User Stories | April 21, 2020

Tips for Improving Your Online University Course

With Covid-19 forcing most K-12 schools to close, higher education institutions have also been forced into a position where they must move their class content to an online setting. For those universities and colleges that have decided to conduct online classes, a number of challenges have arisen as they endure this transition. We were curious to learn more about the unique challenges universities have faced moving their classes completely online, as well as some of the solutions and best practices universities have already adopted to respond to these challenges. Here is what we found out. 

We conducted a small research project, citing sources published by various universities disclosing the results of their initial investigations regarding distance learning, and were able to identify a few key challenges that universities may face when starting their online courses. Key learnings are that various factors affect whether a school will decide to move their content online, communication is critical when administering an online curriculum, and that administering remote assessments can be challenging.

Let's talk about transitioning to a fully online course. One of the key challenges cited is that many schools may not have the proper resources to start classes online, due to lack of funding or student access to stable internet. While lack of internet may be a more challenging issue to tackle in the long-term (though more and more ISPs have begun to offer programs to increase access to low income households), there are many ways to host classes online without the burden of cost. Many universities have started hosting courses on Zoom, live streaming their classes to their students. The advantage of Zoom is that it is free of cost, and for this period of time, they have removed the cap on meeting duration. Another great option would be to use Swivl Teams, where you can pre record your lesson and leave time-stamped comments for your students to review. If your institution utilizes an LMS (Learning Management System), you can upload your videos via a URL, or embed the video. 

Swivl embedding to LMS

Communication is key when teaching an online course, as students need to know when key dates are, where to submit assignments, how they are assessed, and more. It is critical to have all of this information readily available for the student, and many professors utilize an LMS tool to keep their courses organized. Beyond using an LMS, giving frequent reminders to students about key dates, as well as when they can expect feedback for their assignments, is a great way to keep students updated. Many professors now take extra time to check in on video with their students to see how they are doing, and whether they understand the content of the class. Not only does this help them stay on track with the course, but it also serves as a way to check on the pulse of the class.

Administering assessments online is completely different from in person, as academic integrity is difficult to guarantee at a distance. Closed book exams can be particularly challenging to conduct, as it requires a camera to be filming a student throughout the entire duration of the test and requires the university to verify the filming too. Furthermore, informal assessments, such as labs or practicals, are almost impossible to conduct in certain subjects. 

Bottom line is: Professors need to get creative with their assessments. One solution would be to change all exams to open books, and utilize multiple modes of formal assessment in the exam to evaluate student understanding. For example, an exam could have multiple choice questions, long form questions, as well as multiple part questions, which assesses a variety of types of knowledge (Read more about this in the book “Research on Classroom Assessment”). Northern Illinois University has created a blog on preventing cheating in online courses for your reference. One of these tips is to create a question pool to draw from, categorizing them and randomizing them for each exam. 

Another initiative university courses should take to improve the accessibility of their online class is to make them compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). There are several challenges colleges are experiencing when trying to make their courses ADA compliant. Some students require transcription of the lectures, others require text-to-speech accommodation. One quick solution to this is to upload or record your video on Swivl Teams, and request your video to be transcribed

This list is not exhaustive and over the next few months, we’re certain new challenges will arise; with that being said, as universities have been forced to adapt quickly and transformatively, we are equally as confident that more creative solutions will be brought to the table to enhance distance-delivered higher education. As we gather more research, we’ll update this blog and share more advice on our Twitter as well. Hopefully, these extraordinary circumstances will actually force the higher education system to make substantial changes toward their online learning programs and pave a more clear path toward equitable, and accessible education.