Friday, June 23, 2006

Pacing and predictability

I think it’s important that teachers create a sense of pacing and predictability in an online class. Students are creatures of habit. Reflect for a moment how in your f2f classes, after throwing off the shackles of assigned seating from middle and high school, your students all still sit in the same seats every class. In fact, they get annoyed if someone takes “their” spot (I think there was actually a study that verified this). In addition, the lack of deadlines in an online class can be a danger for students: They don’t have to go to class a few times a week, so sometimes they can allow the work of the course to slide away… and then they find themselves in trouble.

Use simple strategies and tools to pace the class and to give a sense of structure and consistency so students can get into the groove of the work flow and thus spend their main energies trying to succeed academically.

Posted schedule/plans: I like to use a weekly plan approach in my class. In that plan, I describe what is due using a three-column html document with the following column headings:

  • What do I do?
  • What are the specific instructions? Where do I find the work or the assignment?
  • When is it due?

I almost always post the plan on Friday mornings. If for some reason I’m late, I make sure to let the students know by posting an explanation on the home page.

Message board deadlines: As I’ve mentioned, I use a two-tiered deadline system for my WebCT Discussions. Since I post the weekly plan on Fridays, I have tended toward a Thursday-Saturday deadline for posts. On Thursday, several primary posts are due (see my post “Message boards [part 2]” about primary posts). On, Saturday, secondary posts are due. I ask them during the term if these deadlines are okay. If so (and they have been), I stick with them so students get used to when they are responsible for these core class conversations.

Quizzes: A weekly or bi-weekly quiz, even a ridiculously easy reading quiz, can be a mighty aid to help students have a sense of consistency in the weekly structure of the course.

Mini/informal assignments: I think it’s a mistake in an online (or f2f) writing class not to use a series of very small (maybe each worth 1% of the grade) assignments. Have students describe what they are attempting to do in each paragraph of their essays. Ask them to take a piece of writing and try to change all instances of the verb “to be.” Ask them to pick their best message board posts and comment on them. These little “metawriting” assignments are valuable for their development, but they also fill in the gaps between message board posts and the main assignments. They create a dutiful sense of work flow in the class--and you shouldn’t feel you have to grade them with more than a glance.

Videos/multi-media: In addition to the other material, creating a video every other week can help lock students back into the idea that you are a real teacher “out there.” Linking any video up to an informal assignment or message board post helps encourage them to watch these lessons.

So, in simple form, a typical (if there is such a thing) schedule for my composition class looks like this:

  • Friday: Weekly plan posted.
  • Tuesday: Informal assignment due or deadline to watch video.
  • Wednesday: Suggested deadline for readings so they can be ready for the quiz and message boards.
  • Thursday: Reading quiz (available for 18 hours or so); primary message board posts due.
  • Saturday: Secondary message board posts due.

While it’s a rough analogy, I think that not having a consistent set of deadlines is like asking students to attend a class in which they never know the meeting time until the class before. Obviously, we can understand this would be maddening. Keep them focused on various small, low-stakes deadlines, and they will be less likely to put off their online classwork--and they will have a better chance of succeeding.