Through regular student feedback, Jennifer Luzar, associate professor of language arts at Northwood University, has compiled the following things students want in their online courses and ways that she has adapted her instruction accordingly.
1. Quick responses
From the time she started teaching online, Luzar has made it a point to respond as soon as possible to her students. The typical reply from students is, “Wow! Thanks for the quick response,” as if this is not usually the case. “I used to be surprised by that because I feel that as online instructors it is our responsibility to try to get back to these people as quickly as possible,” Luzar says.
To meet this standard, Luzar uses her smartphone to reply to students wherever she may be. “It’s usually a quick yes or no, and the students can get on with their work,” Luzar says. When she recommends to colleagues to do the same, they often bristle at the thought of the online course intruding on other aspects of their lives. To this she replies: “Think about how much easier your personal life is going to be if you can answer a quick email at home at 7 p.m. instead of waiting until 8 the next morning and having 100 emails in your inbox. By then the student is annoyed or freaked out. The quicker you can get back to the students the better. They really appreciate that.”
To help minimize the number of student emails, Luzar encourages students to post their course management/logistical questions to special forum within the course and to monitor it frequently. Students often can answer each other’s questions before Luzar even sees the question. (She logs in to the forum several times a day to affirm correct responses from fellow students or provide the correct answer.) Having this forum reminds students that the instructor is not the only person with the answers and that “we are not here at their beck and call. This is a way to empower them to help one another and to be drivers of the course,” Luzar says.
2. Instructor presence
Students want to know that there is a real person teaching the course. Luzar has several ways to convey this sense of presence. One way is to include “a little bit about what’s going on with me” in the weekly announcements and by sharing photos or stories. (“I always say, ‘This is optional,’” Luzar says.)
She also includes a weekly one-minute video that introduces the unit. This provides “a constant feeling that there is a person on the other end,” Luzar says. These videos are informal and intended to be timely and personal, so she may talk about current events and mention students by name.
Luzar also uses video in a more formal way each week, condensing a weekly lecture into five minutes. She records these in a studio and reuses them in future sections of her courses.
Many of Luzar’s students are nontraditional learners trying to keep their busy lives on track. Based on suggestions from students, Luzar provides reminders and forecasts to help students manage their time. Reminders let students know when things are due and forecasts come at the end of the week and alert students about what to expect in the next two weeks. Reminders and forecasts are in red to help students see them at a glance.
4. Easy-to-access course design
Students appreciate having all the content for a unit in one place instead of having things buried within folders. “The fewer clicks the better,” Luzar says.
This idea came from feedback from students. The students were frustrated that they couldn’t get back easily to where they’d been as they navigated the course. They had to click on exterior links to open attachments.
Luzar’s approach to course design is to keep it simple. Although her approach does not use all the features of the LMS, but students have reacted positively to it, and it makes her work easier. “Just because the tools are there doesn’t mean that you have to use them. You have to figure out what your students like and what is within your comfort zone and then merge the two,” Luzar says.
5. Fun, interesting discussion formats
Luzar divides the class into five-member discussion groups and assigns each member with a unique role in each discussion. For example, she’ll have one student serve the role of David Letterman, creating a Top 10 List-style summary of a chapter in the textbook. Another will take on the role of Ann Landers and write a question-and-answer-type column based on the chapter’s material. Another group member, “Oscar,” (as in the Academy Awards) reviews the discussion, and gives awards for exemplary posts in the discussion board, and explains why.
“Students love that. … It teaches them to think differently, perhaps extend their thought or rearrange or cross-reference it. And so that really seems to get people going and lot of times, if I change the discussion roles, students will email and say, ‘Can I be Dave next time?’
“I think we do these types of assignments or discussions or classroom interactions in the face-to-face classroom, so I really believe with a little creativity anything you can do face-to-face can be modified in the online environment. And the students appreciate it.”