Online instructors face a set of unique challenges. Because students don’t have the benefit of verbal explanations or clarification when assignments are given, online coursework guidelines must be even more descriptive and accessible than they are in traditional classrooms.
While it is entirely possible to use the same projects in face-to-face and online classes, there are a number of steps that teachers can take to ensure that coursework builds better online students and promotes active participation in their classes.
Providing scaffolding for major assignments aids students’ learning through helping them to complete mini-steps, develop knowledge and skills, and stay active in the class. When students only see one deadline for completing a major assignment, they often neglect the smaller steps necessary to produce their best work.
Online instructors can ensure students get the most out of their course by giving smaller assignments that require students to complete pre-work on a larger project. For instance, if writing a paper, teachers can have students participate in discussions that allow them to brainstorm about topics and thesis statements and turn in topic proposals, outlines and drafts prior to the final deadline.
Creating smaller “mini-assignments” and putting point values on them promotes student engagement, but it also ensures that students are actively participating in the learning process as well as gaining the skills necessary to complete similar projects in the future.
In order to keep students engaged in both their assignments and the discussion board, online teachers can create assignments and discussions that work in tandem. When discussion boards are used effectively, they serve as an arena for students to receive extra feedback and ideas from their cohort.
Discussion boards provide a great opportunity for students to brainstorm, workshop ideas and assignments and gain the opinion of an audience that is aware of the assignment and expectations of the teacher or classroom. If teachers use these tools to buttress one another, students will be able to see the use in each and be more likely to participate as they will feel invested in the outcomes.
Students often dread group assignments in face-to-face classes because it is difficult to find a time when all group members can work together; there’s also a risk of one group member not doing his or her share of the work. However, online education allows for group work to take place remotely, which allows students to complete tasks and meet virtually.
Because students don’t physically have to go somewhere, they can simply sign on to their computers and chat at the appointed time to complete work. Many online teaching systems have tools integrated into the course shells that enable students to chat as groups and create assignments in tandem.
Being accountable to a group and allowing members the ability to evaluate the participation of their peers gives students incentive to remain invested in course materials. In addition, many students’ future careers will require them to work with groups or partners virtually; online group projects give students practice using this skill.
While all courses, regardless of their mode of teaching, require students to complete assignments, online educators can utilize and plan assignments in a way that helps to foster student participation in their courses. If students feel that their instructor’s assignments serve a purpose – both to their grade and the goals of the course – then they will be more likely to complete projects and stay actively involved in the course.
Caitrin Blake has a BA in English and Sociology from the University of Vermont and a master’s degree in English literature from the University of Colorado Denver. She teaches composition at Arapahoe Community College.