An overwhelming sense of fear can overcome us when we are suddenly asked to teach not only an online course but a compressed one on top of that. By compressed, I mean teaching in eight weeks (or sometimes even less!) a course that is usually taught in a 15- to- 16-week semester. How in the world can I actually teach a course in such a short period of time? Having taught online for more than a dozen years, I have often had to make this exact scenario work. I have been asked to teach a 16-week course in eight weeks, six weeks, and even a few times in four weeks. I will leave it up to the educational researchers to determine whether or not a compressed time frame yields the same efficacy as a traditional 16-week course, but I have discovered some keys I believe can make these shorter courses more effective.
Steve Dwinnells is associate director of the e-Campus Instructional Development Center at Eastern Kentucky University.
- Review your content carefully. For a professor, usually everything is important, but is it really? Carefully and with surgical precision, inspect the content of the course. Are there extraneous materials that are interesting but perhaps not necessary for the learning outcome you are aiming for? Are there examples in relatively short video or audio formats that can yield as much as an hour or two of narrated PowerPoint or 50 pages in a textbook? Are there websites you can point your students to that would engagingly spark their interest in the topic you are currently focused on? Can some of the material be “optional,” (i.e., content to which you can point the student yet not make mandatory reading)? Are all your learning objectives necessary for this offering?
- Be prepared to extend your availability. In my normal 16-week online course, I may note that I am unavailable on weekends or in the evenings, but for a compressed course, it is imperative that your availability increases. That may not be ideal for you and me, but the bottom line is that students will need more frequent access to us during such a short period of time. That does not mean we are on 24/7, but it does mean we are more available. By increasing our availability and accessibility, we have more and better opportunities to help fill those content gaps.
- More than ever, immediate feedback is crucial. Faculty cannot wait weeks to return papers or comment on assignments. The compressed time frame simply does not allow this to work. I usually try to have items graded within two or three days unless, of course, it's a major project, but even then I aim for no longer than a week turnaround time. Students need to know where they stand as quickly as they can in a compressed online course. Effectively communicating this will help clarify student expectations.
- The structure of your online course must be highly streamlined. By streamlined, I mean that clicks should be kept to a minimum, navigation buttons need to be very clear, and expectations and learning objectives must be stated clearly and easy to find. The course needs to be as intuitive as possible. A rubric such as Quality Matters is an excellent starting point.
- Create or point students to many more help resources than normal. This may take some preparation, but if a student can quickly find out how to download the assignment through a help tutorial or a 30-second video clip, you will have minimized the turnaround time from student to teacher back to student. Will they use it? If you can create a repository or a site where links to the help materials are indexed and easily found and if you let them know up front this is where they are to go, there's a strong possibility they will use it.
- Keep engagement high by offering varied activities and assignments. If all your weeks consist of reading 200 pages in the textbook, writing a three-page paper, and then replying to a discussion board question with no fewer than 500 words, retention will suffer and content is unlikely to be absorbed, plus trying to grade in a timely fashion will also be difficult. Try some creative activities, perhaps a three-minute video project instead of a written paper on a particular topic that is then graded by the class using a provided rubric. Or have students search out five solid websites that deal with a particular topic and, once again, have the students grade each other on the usefulness of those sites. It can be as creative as you can make it, which typically makes a course far more engaging.
- Constant contact during the first week of class is essential. Because the time frame is so compressed, if a learner hasn't signed in by the second or third day, I contact the person by email. I keep a particularly close watch during that first week, and if the learner hasn't signed in by the end of the week and has yet to correspond with me letting me know what's going on, I will advise him or her to seriously consider dropping the course. Missing one week, in some cases, is equivalent to missing a quarter of a regular 16-week semester!
- Consider having far more frequent check-in points. For example, you may want to have a two- to three-question assessment twice a week to gauge whether the content is being absorbed. Or the “muddiest point” forum may be another approach where students can frequently post questions about content on which they're unclear. Regardless of how it is built, however, they “will not come.” We as professors and instructors must reach out to the students to see whether the content is really being learned and absorbed. Their success often hinges on our success as creative, energetic, and engaging teachers.