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How to Prepare Your Online Classroom for a Successful Session

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Podcast with Dr. Bethanie L. HansenFaculty Director, School of Arts and Humanities

Teaching online classes requires a substantial amount of advanced preparation. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen shares ways teachers can prepare before a class so they can focus on teaching, engaging with students, and meeting their own teaching goals. Learn tips on writing the syllabus, outlining weekly assignments in advance, preparing for forum discussions, and assessing grading tools all before the class starts to make sure online educators have time and energy to dedicate to students.

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Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. I’m very happy that you’re with us today, this 57th episode, we’re just slightly into our second year here. We’ve just finished a three-episode series on Work-Life Balance:

And in those three episodes, we discussed a few strategies to help you manage your workload, set boundaries and try some efficiency strategies to help you out.

Now with episode number 57 here, we are jumping into the preparation of your online classroom. As you know, managing your time and setting boundaries while you’re teaching online are absolutely essential for job satisfaction and effective teaching. This is going to free you up to meet your students’ needs while you’re teaching your online course.

If you are actually preparing things while you’re teaching them, you’re going to spend an awful lot of time getting things ready while you should be spending that time interacting with students and grading things.

And if you do all of those things at once, that time’s really going to add up and it’s going to be exhausting for you. So I’m here because I’d like to protect your time and your energy and help you really enjoy your online teaching. Online education can be fun, satisfying, rewarding, and a rich experience for both you and your students. So let’s get started talking about how to prepare your online classroom for teaching.

Ensure Syllabus Includes Course Objectives, Policies

Beginning with step one, let’s look at your course objectives. You’ve probably have some kind of course description and some course objectives. If you don’t have these and you actually have to create them, that’s a great place to start.

Think about what your students should be able to demonstrate. They should be able to know at the end of the course. As you look at these kinds of objectives that you set for your students, this can also frame how you approach your teaching. You’ll be able to look at the big picture of really what should be accomplished in this class. What your priorities are, subject matter wise.

As you prepare your classroom, the first place to begin looking at these course objectives and communicating this out to students is in your course syllabus. Your course syllabus is the final word on everything happening in the course. Generally you’ll have your course description and course objectives in that syllabus. You’ll also have some general policies about whether or not you accept late work, how long students have to submit something, whether they can revise and resubmit assignments, and other types of communication policies.

I highly recommend setting up your communication policies in advance so that students know exactly what to expect from you. You can also set up a friendly and welcoming course announcement for the first week of class and to welcome students to the entire course. And another course announcement to introduce them to the first week of the class and let them know what to expect as they move forward.

In these announcements, I encourage you to be as positive as you possibly can be while also being clear and direct. Students appreciate knowing what your policies are and how you operate in the classroom. This is especially important if students are taking classes from more than one instructor at a time. If you’re in a university setting and they have many classes with many instructors, chances are each one of you has different policies that vary slightly on accepting late work, revising assignments, and how to communicate with the instructor.

If you can make your policies, especially clear and plain, and easy to locate in the classroom, as well as in the syllabus, students will benefit. This will help you out as the instructor, because it will prevent future problems when students are frustrated and they’re not sure who to turn to. Likewise, it can prevent student complaints because students know exactly who to contact and when.

If you’re also responsive once the course begins by replying quickly and with clear and helpful information, your students will learn to trust you. And they will be able to have a positive learning experience with you and ask questions along the way.

Prepare Weekly Announcements with Timely Updates

After you have a clear and established syllabus, I do recommend going to the announcement section and generally preparing announcements for each week of the class you’re going to teach. If you have these prepared in advance and saved in some kind of draft area, then you can finalize them each week by adding timely reminders and specific information for the group of students you’re working with this time around.

As you add the information and the guidance, you can publish them on demand, or you can schedule them ahead of time to just roll out one at a time each week. Whatever your preference, planning your approach will help you also manage your time throughout the teaching of the course.

Schedule Information to Publish at Specific Times in the Course

The next area I suggest thinking about while you’re preparing your online classroom is which parts of the course should be visible and accessible to your students immediately from the first day of class and which parts of the course you would like to be hidden and reveal themselves over time.

In some institutions, there are policies in place that govern the rollout of different weeks’ worth of materials. For example, at the university I work with and teach with, we prefer to have information available to students early in the course, so they can look ahead and plan their work. If your institution has a policy where you can roll these out, then you may wish to go through the lessons, the assignments, and the forums, and any other areas you have in the course, and set those to automatically release a little bit before the week will begin so students can see them and know exactly what they’re aiming for.

Create Guidance Assets for Assignments in Advance

Any kind of guidance assets that you would like to create to help students with tricky parts of an assignment, difficult concepts in a lesson or other helpful tips, it’s nice if you can spend the time ahead of the course starting to create those assets. If you are spending time during the course teaching to create the assets, you can find yourself, spinning your wheels and getting stuck and really feeling a lot of pressure when you’re trying to develop things and teach at the same time.

I suggest going through your assignment section and reading the description for the assignments that you have as if you are a student with little experience in the subject matter. Take a look at the instructions and ask yourself if they are clear and describe the content that should be included in the assignment, the tasks that students are to do, what format they should submit it with. For example, whether it’s a PowerPoint, a Word document, a video or something else.

And also how they can ask questions if they are unsure of what’s due. You might also consider creating and attaching sample assignments and any grading rubrics that you have before the course begins. Whenever you can provide this kind of information upfront before the course starts, then your classroom itself is prepared and ready to go. And students can navigate throughout that classroom and see what they should prepare for and where they’re going to need to spend their time.

Assess Your Own Strengths, Weaknesses and Priorities as an Educator

As you think about preparing your course before the first day of the session, ask yourself: What are your personal challenges teaching online? Each of us has our own strengths as an educator and likewise, we each have our weaknesses. What are your weaker areas that you can anticipate? How would you like to plan ahead to try to strengthen some of those weaker areas?

For example, if you’re a very fast grader, but you tend to grade with minimal comments and not a lot of content related feedback, maybe this session you want to focus on adding more content-related feedback and setting aside the time to do that. If you like to be really explaining a lot of information in your responses to students and you find that you’re spending too much time explaining these things, maybe in this coming session, you’d like to be a little more precise and brief so you’re not spending as much time writing those responses.

Whatever your strengths are, you can plan ahead to emphasize those strengths and also to bolster at least one weak area in the coming course start. What takes most of your time and effort when you’re teaching an online course? And does the area you’re spending the most time, reflect your personal priorities and teaching?

Several times in this Online Teaching Lounge podcast, we have discussed your values and your priorities as an educator. We each come at teaching with our own perspectives and our own approach. If you’re unsure of your perspective, you can consult the teaching perspectives inventory for some idea about the agenda you personally have when you’re teaching other people.

As you think about your agenda and where you’re really spending all of your time in teaching, you might decide to shift your priorities or change the way you spend your time slightly to meet more of your teaching priorities and ensure that you’re able to suit your own values and the reason you’re in this teaching profession in the first place. So think about where you really want to focus your efforts this time when you’re teaching this class.

And also what strategies do you already use to manage your online teaching tasks? Are there any strategies or tools that could support your work and improve your efficiency for teaching while you’re going through the weeks of the course that’s about to start? And how will you know if you are achieving a satisfying level of work-life balance while you’re teaching online this session that suits your own needs and your teaching and learning priorities?

Incorporate Your Teaching Goals into Your Planning

Think about some of these areas before the course begins so that you can set at least one goal to focus on. Many times if you have a goal for your own teaching, it can help you focus the entire experience for yourself as an educator. And you’ll find a lot more satisfaction in connecting with your students as you think about that one area.

Again, as we think about preparing your classroom, remember what your own priority is as an educator. For example, if you really want to mentor students in the subject matter, you’ll want to find ways to plan ahead before the course begins to provide that kind of mentoring experience. Maybe you’d like to offer some live office hours and record them to share with students later who could not attend. Or maybe you’d really like to promote students being self-starters and self-reliant. Perhaps there are some things you’d like to share in course announcements about those topics.

Plan for Course Extensions

Also plan ahead for course extensions. It’s very possible that you might have one or more students that have interruptions while they’re taking your course. If your institution or a university or school have an extension policy in place, you might have one or more students ask for the extra time when the session has completely ended.

How will you handle course extensions? Do you have an approval policy that helps you decide when to accept an extension and when to deny it. Think about what you might say to students in the middle of the course and continue encouraging them to help them stay the course and be resilient as they get through the class and submit the work as timely as possible. The more you can support your students along the way, the more you can help them end on time. And the fewer extension requests you’re likely have.

If you reach out to students who are falling behind, likely you can provide some encouragement needed. I’ve had more than one student tell me that when I’ve reached out to them, they were considering dropping the class, or they felt like they were too far behind to ever catch up. But my encouragement helped them to keep going and made them realize that they really could succeed in the class.

If you don’t hear back from a student within a few days, you might consider reaching out to support from whatever advising department or student services department your institution has. And these people may be able to help you during the course when you have a missing student or a non-responsive student.

Prepare Plans for Forum Discussions

As you’re preparing to teach on the first day, and you’re thinking about how you will engage in discussions with your students, especially if you’re teaching an online asynchronous class, think about those discussion forums as if they are the live conversation you might have in a face-to-face traditional class. I’d like to suggest that you consider what you can share with students about the subject matter, that they cannot learn from any other instructor.

For example, you yourself have your own knowledge, expertise, guiding questions, and illustrative examples throughout anything you might share that can build understanding and promote critical thinking in your students.

These things are unique to you, even if you and I were teaching the same exact subject matter and had expertise in the same area, we certainly wouldn’t share the exact same kinds of comments in the discussion. We’re each different people. So think about what you uniquely can share and what you have to offer and be sure to plan ahead so you have the time that you need to write those kinds of discussion posts, and really engage with students once the class begins.

When you’re managing your teaching throughout the course, always set aside time for those forum discussions. One strategy I like to suggest when we’re thinking about planning ahead, how to engage in the forum discussions as the faculty member or the instructor. I like to suggest posting something very early in the week so there’s sort of a greeting to the discussion. It’s almost like shaking your students’ hands as they enter the room, the virtual room, you might say. And you might consider this a way of leading, moderating, or facilitating that discussion and dialogue.

And then throughout the discussion, engage with many of your students, respond to what they’ve said, refer to other students’ comments, bring in current events, links, YouTube videos, anything that seems to help that discussion become more rich. And then at the end of the week, it’s also a great practice to plan ahead to have some kind of summary that culminates the week’s discussion and ties together some of the things that came out in that dialogue.

I also like to call this a wrap-up post. So this approach to a beginning, middle and end of your discussion each week helps to frame that discussion. It also established a really good teaching presence that students can rely on throughout the course. They really get a sense of who you are and also the guiding hand that you have in teaching them that subject matter.

It’s very difficult in asynchronous, online education for students to get a sense of who you are. So the more you can plan ahead before the class even begins to share those parts of you with your students over each week, the more you’re going to build relationships, build rapport, and also create the trusting environment that they need to feel like succeeding, and really keep working through the content with you.

Consider Grading Tools

The last area I want to suggest thinking about as you prepare your online classroom before the session begins is how you will grade students’ work once it starts coming in. If you can plan ahead for your grading activities, you can schedule time on your calendar to keep your grading under control. And you can give information students need before the assignments are even due, to help coach them on those assignments and improve their performance ahead of time.

When you don’t have a plan for your grading, it can easily take over your online teaching job. It can also start to take almost all of your time and pretty soon you’ll be behind with your grading before you even realize it. Think about how you could use rubrics to make your students aware of what you’re going to be grading. You can also use the rubrics while you’re doing the grading and mark them and return them to your students.

Think about some other efficiency tools that could help you provide detailed grading feedback in a short period of time. You might want to take a little bit of time exploring these tools before the class begins. For example, you can download an essay in Microsoft Word and use track changes and reviewers comment bubbles to put comments right on the essay. And then you can upload it back in the classroom to the student.

If you do this, I often recommend using a PDF file as the upload. So instead of the Word version, save it as a PDF. So students can see the in-text comments and the reviewers comments exactly where they are, and you don’t have any problem with them viewing them.

If your institution has something like turnitin.com as an originality checking service, there’s a Grade Mark feature in there where you can actually grade student’s written work through that interface. You can type comments directly on the assignment, and you can also put either a recorded voice comment or a summary text comment. All you need to do if you’re using Turnitin is to direct your students to that location so they can find your feedback.

One more tool I love to share with people is called Grade Assist and Grade Assist is a toolbar that you can purchase an add into your Microsoft Word. And then as you’re looking at an essay, you can just click on the different comments to add them appropriately to different places.

And you can also create your own comments. It’s definitely worth your time to think about what kinds of tools you’ll use to do your grading in advance, because once you’re in the heat of the moment and you need to turn around a lot of grading pretty fast, it’s difficult to explore the tools and figure out how to use them. So explore them, check them out and see if you find something that really works for you.

Today, we’ve gone through a lot of tips and strategies to help you prepare for your next session, teaching online. And I hope this will give you some foundation for success and a lot of confidence moving forward, especially in the preventative areas where you can meet your students’ needs ahead of time and give yourself a lot more time and space to enjoy teaching the class successfully.

Thank you again for being here and the Online Teaching Lounge and joining me for the tips and strategies today. Best wishes to you this coming week in your online teaching. This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast, to share comments and requests for future episodes please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

Dr. Bethanie Hansen is a Faculty Director and Certified Professional Coach for the School of Arts & Humanities. She holds a B.M. in Music Education from Brigham Young University, a M.S. in Arts & Letters from Southern Oregon University and a DMA in Music Education from Boston University. She is an educator, coach, manager, writer, presenter and musician with 25 years of experience helping others achieve their goals.

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