7 Things I Always Try to Build into My Online Courses

student on laptop

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I was recently asked, “What top things do you always build into your online course content?” This question made me really stop and think, and do a sort of ‘gut check’.

I’ve been teaching a fully online course at Lenoir-Rhyne University as an adjunct instructor for the past four years. I love it. With my education background, I feel very lucky to be able to continue my passion for teaching … and learning. I can honestly say that each semester of teaching this course has continuously evolved.

Through the support and guidance of two awesome people, Dr. Jayme Linton (@jaymelinton) and Jessica O’Brien (@jkobrien), I’m constantly trying to improve the course for my students. Here are seven things that I always try to include when I build online courses.

1. A welcome video

Everyone is always a little nervous at the beginning of a new semester, including the instructor. Help reduce some of that anxiety by creating a video to welcome students to the class.

To quote my coworker, Josh, who’s done a lot of work with video: “Sprinkle that video with tidbits about things that make you human. If your cat jumps into your lap during the recording, don’t start over or delete that part. Introduce your cat.”

You only get one chance at making that first impression with your students. Invite your students to create a welcome video, too, and post them in a discussion board to start building connections.

2. An introduction video of the course

Along with the welcome video that I create, I always record a separate video that helps introduce the course content to the students.

This usually covers an overview of the syllabus, course layout in the LMS, assignments and grading policy, contact information, important dates, and possibly a walkthrough of a specific learning module.

I try to cover only the most important topics and not the fine details, because I don’t want to overwhelm them when everything is brand-new. Ease into it and allow the fine details to appear when it’s time.

3. Consistent weekly updates and reminders

Whether I like it or not, this class is not the only important thing happening in my students’ lives. They may be taking other classes, have a full or part-time job, family obligations, etc. The list goes on.

One way I try to keep students focused is by posting weekly announcements about what tasks need to be completed in the upcoming week. This announcement is typically a video (screen recording and webcam) of me checking in and walking through where we currently are in the course syllabus.

I will point out what assignments are due and answer any questions from students that came up during the prior week, so that everyone is getting the same response. Even though these weekly videos are only generally between five to seven minutes (or less), it’s a great way to keep that visual connection with students in an online learning environment.

Here’s a recent tweet from a former student sharing how being consistent with updates and reminders has been helpful.

4. Guest speakers and content experts

Having field experts join us to share their experiences and answer questions is definitely beneficial to learning.

My favorite way to do this is during synchronous live chats (we have at least five each semester). This is a time to not only connect and engage with each other, but to bring in content experts to share their knowledge. Students get the unique opportunity to hear directly from individuals in their field of expertise.

It also provides them with a different perspective on the topics we’re discussing.

When you build online courses, use video to give meaningful feedback on student assignments

5. Meaningful feedback

I’ll be honest, this is one area where I need to improve. One of the biggest assignments during the course is submitting three separate mini-literature review blog posts. Students always do a great job with these, and I enjoy reading them.

My goal every semester is to provide meaningful feedback on their work, and for these written pieces, I’ve tried to include spoken/video feedback as well. Here is my process:

1. Take a scrolling screen capture of their blog post (I use Snagit to do this, with its easy-to-use editing tools).

2. Use editing tools to insert brief comments and highlight specific areas of the blog to provide more detailed spoken feedback later.

3. Record the mocked-up image with the video capture tool and share my audio and visual feedback with the student.

4. Share the video to Screencast, Google Drive, or another favorite hosting site, and send the link to the student, along with the mocked up image capture for reference.

Above is an animated gif (blurred, to protect student privacy) to show you what the blog post capture looks like after comments were added. Here is an example screenshot (also blurred for privacy), and a screenshot of the finished video providing my audio/visual feedback.

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Illustrate the steps of a process with snagit

6. Let students lead

When I first started teaching online, I had a love/hate relationship with discussion boards. I still do, in a way. But as I build online courses, I’ve tried to make improvements to make them more meaningful and engaging.

One thing I’ve tried is requiring students to moderate a weekly discussion during the semester. These typically cover a chapter or two of the textbook, and students are each responsible for deciding how the chat is run. They will make the first post during their designated week and will help guide and encourage the conversation.

Instead of having the discussion board last an entire week, I’ve tried targeting a few days (i.e. Wednesday – Friday) when everyone should be participating. This has definitely helped deter the typical ‘wait until the last day and post something’ tendency that has contributed to the love/hate relationship.

It has also given the students a chance to experience moderating or leading a discussion board instead of only participating.

I’m always looking for more ways to improve the discussion board experience, so if you have any suggestions, please leave them in the comments below. Thank you in advance.

7. Participate in learning

Learning is constant, that’s for sure. I think the best thing I can do for my students is to participate and support them in the learning process. I try to do this by staying active in our discussion boards, asking questions, and commenting on individual posts by students.

When students email me questions, I often share the question and response (usually in a quick video) with everyone in the class, if they can all benefit from it. This also helps to avoid getting asked the same questions multiple times. We learn together and all try to improve and grow for the next opportunity ahead.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you found useful information to help build online courses. Reach out any time if I can help you, or if you have any advice for me. I will always welcome it.