Online Best Practices
- Jefferson Community & Technical College
- Adapted from a guide developed by Bluegrass Community and Technical College in 2010
- Revised April 2014
This document is intended to offer guidance, not policy, for first time online instructors as they prepare courses for the virtual classroom. It covers:
- Developing an Online Course
- Launching an Online Course
- Managing an Online Course
Faculty members who need assistance with any of the guidelines in this document should contact Jefferson Community and Technical College’s Office of eLearning at email@example.com, or one of Jefferson’s several eMentors. The current list of eMentors can also be obtained from the Office of eLearning.
Teaching online is less about the mechanics of technology and more about what facilitates an effective educational experience, regardless of when, where, or how it is delivered.
Definition: The term “online learning” refers to faculty-delivered instruction via the Internet. Online instruction includes real-time (synchronous) and anytime, anywhere (asynchronous) interactions.
Definition: An eMentor is an experienced online instructor who has volunteered to mentor new online instructors in the preparation of courses, instructional uses of Blackboard to meet learners’ needs, and ongoing support during the process of managing an online course.
The planning of your online course begins months before the opening day of the course. This will require a considerable amount of time, but it will be worth that effort and will help to ensure a well-designed, trouble-free course.
TRAINING AND CERTIFICATION
Receiving training in Blackboard is the first step for anyone teaching online for the first time.
Upon receiving a passing score on the Blackboard Proficiency Exam, you will be ready to begin teaching your course. Though it is not required that you pass the exam prior to course development, you will find yourself much better prepared to build the course if you’ve already completed training.
DEVELOPING AN ONLINE COURSE
Effective online instruction provides an environment of interaction and communication that allows students to feel safe, welcomed, and connected to their fellow students and instructor. Online instruction provides opportunities for students to share experiences, ideas, and resources that reinforce the learning of others. This environment begins with student-friendly, clearly-communicated instructional design and a well-organized syllabus.
Definition: Instructional design is the process of developing course structure and content, including teaching strategies, systematic feedback, and assessment instruments intended to produce the skills, learning, and behaviors as set out in the course objectives and student learning outcomes.
Instructional design requires thorough instructional and audience analysis. An online course needs to reflect a clear understanding of the learner and learning needs of the course, which may require diverse learning and assessment strategies that will meet the learning outcomes and goals of the course curriculum.
A common student-friendly Blackboard design is one in which the course is organized in units or modules which may include the following components:
- Unit introduction
- Unit objectives
- Unit activities and lessons
- Unit due dates
- Unit resources
- Unit feedback
- Unit assessments
Definition: A unit or module is the breaking of ideas into small “chunks” or distinct instructional components.
A unit is a small but well-organized section of the course. Depending on the discipline, units can be composed of thematic sections (i.e. the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression) or chapter groups (i.e. Unit One – Chapters 1-6) or a multitude of other ways. The purpose in dividing the course into some type of sequential order can be very effective. Units establish the process of the course as you continue to use the pattern throughout the semester. Units allow the use of an organizational system based around folders, which can contain all the information and materials needed for each section. Units aid the students’ ability to find the information quickly and consistently and provide easy navigation of the course website.
The unit introduction presents a brief overview of the tasks (work) required, including the objectives of each assignment, due dates and time deadlines, additional resources and assignments, and assessment measures and criteria.
Example: “This course is divided into four units (module). Each section has chapter readings from the required text, additional readings (links provided), an online lecture, an online discussion, and a unit test. The test for unit one is a timed objective exam. The duration of each unit is approximately four weeks.”
Blackboard permits a variety of ways to organize the structure of an online course. Chunking the curriculum in an orderly manner (units) that is repeated throughout the semester will keep the students aware of what is expected over the duration of the course. Students may need to be reminded that although online learning is flexible learning, it may not mean “anytime” submissions. Using clearly-defined units will alleviate learner confusion about what is expected and when. The more the initial instructional design is repeated, the less time will be spent answering emails and questions about the course, especially “What do I do now?”
Although the online syllabus contains the standard requirements of the in-class syllabus, it also needs other information specific to the online environment. Students can feel disoriented without the standard face-to-face explanations of the traditional classroom. As such, the online syllabus must be more detailed than the classroom syllabus. Jefferson Community and Technical College has developed a master syllabus template specifically for online classes; if you need a copy of that document, be sure to contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Generally, some of the more important details needed in an effective online syllabus are discussed below.
Online Class Procedures
You should explain any processes and procedures used in the online course – i.e., how to proceed each week for the class activities and tasks, how to label assignments, how to post assignments, the requirements for assignments, etc.
Online Class Participation
Provide a clear description of what constitutes expected participation in class (e.g., students should participate in weekly class discussion and post an original discussion question three times during the semester). Also important is adding a clear description of what constitutes attendance.
Example: Since regular and active participation is an essential aspect of this online class, I expect you to log on three times out of every seven days. Or, I expect you to log on Mondays and Wednesdays to read the announcements.
While you may also list course materials with Jefferson Community and Technical College’s local campus bookstore, be sure to list required course materials with the KCTCS Distance Learning Bookstore as well, as soon as possible. Students may not be in the same city as a college bookstore and extra time may be need for them to locate or receive course materials. You should also provide detailed information about these course materials on the course syllabus, in case students do not order materials before the class begins.
Specific Due Dates
Due dates have to be specific to avoid confusion. Avoid using dates like week one, week two. The more specificity, the less confusion, so add as much as possible to the due dates. Be sure to specify time zones as well, since learners may be literally anywhere.
Example: Assignment #1 must be posted before midnight, Friday, March 20, 2010, EST.
Late Work Policies
Since most students who enroll in online classes do so because of the flexibility of the learning environment, adding a late policy with some flexibility can be a good idea. The policy should provide for technical problems that can cause down-time, allow flexibility for learner’s work schedules, and permit some alternatives for situations that may interfere with the learner’s ability to interact.
Specify hardware and software requirements of the course, including the file formats documents in which documents need to be submitted. Label formats clearly so that students are aware of the ones needed in the course. Provide information about the location of computer labs on campus as a back-up plan in the case of broken computers.
Real-time communications with students is an important aspect of any online course. This is easily accomplished by telephone, online chats, Collaborate sessions, or periods in which they can expect instant response email. Specify the times and places learners can depend on contacting you.
Example: If you need to call or email me, my office hours are on Monday and Wednesday mornings from 9-11:00 AM and on Fridays from 1-3:00 PM, EST.
During the semester, technical problems should be expected. Include a guide to technical assistance (for Blackboard as well as any other course/publisher materials) with phone numbers, links, and emails that will allow students to contact technical or administrative support. In the event the students cannot post on a published date, a contingency plan is also a good idea.
Example: For 24/7 help with technical problems, contact Blackboard Help Desk via the Help tab at the top of any Blackboard page. In the extremely rare situation in which the system is down when a test or posting is required, I will notify you about a new posting deadline.
If proctored exams are a part of the online testing procedures, the manner, places, and times of those exams should be stated in the syllabus. Please see the Jefferson Community and Technical College online master syllabus template for updated information about KCTCS proctored exam regulations.
Example: This online section requires proctored exams which may be scheduled to an on-site location (be as specific as possible).
Because students are unable to see and hear verbal cues from the members of the class, it is best to inform them of the level of web etiquette expected in the course. R U OK w/ txt language?
Example: Our online discussions are open class discussions so I will expect the same respect
you would show each other in the regular classroom. Being polite does not mean you
cannot disagree with a class member or the teacher but be sure to do it in a polite
Withdrawal Policy and Procedure
Include the college policy for withdrawing from the class during the semester, as well as deadlines (see the academic calendar). Students wishing to drop or withdraw should contact the Jefferson Community and Technical College Records Office at email@example.com.
Online courses must be designed so that learners with vision, hearing, and mobility impairments can access the information, complete the assignments, and take the required exams. Refer to the master online syllabus template for requirements, and check with the ARC with any questions about accommodations.
Accommodating time extensions.
Accommodating time extensions is one common issue confronting online faculty. A time extension gives the students with disabilities additional time to take a test. Here are some suggestions for accommodating time extensions:
- New exam folder.
- Create another folder (e.g. Test 1, version B), copy and paste the exam into it resetting the time for that folder.
- Instructors may password protect that folder and give the password only to those students who require extended time.
- Disable timer.
- Use a timer but ask Blackboard not end the test when time expires.
- Inform students that they will penalized if they exceed the time allowed.
- Privately tell DSS students with extended time how much time they are allowed.
- Set special exam time.
- Have the DSS student wait until all students have completed the exam with the exception of the student needing accommodation and then extend the time for them by making an arrangement with the student on a particular day/time.
- Time extensions only apply to tests and examinations.
- Time extensions do not affect the due dates of special projects, essays, and other long term assignments.
The online syllabus is a dynamic document. As technology changes, needs of the learners and learning outcomes may also change. The syllabus also sets the plan and contract of the course, and as a result, requires specificity. Many of the items in the online syllabus may need posting in multiple places on the course website. However, the syllabus should contain all important details of the course aside from actual learning content. Be specific, but remember: the longer the document, the less likely students are to read it.
LAUNCHING AN ONLINE COURSE
The first week of class is an important opportunity to build the learning community essential to online learning.
The Learning Community
Definition: A learning community is an environment in which the instructor and individual learners contribute to each other’s course experience and the learning that takes place over that time.
In an environment where instructors and learners do not meet face to face, and where students do not see or meet their peers in a physical setting, developing a sense of community is a challenging necessity. This environment can be key to positive and successful learning. Providing an environment that fosters positive interactions with the instructor and cooperative exchanges among peers can result in a highly-engaging experience.
Instructor to student interaction begins the minute you launch your course. The use of the Announcement function is an effective way to begin building the learning community between you and your students. Your first announcement will open the course but it is also a good opportunity to make yourself “real” and approachable to your students. You could introduce yourself to the class—both professionally and personally. For a first day activity, require the students to do the same.
Example: I am including a photo of myself with my dog, a chocolate lab named Gus. I have provided you with a discussion forum for you to follow my lead and introduce yourself professionally (maybe academically – your progress and goals) and personally. Feel free to include a photo of yourself or your favorite dog, car, or some other item we can use to remember you!
Cyber-culture anxiety might be a problem for some of the students. The opening announcement might also be a good time and place to “smooth their fears” with a word or two of encouragement.
Example: For those first-time online learners, don’t be afraid to ask questions about Blackboard and the course. If I don’t know the answer, some of our seasoned virtual learners will help us both learn.
Frequent communication in regular announcements (students will soon recognize the importance and frequency of the announcement feature) and responding in a timely manner to group or individual questions, will make your presence known to the online learners. This can keep learners motivated and connected.
Student to student interaction is another important aspect of the online learning community. In any classroom, learning is enhanced when students have the opportunity to connect with each other about the academic tasks. Again, for the online instructor, initiating and managing activities to cause students to interact with each other can be challenging. There are several ways to encourage students to get to know each other in a more intimate way.
Allowing students to have student to student communication to get answers and to share resources is an effective use of the discussion board or blog features of Blackboard. Student to student interactions do not require the instructor to respond to every posting but do require some commentary and guidance.
Limiting the size of the discussion group to four or five students works well in encouraging students to connect with one another. Each group can decide upon a name for the group and the instructor can use the group name in commenting to the entire class.
Pairing students for the purpose of peer response is another useful strategy that serves as a vehicle for students to get to know one another as well as a way to share ideas and comments.
Regardless of the strategy, structuring opportunities in your online course where students connect with one another is an important aspect of the online environment. Developing the means to promote student to student interactions is just as important as in any classroom situation. Even though the class is in cyberspace, it is composed of real people. Students will be able to see names and faces if you dedicate a section of your course for students to post pictures and short biographies of themselves. This “humanizes” the names they’ll see throughout the class.
Definition: Instructor presence is revealed in the verbal cues (words) that students interpret to understand and judge the classroom climate and the instructor. In the virtual classroom, the instructor and students do not have the use of the visual cues of face to face communications.
Virtually all the cues that the instructor and students use to judge success are written words.
Written words shape the climate of the course, so the tone of class communications is important. Since attitude comes through in writing, word selection is important. Students will decide the kind of instructor you are by the way you respond to them in the written form. Frequent, meaningful, and timely interaction is encouraged for maximum student motivation and involvement in online learning. Are you sounding mad, short/impatient, disgusted, or sarcastic? Are you sounding helpful, patient, reinforcing? Using multimedia is another way to establish a real teaching presence in an online course. Posting images and video helps create a visual sense of instructor presence, and can show you care enough to have taken an extra step to show you’re really there.
Once the learning community and instructor presence have been established, they must be maintained with ongoing communications among all parties. Blackboard provides multiple ways for you to communicate with your students during the semester. The more you communicate, the more your students may communicate. Besides the announcement feature, you could communicate using some of the following other Blackboard features:
- Discussion boards
- Blackboard Messages (internal emails—not recommended)
- Chat rooms (Collaborate)
- Voice messages, other audio recordings
- Messenger services (AIM, SKYPE, Yahoo Messenger—but keep it simple!)
- KCTCS email
The key to good communication is not which way you communicate, but that you communicate consistently and clearly. Your communication expectations and strategies need to be clearly stated in the syllabus as well as in relevant locations within the course (e.g., discussion board instructions), and you must follow through. In general, in the online course, the more you communicate the more your students will feel a sense of engagement.
Example: I will send an announcement when all the papers have been read and graded. Or, we will have one chat room for each unit of the course. Or, I will read every discussion but I will only give a summative response to the class responses.
The visual aspects of your website communication, including documents, page layout and messages may also communicate to your audience. Graphics, emotive icons and colors should be used sparingly and the use of all caps should be avoided so as to avoid unclear or misinterpretation of the message. Visually, the use of all caps is difficult to read.
During the semester, providing a Student FAQ can ease anxiety and increase student communication; this can be a running list compiled of common questions from previous terms. The discussion board is a good place to reinforce the type of collaboration you expect from your students; this can even take the form of a forum specifically for students to communicate with each other, ask each other questions, etc.
Sensitive communications should only be sent through KCTCS webmail. Threaded discussions are for group communications not individual criticism.
As you begin your online teaching, you will want to experiment with the features of Blackboard and select those that work best for your learning outcomes and student needs. Do not plan a “set it and forget it” type of course; you should be monitoring what works and what doesn’t. If you’re not sure, ask your students!
MANAGING AN ONLINE COURSE
As has been discussed, online courses do not run on auto-pilot; these courses should be instructor-directed and teacher presence is an essential part. Your commitment to be active and aware of what is going on during the semester will help you manage the academic integrity of the course and student learning.
Academic integrity is a subject that should be addressed in your syllabus and reinforced throughout the term. Your syllabus needs to state the institutional policy on cheating. Early on in the course, you may find that asking students to explain what the policy means to the success of their academic career or in your course (discussion or blog feature) will be a worthwhile assignment, perhaps as part of a syllabus quiz. If necessary, you might want to include a short lesson on “avoiding plagiarism” or the consequences of cheating at the beginning of the course. No matter how an instructor approaches the subject, it is far better to discuss it with the class before there is a problem than to face the “I didn’t know” excuse after the fact.
Using multiple methods of assessment strategies is an effective means of avoiding some of the cheating issues while, at the same time, accommodating different learning profiles.
Different forms of Assessment include:
- End of the semester paper
- Weekly tests
- Group projects
- Case study analysis
- Reading journals or blogs
- Reading responses
- Chat room responses
- Threaded discussions participation
- Midterm and final exams
Definition: Assessment is the evaluation of the tests, tasks, projects and other assignments used in the course to measure the pre and post results of the learners’ skills, knowledge and behaviors as stated in the learning outcomes.
The online environment, like any academic course, requires appropriate assessment strategies (quizzes, short and long papers, testing that requires the application of a theory or concept, etc.) that will measure the success of the learning experience. These strategies should have announced time-periods and should be responsive to the learners’ needs, curriculum goals, and learning outcomes.
As in face-to-face delivery modes, all evaluations should be returned to the learner in a timely manner with constructive feedback. Blackboard facilitates evaluations with a variety of testing features that can be employed to ensure the academic integrity of the course.
Authentic assessments require students to create some kind of unique product to demonstrate what they have learned in the class. A course essay is one example; others include creating a website, developing and sharing a PowerPoint presentation, or recording a video narrative, among countless others. The idea behind authentic assessment is that students create a product that is not easily replicated by other students. Assigning authentic assessments is an excellent way to promote academic integrity in your class. For more ideas, simply run a Google search for “authentic assessment.”
Blackboard Protections against Cheating
Blackboard provides a number of features that can be employed to reduce cheating in online objective tests and essays. Consider adopting one or more of these features when administering assessments:
- Test banks.
- Blackboard allows instructors to create a bank of questions and draw randomly from that bank when creating a test for students.
- For instance, a Math exam might offer three questions for solving a factoring problem. Students taking the exam would be randomly assigned one of the three problems.
- Scramble the order of questions and choices.
- Blackboard can scramble the order in which questions are presented to students.
- Blackboard can also scramble the order of multiple choice and matching selections.
- Limit test windows.
- Instructors can limit the duration that a test is active.
- Please use this feature with care and remember that many students have variable work schedules.
- A 24 hour window may be sufficient to meet the needs of most students with enough notice, though any shorter amount of time should be avoided.
- Limit test durations.
- Blackboard allows instructors to time tests and even to limit the amount of time a student can spend on any given question.
- Blackboard can also restrict students' access to other portions of the test, preventing a student from going back to examine prior answers.
- When using these features, please allow students a reasonable time to answer the assigned question.
- As a rule of thumb, one minute is a reasonable time allotment for a standard multiple choice question.
- Instructors will need to scale that time upwards or downwards depending on the difficulty/complexity of the test or question.
- Use SafeAssign.
- Safe Assign is a Blackboard tool that checks submitted papers and essays for possible plagiarism.
- This can be a powerful deterrent against cheating on written work.
Provide Student Feedback While Protecting Test Bank Integrity
For quizzes and midterm exams, it is good practice to provide students with feedback on their incorrect answers, and Blackboard can provide this feedback very efficiently. Instructors, especially those using test banks and quizzes that will be used in future semesters, should take care to preserve the integrity of their tests in order to limit future test sharing. Here are some steps faculty can take:
- Limit access to incorrect answers only.
- Blackboard can be configured to show only the answers a student got wrong.
- Employ test banks.
- Using a test bank means that each student receives a slightly different test.
- Rotate exam questions.
- Do not rely on the same exam questions semester-to-semester.
- Periodically update your exams.
- Discuss test errors individually with students.
- Contact students individually in order to share the kind of information a student got incorrect but not the exact answers to specific questions.
- Rely on a final proctored exam.
- Questions and answers to final proctored exams would be extremely difficult to for students to share.
- Due to limited proctoring resources, this should only be a last resort.
Proctored exams require students to take an examination in a controlled location under
the supervision of a proctor. This allows instructors to assign closed book and closed
note examinations. Instructors who assign a proctored exam upload exam passwords to
a central database. Students at Jefferson Community and Technical College schedule
their exams over the Internet. Directions are available from the Office of eLearning
Many courses that rely heavily on objective tests may benefit from requiring one proctored exam per semester; please keep the following in mind if offering a proctored exam:
- Limit the number of exams.
- Most instructors find that a single, final proctored exam meets their course needs.
- Courses which require more than two proctored exams during a semester should be offered as “hybrid” and not “online” classes.
- KCTCS restricts online instructors from offering more than two proctored exams in a fully-online class.
- Avoid paper copies.
- Proctored exams should be taken entirely online.
- If paper copies are absolutely necessary, please contact the Office of eLearning about making special arrangements.
At first, the online environment can seem intimidating. But like with other modes of teaching, training and practice can remove your fears. Like the students, learning to use the features of Blackboard and adapting to the technology of today, is participating in a learning community. You will have the opportunity for professional training sessions, peer helpers and experienced eMentors for support. The earlier you begin preparing your course, the sooner you will feel confident and the sooner you will be teaching in cyber space!
Undoubtedly, there are countless other topics and issues in online learning that may warrant questions and discussions as you move through the process of course development and delivery.
Please feel free to contact the Office of eLearning at firstname.lastname@example.org if you need assistance throughout these processes. Online learning is quickly becoming a current standard rather than just a future possibility in higher education. While the information discussed in this document is subject to change, Jefferson Community and Technical College’s commitment to supporting online faculty is not!
The guidelines in this document were developed by Bluegrass Community & Technical College’s Distance Learning Advisory Committee in 2010 with input from experienced online instructors and BCTC’s Academic Standards and Admissions Committee. In 2014 it was edited and adapted by Jefferson Community & Technical College for local use.