This is pre-recorded Tech Tuesday for May of 2020 in which I share 10 tips to improve your online courses. I hope the suggestions are useful to you.

1: Work With An Instructional Designer

DePaul has a small army of instructional designers to help you. On the remote teaching page you can find the information, resources, and webinars that have created for faculty.

You can make a virtual appointment to speak with an expert. The experts can help you understand both the technology and pedagogy behind teaching online.

Or you can visit the Teaching Commons and peruse the teaching guides that are curated there.

If you feel that your D2L expertise needs some improvement, you can enroll the self-paced D2L essentials. This course provides an introduction to the key features of Desire2Learn, DePaul’s learning management system.

2: Start At The End

Practitioners of online learning realize the value of backward design – understanding how to successfully assess student learning and proficiency at the culmination of a course, and then working backwards to create the necessary activities and content that efficiently bring a student to that point. This is where course and modular learning objectives come in.

The best way to move your course online is to think about your learning objectives, which may cause you to rethink activities that successfully lead to students demonstrating abilities, skills, and knowledge.

In the College of Business, many courses ends with assessments. For the College of Business we recommend these four options:

  1. Takehome: Give a week for students to upload to D2L Submissions.
  2. D2L Quiz: Timed exam (via D2L Quiz), available for a week.
  3. Presentation: Recorded in Panopto, Voicethread.
    • If students have another option that works, let them use that.
  4. Project: Upload to D2L Submissions.

3: Keep It Simple

An online course is not an opportunity to shoehorn everything you want to teach, but could not fit into a regular face-to-face course. Realize that things may go wrong, plans may fail. you probably have less time that you think, so keep things simple. You can make improvements next time that you teach.

Your students are looking for convenience in your online course. That sense of convenience translates the course having a simple trajectory that students follow. The technology that underlies the course should be either transparent or a natural extension (like using a pen to write). The book “Don't Make Me Think” by Steve Krug is an excellent resource to help you make your courses more usable.

And one of the ways to make things simpler and more usable is to write for the Web. Rather than writing academically, you want to employ short sentences, short paragraphs, active language, and simple structure. Use headings, sub-headings, and bullets to break up the structure of the page. Doing so will improve student comprehension.

4: Weekly Modules

Students get confused if they have search through multiple places to find all the resources for that week, instead put all the materials for that week into a weekly module.

At the start of that weekly module provide an introduction. In the introduction, explain what will be covered that week (and why it is important). Then share the weekly deliverables, Explain when and how these should be submitted (and you can hyperlink to the appropriate submissions folders or discussion boards as you do this). Then share the content and exercises. To help your students allocate time, indicate how long these activities should take.

It is good practices to separate your syllabus and schedule into two webpages. Your syllabus will be viewed infrequently - typically at the beginning and end of your course. However, the schedule will be something that students will refer to frequently.

Avoid placing these documents (and others) as PDFs. PDFs are difficult to read on mobile devices. Instead, all content within an online course should be HTML. HTML is easy & quick to update, the text reformats as the user needs to change font size. HTML works on all devices, and more importantly works with screenreaders.

5: Points

In video games, currency is both a record of achievement and an inducement to attempt difficult or dangerous tasks. For example, a player might have to execute a series of complex and well-timed jumps and maneuvers to obtain precariously placed golden coins that allow them to complete the level with a perfect score.

In your online courses consider awarding points for a plethora of tasks, such as creating an online profile, posting a student introduction, regular discussion posts, attempting a quiz, etc. The points will help induce your students to stay actively involved in the course and to utilize all aspects of the Learning Management System.

6: Video

In terms of how to design the teaching material to be used in educational video, there is expert guidance in the form of Richard E. Mayer’s research:

1: Coherence: “People learn better when extraneous words, pictures, and sounds are excluded rather than included.”

Remove unnecessary text, images, and sounds. In particular, remove all branding and elements that are just clutter. Templated PowerPoint decks with university name, author, and a copyright statement on every slide are an egregious example of lack of coherence. Aim for elegant simplicity.

2: Signaling: “People learn better when cues that highlight the organization of the essential material are added.”

This can be done by using annotation, simple animation, highlighting, and spotlight techniques to show focus to the student. A disembodied voice over static PowerPoint slides is not a compelling experience.

3: Redundancy: “People learn better from graphics and narration than from graphics, narration, and on-screen text.”

This can be an issue if your video displays subtitles automatically. This also means that you want to avoid creating content where you are literally reading off the screen.

4: Spatial Contiguity:People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented near rather than far from each other on the page or screen.”

This is an area where the design of graphs and charts can be greatly improved. Look to reduce the use of separate legends and indexes in favor of direct labels. This helps reduce cognitive load.

5: Temporal Contiguity:People learn better when corresponding words and pictures are presented simultaneously rather than successively.”

Here you can break processes down into component parts and use animations and transitions.

6: Segmenting: “People learn better when a multimedia lesson is presented in user-paced segments rather than as a continuous unit.”

Worth noting here is the concept of incorporating activities with video that reinforce learning. However, the segmentation needs to match the expertise of the audience—otherwise you may fall foul of the expertise reversal effect in which expert learners need less guidance than novice learners.

7: Pre-training: “People learn better from a multimedia lesson when they know the names and characteristics of the main concepts.”

This might consist of a guide or glossary that students encounter before the video or a contextual statement that outlines the purpose and learning objectives of the video.

8: Modality:
“People learn better from graphics and narration than from animation and on-screen text.”

Pictures and printed words can overload the visual system, but operating on verbal and visual channels simultaneously can lower this burden.

9: Personalization: “People learn better from multimedia lessons when words are in conversational style rather than formal style.”

In online learning social presence is a powerful mechanism to motivate students and to reduce feelings of disengagement. Similarly, a conversational style of talking will help convince the student that the educator is connecting to them as a real person.

10: Voice: “People learn better when the narration in multimedia lessons is spoken in a friendly human voice rather than a machine voice.”

Hopefully this goes without saying.

11: Embodiment: "Students learn better when there is human gestures, eye contact and facial expressions”

Non-verbal communication can add nuance.

12: Image: "People do not necessarily learn better from a multimedia lesson when the speaker’s image is added to the screen.”

A constant talking head can be a distraction from learning, particularly if the educator is displaying micro expressions of terror and distraction (being on camera is, after all, a somewhat nerve-racking ordeal for many). The process I typically suggest is for the educator to introduce the segment on camera as a means to personalize the video and demonstrate social presence, but then to fade away as the learning material is shared.

On camera, and on microphone, you want to be yourself, talking in a friendly way in which your passion for the subject matter and teaching is easily apparent.

Practicing your script and delivery can help greatly, as does your physical position and posture.

You want your diaphragm to be uncompressed, and for you to be comfortable, which can be achieved by perching on a stool or standing.

If filming yourself via a webcam, the camera should be at your eye-level. In a studio, you would use the traditional three-part lighting system with back light, key light, fill light and the presenter in the middle. At home, endeavor to place a soft light behind the webcam.

Shorter videos are more likely to be watched by your students. If possible, chunk videos into shorter segments. Avoid the temptation to number these chunks, as you may find it harder to reorganize content in the future.

The quality of your audio is something that is sometimes ignored, but greatly impacts how video is perceived. A decent microphone, properly positioned with pop-filter is key.

Record in a quiet location where you will not be disturbed; with your smartphone switched off, and colleagues, family members, and pets safely out of the way. Carpets and fabric wall-hangings can reduce the background echo which otherwise could make your voice sound harsh and constrained.

But realize that there are vast libraries of video content out there. You can leverage existing content from LinkedIn Learning, publisher’s materials, YouTube, or Creative Commons.

Additionally, video may be a superior method to provide assessment feedback to your students.

You have several options for recording content:

7: Milestones

Here we can borrow from the history of video games. The Mario and Zelda games begin with a dramatic call to action - the Big Baddie intrudes upon the idyllic utopia and does something bad, leaving the hero protagonist with a just cause to follow and a problem to solve. In your online courses, this can be mirrored by the outlining a Big Project at the beginning of the quarter - the final task that they must achieve at the end of the course, so as to demonstrate proficiency and learning.

Lead with the requirements for the project, and then let the rest of the course flow from this. Everything in the way of content and smaller exercises that your students then encounter is viewed through the context of how this will help them successfully complete the project.

Whilst the Mario and Zelda games begin with the heart-pounding introduction of the villain, they then segue way into a quiet period of exploration where the hero has the chance to explore how the game works. Contextual advice and tips are provided on game mechanics. This is the virtual equivalent of a sandbox where mistakes can be made without penalty, which induces the player to experiment and explore without fear of failure. An easy way to accomplish this in an online course is to let your students into your course early.

Consider providing a "Week 0," in which students have access to your course and introductory material, and get to experiment with the tools that they will later use to submit graded assignments. For example, you may create self-paced exercises in which the students post an introductory message on the discussion board, post test messages to the course submissions folder, and watch sample videos.

Players of the Mario and Zelda games are first presented with a subset of the entire game world in which to play and explore. For example, in the Zelda games, players are initially constrained by blocked pathways and locked gates to a smaller gameworld. The players can see that there is more to explore beyond these barriers, but they cannot get there yet. This prevents the gamer from rushing off to parts of the world that they are unprepared for. In your online courses you can provide a similar structure through staged or conditional release.

In my online courses, students in Week 1 cannot access the materials for Week 2 until the next week (and in some cases not until they have completed their assignments).

Players in the Nintendo games encounter Mini-Bosses partway through a level. These are enemies to defeat through the application of a recently discovered and honed skill, such as jumping, defending with a shield or a sweeping slices with a sword. The Mini-Bosses act as checkpoints in the game. Without the right skill the player cannot progress. The End-Of-Level Bosses can only be defeated through the application of combined skills, such as a sweeping slice with the sword whilst jumping, the back flipping with the shield held defensively. You can apply these types of checkpoints in your online course quite easily. One way I do this is through the buildup to a project. One of the projects I assign is for a group of students to film, edit and upload a seven-minute video presentation that answers a particular question. Rather than just awarding points for the project itself, I award points for sub-tasks in the weeks leading up to the project deadline – the students get individual points for assigning teams, then crafting a script, then creating a test video, then uploading that test video to the dropbox. Each sub-task is akin to the Mini-Boss, and the project is akin to the End-Of-Level Boss.

8: Create Presence

The D2L template for Business Faculty (The Driehaus Online Starter Pack) can help in creating presence. The homepage is a place that you can share news. You can also add Youtube videos and links to resources. We recommend that you post the same email notifications you send to your students on your D2L homepage as well. If students miss your email messages, they will see the messages when they visit your D2L course.

Our template has a biography page. Editing this page with your information and a photograph will help your students have a better understand of who you are.

Using the discussion boards will help provide additional reasons for your students to frequent your online course, particularly if you add discussion boards for fun topics or Q&A.

We strenuously advise against using Zoom for live lectures, unless the majority of time is student participation. However, Zoom can be an excellent way to add presence through office hours, student to student group participation, or checking in with your students.

If you would like the Driehaus Online Starter Pack template copied to your D2L courses:

  1. Go to
  2. Click on "Copy Course Content."
  3. In the “If your course is not available in the dropdown, type as much course information as you can recall in the box below” textbox, type “Driehaus Online Starter Pack.”
  4. Select the course you want to Copy Into.
  5. Click on “Submit."
  6. On the next page, verify that the information you have provided is correct, and then click on “Submit."

9: Communication

If you find yourself emailing or posting the same answers to the discussion board, then having stock text that you can adapt will make you more efficient. You can keep this text in Evernote, OneNote, or Google Keep. That way you have access to this text wherever you may be.

To keep your inbox more manageable, we recommend asking your students to use D2L discussion boards as the place to ask course-related questions.

10: Embrace Asynchronous

Synchronous events are live, and asynchronous events are prerecorded.

Some faculty feel that they have been oversold on online learning and the concept of “teaching from the beach.” The reality is that online learning can provide efficiencies to both the educator and the institution, but the efficiencies to the educator are typically realized over time, whereas the efficiencies to the institution are realized immediately.

Online learning requires upfront commitment and significant preparation. This added workload can be considerable, and most faculty are aware of how limited their time already is, but ultimately it creates efficiencies - the ability to schedule time more efficiently, or to scale effectiveness.

The core to providing good online learning is understanding student needs—principally, convenience. Students are looking for their online experience to be convenient. That is the prism through which it will be judged. Their lives are messy and complicated, and this is why they opted for an online course of program. Scheduling live events does not make their lives more convenient, unless the live event provides utility that could not take place asynchronously.

With this in mind, rethink deadlines. There is little value in scheduling a deadline just before midnight, unless you are planning to grade at midnight. Instead, schedule your assignment deadlines for the time you intend to grade. That way you are ready to respond to last-minute questions as they arrive from your students.