Learning Online 101: How to Teach Online Course Skills that Improve Student Success

teach online course skills

Can you teach students how to learn online?

A mid-size college without an official online program, CSU Channel Islands was going through a transition.

They knew their large segment of transfer students wanted online courses, so administrators introduced one or two sections of select e-courses — around 12% of total offerings — to provide a few online options.

But instructors initially had reservations. They wanted to make sure students still had a great learning experience, and that faculty wouldn’t be inundated with technical issues.

Jill Leafstedt, Ph.D Associate Vice Provost, Innovation and Faculty Development, explained the sentiment around campus. “Faculty wanted to teach online. But they didn’t want all the student questions that come along with it.”

Imagine what’s possible for e-course skills

Jill Leafstedt, Ph.D Associate Vice Provost, Innovation and Faculty Development, CSU Channel Islands

The learning design team started to brainstorm solutions, searching for a preemptive one that would prevent issues before they even started. What if they could teach students how to learn online, to make the entire process smoother for both faculty and students?

They liked the idea, but still had questions. Can a “how to learn online” student orientation reduces the technical support concerns of faculty? If so, what is the best way to prep students across all departments for online learning? According to research by Britto & Rush (2013), students who participate in an orientation have higher retention rates. That was inspiring in and of itself. 

It was definitely worth a try. The learning design team began to create an interactive course that orients students to the online environment.

Building a human-centered course

Working together to establish overall goals, administrators knew that the orientation should cover much more than just technical know-how. “We want students to feel more confident, more connected to the institution and each other,” explained Jamie Hoffman, design consultant.

The course also needed to prepare students for academic success, and of course, introduce and immerse students in the technology they’ll use in online courses.

Administrators started the program slowly. They recruited a student test group for feedback, which gave them a critical recommendation — include videos of students. After this first phase, a small group of faculty ran a pilot with their own students. After that, a larger pilot with 10 faculty gave feedback, and designers made changes from there. 

A self-paced one-to-three hour online course, “Learning Online 101” consists of five modules, including sections on how to have a positive mindset as well as how to navigate the online classroom, with details such as where to find assignments and how to use the LMS and find their instructor’s office hours. There is also an emphasis on time management and how to use the broader campus support system, including e-resources at the library. 

Going beyond tech

Initially unsure of the ideal course length, they instead made sure to cover the most important topics. “This was a little bit of a test because we figured students were going to orientation to learn technical skills,” said Jamie, “but they really appreciated the other sections, too.” Students liked the hands-on nature of navigating the course itself. “They were given the opportunity throughout the course to use the technology,” said Jamie, and they even got an overview of soft technical skills such as netiquette.

“I really wanted to get the technical stuff out of the way,” said Jill. “Going beyond the technical support and thinking about the larger issues — how do I manage my time, how do I connect, are essential.” Since self-guidance is an important skill for independent online learners, administrators knew it was important to include that as well. “We actually contemplated an entirely separate section about time management,” said Jamie. 

Relatable and personable

A key part of making the online course relatable was to include the voices and faces of people from the university. “Anywhere and everywhere we put human faces,” said Jamie. “We included a video with faculty talking about their experiences with students, to make it feel as human as possible.” Specifically, the course involved: 

  • A welcome video from the university president 
  • Faculty and student advice videos
  • Images from the Channel Islands community, including photos and images of campus

The humanization of the course was very important. “Students recognize some of their faculty or peers in these videos,” said Jill.  “It makes students feel like it’s their place.” The course also pointed to a real person students can contact for support. “They’re not on campus to create that connection,” explained Jill. “Any way we can help them create that connection online is wonderful.”

Students like the module on ‘Navigating the Online Classroom’ the best, followed by ‘Having a Positive Mindset’. “We thought that was an important start, but we weren’t sure how students would like that,” said Jamie. It was good to see that it resonated. After each course module, students were prompted to earn learning badges, which was a convenient way to track completion. “It also provides us with great data,” said Jill. “It’s useful on the faculty end, and also on our administrative end to know what’s going on in the class.”

By design, the course included interactive elements, which many students completed voluntarily. “It was really reassuring to see that,” said Jamie. Since there’s no way their single learning designer could grade interactive responses from everyone on campus, the course pilot tried several tools, such as AnswerGarden. “Students really enjoyed seeing their peers’ responses,” said Jill.

Rollout, results, and student response

The course, which launched in the fall of 2018, saw 961 out of 8,000 students (about 12% of campus) complete all modules, of which 87% earned a badge. The majority took the course (56%) to prepare for taking a fully online course. Interestingly, quite a few students decided to take the course to enhance existing skills — 68% completed the course even though they had already taken an online course before.

Students had a lot to say about how the course helped them, echoed in this self-reported feedback: “The Online 101 course I believe was very helpful. This is my Senior year at CSUCI and I wish I would have had this course earlier on to help me with past online courses. Although I have taken an online course before, I learned a lot about how to be successful and stay on top of online classwork. It also gave great tips on study skills and how to stay on track! I think it should be mandatory because of how useful it was for me!”

After completion, 63% of students said they felt very prepared to take an online course. 92% of students earned 80% or better on the knowledge checks throughout the modules. Only five students reached out for help on how to complete the course.

Collaboration during the pilot phases led to faculty buy-in, while word of mouth helped spread excitement about the course. “We rolled it out to faculty in a very individual way,” said Jill. Faculty were encouraged to add it to their own courses within the first week of class. “Canvas Commons makes it very easy to share resources across classes,” said Jill. Administrators used screenshots to show faculty how to add it within the LMS. “We really took all the challenges out of it for faculty,” said Jill. Since knowledge checks are automated in the Canvas quizzing feature, it’s easy for faculty to see when students submit their ‘complete’ badge. 

Next steps

Faculty and students like it explained Jill, “but we now have new questions. Is it actually helping student performance in classes?”  Is the impact the same across disciplines? Do students need something extra in different disciplines? “Are faculty receiving fewer technical questions? Does it increase retention in online classes, especially prior to that three-week mark?”  

Now, another CSU campus location wants to adopt this, and place it into their own LMS, BlackBoard. At Channel Islands, Teaching and Learning Innovations offers a voluntary online course meant for professors about humanizing online instruction. They also offer a working group to encourage pedagogical technical skills. While these are both voluntary, the goal is that these offerings will increase digital course skills across campus. 

The above session was presented by the following at Educause: Jamie Hoffman, Independent Learning Consultant, Noodle Partners; Jill Leafstedt, Ph.D Associate Vice Provost, Innovation and Faculty Development, CSU Channel Islands

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