First-Time Online Teaching Tips & Tricks

I taught online for the first time this summer semester, and it was a whirlwind. I intend to write more of a narrative about my entire process soon, but for now, here are some things I learned the hard way that I hope I can spare you from.

  1. Our students use Google Docs. Google Docs does not show them page breaks or page numbers – so if you’re asking for 1-2 page reflections and you’re getting tiny little things, it might not be their fault! You can show them how to check, though – clicking “Tools” and then “Word Count” will show both word count and pages.
  2. Students are much less tech literate than you think they are! I required my students to heavily use the Groups toolset in Canvas, and some of my students (in my eyes) skipped the first group quiz. Later, I indirectly found out that they didn’t know how to get to the groups page to see the discussion! Consider students “digitally fluent” instead of “digitally literate” – they know how to use devices for specific tasks they’ve had to do before and have to do frequently, not how to use devices for any and all digital tasks. Check out this EDUCAUSE article on more of the distinction between digital literacy and digital fluency.
  3. Overexplain, overexplain, overexplain. Many times I thought I was perfectly clear (and exhaustive) in my directions for assignments, and still I got questions. Even if you get questions, once you explain it in a way that clicks for them, update your assignment and other materials with the clarified version.
  4. You might have to babysit. I send Canvas messages to my students a couple times a week. These are pretty customizable to specific students, and it’s easy to send messages to specific sections of the class (like students in Group A who missed the group quiz, students I haven’t met with to discuss a midterm yet, students who have never logged in, students missing more than X number of assignments, etc.). I get fast responses when I reach out this way, and this is often how I find out why something I could have just perceived as laziness happened. My students won’t reach out beforehand, but they will explain after the fact if I reach out to them. To me, this is better than losing them completely.
  5. Mix it up, but cautiously. I tried quite a few new tools and styles in my course, because I’m the instructional designer and I want to be able to tell you about the new hotness. My students liked this, on average, but it was a bit more work for me because of point #3. When I tried the new tools, I made sure to screen record myself messing around and trying them out. This served two purposes: it let me remember how to do the thing, and I now had a video resource for my students to watch (which, through TechSmith Relay, I could attach points to as part of the full assignment).
  6. Know how to check last login date. From inside your course, you can click on the People link. One of the columns in this screen is “Last Activity,” which is the last time your students clicked on your course. You can also quickly send a Canvas message to students who haven’t been around in a while by clicking their name and then the envelope icon on the pane that appears.
  7. Canvas messaging is a double-edged sword. I find Canvas messaging very useful for keeping in quick contact with my students, but then it allows them to get comfortable using Canvas messaging, which, due to our old email system, can cause some issues. You may have noticed that even though the Canvas emails say you can reply to Canvas messages directly through Outlook, if you try, you’ll get an error. This is due to our email system, and unfortunately, we can’t fix it right now. Students, however, can reply to messages this way – and what is more, they can attach documents to Canvas messages through Gmail that you won’t be able to see or open directly in Canvas. Try to get them in the habit of sending attachments through regular email or directly through Canvas messages.
  8. Set expectations from the get-go. I noticed midway through my course that students weren’t checking announcements. If I had told them at the beginning that I expected it, I might have gotten better response rates. Let students know they’ll need to turn notifications on, check announcements, check the unit outline – basically, let them know how you intend to run the course and communicate with them. You can tell them their general due dates, when you’ll post lectures, etc.
  9. Feeling abandoned is a two-way street. If you’re sitting around at 8PM when work is due at midnight with two submissions (like I was), know that this feeling of solitude goes both ways. Make sure to give your students praise when they’re doing well, especially if your shyer or otherwise absent students are finally participating.
  10. Who’s not here? Consider turning off the grade distribution graphs for student grades. When left on, from the student grade page, they see this for each assignment:
    A screenshot of the grade distribution graph in Canvas, which shows mean, high, and low grades for assignments.

In online courses, students who don’t log in get zeros for participation (versus in person, where students who attend but don’t participate may still get points for being there and being attentive). This makes my grade distribution quite dramatic. Hiding these score details takes away misleading information for my students – it’s not that everyone bombed this quiz, it’s that only half of my class actually took it.