Simple Steps to Get Started With Teaching Online

photo credit: http://cat.xula.edu/food/moving-from-in-person-to-online-teaching/

photo credit: http://cat.xula.edu/food/moving-from-in-person-to-online-teaching/

With the Christmas holiday and New Year around the corner, I’m sure many of us have begun planning our holiday getaways! For me, I have a perfect relaxation plan in place to unwind after a very busy and fruitful 2015. However, before we head out to implement our various holiday plans, I want to encourage you to think about your spring 2016 course(s). This is particularly important if you’re new to online teaching.

At the recently concluded 4th Annual Fall Teaching & Learning Day, my colleague, Natalie and I participated in a poster session, where we presented on the simple steps to take for those who are teaching an online or hybrid course for the first time.

We began by outlining the opportunities that are often derived from teaching online, such as the convenience and flexibility that we have in our schedules, where teaching can occur anywhere and anytime without facing any hindrances or fighting traffic to get to class. Also, the opportunity to learn new skills, or enhance existing ones, and being able to transfer the skills to other aspects or modes of teaching, such as online and face-to-face (F2F), and vice versa. Lastly, there’s also the opportunity for student engagement and participation to increase, since no student has the ability hide in the shadows or holdout from staying engaged or participating fully.

Having a full understanding of these opportunities, and being able to embrace and internalize them would make your online teaching experience much more rewarding, especially if they are coupled with the steps below.

Step 1: Assess skills/yourself

Penn State University created a very helpful self-assessment tool for online teaching that allows you to assess your skills to determine areas of strengths and weaknesses. What are your competencies? Have you taught online before? Are you comfortable teaching online? Do you need some training?

Step 2: Have a plan

This is a case of the 5 P’s of success, where proper planning prevents poor performance. Begin with the end in mind, knowing fully well that any poorly designed course might lead to a poor delivery of content, which might elicit a poor performance evaluation from students.

Therefore, make a plan and a schedule. Do you have a course that you might redesign/or content to repurpose for another course? Set some time aside to work on the redevelopment. If on the other hand you’d be creating an entirely new course, have you thought of what you might need? A course development plan would help you actualize this. Creating content for/designing an online course for the first time is time consuming and could take up to 3 months, realistically. Would you rather be scrambling at the last minute or work ahead of time to leave room for improvements?

Step 3: Incorporate some design standards

Course design standards such as the one by Quality Matters (QM) or Online Learning Consortium (OLC, formally, Sloan-C), help guide the design of online courses to ensure that the content is pedagogically sound. The QM Rubric, for instance, outlines eight (8) standards to follow. We’re happy to discuss the standards/rubrics with you, if need be.

Step 4: Maintain a regular presence in the course

Facilitate the course by being present in the course to facilitate learning. Include critical thinking opportunities for students, especially in online discussions. Feedback is also key. If students are made aware of their strengths and weaknesses, it presents a great chance for them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Step 5: Maintain your partnership

At every step of this journey, the e-Learning Center (e-LC) remains a helpful partner, and stands ready to assist in any way possible. We provide training opportunities for all things Sakai. Opportunities are available through walk-ins, by appointment, in person or through video conference. After assessing your skills, if you discover that you need to refresh your knowledge or gain new knowledge, do not hesitate to call on the e-LC right away. Ramon Bautista once said that “the only stupid question is the question that is never asked.” We’re here to help make your teaching experience as pleasant as possible.

Enjoy your break, and have a wonderful New Year!!

How do you wrap up your course?


Gift Box with Your Course written on the tag
The end of the semester is quickly approaching, so how do you wrap up your course for your students and yourself? The article from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wrapping Up a Large Online Course, provides good ideas, even though the article is intended for larger online classes.

The article provides three big ideas:

  • Evaluate and prioritize assignments for revision based on student success
  • Offer a student survey for specific course feedback
  • Review materials and prioritize content for updating

I like the idea of collecting specific course feedback and reflection. Just because the course is over, what students have learned may not apply to them immediately. It is helpful for students to make connections with prior learning and experience and what they learned in your course. A suggested technique is for students to create a mind map as a way of capturing the key concepts from the course to connect with what the concepts mean and how concepts can be applied.

Sample mind map structure:
Central Point in the middle with branches to main points and sub points

Students can draw a mind map or use a free mind mapping tool.

Another option is to create a Wrap Up discussion forum for you and your students to reflect on the semester. Consider offering open-ended questions which can impact how you revise your course.

  1. How rigorous or difficult was the course?
  2. What is something you accomplished this semester that you are proud of?
  3. What was your most challenging assignment?
  4. What was the most challenging part of this course for you?
  5. If you could change one thing about the course, what would it be?
  6. In what area do you feel you made your biggest improvements?
  7. What are six adjectives that best describe this course?
  8. What advice would you give students taking this course next semester?

When the course is over, you can wrap up the discussion and provide additional resources for students including associations, journals, and books.

From the mind maps and/or open-ended responses, you have additional feedback to consider, so now it is a good time to self-reflect. Ask yourself, did the students make connections as you thought they might? Are big ideas missing? How can you revise your course to make the concepts more clear? You now have information to guide you as you reflect, revise and improve your course.

Salter, Anastasia. (2015, Nov. 20). Wrapping Up A Large Online Course. Retrieved
November 20, 2015 from The Chronicle of Education.


Students and Reading


 horses“You can’t lead a horse to water, but you can salt his oats so he’s damned thirsty when he gets there.”

I’ve heard from many faculty who lament that their students just don’t do the reading. If we put aside the exorbitant cost of some textbooks, why are students not reading and what can faculty do about it?

For some students reading is work, not pleasure. When many students read it is only so deep (let’s say the first two level of Bloom’s Taxonomy – knowledge and comprehension). Moving from who and what to why and how are difficult steps particularly with heavy texts. Even if they can give you back what the reading said, it is far from any kind of interpretation. And honestly, if they just wait long enough odds are you’ll tell them anyway. Will the text tell them something that you won’t? Does it introduce material of just reinforce it? Students are figuring this out in the first few days of class and/or asking former students if they really need the textbook.

Make reading count by counting it. For every reading there should be a quiz, report, or some kind of assessment. Try open book or group work quizzes (additional information).  Be sure to dedicate some time to discuss the reading too. Try the jigsaw cooperative learning technique, have students formulate test questions, guided reciprocal peer questions, or have them collaborate on a concept map.

Microsoft Office 2016 Gets Collaborative with Co-Authoring


Microsoft Office 2016 was released to PC consumers on September 22nd, and it will be available for Higher Education volume licensing customers this month.  The Mac version has been available since the summer.  Those customers with Office 365 E3 Pro Plus software installed on 1-5 computers at home will be upgraded to the latest software in February 2016.

The key marketing point in the latest Office suite is real-time co-authoring of documents.  Watch the two-minute video below to learn how to collaborate more effectively in real-time from your desktop and online versions of Microsoft Office 2016.


SharePoint Arrives to UB via Team Sites


The University of Baltimore’s Office of Technology Services recently released Team Sites, an online document library and collaboration tool that, like UB’s email, is part of the Office 365 suite of tools. Organize, author, share ideas and documents with this tool based on Microsoft’s SharePoint collaborative functions.

Team Sites will enhance work that had previously been done via shared storage on mapped drives or by using a project site in Sakai Learning Management System (both of which will still be available). In Team Sites, individual faculty, staff, or students can be added as Site Administrators, empowering them to manage the granular permissions that drive the Team Sites experience. Links to Team Sites tools like document libraries can be made available in Sakai, leveraging the integrations of both systems.

Some of the great new features of the Team Sites tool are highlighted below.

Team Sites information, FAQ, and policy can be found here.

Document Check-out
Files stored in a Team Site library can be checked out to allow you to complete your edits. Once the file is checked back in, other users may view the latest changes or check it out to make their own.


Real-Time Document Co-authoring
Multiple users can edit Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents simultaneously using the online versions of those tools in Office 365. These documents can be saved with version control in Team Sites.

Document Versioning
Document versioning can be enabled to track both major and minor versions to a file. This includes author auditing and dates, and files can be reverted to a previous version at any time.


Document Workflow
Document approval and signature workflows can be added to Team Site libraries. One-to-many users can approve both serial and parallel workflow items, augmenting current pen-and-paper business processes. Workflows can be used to seek director approval for policy changes. Professors could institute workflows for reviewing first edits of an assignment.


image credit: http://ctle.hccs.edu/OTDE/about_de/cheating.html

Best Practices for Online Exams

image credit: http://ctle.hccs.edu/OTDE/about_de/cheating.html

image credit: http://ctle.hccs.edu/OTDE/about_de/cheating.html

With the Fall 2015 semester at its midpoint, one thing is on the mind of students and faculty alike: “Midterm,” which means, “exams.” In the last week or so, I have set up a lot of Midterm exams in Sakai (our learning management system, LMS), and they all had one thing in common: “multiple choice.” Instructors rely heavily on multiple choice (MC) exams to evaluate student learning outcomes. This is understandable because multiple choice exams offer convenience, ease of grading, quick and easy feedback, among many others.

PS: Sakai can grade multiple choice, true/false and fill-in-the-blank questions automatically.

Whereas a good MC or online exam should be able to assess the key components of a course, in other words, measure the learning goals and objectives of the material(s) covered, it should also adhere to some e-Learning best practices.

Although there are lot of best practices in this regard, here are a few to keep in mind:

1. Be consistent

Decide early on how many answer choices to make available to students for each question, and stick to it. If, for instance, you offer A to D as answers in the test, stay consistent throughout. In “Multiple Choice Questions In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know,” Christopher Pappas, advises that “as a general rule, you should limit the number of variables to 4 or 5, as this decreases the chances of a learner correctly guessing the answer and prevents memory overload.” By doing so, you allow students the opportunity to process and retain information easily, and reduce the chance of them getting confused. This also allows them to quickly move through the test, especially if it is timed.

2. Discourage cheating

A good multiple choice assessment discourages cheating, not only in the way and manner the questions are created, but also in the way they are administered. Because it is easier for students to congregate in computer labs or form “study sessions” during the test, it is important to take measures to prevent such unethical behavior.

i. Time the assessment

Students are discouraged from overt cheating when they’re constrained by time. The fact that they don’t have infinite time to complete an assessment encourages them to concentrate on the task of completing the assessment within the allotted time.

ii. Randomize the answers

Randomizing the MC answers is a tried-and-true way to discourage cheating. Assuming that merely timing the test fails to discourage the “congregation,” then randomization becomes the gatekeeper. When I set up tests or quizzes, I not only randomize the questions, but I also randomize the answer choices as well.

iii. Randomize the questions

Sakai allows for the randomization of questions with the click of a button. In addition, we can also create question pools, where a pre-determined number of questions are randomly drawn for each student. Again, it wouldn’t hurt to randomize the answer choices too as an added measure.

3. Provide feedback

Endeavor to provide some feedback to the students beyond simply giving them the correct answer(s). A detailed feedback goes a long way to reinforce learning. Another great feature of Sakai allows for extensive feedback to be included for every question. The e-Learning Center (eLC) staff can help!

Dickinson, M. (2012, March 12). The Thing about Multiple-Choice Tests …. Retrieved July 29, 2015, from

Pappas, C. (2015, July 28). Multiple Choice Questions In eLearning: What eLearning Professionals Should Know. Retrieved July 29, 2015, from

A resource from K-12: The Teaching Tolerance webinar series


I’m a big fan of mining the wealth of resources offered by and for K-12 practitioners in the area of teaching and learning, from simple teaching tips to whole movements, such as backward design. Last year, the keynote speaker at Fall Teaching & Learning Day was Ron Ritchhart of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, whose work on Thinking Routines in K-12 has tremendous applicability to college teaching in relation to critical thinking, peer learning, and classroom assessment.

A resource that I’ve been following this semester is a series of webinars on classroom climate put out by Teaching Tolerance, from the Southern Poverty Law Center. The session for this week is “Responding to Incidents of Hate and Bias,” and the webinars are archived for individuals who want to access the resources but cannot participate in the live sessions. I’ll be using a tool from a previous webinar, “Let’s Talk: Discussing Race, Racism, and Other Difficult Topics,” in an upcoming roundtable at UB’s Fall Teaching & Learning Day. My goal is to talk with faculty about their skill building needs in relation to classroom climate, in order to help shape future programming. I look forward to the conversation that ensues.

Structured Assignments Can Help to Close the Achievement Gap


Yesterday in an opinion piece in the New York Times Annie Murphy Paul asked whether college lectures were unfair. She cited research that shows that “the lecture is not generic or neutral, but a specific cultural form that favors some people while discriminating against others, including women, minorities and low-income and first-generation college students.”  Why would this be? Researchers know that “we learn new material by anchoring it to knowledge we already possess.” First-generation college students, women and minorities might be less sure that they possess background knowledge that would be useful in understanding a lecture, so allowing them to show themselves what they actually know already primes them to acquire new knowledge in the classroom.

Paul does not advocate throwing out the lecture entirely. Instead, she encourages professors to introduce more structure into reading assignments outside of class that will help them engage more fully in a traditional lecture. Studies have found that when professors provide questions to students about the reading before they come to class, students are more likely to complete the reading, putting the entire class on a more even footing.

Some professors grade the answers to the homework questions, but others administer frequent in-class quizzes that incorporate them. I like this method, since I prefer to grade writing on paper instead of on-line.  In class I can ask students to connect the reading to a document they have not seen before or an image I show them for the first time. Last week my first-year students had read about Captain John Smith for homework. At the beginning of class, I asked students to fill in this Point of View graphic organizer to analyze his many layers in order to determine bias he might have brought to his record of his Chesapeake Bay explorations. When they had completed the graph, students could see right in front of them the knowledge they brought to the class, so they were ready to hear more about John Smith in a lecture. This type of structure is relatively easy to incorporate in your teaching. In fact you already might be doing it.


Paul writes, “In the structured course, all demographic groups reported completing the readings more frequently and spending more time studying; all groups also achieved higher final grades than did students in the lecture course. At the same time, the active-learning approach worked disproportionately well for black students — halving the black-white achievement gap evident in the lecture course — and for first-generation college students, closing the gap between them and students from families with a history of college attendance.”

Students spend a good deal of energy trying to figure out “what the professor wants.” Structured reading assignments make homework expectations explicit. When they know the answers to reading questions, students can feel certain they are reading in the right way. When they can connect their homework to new experiences in class, they gain a sense of mastery. When a professor tells them every week that they are on the right track, they come to understand that they are in the right place.

Difficult Online students


Dealing with difficult students in an online class presents some unique challenges. Certainly, faculty are aware that there is a line of abusive language that must be dealt with directly and in conjunction with others at the University (remember the Dean of Students can be your greatest resources in such situations).  But what about the disruption that is less hostile – the discussion post that is critical of the course organization, the complaints that go to other students instead of you, or the message dripping with sarcasm?

angry studentTeaching online is more time consuming than teaching face-to-face and the prep time is probably double. It is that preparation that can make
the difference in heading off the critics. Good course design and a comprehensive syllabus are the foundation of a successful course and fewer jabs from the disgruntled student.

Sometimes the difficult student is venting and needs just to be heard. Courses can be daunting and both personal and work demands can take a student to the edge. Dr. Alan Lyles at the University of Baltimore describes his approach as one of “compassionate rigor.”  Can we address the disruptive student’s behavior with compassion without bowing to a lessening of standards or course expectations?

In his paper on Dealing with Problem Students and Faculty Thomas Tobin reminds us that we all know at least one faculty member who is disorganized (I’d respectfully add thorny and/or cantankerous). The breakdown in organization and communications can often be the source of complaints.  Are you are willing to examine the causes of difficult students or only make it a student issue?

In a face-to-face environment we might use non-verbal to address a difficult student. Giving a student “the eye” or standing a little closer to their desk as you continue teaching are strategies that can’t be reproduced online. You can however try a few of these techniques:

  • acknowledge the difficulty of the assignment, provide additional instruction( if necessary), and encourage the student
  • allow a draft submission or create an environment where it is okay to make mistakes
  • make your learning objectives realistic and achievable
  • build relationships with your students that allow for both your praise and critic
  • keep it simple. Make your instruction as clear and yet comprehensive as possible.
  • provide timelines not just deadlines
  • ask students to contact you with questions
  • set firm rules for decorum and interaction (between students and with you)