How is planning a remote course unique? What best practices should be considered when designing a course that will take place remotely in the midst of tumultuous times? This article aims to provide tips and techniques for planning your next remote course.

How Is Remote Different from Online Teaching?

  • Students select online delivery at registration, and all participants are expected to have required technology and connectivity
  • Online courses carry an additional student fee
  • Faculty design online courses, often with instructional designers, months in advance
  • Remote courses may include synchronous activities

What Do We Know about Remote Teaching Now?

  • Zoom burnout is real. Spending multiple hours attending classes via Zoom everyday can contribute to feelings of isolation, fatigue, and disengagement.
  • Student (and faculty) tech access is not universal.
  • Teaching and learning from home (with family and so many other distractions) makes everything harder.

What Does Designing a Remote Course Look Like?

  • Consider whether the existing elements of your course will work in a remote context.

Simplify your teaching using this helpful guide. 

  • Ask your students to co-create some aspects of the class with you.
  • Build learning experiences for your students around the goals of the course.
  • Scaffold large assignments so there are small steps along the way.
  • Plan regular communication, assignment feedback, and student check-ins.

Get Student Input During the Design Process

Whether you start designing your remote course using feedback from last term’s students or you build as you go with suggestions from this term’s students, inviting your students to give input in the design process will do a lot to help the course run smoothly. 

  • Student input encourages student motivation, participation, and agency.
  • Course co-creation helps to meet the needs of your students by encouraging a diversity of ideas and choices. 

Consider issues of equity and access in remote learning

A few ways to encourage student input as you design your remote course:

  • Send out a poll before the course begins asking about technology access, communication mode preferences, and assignment type feedback. Students might be most interested in meeting synchronously once a week to ask questions while working on video projects rather than term papers, but as instructors we won’t know that unless we ask. 
  • Provide students with 3-4 student learning outcomes on the first day, and ask the class to brainstorm other outcomes they would like to include on the list. Work to include at least 1-2 of their suggestions on the finalized list of student learning outcomes. 

Create a negotiated syllabus with your students during the first week of class where they will have a say in the course goals, assessments, assignments, and activities. You don’t have to make everything negotiable, and a critical part of the planning process is to identify the scope of choice. This is a great way to build community and get student buy-in around course requirements. “The Negotiated model is totally different from other syllabuses in that it allows full learner participation in selection of content, mode of working, route of working, assessment, and so on. It should by this means embody the central principle that the learner’s needs are of paramount importance” (Clarke 1991)

Creating Course Goals

Imagine that a large box arrives at your house, and when you open it, it is full of parts for you to assemble, but there are no instructions and no pictures of what the final object is meant to be, so you are stuck trying to make sense of all the parts without an understanding of what the whole should look like or what the end goal is. This is how students often feel when they enter a course that does not include student learning outcomes or clear goals. 

You may be familiar with Student Learning Outcomes, also sometimes called Learning Objectives or Course Goals. Your course may have pre-set outcomes already determined, or you might need to identify outcomes. Consider these the foundation, blueprint, or roadmap of your course. Student Learning Outcomes provide a clear path that everyone in the course is working toward. 

Good Student Learning Outcomes should be observable and measurable so that you can look at student work and see how it meets the goals of the course. For a guide to writing effective student learning outcomes, check out this “Assessment Methods” article. 

Some questions to consider when creating your Student Learning Outcomes (SLO):

  • What do you want students to be able to do by the end of your course? Two or three years after your course? 
  • How might students contribute to creating the outcomes they are expected to achieve?
  • Are these outcomes observable and measurable? Hint: Begin your SLO list with “By the end of this course, students will be able to…” and use active verbs when writing your outcomes to achieve observable and measurable goals. 

Building Assessments & Assignments around Course Goals

Think back to that mysterious box that arrived at your house with no instructions. What if the box did include instructions, but the materials in the box didn’t match the instructions? What if pieces were missing or all the pieces were there, but the instructions skipped big steps? 

This is analogous to what happens in our courses when we assign work that does not align with the course goals or when our assessments do not match what has been taught in the class. It’s difficult for students to understand why the work is necessary or relevant or how their assessments reflect what they are learning. 

Some assessments are intended to help you and students see how much progress you’ve all made toward meeting the course goals, and other assessments are meant to measure whether students are ready to move on to the next stage, whether that’s the next topic in your course or another course altogether. Not all assessments need to be graded. Some can be used as practice that helps you adjust your expectations and help students know what to focus on as they are progressing through the course. 

It’s often helpful to give students opportunities for peer review, self-reflection, and suggestions rather than a letter or number grade on those assessments that are meant to serve as learning tools for future work. Research shows that grades are often demotivating for students and can be confusing when students try to improve their grade in future assignments. While we often look at grades as inevitable and ubiquitous, they are relatively new as a standard practice in higher education (Schinske & Tanner, 2014).   

Some questions to consider when creating assessments and assignments:

  • Do the assessments measure what you mean for them to measure? 
  • Are assessments aligned with your Student Learning Outcomes? 
  • Which assessments absolutely need grades and which need a different kind of feedback? 
  • Do your assignments help prepare students for their assessments?
  • Are the connections between course goals and course assignments clearly communicated in writing? 

For more ideas for creating successful assessments in your remote course, check out “Remote Assessment Strategies” and “Encouraging Student Agency through Alternative Assessments.” 

Scaffolding Assignments for Student Success

When asking students to complete large assignments such as term papers, presentations, group projects, lab experiments, final exams or research studies, it is helpful to break these assignments into smaller tasks in order to “scaffold” the work and support the final product. 

  • What steps do students need to take to complete the large assignment? 
  • What kind of accountability and feedback will help them successfully complete the large assignment? (It often helps students to be required to turn in outlines, proposals, and drafts because it keeps them accountable and assists them in breaking their work into parts.)
  • How long will each part likely take, and how can you schedule one or two check-ins with students as they are completing the parts? 
  • If planning a group project, what roles do you expect students to take to complete the project together, and how might a group contract or project proposal help to outline those roles and responsibilities? 

Another important aspect of scaffolding is making sure there is continuity between synchronous and asynchronous aspects of the class. For example, if students are assigned readings and discussions to complete on their own time and if you ask them to meet with you via Zoom, that group time should relate to those readings and discussions. Maybe that means scheduling time for Q&A about the asynchronous work before moving on to new material or providing the new material in advance of the Zoom session so students are ready to discuss it in real time. 

Scheduling Regular Communication & Feedback

Even before you meet your students, it’s important to think about how you can engage with them, give them feedback, and check in with them regularly. Building community and a sense of instructor presence goes a long way in helping students feel supported and part of a community. 

Here are some suggested ways to stay in touch with your students:

  • Send out a weekly email that you also post as an announcement. This email can include due dates, recommended practices, campus resources, and/or something fun, human, and non-academic to lighten the mood. 
  • Hold regular Zoom office hours. Even if it’s just 30 minutes twice a week, being available to answer questions via Zoom can be a big support for students. If your students are shy about attending office hours, consider having them sign up for at least one 5-10 minute check-in during the term. 
  • Make 2-3 minute update videos with weekly feedback for the whole class. Giving every student written feedback can be exhausting and tedious. Instead, when students are doing those scaffolded assignments, send out a quick video to the whole class with your impressions of their work in progress and any tips about how they can improve it. 
  • Email students individually when you notice they have not been participating regularly. Students are juggling a lot, and sometimes they might drop the ball. Having an instructor reach out to check in on them can make all the difference between a student who fails a course and one who persists and succeeds.  

This article was last updated on Jul 19, 2021 @ 4:00 pm.

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