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Module 10: Teaching in the Virtual Classroom - How is it different and what can I do to make it better?

Article ID: 598
Last updated: 11 May, 2022

Teaching in the Virtual Classroom: How is it different and what can I do to make it better?

Keeping a sense of balance is key when teaching online. Take advantage of strategies to boost your efficiency and manage your workload while establishing an engaging, effective learning community in your online course.

Learning Objectives

There are many aspects of teaching online that may appear similar on the surface to teaching on campus. However, as you start teaching online, faculty discover there are significant differences that need to be handled in different ways. By the end of this module we hope that you will be able to:

  1. plan and manage different types of participation in your course
  2. draft your expectations for your students and yourself in your course
  3. develop a realistic plan to balance your time while teaching your online course

Table of Contents 


Teaching Online: Keeping Perspective

What's so different about teaching online?

Keys to Teaching Online - Transcript (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article

Faculty in colleges and universities across the country often learn about teaching and classroom management informally through observing faculty whose classes they enjoyed taking as a student, discussions with colleagues, or consultations with your teaching and learning center staff.  When you begin to teach online, your exemplars and experiences from the face-to-face classroom may not be as helpful when you interact primarily with students asynchronously at a distance. While you'll find many little differences and make many little adjustments as you teach online, there are several major areas of difference that you'll want to make sure to consider.

Time and expectation management

Keeping a sense of balance is key when teaching online

One of the most common issues that arises when teaching online is a feeling that there's just not enough time in the day to do what needs to be done. Email from students needs to be answered.  Assignments need to be graded and grades posted in a timely manner. Groups may need to be monitored, technology issues managed, or replies to discussion questions posted. 

The main areas that can cause challenges for instructors are

  • saying they will reply to messages in a particular time frame but taking longer in reality
  • saying they will grade and provide feedback in a particular time frame but taking longer in reality
  • telling students to reply to others' posts with substantive comments and their own comments are "nice point" or "good example"

If students come to expect sporadic, delayed communication from the instructor, and lack of substantive participation they begin to wonder why they should put forth the effort to be a timely and active participant in the class.

A good way to keep your time commitments under control is to manage expectations from the beginning of the course - both your students' expectations and your own. You may not expect to be answering email at 3AM now, but when you find yourself doing just that a month into the course, it's important to take a step back and review the parameters you originally set. If your syllabus states that you will answer email within 24 hours or that grades will be posted within one week of the assignment deadline, that doesn't mean that you have to answer email as soon as it comes in and grade on the day the assignment is due. For some people, the psychological stress of an email backlog is harder to deal with than the backlog itself. Knowing yourself and how you prefer to work will help you set expectations and boundaries that are reasonable for both you and your students.

Keep in mind that you aren't the only source of technical support for your students. There will always be students with technology challenges in any online class. Troubleshooting technical issues can eat up time if you allow it. The most important thing to keep in mind regarding the tools and technology used in online classes is that you are not the only source of technical support for your students. Providing clear, tested instructions - using video if possible - will help reduce the number of questions.  The Blackboard Guides (Links to an external site.) are an excellent source of illustrated and video instructions for tools and tasks within Blackboard.

University Information Technology Services provides 24/7 phone and live chat support for distance students as well as walk-in support for on-campus students.  If students are experiencing technical difficulties with a university system such as Blackboard or a university-supported product such as Microsoft Word, you can direct them to the Support Center on your campus. 

If you have the opposite issue of avoiding messages and grading, setting aside regular chunks of time throughout the week to respond to email, grade, and interact in discussions is helpful. Treat this time as a commitment the same way you would to physically go teach a face-to-face class.  Dedicate a portion of this time to open online office hours if you need external motivation to stick to a schedule. One way to make sure that important things don't fall through the cracks in all the busy-ness is to use a check sheet like the Assessing Online Facilitation Instrument (Links to an external site.) from Humboldt State University. This form breaks out the key Managerial, Social, Pedagogical, and Technical responsibilities of an online facilitator before, during, and after the course.

One last thing, if you have a tendency to lose track of due dates and office hours/student meetings that you have on your Blackboard calendar, you can add your Blackboard calendar to Outlook by subscribing to your Blackboard Calendar. (Links to an external site.) This will show you all the calendar items for all the courses you are teaching side by side with your Outlook calendar.

What about grading jail?

When teaching online, some instructors feel the need to significantly increase the amount of graded assignments to more closely assess student learning.  While ongoing knowledge checks can be a sound strategy, if you have to manually review each one it can lead to grading overload. To ease grading overload, Blackboard's Needs Grading Guide (Links to an external site.) allows you to view and organize all submitted assessments for grading.

Rubrics

Rubrics are both assessment tools for faculty and learning tools for students that can ease anxiety about the grading process for both parties. Creating rubrics does require a substantial time investment upfront, but this process will result in reduced time spent grading or explaining assignment criteria down the road.

Research indicates that rubrics:

  • Encourage students to think critically by linking assignments with learning objectives.
  • Increase transparency and consistency in grading by helping to normalize the work of multiple graders such as across multiple sections of a course or with TAs sharing grading tasks in large courses.
  • Reduce student concerns about subjectivity or arbitrariness in grading.
  • Increase the efficiency of grading by reducing the time you spend grading assignments and supporting the provision of timely feedback which has a positive impact on the learning process.
  • Support formative assessment when coupled with other forms of feedback (e.g., brief, individualized comments) to show students how to improve.
  • Enhance the quality of self- and peer-assessment by giving students a clear sense of what constitutes different levels of performance.

For more information on rubrics please visit the Cornell's Center for Teaching Innovation Rubric Resource Page (Links to an external site.)

The Rubric Tool in Blackboard (Links to an external site.) is an easy way to both share rubrics with your students and speed up your grading.  Once you create a rubric associated with an assignment, the rubric will appear when grading the assignment (Links to an external site.) where you can click on the rating the student earned for each category, adjust points within a points range for that rating, and make comments specifically to that criteria.  This is especially helpful if you have TAs/IAs grading for you and you want to make sure they include all of the criteria in each student's feedback. 

Other Grading Options

In some courses, an easy way to speed up grading is to develop a bank of comments.  When you have taught a course multiple times, you know the common errors and misconceptions that occur.  To save re-typing basically the same comment over and over, save the comment either with your answer key or in a more general comment file for the assessment or course and then copy and paste it in, personalizing it as needed.  For more suggestions on streamlining grading, see Ten Tips for More Efficient and Effective Grading (Links to an external site.).

If you find that, despite your best efforts, you are having trouble keeping up with grading and interaction, it's all right to stop and re-assess what you are doing and what you are asking your students to do.  A mid-semester check-in with your students via an anonymous survey is a good way to find out if they are also feeling overwhelmed, lacking connection, not understanding what is expected of them, or needing a different kind of feedback. 

For more thoughts on the topic, see Time Management Reminders that Boost Efficiency, Peace of Mind (Links to an external site.) (Faculty Focus Article).

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Teaching Online: Communicating with Your Students

Communication

Communicating with your students is the core of an online class. Active and timely communication supports teaching presence and when instructors participate supportively and frequently students perceive the instructor as both enthusiastic and as an expert in the field. It's also more than student satisfaction on course evaluations. The US Department of Education (Links to an external site.) and the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) (Links to an external site.) have defined the difference between "distance education" and "correspondence education" based on the "regular and substantive interaction between the students and the instructor."  

If interaction is not substantive or is primarily initiated by the student it will be categorized as a correspondence course and students may not use federal financial aid to pay for correspondence education (Links to an external site.). Online courses, for which students may use financial aid, must have significant faculty-student interaction. Simply posting recorded lectures or textual materials online, along with exams or quizzes, will not meet the federal and HLC guidelines.

Starting out as you mean to go along by communicating in a welcoming and supportive manner from the beginning with a personal and course introduction, an approachable syllabus, and an interactive introduction discussion sets the tone for the class. However, once you get into the semester, faculty can have questions about response time and whether to use individual or group communication. Generally speaking, response to emails and other student questions should occur within 24 hours. Some faculty prefer to disconnect over the weekend, however, that is the time when most students are working and questions may arise. In that situation, you may want to indicate that you will respond to urgent questions only over the weekend.  If you are getting the same questions repeatedly, instead of sending an email response to each student it is often more efficient to post an announcement to the entire class addressing the question. If what you are communicating would be helpful to more than a handful of students it is more efficient to share it with the entire group through an announcement or a Q&A discussion forum.

Moderating discussion forums

Transcript - Effective Online Discussions (File can also be downloaded under Attachments at the bottom of this article

Class discussion in a live classroom - either as a whole or in small groups - is a great way to get students to interact with one another and with the content.  In an online course, discussion forums are often the main means of whole class communication.  Whether you use formal discussion prompts or provide informal opportunities for collaboration or topical discussion, moderating these forums is different than moderating a whole class discussion in an in-person classroom. 

Despite rumors to the contrary, it is not necessary to reply to every post every student makes in your discussion forum. Excessive faculty posting can preemptively close down conversations. The question becomes "how much is too much and how much is not enough?"  The answer to that question can vary based on the course content, the level of the students, and the interest of the instructor, but commenting on around  1/3 of all substantive posts is a reasonable place to begin.  Making sure to spread your comments over the course of the week is also important to encourage students to actively and consistently participate over time.  

As a good rule, if you will not give participation credit to a student for simply posting "I agree" or "good job," then it's not helpful to model those sort of posts in your own discussion forum participation. As the expert in the subject, you will surely have additional thoughts, further data, or reflective questions to add to any discussion. You can also pull together threads of ideas or themes that you see across several students' posts and make connections back to the course text or primary concepts. Many faculty use some form of Socratic or reflective questioning in their face-to-face classes and similar strategies can also work well online. If you publicly value substantive discussion by giving points for it and modeling it in the forums, students will do the work. Just make sure that when you post additional thoughts and questions you're scaffolding their learning and not talking over their heads.

In addition to moderating, another - often overlooked - aspect of fostering substantive discussion is to make sure your discussion prompt is actually a discussion prompt and not a regular assignment in disguise.  "List three reasons why X happened. Justify your answers from the text." isn't actually a discussion prompt.  It's a question that the student answers and then walks away having proved to the instructor that they read the book. If you just want to know that they read the book, try a reading quiz in the Quizzes tool.  If you want students to discuss why X happened, phrasing the prompt in a way that opens the door for discussion, such as "Based on the text, what do you think is the most logical reason that X happened?  Explain your reasoning.  Reply to at least two other classmates who suggested different reasons and explain whether or not you think that both reasons could have influenced X.  Make sure to reply appropriately to anyone who replies substantively to any of your posts."  Instructions like this provide a rationale for replying to one another and provides a reasonable avenue for interaction.  It also provides you with easier opportunities to participate by highlighting the complexities of pointing to one single antecedent to an event or movement. For more on using discussion forums, see Discussion Board Assignments: Alternatives to the Question-and-Answer Format (Links to an external site.). (Faculty Focus Article)

When discussion goes bad: Conflict in an online course

Conflict - whether overt or covert - is something no one enjoys dealing with in the classroom. In a face-to-face class you may be able to quell inappropriate behavior with a sharp look or a quick word of warning after class.  In an online class inappropriate behavior may be harder to spot and harder to combat due to the text-based nature of most communication. Managing Controversy in the Online Classroom (Links to an external site.) provides an overview of proactive and reactive ways to avoid controversy and handle it when it does appear.

To avoid conflict that stems from incivility, beginning with Core Rules of Netiquette (Links to an external site.) is a good place to start. Reminding everyone that there is another human being on the receiving end of each message can help students calibrate their reactions to the context. Asking students to participate in discussions by posting video comments also reinforces the reality that they are talking to other real people. Mintu-Wimsatt, Kernek, and Lozada (2010)  (Links to an external site.)suggested a list of netiquette items for a graduate online class which includes:

  • Do not dominate any discussion.
  • Never make fun of someone’s ability to read or write.
  • Use correct spelling, grammar, and plain English
  • Keep an “open-mind” and be willing to express even your minority opinion.
  • Think before you push the “Send” button.
  • Do not hesitate to ask for feedback

When conflict occurs, Horton (2006) recommends some options for instructors:

  1. If you have taught the course before you may be able to anticipate problems and have a consistent, thought-out response ready.
  2. Include netiquette requirements in the syllabus and course introduction. Many learners may not know the conventions and expectations for online learning. Enforce policies consistently.
  3. When you come across unacceptable behavior, do not respond without taking a moment to think about the behavior in context.  For example, if students are experiencing frustration with the course or the tools respond to both the usability issue and the way they expressed it.
  4. Differentiate between first-time violators and serious or repeat offenders. What can be used as a learning experience versus what requires disciplinary action?
  5. Help students learn to disagree professionally and politely. If they are used to the sort of disagreement and "debate" that occurs on Facebook, instructions and modeling appropriate ways to give and respond to legitimate criticism may be helpful.

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Teaching Online: Group Work and Participation

Group Work Online

Group work is challenging for many students in a face-to-face class. When you add the extra layers of complication from technology and asynchronous communication, it is not surprising that some faculty simply avoid assigning group work in an online class. However, group work provides students with opportunities to connect with one another, lessening the isolation often felt in online classes.

The Groups tool in Blackboard allows for multiple levels of group work if you would like to start small or go big.  At the basic level, students can be assigned to smaller groups simply for discussion.  When classes are large it can be cumbersome to have whole-class discussions so breaking students up into smaller discussion groups, either randomly of by interest area, can produce better dialogue.  Still within the realm of participation, these discussion groups can also be tasked with coming to consensus on a problem or question and reporting out to the whole class.

Group assignments such as papers, presentations, or cases can benefit from the Group space Blackboard creates for each student group.  Groups automatically have a space to discuss, share files, and collaborate which you can access but other student groups cannot. For more on using Blackboard to manage student groups, see the Groups section in the Blackboard Instructor Guide. (Links to an external site.)

Group work can be made easier for both students and faculty if expectations and norms are set in advance.  Providing netiquette rules, (Links to an external site.) a rubric for participation, peer evaluation, and attaching points to positive group interaction will motivate most students to participate at a meaningful level especially if the group assignment is relevant and authentic. It also helps to start group work after the first few weeks in the semester to allow students time to acclimate to the course and get to know each other through introductions. Both Buhdai (2016) (Links to an external site.) and Chang and Kang (2016) recommend keeping groups small and odd-numbered. In addition, Buhdai also recommends intentionally creating teams, setting clear expectations for individual contributions, and monitoring the online group space to catch issues before they escalate. 

In Blackboard, when you set up an assignment as a group assignment you have the option of giving all students the same grade or grading each student individually.  If you want to give everyone the same grade on the assignment but adjust for participation there are a couple of common ways to do that. The cleanest way is to set the group assignment to give all students the same grades so that you only have to provide feedback in one place where all group members can see it, and then add a second assignment or quiz where students rate their group members on a provided rubric.  You can either set the main assignment to be worth a smaller number of points (say 10%-15% less) and make the participation peer evaluation worth that number of points or you can set the main assignment to be the original number of points and the participation peer evaluation to be worth 0 so anything you add for participation is effectively extra credit.  Note that you can give students negative points on assignments, which, in this case, would effectively dock points from the group assignment.  If students do an acceptable job participating with their group they would receive no modifier but students who went beyond expectation would receive a bonus and those who did not participate would be docked points. 

As far as a participation rubric, these can be as simple or as complex as you’d like them to be. They range from something as basic as:

Rate your team members (including yourself) on a scale of 1 to 10 on

  • Quality of participation
  • Quantity of participation
  • Timeliness of participation

or

Out of 100 points possible assign a number of points to each participant in your group (including yourself) indicating the quality of their participation in the project.

To something more complex such as this rubric from Carnegie Mellon (pdf, 3.4M) (Links to an external site.).  Other sample rubrics and peer evaluation forms are available from the Carnegie Mellon Eberly Center on Teaching Excellence (Links to an external site.).

Chang and Kang (2016) describe and address the challenges facing group work online (pdf, 480k) (Links to an external site.), specifically looking at aspects such as group size, responsibility, coordination, structure, and leadership. One way to address the common challenge of lack of commitment and responsibility by some group members is to structure the assignment as cooperative group work instead of collaborative group work. Working cooperatively, students are engaged with and responsible for separate parts of the project.  The instructor can define the individual tasks and work products and then let the group choose who does what or assign individual tasks to specific students. 

An additional option is to assign functional roles to students in groups with responsibility for certain process-oriented tasks. Roles such as starter, elaborator, source-searcher, theoretician, questioner, devil’s advocate, moderator, and wrapper are common to discussion-based and case study projects. Assigning roles in advance allows students to develop group cohesion and feelings of responsibility sooner and decreases the amount of time it takes groups to coordinate who is doing what, allowing them to get started on actual task-focused work faster.

The following three-part series on online group work from Online Learning Insights briefly explains several effective strategies for using group work in online classes.

Grading Participation

When teaching on campus it's not uncommon to have attendance or participation factor into a course grade.  It's fairly straightforward - students show up for class, they pay attention, they may speak up in a class discussion or work in a small group.  You give them a grade at the end of the semester.

Online classes with no synchronous components can be trickier.  Depending on the size of the class and the course content, some instructors may substitute a quiz over the reading or video for the week for attendance.  Others may use small group discussions focusing on a question, case, or problem where each group must report out their solution.  Others may use small group or full class discussions to delve deeper into the materials and help students make connections to their lives and the world around them.

While participation and engagement are crucial for learning, when that participation becomes fixed in a text form, grading quality and level of participation can be a challenge.  Rubrics for discussions can be an effective way of setting everyone's expectations for participation and making participation grades more transparent by benchmarking quantity of posts, originality and quality or posts, and responsiveness to peers.

Here are some example rubrics to help you think about what you might write for your own class.


Teaching Online: Thinking about Participation

Setting reasonable, easy-to-understand, and easy-to-monitor expectations for participation is often a crucial step to get and keep students engaged.  Making participation interesting, authentic, and clearly tied to learning outcomes can improve student motivation to participate and engage. 

How clearly can you describe your expectations for participation?

When thinking about what you want your students to do and when, how, and to what extent you want them to do it, it's easy to either be very vague or overly-prescriptive. Walking the line between structure and autonomy can be tricky when you want to encourage sincere inquiry and discourse.  

  1. Reviewing the participation rubrics in the course and any others you have seen from your colleagues or found online, what categories of participation do you feel are most important to emphasize in your course?
  2. Once you have identified categories, describe what acceptable, not-acceptable, and outstanding look like in each category.  (For example, acceptable timeliness might be posting on the due date, not acceptable might be posting after the due date, and outstanding might be posting at least a day before the due date.  Describe it in a way that you can justifiably assign a student's participation to a particular category.  Descriptions such as "good, solid work,"  good work," and "not good work" aren't specific enough to be of help to the student in understanding what is expected of them or to you in grading what the students are doing.)
  3. Now think about an activity where you want students to actively discuss something.  Make sure that your activity includes instructions and prompts that encourage discussion as opposed to a series of individual monologues.
  4. When you have an outline of a rubric and a discussion activity ask someone who does not teach, a friend, family member, administrative staff person, etc. to review your the items and ask them to explain what they think you are asking them to do in their own words.  Revise as needed to make sure your intent is understood.  

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Teaching Online: Resources for Teaching in a Virtual Classroom

Additional Information

Bart, M (2010). How to design effective online group work activities (Links to an external site.)Faculty Focus.

Torosyan, R. (2011). Time management reminders that boost efficiency and peace of mind.  (Links to an external site.)Faculty Focus.

Lunney, M., & Sammarco, A. (2009). Scoring rubric for grading students' participation in online discussions (Links to an external site.)CIN: Computers, Informatics, Nursing, 27(1), 26-31.

Morrison, D. (2012). How-to facilitate robust online discussions (Links to an external site.). Online Learning Insights.

Rovai, A. P. (2007). Facilitating online discussions effectively (pdf, 263k) (Links to an external site.) The Internet and Higher Education, 10. 77-88

References

Baker, D. L, (2011). Designing and orchestrating online discussions (pdf, 65k)MERLOT Journal of Online Learning and Teaching, 7(3), 401-411.

Brindley, J. E.,  Walti, C., & Blaschke, L. M. (2009). Creating Effective Collaborative Learning Groups in an Online EnvironmentThe International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Budhai, S. S.(2016). Designing effective team projects in online courses (Links to an external site.)Faculty Focus.

Cormier, A., & Siemens, G. (2010). Through the open door: Open courses as research, learning and engagement. EDUCAUSE Review, 45(4) 30-39

Horton, W. K. (2006). E-Learning by design. San Francisco, CA: Pfeiffer Publishing.

Joyce, K.M., & Brown, D. (2009). Enhancing social presence in online learning: Mediating strategies applied to social networking toolsOnline Journal of Distance Learning Administration, 12(4).

Mazzolini, M., & Maddison, S. (2003). Sage, guide or ghost? The effect of instructor intervention on student participation in online discussion forums (Links to an external site.)Computers & Education40(3), 237-253.

Philip, I., Curtis, R., Phillips, P., & Wells, J. (2007). Using asynchronous audio feedback to enhance teaching presence and students’ sense of community (pdf, 115k). Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, 11(2).

Wise, A., & Chiu, M. (2011). Analyzing temporal patterns of knowledge construction in a role-based online discussion. International Journal Of Computer-Supported Collaborative Learning6(3), 445-470. doi:10.1007/s11412-011-9120-1


How do I . . .?

As a reminder, there is a basic overview of each of the main Blackboard tools in the Getting Started with Blackboard Knowledgebase.  

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Article ID: 598
Last updated: 11 May, 2022
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