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7 Ways to Create an Engaging Online Science Course

Based on a presentation from the 2012 CoDLA conference by IEDSE, the Institute for Excellence in Distance Science Education, a non-profit organization focused on providing professional development opportunities for online science educators. This article provides 7 helpful tips for creating an effective online science course.

1.Introduce yourself and your course │ A creative and engaging way for your students to get to know you better is through an introduction video. Include background information about your experiences and interests along with a review of the syllabus. Syllabi are students’ first impression of a course and the instructor. In face-to-face classes instructors often add to the syllabus as they go along; this is not possible in online classes where it is considered the students’ bible. Important elements to include in a syllabus are: learning objectives and activities, course contents (texts, labs, discussion board), expectations of students and instructor, a detailed assignment calendar, FAQs and forms of assessment. Including a syllabus quiz is a good way to ensure students read all contents.

2.Let your students get to know one another │ Include icebreaker activities in the first week of your course. Icebreakers can engage students by helping them discover common ground and common interests:

  • Ask for a one-page bio ahead of time
  • Skills survey: technology components, Excel, PPT, CMS, discussion board, etc.
  • Introduction discussion: Students provide basic introductions and/or class discusses online course experience, science classes, job relationship to class, previous science experiences, hobbies, etc.
  • Send students to online personality tests like true colors or learning stylesinventories; share results with the class as a whole

3.Understand and manage student expectations │ Students expect online faculty to be present whenever they are there, no matter the day or the time, unless explicitly told otherwise. Educators spend a lot of time online anyway, so tell your students the days and timeframes they are most likely to catch you online and those they won’t.  Try to give your students fast, specific responses, and feedback that helps them understand their strengths and weaknesses. Let students know estimated time needed to complete assignments and when they are due. Focus discussions on relevant issues and immediately applicable information. Encourage them to explore new concepts and help them clarify their thinking.

4.Design meaningful student-to-student collaboration experiences │ A great way to encourage collaboration and interaction is through discussion boards. The importance of discussion boards cannot be over-emphasized. Discussion boards help build community, promote learning, and help instructors know if students understand what is being taught or if they need future explanations. The secret to successful discussions is to compile relevant, thought-provoking questions that spur student interest and imagination. Students love to share the results of their research and often compete to outdo each other in posting the most current resources.  Well-structured discussion boards allow students to engage in the highest level of learning by teaching each other. Another way to collaborate is to have the class create and edit a wiki page or Google document throughout the course.

5.Communicate with your students │ Use a variety of ways to communicate with students—e-mail, blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Skype discussion boards, announcements, and group e-mails. Use multiple means for important communication; do not trust that they will see just one  announcement. Create a response policy including the time it will take to receive a response and where certain types of questions should be asked.  A good policy is to keep e-mail for personal and confidential communication; content-focused questions should only be asked on discussion boards. Offering virtual office hours ensures students have a set time they can talk to you. Try to use Skype for personal conversations as this visual communication tool not only enhances communication, but also helps build your relationship with your students.

6.Give assignments that let students be creative │The primary goal of assignments should be to enable students to learn independently. If students feel they have enough direction to be successful on their own, they will absorb and master the course material. Ensure clarity by giving detailed instructions, posting models of selected assignments, and providing examples of good vs. bad lab reports. Help foster creativity through assignments:

  • Analyze a problem in detail – share with class
  • Edit a wiki page
  • Create a blog
  • Present a relevant current event (relevant to the topic of the module)
  • Use real-time, web-based data such as recent earthquake or climate data.
  • Present case studies
  • Design a game

7.Anticipate and prepare for difficulties │ Be aware of the difficulties inherent in online education and prepare solutions for each:

  • Students may not have expected computer programs or have slow and/or unreliable computer connections; try to help with technology/software problems before sending them to a help desk
  • Verify that links are fully functional – no broken links
  • Some students may be setting themselves up for failure (40+hr work week and full course load) – make sure they know how much time they need to devote to studies on a weekly basis
  • Stress the importance of self-directed learning
  • Consider students’ procrastination when setting deadlines
  • If you require responses to discussion board postings, require the original postings be made 3-4 days before responses are due
  • Know conceptual problem areas and have appropriate solutions ready
  • Address multiple learning styles
  • It takes 1.5 to 4 times longer to develop an online class, but when it is done, you will save time in other areas

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