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.



On the Road…

At this point, I have been teaching online for over 6 years now and ever since I began working online many of my colleagues kept saying that since I teach online I can teach from anywhere in the worlde-learning image and how cool that would be.  Although I thought about it I never actually did it until this summer because I felt extremely nervous and worried that many things could go wrong, especially the internet connection.

Six years later as a more seasoned and confident online instructor, I decided to take my laptop and go to Greece to visit my family instead of waiting for my courses to end. So I am sure you are wondering what happened…

My trip was not without its challenges such as the time change, figuring out a different work schedule, being blocked by my Norton firewall, to catching a computer virus, etc but to my surprise it went a lot better and smoother than I thought it would. It was a lot of fun being able to work from a relative’s home in Athens or from my parents’ dining room in the southern part of the Peloponnese while spending time with them and being able to continue working.

For me, the hardest part was when I was traveling to and from Greece because I could not log in from the plane. Throughout my flight, I was wondering if any of my students are panicking female cartoon Panic attackas students tend to do while taking online courses especially if I do not respond to them quickly enough. I say this because students are so use to getting a fast response when they are taking an on-campus course that if they do not hear from me as quickly as they think they should they get upset, panicked, angry and frustrated. Which is quite understandable since many students have not taken an online course before and are not use to waiting for their instructor to respond a few hours or a day later. Many students assume that I am logged in all day and night so I can respond to them at 2 am.

As a result I kept thinking if they are fine or are they were having a technical issue or something went wrong when they submitted their homework assignment etc. while I was traveling and the students were posting questions in the Q&A forum or even emailing me to let me know and ask me for advice and I was not able to respond to them for over 12 hours.

Therefore the first thing I did when I first arrived in Athens Greece was to connect to the internet in order to log into my course because I had been offline for 15 hours and had not checked in with my students. Thankfully none of my students had needed my assistance or had posted a question so no one realized that I had travelled half way across the world. To my surprise and despite some small challenges mostly router issues I was able to maintain my regular working schedule so students did not notice any changes in the way the course was facilitated.


Things to Consider when deciding to travel while teaching online:

  1. Time Difference: Greece has a 7-hour time difference to the US so it takes a while to adjust to it. Thus making one’s work schedule a bit of a challenge.
  1. Find space to work: Carving out a quiet space to work in someone else’s home is tricky because not only are you changing the way you work, but you are also changing the way the people you are visiting live. As you are taking up space in their kitchen or dining room to work you want to be considerate of their feelings and respect they way they live. So clean up after yourself when you have finished working. Also, think about what time would be less intrusive. I mostly worked during the midday siesta or late at night.
  1. Internet Connection: For example, at my parents home the internet connection was not working well or fast enough. One reason was that they had a thunderstorm with a lot of lightening which caused the router to malfunction. So I spent the first three days trying to figure out what is going on and I ended up replacing their router.
  1. Internet Security: Beware of computer viruses!! I cannot stress that enough. Almost every time I visit Greece my computer catches a virus this time is was an OSX.Trojan.Gen, but thankfully I have Norton installed on my laptop so it took care of it. Make sure to install some software like Norton Norton logoor MacAfee MacAfee logoso your computer is always protected no matter where you to travel to.
  1. Have different logging in options: When you travel your computer’s IP address will change because you are accessing the internet with a different router so you might have trouble as I did viewing different sites with extra security like I did when trying to access my work email. It took me a couple of days to figure out that my Norton firewall did not like my new IP address and it was not letting me log into my email. Till I figured out what was going on I was able to use my cell phone to access my email address, but it can be quite nerve-racking because I kept thinking what else I am going to lose access to. So have several options i.e. devices such as a smartphone and/or tablet to use just in case this happens to you.
  1. Different working pace: Remember that although you are working you are also on vacation and you should enjoy going out and having fun. If you are stuck in the house working all day what is the point of traveling so consider changing the way you work. I found that I was able to work and play while traveling because I took advantage of their midday siesta. While everybody napped I worked on my courses so when they were ready to go I was too. If I ran out of time and had a lot to do I also worked late at night. The bonus of working around their sleep schedule was that the Internet was faster. Staying positive and being flexible while traveling is key because the benefits of traveling and visiting family outweighs any small challenges that you might be faced with while on the road.



Online Group Work

collaborating image2

One of the biggest challenges I have faced when teaching online is getting students to work collaboratively and successfully to complete a group assignment online. Over the years I have discovered that it takes a lot of planning and thought to make sure that the students will have a positive experience. However despite all of the effort put in designing a group assignment if the students are not willing to collaborate and work together. It seems that their biggest issue is responding to each other in a timely manner. Some things I have discovered in order to make the process smoother are:


  1. Have clear guidelines on about the group assignment. I create assignments that are straightforward with as much information about my expectations as possible.


  1. Offer different types of online collaborative tools such as Google docsor Evernote Evernote
  1. Resolve any issues quickly. I let the students know that if there are any issues they need to email me or post a question in the Q&A and I try to resolve any issues within 24 hours.
  1. Keep groups small. No more than 3 students per group because if it is more or less then it can become complicated. When there are only 2 students in the group I have found that many times 1 of the student does not communicate quickly enough with their group member to complete their work and either end up doing the work at the last minute or the other student is left to write the whole assignment on his/her own which is not what I want. On the other hand, if there are 4 students in a group it is harder for the students to coordinate and collaborate with each other because there are too many emails and texts occurring to keep track. cell phone imageOn the other hand, if there are 3 students in a group things seem to work better because they are able to work better with each other. Even if one of the students does not end up participating during the group assignment there are still 2 students that can successfully complete the assignment.



Beyond the One-Dimensional Page

During the summer I always reflect on the year that just ended in order to begin working on my courses for the fall and spring semester. As a result, I decided that it would fun to add audio to my weekly overviews. The thought behind it was that audio would add more depth to a one-dimensional page. When you add audio or video to a piece of writing it makes it more interesting and grabs people’s attention. It makes the experience be more like that of an in-class course. I know what you are going to say. Hold on! I thought the whole point was for people taking a course online is to have a different learning experience. Although that is true for many people I have also found that the reason many students in my college register for online courses is the convenience that an online course has to offer. Such as not having to go to class, adapting the course to a work schedule etc.  So they want to take a course that is flexible and easier on their professional, and family life.

However since the majority of the students doesn’t know what an online course is all about they think that it is going to be similar to an on-campus course. Hence they don’t know how to navigate in an online course so they get lost and lose interest. On the other hand, I want to make sure that I teach my students the information that I have set out. So if I don’t create material that will motivate my students to log in then I won’t achieve what I have set out to do.

To add audio to my weekly overviews so they I can provide students with the types comments I would make if I was in class with them.

I began by experimenting with iannotate iannotate logo small because it is a wonderful app that I have used in the past. Unfortunately, what I found out was unless my students have an Ipad or a tablet and purchase the app then they cannot listen to my audio feedback. As the university doesn’t give them a tablet when they are accepted, it would kind of unfair of me to ask my students to buy an Ipad just for my course so they can listen to my comments.

Then I went on to use Growly Notes Growly Notes logoand AudionoteAudioNote logo because you use them on a computer. So I thought it would be easier for my students to use. Both are great note taking apps for the mac, but the audio did not work when I uploaded it to Blackboard Learn.

So then I decided to use MS Word and then convert it to an Adobe pdf file. I thought that since these are such ubiquitous programs that all of my students can open them from any computer or mobile device. The pdf with audio worked well when I emailed it,  but when I uploaded the file to Blackboard the audio would not work. At this point, I am assuming that it is a Blackboard problem. My next step would be to call Blackboard and ask them if there is any way I can make this work. If I manage to solve the audio I will report back, so stayed tuned…



Who Are My Students…

As I get ready for the upcoming semester I can’t stop thinking if my course design and the theories I use to reach all of my students.  So as I work on my courses I can’t help but wonder who are the students that so bravely decided to take my online course instead of an on-campus version of it. I look at their names men, women sophomores, juniors, seniors; English speaking students, non-English students, and the list goes on. Do I really care if they are seniors or non-native speakers? At the end of the day, no I don’t. What I actually want to know before the beginning of the semester is how they learn. Are they visual learners or do they learn just by reading a textbook. In a nutshel,l how do they retain knowledge?

Another thing I want to know is: Are they internet natives? This is an important question these days as technology has taken over our personal, professional, and academic lives. Being an internet native makes a difference in the way one learns. So in turn, it influences how a course is designed.

How old are they? Do they work? Both of these questions address experience outside of the classroom and the motivation to take a college course is so much different when you are in your 30s versus being in your early 20s.

Unfortunately, I don’t have all of the answers to my questions until a couple of weeks after the semester begins. So since I really don’t know much about my students when I am designing or redesigning a course I look at the feedback I received from the students during the previous semester. I also look at their performance as well as what assignments, video lectures, online discussions worked and what didn’t and change them accordingly.

As the students at my university are older that the average 20-year-old college student and the majority of them work the teaching philosophy that I espouse is Andragogy. It is a teaching theory developed for adult learners by Malcolm Knowles. According to Knowles Andragogy is the art and science to teaching adults. This theory is designed to engage adults to learn by:

  1. Letting adults know the reason they are learning something
  2. Using their experience as the basis for new learning
  3. Making adults responsible for their own learning
  4. Explaining the relevance and the practicality of what they are learning to their professional lives.

I teaching a business writing course and it super important to make students see that what they are learning in my course are skills that they will need when they graduate college if not sooner as many of my the students already work in the business world and need their bachelors degree to advance in their careers.

So I strongly believe that when designing the course understanding the types of students that will register for it is important to the success of the course as well as of how well the students learn and use the information that they learn. After all being a educator is about transferring what you know to somebody else so they can use it as well.



The Perils of Online Teaching

To be honest towards the end of the semester I tend to get buried under a huge pile of final papers, rewrites, and final exams!


Most students do not realize the amount of time it takes educators to read their assignments and add thoughtful comments on their papers that will help them improve their writing.

To provide my students with feedback on their writing I use a couple of apps that I think work really well because I can hand correct it on my ipad and the students receive a pdf of their homework assignment. The app I like the most is UPad. For one thing it is super intuitive and extremely simple to use.


Once you have the right stylus then it feels as if I am correcting on paper and not an IPad screen. When I am don’t reading and writing my comments and feedback I save the file and export it. The other app I like to use a lot especially if I have a lot to say is iannotate.


This is a more sophisticated app and has a lot of bells and whistles that UPad does not have. It takes a little bit longer to get the hang of this app, but it is still worth using. The feature that I like the most is that I can record my voice instead of writing comments. This app allows me to talk to my students like I did during office hours when they had questions about their papers. Once I am done reading a student’s paper I can save the paper and export it. The process is slightly different, but the end result is the same.

Most students like hand written comments and audio versus the track changes that can be done via Microsoft word. They feel that the instructor cares enough to go the extra mile and provide them not only thought provoking comments but will also hand write them.

I would recommend either app for reading and commenting on student papers. Of course, their are numerous apps out there and I think that it is a matter of personality and preference. So if you don’t like the two I am using feel free to go out there and explore…



Is Anybody Out There?

Students that take online courses often talk about how lonely and  isolated they feel because  they do not experience the community feeling they have when they are in a classroom. Many times it is true and that is why I strive to create an online community for my students in my online courses so they do not feel secluded. However, no one really talks about the isolation that an online instructor feels when s/he does not have colleagues around. You are all excited about not having to drive to work and after a couple of weeks you realize that something is missing in this whole set up. Uh oh there are no people around to talk to!


When I began my journey as an online instructor I did not realize how lonely it would be for me and how disconnected I would feel at home. Teaching online has its benefits for sure. For starters, I do not have to deal with commuting back and forth or the weather here in the northeast.

snow and traffic

Although teaching online keeps me busy I can’t help but wonder is there anybody out there and what are they up to. By that I mean what do other online instructors do besides work from home? Do they raise a family like me? Do they do research? Write? Travel?