. In the context of online learning, “design” is synonymous with Instructional Design, the leading branch of knowledge concerned with the process of developing and implementing learning strategies. And an Instructional Designer manages the systematic process of designing online courses, which includes, building assessments, developing instructional media, implementing accessibility standards, and constructing comprehensive course communication and course facilitation plans. Or to put it another way, the ID is the catalyst that optimizes and accelerates the reactions between course content and the Learning Management System. In this case, the ‘Design’ piece of our ARPC also acts like an Instructional Designer. That is, anything in the online course that needs to be modified or added in terms of formatting or pedagogy must pass through the ‘Design’ piece before it can be implemented. The best way to examine the connections between the ‘Survey, Design, Development’ pieces is to follow the path of a hypothetical assignment as it moves through the ARPC. The path described below starts with the ‘Grades’ piece and ends with the ‘Announcements’ piece.
Hopefully, in the path of the hypothetical assignment presented above you were able to recognize the logic in having an ARPC. Without an ARPC it would have been difficult to follow that path and our conclusions would have been ambiguous at best.
As mentioned earlier, the function of the ‘Design’ piece in our particular ARPC is to serve as a catalyst between the feedback we receive from students (Survey) and the eventual development of new course materials or modifications to the course (Development). Therefore, to effectively manage this piece we need to first define the properties of the of the ‘Design’ piece. The ‘Design’ piece in this particular ARPC has three properties:
Referring back to the path of our hypothetical assignment it was noted that honest responses to the questions in the student survey yielded a list of potential changes to the assignment. The next step is to pass those changes to the ‘Design’ piece to be catalyzed.
Once again, the ‘Design’ piece in our ARPC serves as the catalyst of change for the online course. Nothing changes in the course without first passing through this piece. In the next section we will discuss the ‘Development’ piece, which is the last piece of the puzzle and the most neglected.
As discussed in the last section, the ‘Design’ piece serves as the catalyst between the ‘Survey’ piece and the ‘Development’ piece. To reiterate this connection:
Above all other pieces in the ARPC, the ‘Development’ piece most embodies the AR (Actual Representation) of the ARPC. In other words, what is actually being delivered in an online course can be easily defined by the quality and quantity of developed materials in the course. The ‘Development’ piece is also the most neglected piece of the ARPC. For instructors that are assessing the potential time and effort necessary to facilitate the course, develop instructional media, create assignments, and build discussion forums, it can all seem very overwhelming. As a result, instructors usually shy away from the time intensive route of “creating something from nothing“ and move to searching for materials on the web. This line of logic seems to follow the old saying, “why reinvent the wheel?” Of course, the problem with following that line of logic is you still have to put the wheel on the car and cars come in many shapes and sizes. At this point, the question becomes, how can you be sure it will fit on the car? Maybe it’s fine if the wheel doesn’t fit or maybe you can find a way to make it fit. Then the question becomes, “did you actually find a way to make it fit or did you just add it to the course as is?” Those questions will be addressed in the next section.
Although the ‘Development’ piece is the simplest to define and the easiest to manage, it’s also the most neglected. There are many reasons why this is the case. The most common reason seems to be that few online instructors have the means or desires to create something from nothing. Also there is the notion that with a suite of online resources at our fingertips, who would want to spend time developing their own custom materials. Why not just search the web, find what you need, and put it into your online course? For those questions there is no single answer that satisfies; there is only the process of deductively eliminating answers until you’re satisfied.
To understand this process of elimination, let’s review some possible answers to the question, “Why not just search the web?”
If your answer is similar to #’s 1-4 you should plan to develop your own materials or seek assistance from an instructional designer at your institution.
If your answer is similar to #5, then you should investigate the laws governing digital copyright and fair-use.
As you can see, in trying to answer one question (why not search the web?) you might just fuel more questions (what if’s?), which might again lead to more questions (what now?) resulting in a time consuming pattern where nothing is created or whatever can be easily acquired online is simply dropped into the online course without reason. To avoid this pattern and manage the ‘Development’ piece effectively, we need to follow a systematic process as we did with the hypothetical assignment explored in the ‘Design’ section. Remember, in that hypothetical assignment, we reviewed the course grades and determined that students did not perform as expected. Obviously, we were very concerned that students did not meet our expectations and realized that we needed to use empirical methods to figure out why it happened, which led to the eventual construction of a student survey.
The key events that unfolded in that example were:
This is where the events ended in the ‘Design’ piece. The next step from within the ‘Development piece is to accept the proposed strategies so that something could be created from nothing, which in this case would be the construction of a rubric. So the last event in our example of the hypothetical assignment would be written as:
Now that the path of the hypothetical assignment has come to it’s end and we know exactly what’s needed, the next step is to decide whether we should search the web for an example rubric or just create it from scratch. Hopefully, in this case you agree that it would be easier to just create it yourself. If you’re not sure how to create a rubric or how to implement it in the LMS, contact your Distance Learning support team. This is certainly a much better strategy than ignoring the issue or potentially worst, planning to remedy the situation by reminding students to read the instructions VERY carefully. To pull all this together let’s use the ARPC again as a map to track the path of our hypothetical assignment. Ultimately, our goal is to be able to use the ARPC to track all assignments in the course.
Using our ARPC as a map, the path of our hypothetical assignment is as follows:
As the demand for quality online courses continues to increase, the response by many institutions of higher education has been to seek national standards in course design and format to guide the online course development process. No longer is it acceptable for an instructor to simply “dump” their traditional-based classroom content into the online environment. Consequently, at many institutions the process of developing online courses is a collaborative effort that joins the content expertise of the instructor with the educational and technological expertise of an instructional designer. While this may be the obvious approach, not all institutions employ instructional designers; yet still assert their instructors are developing and delivering high-quality learner-engaged online courses. This presents formidable challenges for faculty that, in addition to ensuring their students receive a quality educational experience in their courses, also need to stay up-to-date on the latest logistical, technological, and pedagogical best practices for online course development and delivery. To accomplish this goal, online instructors need definitive strategies that are simple, robust, and highly effective.
Through the instructional designers’ lens, the development of an online course is like putting together a puzzle with an undetermined number of pieces that must all join together before the actual pattern is revealed. To better understand this pattern and subsequently streamline the course development process, I devised a strategy for conceptualizing the actual presentation of the online course prior to development. This strategy involves constructing a blueprint or schematic drawing of the major pieces of the course and defining how each piece fits together to produce what I call the Actual Representation of the Planned Curriculum (ARPC). In the ARPC, the “planned curriculum” is the curriculum the instructor or department planned to deliver online, and the “actual representation” is the collection of methods, teaching strategies, and technology tools that will actually be used to deliver that curriculum. While the ARPC is formulaic, it does not restrict creativity or assert control over student engagement. It is simply a constructive method for identifying the most effective way to ensure the course content is developed and delivered as planned.
Use the following handout to construct the ARPC: ARPC_Worksheet.pdf
At this point there should be a simple schematic representation of an online course that can now be used to identify and evaluate instructor-student interactions.
Without some type of course schematic, such as an ARPC, it will be difficult to identify and evaluate the planned and unplanned instructor-student interactions in the online course, which will also make it difficult to measure instructor presence, resulting in the course being less responsive to change, and the level of autonomy required of the learner unnecessarily and unknowingly increased, all of which, could result in a negative learning experience for students.
The next step is to identify the points of instructor-student interaction that occur within the connections between the pieces of the ARPC and rank those interactions based on importance. This should reveal some interesting information about how many interactions (planned or unplanned) might actually exist between the pieces of an online course, which particular interactions are important, and how they should be managed.
All pieces within the ARPC will be either directly or indirectly connected to each other as indicated by the lines drawn between them i.e. an ARPC does not usually contain isolated pieces. The strength of a direct connection between any two pieces is related to the number and rank of instructor-student interactions within them. Pieces that are indirectly connected will be more difficult to manage and tend to agitate the online learning experience in unexpected ways.
The last step is to outline logistical, technological, and/or pedagogical best practices for managing the instructor-student interactions identified in their ARPC. This outline should provide some clear strategies for effective deliver of the online course and could result in the construction of a course facilitation plan.
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