Before the Semester Begins…

Most people think that educators sit around and enjoy the last few weeks before the school year begins, but we don’t…

A few weeks before the semester begins and I like most of my colleagues sit in front of my computer working on my courses and getting ready to teach. Reading student evaluations, student blogs from the last two semesters and looking at notes I made throughout the year of what worked and what didn’t, to help me revise my courses. If it sounds like a quick process it isn’t really because I plan my courses for the whole semester, which is 14 weeks times 3 courses and that translates to a lot of prep work. Besides updating my syllabus I plan each week to include an overview, which discusses everything that the students will be required to do for the week. Along with redesigning the overviews I also take a look at the assignments, discussion threads, blogs, video lectures and tests and decide if I need to update them or not.

For some teacchers might prefer to design, create videos, upload files, and teach simultaneously, but I like to have everything planned, created and uploaded to the course before I login on the first day of the semester. Doing this allows me to spend the semester teaching and guiding my students instead of designing and developing different aspects of the course. It also gives me the time I need to provide students with feedback a lot faster that I wouldn’t have if I was simultaneously building and teaching my courses.

To get ready I also like to read textbooks and make sure that I am using the best ones for the students that register for my courses. Which means that I spend a lot of time in one of my favorite stores, the BOOKSTORE!!!! This time around I found a really cool grammar book called the Ultimate Writing Guide for Students by Mignon Fogarty. You are probably wondering what is so special about this book? Grammar is grammar. Well, that is not true. All grammar books are not the same. What I liked about this specific book is the way it was written. The language she uses to explain really “boring” concepts interesting and dare I say it “FUN.” I can really see me using this book in my lower level writing course as it can give international and ESL students a hand in figuring out how to become better writers which is the object of my courses.

The other thing I like to do since I teach online is to update my video lectures so I look at different screen capture software like Adobe Captivate, Camtasia, or Screen-o-matic because they are updated yearly and their developers like to add new features that might work better for me and what I use them for.

I am sure that at this point you are wondering if I spent all of August inside. Granted I do work a lot especially when I have to get ready for the beginning of the semester, but the answer is no. I still got to enjoy the beautiful weather, because one of the benefits of being an educator is having a lot of flexibility, especially as an online instructor I have learned to work from anywhere so I spent a lot of time preparing my courses outside of my office during the summer.





Becoming an Online Instructor

Everybody’s path towards achieving a goal is different, but in order to give you an example of what it takes to become an online instructor, I will share what I did to become an e-instructor and the steps I took to get there. My journey started in the fall of 2004 when I began to notice that there was a lot of excitement and enthusiasm around this new way of teaching i.e. online teaching. So I began trying to find out what it means to create and use the internet to teach. At the time the only certificate I found that catered to ESL teachers was “Principles and Practices of Online Teaching.” and offered it.

As an English teacher, it made sense for me to complete that certificate, as I had no idea what it meant to take an online course let alone design and/or teach one. What that program did for me was open my eyes to the possibilities. Once I completed that certificate I began to look around and discovered that the UMass Boston was in the initial stages of offering Blackboard workshops for their faculty.

So as I began taking workshops and learning more I experimented with using Blackboard to create hybrid courses I discovered the Instructional Design program at UMass Boston and started taking courses. One reason I liked the program was that many of its courses were online which worked for me as I had a 6-month-old baby at home. The other reason was that the instructors were amazing as the majority of them were working instructional designers and brought real life experience to their courses, which makes a world of difference when you are an older working learner. This was a great program and I thoroughly enjoyed it, as I learned a lot about how adults learn, how to design an online course as well as the different types of tools and software I can use to make my courses more interesting.

To be honest most people do not need to earn a degree in instructional design to be able to teach online. In my opinion, you only need a couple of courses. One should be on how to design an online course and maybe a course on what different tools exist on the market and how to use them. Such as:

  1. Audacity for podcastingAudacity logo
  2. Del.icio.usDelicious logo is a social bookmarking service
  3. Blogs are a good way to have your students reflect on how they feel about the course. I get a lot of information from my students via blogging about my courses. There are many different blogging platforms you can use besides Blackboard or whatever blog tool your learning management system offers. The most popular ones are: Blogger.comBlogger logo, or, Wordpress logoand Tumbler logo.jpeg
  4. Google docs Google docsI use this tool in my online courses when the students are working on group assignments. It provides them with an easy platform to collaborate and it allows me to follow the work that they are doing.
  5. Screencast-o-matic Screencast-o-matic logo is a computer screen capture software that can be used to create video from your computer screen. This is a great tool as you can do mini video lectures and demonstrations for your students or learners.
  6. Twittertwitter logo is another useful tool for an online course. I have used this platform to remind students about homework due dates, assignment changes etc.

Obviously, the tools I am talking about are only a small sample of what is out there. So go online and look at what is available and then try them out. Narrowing down on what works best for you and your courses takes time and a lot of trial and error, but it well worth the effort.

After you are done with the learning, the reading, the workshops, and the degrees, you have to try things out, hold your breath, and listen to your students so you can understand how they learn and works for them. You need to be patient and flexible as well as be willing to change your syllabus, your homework assignments, books, and pretty much everything every semester until you feel that the course design is working. Do not forget to be kind and caring towards the students, even when they are not towards you, as they are not only trying to learn the course material but also figure out how the course is organized and how Blackboard works.That is a lot for a student who has never taken an online course before.

In the beginning, I was nervous so I was constantly logged into my courses making sure everything was working and no student was having a panic attack. Give yourself time and ask your friends, colleagues, and people you know who are teaching online lots and lots of questions. Having support makes things go smoother. Use all of the resources your institution is offering like instructional design support. Having said that even if you have an instructional designer holding your hand, ultimately it is your course, it is your responsibility, and it is your name the students see.

Happy Teaching!!!








Are you Moving Online??

Did you finally decide to teach your course online? That’s great news!! Transferring your on-campus course to an online course takes a lot of planning and up front work especially in the beginning. Having said that I have had a lot of fun learning  how to design and teach e-courses.  This adventure has made me a better educator and has changed the way I view teaching. So, before you even begin designing a course and putting a course online you need to:

  1. Learn which management system your university uses and take all of the workshops they offer.
  2. Learn all about learning theories and which ones work best in an online environment.
  3. Learn about different types of software that can help you make your course more interesting.

The learning portion will take you at least a couple of semesters to learn and then there is the actual designing and teaching/facilitating part.  So once I learned the how to manage an online course by taking several workshops and a few graduate courses in the Instructional Design department, from which I eventually received my MEd in Instructional Design, I naively set up a course on Blackboard and thought I could teach online… hahaha. Teaching an e-course is a lot different from teaching a face-to-face class. So be prepared, because there is also a lot of trial and error until you find your online teaching style, which let me tell you is quite different from your in-class teaching style. The primary reason being that the dynamics of an on-campus classroom are very different from that of an online one because the students can’t see the instructor and many times they feel all alone as they stare at a computer screen wondering: WHAT DO I DO NOW? or WHAT I AM I SUPPOSE TO DO FOR THE WEEK? etc. Priority number one is to keep the course flowing like you would in a face-to-face class which will in turn keep the students calm and relaxed because once something goes wrong the students will get upset and you will get buried under a pile of emails. In order to alleviate  the anxiety, insecurity, and frustration there are several things an e-learning instructor can do:

  1. Keep the course organized. That can mean something different to each instructor. For instance, I like to have my courses organized by weeks and each week has a dedicated folder that has all of the information students need to know what they have to do for a specific week. This alleviates a lot of the stress students feel trying to find where everything is and what they need to accomplish for the week.
  2. Be consistent. For example, my week begins always on a Tuesday and ends on a Monday. Having the same beginning and ending to the week throughout the semester provides students with the structure they need and that makes them feel more in control, as confidence is key for them to keep doing well in an online course. The other thing that helps is that I have one due date for everything, which in my case is a Monday, the end of our week, so students know when all of their work must be completed and submitted thus allowing them to balance their work week better.
  3. Communicate with students. During the semester I log in at least couple of times a day even on a Sunday since all of their homework is due on Monday night. There is nothing worse than a student asking for help because they are having a technical issue or question on a homework assignment and not being able to find their instructor. Even if I don’t have an immediate solution to a technical problem they always feel better if I respond to them quickly.
  4. Create E-Lectures. In order to guide my students, I design and build my own video lectures. I accomplish that by using Adobe Captivate Captivate 9 logo or Camtasia Camtasia. This type of software allows me to give my students the same kind of lecture without being in class. It also makes the students feel more connected to the course and to me as they hear me speak and explain for example that week’s topic.
  5. Create relevant assignments. As I teach Business Communications I select assignments that have to do with business, but I also like to use themes such as advertising or social corporate responsibility. This makes the students more interested in the course as I keep them wondering what we will be talking about the following week thus making them want to log into the course more often.
  6. Return homework in a timely manner. There is nothing worse than a student waiting too long for their homework assignment to come back with feedback and a grade. I have found that if I don’t return them quickly the students have moved on and even if they receive a low grade they will not revise their assignment. As this is a writing course the objective is to keep students writing and revising their work as much as possible as that is how one improves. Also, not returning the homework within 10 days or so causes the students stress out about their grades. As a result, they start sending emails complaining that they have not received their assignment and that they are worried about their grades which in turn I have to respond to which adds to my workload so I might as well just return their papers sooner rather than later.