Online classes certainly give both you and your students time flexibility, but that flexibility can be a trap for both you and your students.
One of the mistakes new online faculty members sometimes make is to not structure the class and give deadlines. One faculty member new to teaching online put in his syllabus that he recognized that many of his students were working individuals…and so there would be no deadlines in his class. He then found that 80% of his students waited until the last week of class to submit all assignments! He was hard-pushed to grade that volume of material by grade submission deadline…and he certainly was unable to provide quality feedback to his students.
Online students need to be more self-motivated and self-sufficient than classroom students, but I have always believed that motivation could be built in to the schedule. Some tips I have used:
1. Divide your content into weekly modules or lessons.
This is really no different than if you were meeting with your students once or twice a week. It simply helps to chunk your content, interactions, discussions, and assessments; dividing your material into weekly segments. However, go easy on the first week. Some of your students are trying to learn their way around both the LMS and your material. Make the first assignment one that helps your students get comfortable with the online learning environment. (See our section on Icebreakers for some ideas.)
In dividing your class up, think about your target audience and their schedules. Just because the semester starts on a Wednesday or Thursday does not necessarily mean your “week” does as well. If you recognize that the majority of students will be working on your class on weekend, have your “week” run from Monday through Sunday. In fact, having your first lesson run for 9-10 days gives you time to work through the growing pains new students have with the LMS and online communications. (And check what a “week” might be if you are teaching students in another country…and be adaptable to that as well.)
2. Use a consistent format in your weekly lessons.
Nothing confuses students more than a constantly changing format to your class. Find a format that works for you and them and stick to it. In Course Design Considerations, I discussed my use of weekly modules based on a format originally developed in St. Leo University in Florida called:
P.I.E. – Preparation / Interactions / Evaluation.
3. Have graded assignments each week, including discussions.
Grades are a pretty powerful motivator for students. Providing weekly grades also increases the frequency in which you can give students feedback on their progress.
4. Separate deadlines for discussions and for written work.
Managing asynchronous discussions can be time consuming, but it helps if there is a consistent flow to discussions. One method of improving discussions is to have a deadline for initial comments and a second deadline for comments and responses. It also helps to provide a rubric on your expectations regarding discussions. For instance, letting students know that comments such as “I agree” are considered “C-level work” will set the bar higher.
5. Do not use midnight as a deadline.
Midnight is an arbitrary time and ignores the reality that many of your students work late into the night when online. In reviewing course statistics after a few weeks of your course, it is not unusual to find that someone in your class has been online in the class every hour of the day. Additionally, many students (and some faculty) have trouble conceptualizing exactly when “midnight” is. For instance, if September 9th is a Wednesday, and you designate that a paper is due by midnight, September 9th, in reality, you have just set the deadline for Tuesday night, since midnight (or 0000 on a world clock) is the start of September 9th. If you meant for students to turn something in Wednesday night, setting a deadline of midnight September 10th is just as confusing. Something that has worked for me is simply to state that papers are due the evening of September 9th without specifying a time.
6. Be proactive in contacting students who miss deadlines.
If you rigorously check and follow-up the first couple of weeks on deadlines, in many cases you will “train” your students as to acceptable behavior, which then becomes the routine for the remainder of the class. Take advantage of some of the technology tools such as discussion board subscription or RSS feeds to stay abreast of student activity.