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Best Practices for Delivering Effective Instruction in Virtual Classrooms

Authors:

Abstract

While much has been written on best practices in online education, the majority of advice focuses on asynchronous delivery. With the relatively recent advent of effective synchronous delivery systems such as Adobe Connect © and Elluminate © over the past five years, a number of secondary and higher level institutions are offering virtual courses. While some of the techniques used in asynchronous courses work well in virtual classrooms, it is argued a new set of strategies for synchronous delivery is needed. The purpose of this presentation will be to provide a set of strategies to support effective teaching and learning in virtual classrooms. These strategies are based on research, feedback from students, and practical experience. Six key areas will be discussed including (a) addressing technical challenges, (b) starting a class, (c) organizing a class, (d) providing effective support materials and tools, (e) creating engaging learning activities, and (f) collecting and offering meaningful evaluation. Both novice and experienced teachers of online education will leave with a set of strategies that will help them conduct stimulating and effective virtual classrooms.
Best Practices for Delivering Effective Instruction in Virtual Classrooms
Robin Kay
Associate Professor
University of Ontario Institute of Technology
Oshawa, Canada
robin.kay@uoit.ca
Abstract: While much has been written on best practices in online education, the majority of advice
focuses on asynchronous delivery. With the relatively recent advent of effective synchronous delivery
systems such as Adobe Connect © and Elluminate © over the past five years, a number of secondary and
higher level institutions are offering virtual courses. While some of the techniques used in asynchronous
courses work well in virtual classrooms, it is argued a new set of strategies for synchronous delivery is
needed.
The purpose of this presentation will be to provide a set of strategies to support effective teaching
and learning in virtual classrooms. These strategies are based on research, feedback from students, and
practical experience. Six key areas will be discussed including (a) addressing technical challenges, (b)
starting a class, (c) organizing a class, (d) providing effective support materials and tools, (e) creating
engaging learning activities, and (f) collecting and offering meaningful evaluation. Both novice and
experienced teachers of online education will leave with a set of strategies that will help them conduct
stimulating and effective virtual classrooms.
Overview
The strategies I am proposing are partially based on a review of the limited resources
available on conducting effective virtual learning (see Clark & Kwinn, 2007; Conrad &
Donaldson, 2004; Shank, 2007). The power of the strategies, though, comes from actually
teaching in a virtual environment and getting regular feedback from students. Without this
feedback, I can assume, but never really know whether a class or strategy was effective.
Strategies Used in Virtual Classrooms
Addressing Technical Challenges
While it is convenient for an instructor to assume that students have read and will meet
all the technological requirements to participate in a synchronous online learning environment, I
have found that it is helpful and necessary to check these assumptions. Above all, you need to
explain to students that not having the right equipment will make learning difficult for them and
the rest of the class. Here are some checks that I have students do:
1. Go to a website to check Internet speed (e.g., Speed Test at http://www.speedtest.net/)
Ask students to make sure the "download speed" is 5 Mb per second or more. Slower
speeds markedly affect the quality of sound and video that can be used.
2. Never use a wireless connection - From my experience wireless connections are not
adequate to participate in a synchronous - Student have poor audio and have to log out
and log in to the course repeatedly.
3. Use the automatic sound check every time you log on - Log into the course 5 minutes
early and use the automatic sound check to make sure everything is working well.
4. Close all other programs when you are in the course - Having multiple programs
running can reduce performance in the actually course, especially if the Internet
download speed is slower than 5Mps.
5. Use a head set that has an attached microphone with a USB connection - do not use
speakers as everyone else will hear a very annoying echo.
6. Check sound by greeting students - It is helpful to check the sound of students by
greeting them when they sign in. This simple check can save them (and their peers)
much grief when they move into breakout sessions.
Starting at Class
It is important to set the tone of the class right from the start. If you are fumbling around
trying to load "stuff" or appear to be disorganized or unfocussed, this can rub off on the students.
I have found the following strategies helpful for starting the class in a positive and focused
direction.
1. Post a list of tasks that the students need to have completed before class - For
example, they may need to have a certain websites loaded, download an organizer or
template, or email in some homework. Having these tasks displayed helps everyone be
prepared when the class begins (100% student approval rating).
2. Review learning goals for the class - I like to start with the learning goals I am trying to
achieve in the class so that students know exactly what is expected. I only spend a few
minutes, but it seems to centre the class (87% student approval rating).
3. Asking the class a "get to know you" question (e.g., your favourite hobbies, your
passions in life). I use the polling questions or chat tool to ask a few personal questions,
particularly during the first 3-4 weeks. My goal is to relax students and help build
community in a small way (73% student approval rating).
4. Polling questions where the class votes on a specific issue - Before we begin discussing
an issue, I often poll students (anonymously) to get them thinking about a topic and let
them view the wide variety of opinions that might exist about more controversial topics
(93% student approval rating).
Organizing a Class
Running a synchronous online course can be a daunting task, particularly with the range
of tools available. Trying to load files during class or set up learning tools for students to use
can take considerable time, even if you know how to use the course software well. I spend at
least 45-60 minutes setting up my course before it starts so that everything is ready and I don't
lose momentum during the class. I also have some suggestions about whether to use cameras,
static pictures, or just audio in an online session.
1. Using organized layouts - I like to have organized sections or layouts (in Adobe
Connect) where I conduct specific activities like polling, discussions, chat sessions, and
breakout group directions. It helps the class run smoothly and saves time when these
areas are prepared ahead of time (100% student approval rating).
2. Being in a different group each class - I use pre-assigned groups for each class for two
reasons. One, it prevents valuable class time being wasted on students trying to figure
out who they should work with. Two, students get to work with a variety of other
students each week to gain different perspectives (100% student approval rating).
3. Do not use the camera feature in class - In some programs (e.g. Adobe Connect) you
can view all students live. In practice, this does not work that well. Slow connection
speeds and valuable screen space is wasted. Student were either neutral or agreed that
this feature was unnecessary.
4. Have static pictures of students in breakout rooms - To make breakout rooms sessions
a little more personal, I pre-load pictures of group members in the breakout room
discussion sessions (64% student approval rating).
Support Material/Tools
It is my belief that extensive support material needs to be made available to students in an
online synchronous course. Considerable work is done outside class and well designed support
resources reduce student frustration and the potential deluge of administrative email questions.
1. Jing videos - I create numerous videos to explain assignments, procedures needed to
complete tasks, give formative and summative feedback, and mini-lessons on specific
concepts. These videos make the course far more personal and provide the "Just-in-time"
help that student need when they find the time to complete the required tasks assigned to
them -see http://faculty.uoit.ca/kay/educ5104g/resources/res_video.html for examples
(100% student approval rating).
2. Class website (lessons plans, student work, resources, tools) - I create a comprehensive
website with a full set of support materials for students. This site has proven invaluable
for students - see http://faculty.uoit.ca/kay/educ5104g/home_frame.html for an example
(100% student approval rating).
3. Limited Use of Discussion Boards - I rarely use discussion boards in synchronous
classes because we have most of our rich discussion online. Students were either neutral
or agreed that they did not like using discussion boards, especially when participation
was required for course credit. When discussion boards were opened on a volunteer
basis, few students chose to use them.
4. Email reminders - I sent out weekly reminders about completing required tasks and
assignments. Even though I had adult learners, they had very busy lives and I found
simple reminders resulted in 100% completion rate of almost all tasks assigned (90%
student approval rating).
Engaging Class Activities
Effective in class activities make or break a successful synchronous online learning class.
I have found the following activities to be well received by students.
1. Organized breakout rooms with specific tasks - I used this strategy often, but I gave
students specific tasks to complete within a set time period. Occasionally, when I left the
tasks too open-ended, students appeared to spend an inordinate amount of time trying to
figure out what was expected. Clear instructions and roles helped focused students
toward a unified learning goal. Typical breakout session times ranged from 15 to 45
minutes (100 % student approval rating).
2. Focused class discussions about a specific topic - I used this strategy to bring ideas
together after breakout sessions. Simply conducting a class discussion without breakout
discussions did not work well - most students were reluctant to speak out (84 % student
approval rating).
3. Asking all students to comment on an issue using the Chat room - This strategy
worked far better for general discussion and brainstorming. Students appeared to be
much more comfortable using chat messages vs. actual voice (85 % student approval
rating).
4. Polling students about their understanding of material in class - I would poll students
on a number of issues before and after breakout sessions to gain a general feel for
whether learning goals were achieved, Students liked answering anonymously and
viewing their peers collective responses (83 % student approval rating).
5. Student presentations - short and focused - Students were asked to present materials in
a number of instances and this worked best if they were told to limit the length to 5
minutes or less. I also broke up presentations to limit the time students would spend
passively digesting the presentation of material. A series of lengthy presentations tended
to bore students (92% student approval rating).
6. Individual activities that you complete and discuss after words - Aside from breakout
room sessions, I would assign short, focused activities (e.g., rate a WBLT, create a
PowerPoint, summarize a short research article) for students to complete individually
during class and then return to discuss and compare results (77 % student approval
rating).
7. Home Activity Experts - I would assign students to research specific topics outside of
class and then share their expertise with the rest of the class. Sharing took place with
short presentation or in breakout sessions (84 % student approval rating).
Collecting and Offering Meaningful Evaluation
Providing meaningful and regular feedback for students is essential for developing and
maintaining community in a synchronous online learning course. It is equally helpful to collect
and respond to feedback from students so they feel part of the learning process.
1. Assignments explained with video clips - When setting up any assignment, I provide
detailed video clips to clearly explain what is expected. Explaining these assignments at
the beginning of the course takes considerable class time and appears to go in one ear and
out the other. Students need these explanations when they are ready to begin the
assignment, so a just-in-time video clips work really well - see
http://faculty.uoit.ca/kay/educ5104g/assign/assign_frame.html for examples (100 %
student approval rating).
2. Video feedback on home activities and assignments - I provided video feedback on a
number of home activities and assignments throughout the course, particularly in the first
4-6 weeks. Students liked hearing personal feedback from the instructor and were far
clearer on my expectations than if I had used only written feedback. I used free screen
recording software called Jing and it typically took 10 minutes per student for formative
feedback and 30 minutes for assignments (100 % student approval rating).
3. Students asked to provide regularly feedback on the class - After every class, I asked
students to take 5 minutes and provide feedback on how the class went for them.
Typically, I asked about whether the learning goals were met, what they liked, and what
suggestions they had for making the class better. This was one of the best strategies I
used as it provided valuable feedback and made students an integral part of the learning
process.
References
Clark, R., & Kwinn, A (2007). The New Virtual Classroom. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and
Sons.
Conrad, R. M., & Donaldson, J.A. (2004). Engaging the Online Learner. San Francisco, CA:
John Wiley and Sons.
Shank, P. (2007). The Online Learning Idea Book. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.
... A recent case study examined feedback from 14 graduate students on the use of video podcasts for administrative purposes (Kay, 2010). Students in this study either agreed (n=3; 21%) or strongly agreed (n=10; 71%) with the statement "I like having video instructions on how to complete assignments". ...
... Sometimes students are having significant problems with a concept, task, or a personal aspect of their life that affects their progress in the course. It is often quicker and easier to use a video podcast to respond to these requests, particularly if there is an emotional component that might be misconstrued if written text were used (Kay, 2010). Another community-based use of video podcasts is when peers provide useful formative feedback to each other. ...
... tional component that might be misconstrued if written text were used (Kay, 2010). Another community-based use of video podcasts is when peers provide useful formative feedback to each other. One study reported that it was faster and more effective to use video podcasts than written feedback, especially when multimedia materials are being assessed (Kay. 2010). Finally, to bring life to a standard online discussion, the use of video podcasts can be very effective, especially when they are kept short, to the point, and focus on a topic that lends itself to visual representations. Depending on the theme, students may find video-podcast-driven discussion more motivating, lively and easier to dig ...
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... Just as with the plethora of Facebook and MySpace games, participants, if given opportunity will discuss game interaction revealing accomplishments and pitfalls by such in world objects such as message boards or status screens. The utilization of the social aspects of the game elements however needs be considered in relation to the educational scenarios presented in the virtual world [2]. While the sharing of information related to a task may be relevant in the some contexts, it may not be good practice for others. ...
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Engaging the Online Learner
  • R M Conrad
  • J A Donaldson
Conrad, R. M., & Donaldson, J.A. (2004). Engaging the Online Learner. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.
The Online Learning Idea Book
  • P Shank
Shank, P. (2007). The Online Learning Idea Book. San Francisco, CA: John Wiley and Sons.