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#66: Increasing Your Productivity as an Online Educator [Podcast]

#66: Increasing Your Productivity as an Online Educator [Podcast]

This content initially appeared at APUEdge.com

Maintaining a high level of productivity can be challenging for online educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides strategies on how to improve your physical and mental energy to increase productivity. Learn tips about how to manage your never-ending “to do” list, why it’s important to unclog your mind, and the value of giving yourself time to work on your personal “heart projects.”

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. It may seem a little odd to you today that we’re going to talk about increasing your productivity as an online educator, but I firmly believe that habits and strategies are what help us get through our teaching job and our teaching career. Many of us enter this profession because we want to make a difference or distill ideas upon others, or perhaps mentor people into our profession or the area that we love the most. Maybe we even want to make a big difference in the world.

Regardless of the reason why you came into this profession, the fact remains that being an educator is hard work. There is a lot to do. There’s a lot of feedback to give others. We must be organized to make that happen. We have announcements, we have content in the classroom itself, when we’re working online. We have follow-ups, personalized outreach efforts we need to do when students are falling behind. Guidance of all kinds. And as I mentioned before, feedback.

Among these many different types of activities, time gets away from us, sometimes. Have you ever said to yourself that you would get back to a task later in the evening? That’s a great sign that productivity tips can help you a lot in your online educator role.

Today, we’re going to talk about some special tips that come from a wonderful book called “Supercharge Productivity Habits” by John R. Torrance. It’s “50 Simple Hacks to Organize Your Tasks, Overcome Procrastination, Increase Efficiency, and Work Smarter to Become a Top Performer.”

Not everyone approaches their educator job as if it is a performer productivity type of role. However, we know that unless we keep up with the day-to-day tasks, the endless minutiae of being an administrator of the classroom, we will not be able to have the kind of impact we would like to have.

These tips today are intended to help you. I want to help you really enjoy what you do and make a difference, as you want to do. So let’s jump in and talk about productivity habits. I will share just a few today to get you started. And after this podcast, I do hope you will check out this book, “Supercharge Productivity Habits” by John R. Torrance.

Increasing Your Physical and Mental Energy

The first habit I’d like to share with you today is in the area of increasing your physical and mental energy. You’ve probably heard that athletes are always thinking about increasing their energy and bringing protein into the body, drinking lots of water, getting plenty of rest. It makes a lot of sense that a person who’s out there competing physically would need to do that, right?

Of course, the mind is also one of the greatest tools that we have at our disposal. We can’t have energy, like confidence or focus, motivation, or any kind of productivity at all, if our mind is wandering or not feeling healthy. In fact, there is a lot that has to do with our physical and mental energy that impacts our productivity and our overall effectiveness as educators.

Think about it, if you were really approaching your job as if you have to be in tiptop, physical and mental condition to be an educator, what would you do to reach that goal? I’ve thought about this a little bit, and in the time that I’ve worked at American Public University, I’ve been very fortunate to have the influence of the Wellness Team. Not sure if that’s their title, but early on several years ago, there used to be this little challenge in the employee portal. It was private, no one else could see it. But you had to record your weight at the start of each year. And you had to do some exercises along the way, partially some kind of incentive to have one kind of health insurance over another.

And I’m expecting that it probably had to do with the cost out of my paycheck. And that’s what motivated me. I don’t recall exactly what the situation was, but I do remember that I had to write down how much I weighed and then I had to engage in certain health-related activities like walking, or counting steps, or something like that.

Now, when you think about it, even just becoming aware of your own physical activity level, your physical fitness, your overall health, and your bodyweight does something to you. It was a few years of doing that, and pretty soon I realized I needed to make major changes. In my own situation, I did lose 95 pounds and I have successfully maintained that for the past four to five years. And it all started with that awareness every year that was part of the health insurance plan of just working at American Public University.

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*About this image: My professional faculty photo, taken by American Public University Systems (2015, on left) and an informal photo taken at home (2020, on right)

If I took it further and thought about it every year and recorded my efforts to become a mental athlete as an educator, I would take it a lot further and increase my goals in physical and mental wellness. Over time, I want to become more confident, more focused, more productive, and more happy with myself in my role and in the work that I do with my students.

In essence, it is the everyday habit that one puts into their physical and mental abilities that come together to summatively create the performance and productivity we have in the online classroom.

There are some high-powered physical and mental energy hacks that Torrance shares in his book. And I’d like to share these with you here.

Tackle What You Dread First

First, he talks about tackling what you dread the most. It’s going to give you energy to deal with the less critical things or the less enjoyable things throughout the day because you’ve done the most difficult one.

Visualize Before You Go to Bed

Second, you’re going to visualize before you go to bed, and the thoughts that you take to bed matter. So your mind is going to get in a mood for sleep. And you’re also going to think about or visualize the type of things you’re going to be doing when you’re waking up that are pleasurable to you. So you’re actually predicting a positive day for the next day and thinking about the energy you need to begin the day.

Now that second hack there, thinking about it before you go to bed, I personally do that a lot. That’s one of my own habits. I’ll make a to-do list about the things I want to do the next day. And I’ll think about how I need to wake up.

Then in the next morning, when I wake up, I’m actually laying in bed sometimes feeling very tired and not at all interested in getting out of bed. And I’ll remember what I’m going to do first thing in the morning. And then I’ll purposely choose to jump out of bed and give myself some energy so I can get moving.

Sometimes it’s really hard. And other times it’s very easy because the motivating task is so interesting to me. Whatever you do, visualizing before bed can set the tone for the next day, but make sure it’s something positive you’re visualizing, and you’re seeing action and the motivation that you’re going to need.

Unclog Your Mind

Third, unclog your mind. So Torrance suggests that we all have a never-ending to-do list. I don’t know if you have one, but I know I do. And it can sometimes make me feel like I never really finish things. There’s always another list tomorrow and sometimes one list can go through a week or two without completely getting wiped out.

If you can unclog that list by writing it all down, setting it aside, turning off technology, and letting go of emails and all those things, at some point you’re going to have a little bit of space to think more clearly, be more mentally alert, and be able to set limits around your time.

Unclogging your mind is also going to help you think about what you can take off of your list. If you do write it down and realize it’s been there a while, maybe it doesn’t even need to get done at all, or maybe it could be delegated. There’s possibly another solution if you find that something is on your to-do list for a very long time.

Get the Right Amount of Sleep

The fourth productivity hack is getting the right amount of sleep. Believe it or not, the amount of sleep you get every day actually impacts your mental and physical functioning. Over time you can actually have long-term health effects that are negative if you’re constantly cheating yourself on the sleep.

Now, if you have dragged your work out throughout the day, especially when you’re only working online, if all of your energy is put into that, it can feel like you can never really let go and never really get enough sleep.

Think about what kind of environment you need. What kind of bedding will be most comfortable for you? Is the pillow nice and cool or warm, however, you prefer it? Would there be something you could do before bed to relax you, like a warm bath or some people even drink warm milk, or cocoa, or something like that? Is it helpful for you to read a book before you go to bed? One thing that I’ve heard a lot is no caffeine and no alcohol in the later hours of the day because both of those tend to impact the quality of your sleep throughout the night.

And then, of course, avoid screen time, two hours before bedtime. You can wear these blue-light-blocking glasses that will help you to actually reduce the impact of the screen on your eyes. And you can also buy a light therapy lamp on Amazon that’s going to help you have an experience with bright light, first thing in the morning to really set your time clock and your circadian rhythm.

These are good things to think about if you’re still having problems getting high-quality sleep, but getting enough sleep is definitely essential to give your brain the energy it needs and your body, the energy as well to get through the day.

Pursue Your “Heart Project”

Next, spend a good day chunk of your day pursuing your heart project. A heart project is something you really care about. It’s in your own goal area. It might be what Torrance calls your ultimate passion. When you focus on these things you care most about at some point during a day, this is going to give you a lot of joy, it will refresh you, and help you feel totally revitalized and energized.

So if you have a lot of grading to do, and you’re not a big fan of grading, do the grading, but be sure to give yourself time for this passion project, or heart project. You need reasons to get out of bed in the morning. And if this is it, give yourself the time after you’ve done some of the more difficult tasks of your online teaching job.

Some of the other tips mentioned here in the body and mind category are to have a sense of gratitude and to have a positive outlook on life generally. You also want to think about eating the right foods. Believe it or not, the things you put into your body impact your energy level and your mental functioning.

There’s a thing called inflammation. If you’re not familiar with this, certain foods can actually cause your body to react in a way that inflames your cells and parts of your body. If you eat a lot of carbohydrates and sugar, some people react very poorly to that. You might have puffy eyes or a puffy face and mentally feel quite sluggish and tired. This will make it more difficult to be productive as an online educator, or in any other field.

Think about how healthy food makes you feel. And even if it is less enjoyable than some of those more high carb, or high sugar foods you might crave, think about how you might be able to incorporate these healthy foods to enhance your mental alertness.

Eating more calories early in the day instead of at night can also give you more energy. And then, of course, more fiber, fruit and vegetables, and protein and minerals and vitamins. These things can all add to your energy level and clear up your mind so you can think clearly and be more productive along the way.

Be Active and Find a Physical Exercise You Enjoy

And then lastly, be active, enjoy what you’re doing physically. You might be inspired through exercise, which will help you sleep better and relieve stress as well as boosting your brain. But you might also find a new habit that you could enjoy, like going for a run, short walk, working out with someone else, biking, or even dancing.

My personal favorite is putting on my noise-canceling headphones, some really peppy upbeat music, and walking on my treadmill for 30 minutes or more sometime in the middle of the day. Whatever it is that helps you to physically get active. When we’re working online, we’re sitting a lot and we’re much more prone to want to sit a little bit longer so that we can just get through what we’re trying to do that day.

If you break it up instead, you’ll find that you have more energy and you can even be more productive. So take breaks. Think about the food you eat and the exercise you do as ways to fuel the mind as well as the body.

There are many other productivity hacks and habits in this book by John Torrance. I hope you’ll check it out and try those that I’ve shared with you today, as we all work towards being more productive online educators. And I wish you all the best in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

#60: Building Social Presence in the Online Classroom

#60: Building Social Presence in the Online Classroom

This content initially appeared on APUEdge.com.

Online teachers must work to build social presence in their online classes to enhance community and connections with students. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen provides tips and strategies about how to achieve social presence including instructor involvement, knowledge sharing, interaction intensity, and more. Learn why social presence is important, how to determine if your efforts are working, and how to think of new ways to create community within the classroom.

Listen to the Episode:

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents, who know that online teaching can be challenging but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and we’re talking today about social presence in your online teaching.

As you know, in this podcast, we have four different areas of focus. The first one is best practices when you’re teaching online. Second, we focus on students and areas where we can connect with them or help them. Third, we talk a lot about media, multimedia and technology you might integrate and why you might try it. And lastly, we focus on your life and your balance while you’re working online.

The area of social presence has everything to do with best practices. It is a best practice to have teaching, social and cognitive presence. This comes from the COI, Community of Inquiry framework, but also social presence has to do with connecting with your students. So we’re bridging two different areas today and we’re even dipping a little bit into the media category, because to give good social presence, a lot of times you need images or videos, so we’ll talk a little bit about that too. But the main elements we’re going to cover today are: What is social presence? Why does it matter? How can you create it? And how do you know if it’s working? Let’s dive in.

What is Social Presence?

Let’s begin with instructor presence as social presence. What does that even mean? Social presence has a model out there that many have researched and put together and it has five parts. And the five different areas of your social presence, when you’re teaching online, include:

  • affective association
  • community cohesion
  • instructor involvement
  • interaction intensity and
  • knowledge and experience

In essence, we can summarize social presence as the degree to which you uniquely show up in the course that you’re teaching.

Students begin to trust you when you are authentic and present, and they get to know you a little bit. Your social presence is how they get to know you. It’s the idea of who is teaching that class, and what you bring that is uniquely your traits and knowledge and experience.

Why is Social Presence so Important for Online Instructors?

Second, why does it matter? In online education students don’t have a lot to use for a connection to the institution. As an instructor, you’re the face of that organization, and they really connect through you to the larger organization itself. But beyond that, they build trust in the classroom to open up and engage in the risk-taking behaviors that are engaged in learning.

It does take risk, it takes discipline and commitment to follow through in studying something and doing the assignments and engaging in the discussion. So students are there taking a risk and they need to know who’s behind the other side of the screen. They need to know you.

They cannot risk enough to really fully engage when the instructor is completely absent or invisible. If you’re only facilitating and you never share your own thoughts or insights, and you don’t really have your persona in the classroom, it’s difficult for students to know how much they can put out there, how much they can really challenge the ideas they’re learning and how much they should devote to the course at hand.

So, social presence matters immensely. It has a significant impact on students’ engagement and it also impacts the way they respond and show up when they’re completing the work and when they’re discussing things in the classroom overall.

Building Connections

When we talk about social presence in online learning, there are some other words that come to mind, and these words have been included in a lot of literature on this subject. For example, we might consider the word connection. Connection has to do with social presence. We’re facilitating relationships with our students and helping them relate to each other and really the goal of social presence is connection for everyone.

Evoking Emotion

We also have a lot of emotion involved. We typically look at this when we see a lack of social presence and we notice something like perhaps if the instructor’s social presence is not very strong or students don’t have a very strong social presence, it’s difficult to feel happy about the class. Even a challenging class can be more enjoyable when social presence is high and there’s a sense of real community within that classroom.

Intimacy is another one. We get to know each other. I have some online instructors in my department who actually write letters of recommendation for their students because they’re intimate with their students, in the sense that they get to know who they really are. They build true relationships and they have this camaraderie and this rapport that we do call intimacy.

Generate Immediacy

Another one is immediacy. Immediacy has to do with responsiveness and how aware we are of what’s actually going on in the course. Immediacy is responsiveness when someone reaches out and asks us a question or communicates. We can see things happening in a discussion and we can also pop in there and share comments along the way, because we have a sense of immediacy.

Building Social Interaction

And lastly, of course, social interaction. There are various ways people engage online and social interaction could just be exchanges of discussion comments. It can be live, synchronous commentary where we’re talking to each other, or it could also be sending messages or sending emails. There are a lot of different ways for social interaction to happen, but the main principle is that it’s interactive. There’s a back and forth, a give and take, just like there is in any relationship.

Social presence includes all of these ideas, and when it’s absent, we know it because then some of the same things also pop up. For example, when social presence is low in online experiences, we have negative emotions often associated with that absence or that lack. Often there’s a defensiveness that prevents relationship building and an intimacy that I mentioned before.

And, of course, there’s a gap, or a lag, in responding to comments, questions, inquiries, things of that nature, so immediacy is threatened. And often it will be kind of like people are talking alone, so we’ll all post our comments, but they’re not necessarily responding well to each other. So instead of social interaction, we just have these independent commentaries happening throughout a course and especially in a discussion area.

Even businesses today care greatly about their social presence. There’s this desire to have an identity out there in the world and communicate consistently. Just like businesses do that, online faculty and online instructors need to be cognizant of social presence. We need to be very aware of what one’s social presence is in a particular course, and in an overall online educator career.

How to Achieve Social Presence

So let’s begin with how you’re going to achieve social presence. We know it’s important. It has an impact. It affects things that we do. So how do we achieve this?

The first area of the social presence model that we’re going to talk about is called affective association. So if we have affective association, there are a lot of ways that people will associate us with our name, our identity, and all the things that we’re doing in the course.

Some of those things can be achieved by connecting purposely, like as in with an introduction profile. You might have your teacher persona on the front page of the course. There might be an image of you, perhaps some comments about what you’ve been doing or what your interests are. You might also have an introductory image or video of yourself and also some kind of welcome announcement or a welcome letter that you’re going to send.

There are quite a few things you can do to help students associate your name with your presence and who you really are. This can also be added to announcements and reminders in the course and you can include video clips throughout the course, introducing each week’s content, perhaps participating in the discussion, or an enunciating some details about the content itself, whatever they are to be learning.

Building Community Cohesion in an Online Classroom

The second area of social presence that we can focus on achieving is the community cohesion part. This would be the way that you bring everyone in and help them to feel like they’re part of that community in your classroom. This might be the way you greet your students. You can use a lot of phrases like, “We are working on this.” And you can also include in your feedback, some ideas about what we as a class are working on and learning on and some things that you can refer to in discussion areas as well.

You can mention other students’ posts. You can have a summary comment where you tie together all of the things that others have written and you maybe highlight a few by name, but also tie up the ideas that we as a group mostly have discussed and put your spin on it as well; your insights about what they should walk away from at the end of the week.

Instructor Involvement

Third, we have instructor involvement. And instructor involvement in social presence is the way you know your students, the way you personalize things. How you might share the stage with them. Maybe you also have them hosting a debate or kind of facilitating the forum discussion with each other.

Also, share some reflection of your own. What are you noticing about their learning? How are they growing? What are you really surprised about and pleased with and where would you like to encourage them? What are your insights as a lifelong learner?

And give some personalization as well to the way you talk to your students. Call them by name and sign your name at the bottom of announcements and posts. This instructor involvement brings you and your identity and your name into the class and it helps students to see you throughout all of the things that are going on there.

Interaction Intensity in Social Presence

Then we have interaction intensity, in the social presence model. This is the way in which you build those relationships and what quality they are, and how safe they feel. You connect with your learners through the comments and the intensity is how frequently and how substantially you do this.

If you do anything special on your end to create some additional places where students can connect and discuss things with each other, maybe even you share resources from the field or highlights from your own expertise to help them conquer the academic material, you’re bringing in this whole sense of who you are as the instructor. That interaction intensity can add a lot to the safety of their learning experience, and also their willingness to take more risks as they’re participating.

An additional idea you might do there is have a question and answer area in the course. This is always a great idea, because question and answer areas are where they can come with their informal questions, not necessarily the ones to be discussed in the forum discussion itself.

Share Your Knowledge and Experience

Now, lastly, in the social presence model, we have the knowledge and experience that you bring in your social presence. Now we do have teaching presence and cognitive presence in your space, where you’re showing up. This kind of knowledge and experience is weaved into who you are. You share some ideas about your own experience and expertise and your life experience as a professional. You might ask some questions that help other people share their social presence in the classroom.

Think about what students already know and ask them how they can contribute that to the class we’re now studying. Ask them what they want to know, and discuss it with them and tailor some of your approach around what they really want to get out of the class.

And then in the end of the experience, have a lot of reflection, where you share your reflection and encourage them to share their insights as well. And engage fully in that conversation, as the academic community draws to a close at the end of the class.

And always be authentic in sharing your knowledge and experience. Never make up stories or make up details or use other instructors’ posts and just make them your own, if it’s talking about personalized knowledge and experience. You have something unique to offer and it’s your responsibility and privilege to bring that into the classroom and into your identity as the online instructor.

As you do these things and bring in your social presence fully to the online space, you can create this presence through the way you converse, the attitude at which you bring yourself into the classroom, and through a lot of different tools and devices.

Of course, you might choose to put images of yourself here and there throughout the classroom. You can also think about using video to create true social presence. And then definitely bring in those things you will learn about your students, so it’s a back and forth, give and take exchange.

How Do you Know if Your Efforts to Build Social Presence are Working?

Lastly, how will you know, if it’s working? How will you know if those efforts you’re making to create true social presence in your online class are working out for students as well? One of the things you can do is review your practices and self-evaluate.

On a primary level, that’s of course effective in determining whether or not you met your goals of proactively getting in there and creating a lot of social presence in your course and in your teaching.

But secondly, your students will help you to know this. You can get feedback throughout the course by noticing how they respond to you, how they engage, how much they’re willing to share, how much authenticity do you sense in the work they’re completing and the communications they have with you? Does it feel like a conversation or are students kind of talking to the wind?

Everyone deserves to have you in that class. That’s why you’re there. You can make a significant impact in your teaching and in online education, generally, as you focus on building your social presence across the board.

Keep Social Presence Professional and Authentic, but Don’t Overshare

One word of caution, as you dive in with additional strategies to increase social presence, and that is to consider the fine line between overly personal sharing and professional sharing.

There is such a thing as sharing too much when you’re building your social presence as an online instructor. Remember keep things, academic, professional, and authentic to you. You can always share personal things that have to do with the content and do seem professionally appropriate.

Review those things on occasion to make sure you’re keeping them in line with what you feel is authentic and appropriate to share with your students. As you do this, you’re going to create a beautiful culture where people are seen, and heard, and engage fully in the academic discussions that unfold.

Thank you for thinking about social presence with me today. For additional links and tips, please check out the transcript in the notes from this podcast. Best wishes in your online teaching this week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit Bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week and your online teaching journey.

#55: Work-Life Balance (Part 2 of 3): Creating Guidance Assets

#55: Work-Life Balance (Part 2 of 3): Creating Guidance Assets

This content was first provided at APUEdge.com. 

Online educators often get overwhelmed by the endless tasks they need to complete like answering students’ questions, posting announcements, grading papers, and engaging in forum discussions. In this episode, APU Faculty Director Dr. Bethanie Hansen talks about the benefits of creating guidance assets to help students self-manage and set expectations, while also helping online teachers manage their high workload. Learn about creating guidance assets like screencasts, video introductions, course announcements, netiquette guides, example assignments and more.

Listen to the Episode:

 

Subscribe to Online Teaching Lounge
Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Pandora

Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. I’m Dr. Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’m pleased to be with you today. Thank you for joining me to talk about work-life balance. This is particularly important because we’re talking about a profession in which we have a lot of work, unlimited possibilities electronically, and often high expectations.

There are growing numbers of online tools that we can look at. We can engage through text, audio, video, multimedia components, apps, you name it. And of course, there’s the learning management system, which can be attractive and overwhelming.

Any way you look at it, teaching online can be a very involved endeavor. So if you’re working online or teaching online right now, chances are that you have considered your work-life balance, and how to keep all of this under control.

As you think about online institutions, moving online, or you teaching online particularly, we think a lot about whether you’re creating the course, or it’s a standardized course you’re going to teach, that somebody else wrote. This can make a huge difference.

If you’re having to create the course, you have a lot of work ahead of you, and it’s best to do that work before you start teaching it. If you’re teaching and creating it at the same time, because maybe you’re in an emergency transition period, you don’t have a choice. You have to figure out how to manage that workload, and keep it efficient and moving forward.

Now, either way, we want quality in the delivery of the course, but we also want to connect with students. The best way to have a good experience teaching online is to have students who want to learn online, and who want to be there with you. You can experience a really high level of intensification.

This is a chronic sense of work overload, over time, and this idea of de-skilling, which is reducing the quality of your instruction into separate steps like grading, posting things, et cetera. And these can feel unrelated to the big picture of teaching your students. Either one of these situations can lead to burnout and poor work-life balance very quickly.

As you’re thinking about all the tasks that you have to do as online educator, I want to help you out today, in giving you strategies to increase quality of life, and work-life balance overall. We want to give you the strength to get through high levels of work, and also meet your students where they’re at, so they enjoy learning from you.

Today, I hope these strategies will encourage you, and help you to better manage your students’ needs, and also give you more abilities to set boundaries that will enhance your focus. When you try out what we’re going to talk about today, you might actually need to stretch outside your comfort zone just a little, and try something new, in order to be more efficient or more effective.

But if you’re willing to do these things and just give them a try, I think they’ll help you whittle things down into a more manageable task and more manageable workload overall. And I think you’ll find that they’re worth the effort, as you go through your career goals, and the goals you have for teaching this particular class that you’re teaching right now.

Let’s look at your increased level of work-life balance by doing one thing as a high priority item. And that one thing today is producing assets that guide students in self-management.

Assets to Help Students with Self-Management

When you think about the most important and most pressing things you do as an online educator, this probably is not at the top of your list. For some of you, I know you think about preventative steps you can take early on to help students with their success.

But a lot of times, we’re putting out fires when we’re teaching online. We’re getting messages, we’re getting questions, we have a lot of engagement we need to follow-up on, and we need to grade things. And we need to do all of this in a pretty timely manner.

That can feel like we’re just running from one task to the next, doing that de-skilling I mentioned before. Thinking about creating things that are a bigger picture, that are going to prevent things in the future, might feel like it’s really out of our reach, because we are just putting out those fires every day.

If you create these guidance assets to help your students navigate around your classroom and know the communication expectations, it’s going to add a whole lot to lowering your stress and helping you manage your workload.

How Can You Proactively Address Student Questions All At Once?

Think about how you can anticipate the needs and proactively address questions that your students have. You can minimize the individual guidance you might have to give every single student once the course starts by giving these strategies to all of the students upfront, before the challenges ever hit.

There was a study in which it was suggested that adults will rise or sink to the level of responsibility we expect of them, a key premise of andragogy, and the assumptions we have about adult learners.

If you use strategies that support your students’ learning, and also give them ways to become self-sufficient, we call this self-efficacy, when they’re doing it, this is going to help you engage your students better, while you allow yourself to balance your tasks and your time more effectively.

There was a suggestion in another study about workload reduction. It starts with anticipating and proactively addressing what your learners’ questions are and what their problem areas might be.

So think about the class you’re currently teaching, and if you were to just start right now, looking forward to the coming tasks that are going to face your students in the coming days and weeks, what kind of methods might you use to give them a heads up about the challenges?

Maybe you’ll send an announcement, at the very least, that tells them what to expect, what to anticipate. Some instructors create sample assignments, just to show what the formatting might look like, or how things will develop from the beginning of the assignment throughout the submission.

If you store copies of announcements and guidance assets you’re going to create, and repeatedly use these things, you’ll want to revise them and update them over time to save you some development time in the future by reusing them, but also keeping them current. If you’re teaching the same course over and over, creating this kind of asset is really going to help you to have the tools at your disposal without having to reinvent them every single time.

If we look at andragogy theory, the theory of teaching adults, this suggests that adult learners are self-directed. They’re going to get greater autonomy as they’re going through the educational experience with you, and with everyone else they’re interacting with.

Because of this, your adult learners are not as interested in being told what to learn. They’re much more interested in having a meaningful influence in the process of learning, all by itself.

When you give them assets that establish your teaching presence and your social presence, and your cognitive presence, from the community of inquiry, you can actually give them some boundaries for you as the instructor, and you can set up these boundaries for yourself. And at the same time, you’re supporting your students in meaningful learning, and helping them be self-directed in what they’re learning, and how they’re learning it.

You can increase your efficiency and your time management when you develop these things in a way that they can be used again and again. I’m going to give you a couple of categories here that will help you take some steps in producing assets that will guide your students to manage themselves, as they’re working in your class.

Prepare Student Guidance Assets

The first area is to prepare student guidance. I’m calling these assets, because they might be documents, they might be videos, but they’re tangible things that you’re going to use and reuse with your students, and continue to improve. When you teach online, this is going to require you to take the role of a mentor, and a coach a little bit more than the traditional lecturer role that some people associate with higher education.

If you’re used to being the lecturer, where you present things to students in a live situation, and now you’ve moved online to where that’s maybe recorded, and you have to do some other things, this can really be a helpful way to branch out.

Preparing student guidance could be something like a brief video, a netiquette guide, a video guide, some kind of document to help students work through their experience with you.

Communication problems happen a lot online, but they can be prevented entirely, if you tell students how you want them to engage in the class and in the discussion forums, from the very beginning. Students really like to know what your standards are, and they like to be able to review the materials you give them as needed.

You can make the brief video or screencast with some narration, where you’re talking on that video, to guide students into different areas of your classroom. The video might be a walkthrough of how to engage in your class, showing them the different places they need to be, like the tab for the assignments, the tab for submitting things, checking their grades, reading the lessons, accessing any lecture that might be there.

You can also use a netiquette guide to guide them in a way that provides the proper tone for the online class, and some expectations you have, before they ever post in that first week’s discussion. Again, this is going to give your students the opportunity to self-regulate, because they know your expectations.

Any of these videos, tips, or other guidance assets can lead your students into really great participation, and these assets can be used as a reference later, if students fail to comply, or don’t meet your expectations. If you need to redirect them, you can offer them another copy of the netiquette guide, or the video guide that you created, and remind them of what matters in that classroom.

Create Video Assets

Now creating video guides doesn’t have to be a challenging process. There are a lot of things out there you can use. You could create a short video using whatever tool exists in your learning management system. A lot of LMSs have video recorders built in. If you don’t have one, you can look up Screencastify or Screencast-O-Matic. Both of these are excellent ways to record the screen while you’re talking.

If you’re really nervous about putting your voice or yourself on the screen, but you know your students want to connect with you, you can also create slides. There are even ways where you can type a transcript, and something can automate a voice that reads it for you.

It’s best to include your own voice, if you can, and your face students who see you feel almost automatic trust for you at a level that is totally different than when they just read your words. When you guide them through the class and help establish your instructor identity, this also builds the trust that helps them endure and persist throughout the class, when they hit hard times.

When misunderstandings happen, students complain a lot less, because they feel comfortable asking questions and reaching out to you. Think about the free options, Screencastify and Screencast-O-Matic. If you want to buy something, there is Camtasia, there’s also Snagit available, both of which are excellent at recording your screen, and allow you to narrate at the same time.

Create a Netiquette Guide

Talking about the netiquette guide, before the class begins, a netiquette guide can give clear expectations about in-class communication that you want students to use. This was something that Dr. Craig Bogar mentioned in Episode 53 of this podcast, and we’re going to hit back on this topic now.

If there are specific forum discussions or assignments that you prefer submitted in a certain format, you can always post a model and explain it, and also talk about the kind of language to be used. Netiquette can apply to the discussion forums, but it can also apply to the way they use academic language in assignments.

Provide Students with a Model Assignment to Reference

You might consider giving a model assignment to illustrate this, and attaching it to the assignment description. You can give examples and guidance as part of your routine teaching, to prep people for submitting the work.

And also, if you find that there’s a concept that people are not understanding when they’re in your class, you can always create a short video discussing it and talking about how it applies.

If you’d like a sample netiquette guide, you’re welcome to click the link in the podcast notes, and you can access a sample guide that I created and used for quite some time in my online teaching. And you’re welcome to use it.

Prepare Announcements in Advance

Another step you might consider is to prepare announcements in advance. When you do this, you’re going to have something ready to go for each week. You can, of course, tailor it as the course progresses.

Something is going to come up that you’re going to realize needs to be added to these announcements. Maybe it’s a current event, or a suggestion based on something a student has said. Being adaptable and flexible is really important, because online learning can sometimes feel like we’ve structured it so well, that it’s not flexible.

If you can be flexible with your announcements, then you can adapt them throughout the time you’re teaching. But developing them in advance of the course is a great way to keep your workload light. If you keep the content of these announcements for specific dates in the future, but don’t put dates on them, they might be appropriate for the next time you teach the course. Again, you’ll want to personalize and modify things, to make sure that they still meet the needs of that course you’re going to teach in the future, and those students that you’re working with at that time.

Depending on your learning management system, you might even be able to set all of your announcements up to auto open on the first day of each week, without having to manually do this every week. If you created tools to guide your students through the assignments, or to help them navigate your classroom, you can also set these up in the announcements area, to publish automatically as well.

These things are going to help you build a positive academic atmosphere, and set the tone in your online classroom. All of this work done in advance sets you up for success, and helps your students feel safe, because they’re guided by a teaching presence who is really connecting with them, and helping them in every way possible.

When you set this positive tone in your online class, and include elements in your course announcements that are friendly and personable, these also build connections with students, whether you’re aware of it or not, and this reassurance helps students feel like their questions will be answered whenever they have them. Generic announcements, really, depersonalize the experience, so try to avoid making them look super generic or leaving off your personal commentary.

Lastly, anything that’s working for you, like guidance assets you might create, screencasts, video introductions of you, course announcements, a netiquette guide, and example assignments, as you review these and keep them updated for the next time you teach the course, you can store these and repeatedly use them, and personalize them each time you return to the teaching.

Tips for Saving and Storing Assets for Future Use

Saving and storing materials you’ve developed will really save you time. This is a huge investment. Creating assets for your students takes a lot of work, and a lot of time. If you don’t have a place to store repeated announcements or forum posts that you would like to reuse, like your introductory or wrap-up posts, you might consider an online storage site.

There’s one called FacultyFiles, and it’s a free resource that allows you to set up course materials storage areas, separate it by class week and the type of the class, set up how many weeks the class is and put these things in the weeks that you’re going to use them, and just use that as a repository for keeping track of your grading rubrics, your forum posts that are somewhat standard, your announcements, and other things you might repeatedly use.

Using some kind of online storage like this one is especially helpful if you have gaps between teaching the course and the next time you teach it, so you can just keep these resources organized and ready.

In closing, I hope that you have gained some tips today for producing assets that are going to guide your students and help them manage themselves. The workload can be very high in online teaching, but when you create these kinds of important guidance pieces for your students, you’ll save yourself a lot of time in the long term as you’re teaching the course.

Your students can be more self-directed, which satisfies them in their learning much more. You can focus instead on the teaching that you enjoy most, and also engaging with your students.

Thank you for being here for part two of our work-life balance, setting priorities series, episode 55 today. Come back next week for episode 56. We will talk about effective management strategies to round out your work-life balance nicely. Best wishes to you in your online teaching this coming week.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit BethanieHansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week and your online teaching journey.

#38: Asking Great Questions Can Improve Student Engagement

#38: Asking Great Questions Can Improve Student Engagement

This content first appeared at APUSEdge.Com

Increasing engagement in the online classroom can often be challenging for educators. In this episode, Dr. Bethanie Hansen discusses the importance of asking great questions to solicit information from students, generate more detailed discussion forums, and get students to think more deeply about a topic. Learn seven steps to develop creative and open-ended questions and advice for turning statements into engaging questions.

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Read the Transcript:

Dr. Bethanie Hansen: This podcast is for educators, academics and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Today, I’m going to talk with you about asking great questions to up level your teaching in the online environment. Many of us know that asking questions can be a great practice. This happens in discussions. Sometimes we ask questions in our feedback. We might ask questions during a live synchronous session. There are many ways we ask questions when we’re teaching, but particularly when we’re teaching online.

In this episode, we will talk about why asking good questions is important. We will also talk about how to create great questions. And lastly, we will use a strategy to turn any statement into a question. So let’s dive in.

Asking Good Questions Helps Engage Students

Why is asking good questions important? This is a great question, isn’t it? We could debate all day about what makes a good question. What makes a great question? Whether we should ask questions? Or tell?

The bottom line is great questions involve using a question to get a student to think, explore, analyze, debate, or examine information in a deep way. Asking students questions can motivate their curiosity about the topic and it can help you understand whether or not they have learned what they’re supposed to be learning.

Questions turn the student into the teacher. There’s a well-known concept that when we teach something to others, we learn it better. The more we ask students questions, the more they master the content. However, effective questioning is about asking the right kind of questions.

There are several questions we could ask, but the distinction I want to make here is the difference between open-ended and closed-ended questions. An open-ended question allows for many possibilities. An open-ended question asks a student to contribute their unique frame of reference, but it also allows them to take one of many possible approaches to the answer.

With an open-ended question, students might all answer differently. There could be a variety of responses given. Many interpretations. Many approaches. In the end, an open-ended question invites. Open-ended questions start with what, how, why.

Closed-ended questions, in contrast, usually lead to one specific answer. Closed-ended questions might simply be a yes or no response. A closed-ended question discourages exploration. It actually just asks for a report. Usually a closed-ended question is asking about facts. A closed-ended question might begin with, do you, does it, is it. All of these could be answered in a very simple yes or no.

[Podcast: Developing Leadership Skills in Online Higher Education]

Why is asking good questions important in online education? Because we have discussion boards and assignments as some of our primary feedback methods of how students are learning, and where we’re going to give the feedback, we really want to solicit a lot of information from our students. We also want to get our students thinking deeply through these activities. Asking good questions in these areas invites creativity. Exploration. It also invites students to really think about what they’re going to say in response.

Especially in a discussion area, if we ask great questions, a detailed dialogue follows. When we ask closed-ended questions or poorly created questions, all of the students respond in the same way. They provide similar responses. There’s not a lot of interaction because there’s nothing really to discuss. And it’s very difficult to get the conversation flowing.

As a faculty member or a teacher online, if you ever find a discussion falling flat, I would suggest the first step is to look at the questions asked in the beginning of this discussion. Is there something about those questions that closes it down from the get go? Is there something that could be added to fill it out? Now, those are yes or no questions. Really, it’s either effective or it’s closing things down. Think about the quality of the questions in discussion forums specifically, and whether or not you believe there’s a right answer.

When you, as the instructor approach a discussion as if there is one right answer, chances are the discussion is going to move in a very narrow, closed-up fashion. I would suggest exploring other types of questioning to open that up, and to help students generate more possibilities, more connections, and more understanding.

As you think about the role questions play in your online teaching, consider this: Each of your students is a member of a learning community. There’s a whole system in your classroom. Bigger than that, your students are each members of professional communities outside of that classroom. What can you do to open their thinking to these broader spaces? To help them feel connected in this learning community of your classroom, and also to help them feel connected to the bigger professional community that they are also a part of? What can you do to monitor your students’ learning through asking creative questions and great questions? And what can you do to find out what students know about this subject?

Many faculty members are very concerned about plagiarism, and rightly so. There are plenty of websites out there offering students quick responses, answers they can copy and paste into your course. There are even professional essay writers available to write the students’ papers and discussions for them.

Getting to know your students through their week one introductions and through their backgrounds, you can start to think about what they might already know and what they need to learn. As you’re monitoring student learning through the discussions, through the assignments and through all those other activities you might include, consider how they can uniquely apply the content. In your questions when you ask students to apply the content, there are unique responses. Doing this through great questions is a very clever and creative way to do it.

A Formula for Creating Good Questions

Now we’re going to talk about how to ask great questions. Some of the ideas I will share with you here come from a book called Everyday Instructional Coaching: Seven Daily Drivers to Support Teacher Effectiveness by Nathan Lang-Raad. This book is really designed to coach faculty so that you can go out and observe, mentor, teach, coach, and interact with a variety of faculty members on various levels.

In one section of his book, Nathan has a whole area devoted to question strategies. Now these question strategies are initially targeting the instructional coach. As a teacher and an instructor, I propose that you are also a coach to your students. This is why I’m sharing the strategies with you now. The author here suggests there is a question formulation technique created by some researchers at the Right Question Institute, it’s called the Question Formulation Process.

Step 1: Identify a Question Focus

There are seven steps to creating great questions and the first one is to identify a question focus. When you identify the question focus your thinking about the starting point. It’s not really the question itself, it’s the topic. Think about the topic, the problem, or the situation. What is it exactly you’re focusing on in your question?

Step 2: Brainstorm Many Questions

Second, follow the rules for producing questions. One of the suggestions the author makes here is to ask a lot of questions. This is the brainstorming strategy. Ask as many questions as you can, don’t stop, judge or discount any of your questions, and write them all down. Look through and consider what is going to generate the best results from your students. You can create buy-in, you can also create engagement through your questions. Brainstorming a lot of different questions you might choose will help you come up with even better questions.

Step 3: Selecting and Producing Questions

The third step is producing the questions. You take your topic that you initially started with, your topic or your problem or your situation that you’re going to focus on, and you’ve brainstormed a lot of possible questions. Here, we want to focus on what is going to generate the most open information? Produce the question that is open ended and look at the quality of this question.

Step 4: Improving Your Questions

Next, the fourth step is improving your questions. You can go back to this list of questions you created and cross off any that are closed ended. As you read them, consider: is there a yes or no answer that is easy to come with? Do you, is it, those kinds of beginnings definitely signal less effective questions.

As you go through, look at the beginning of the question. Determine would you like to phrase it differently? What might invite more? Also ask yourself, does this question have enough information to get students moving in the direction I’d like them to go?

For example, if we ask too short of a question, we might actually get totally different results in the responses. Does the question include enough information to generate true discussion about that content?

The best way to check your questions for alignment is to go back to your purpose for asking the question in the first place. Look at the topic and your goal for asking that question. Does it align with your focus? If the answer is yes, you can use that question with some confidence that it’s going to yield the results you’re looking for.

Step 5: Prioritize the Questions

The fifth step in asking great questions, and developing great questions, is to prioritize. If you’ve done your due diligence and you’ve created quite a list of questions, choose the top three. Narrow them down and determine which three are your best possibilities.

Step 6: Establish Your Next Steps

Now you can decide which questions you’d like to ask. How will you use these questions? Will you use them in a lesson, in a discussion area, in an assignment? Review the way you will use your questions.

Step 7: Reflecting

The last step is to reflect on what you’ve learned in the process of selecting your questions. Also reflect on the effectiveness of your questions. This involves using them with your students, evaluating the outcomes, and determining how effective your questioning strategies were.

In the end, effective open-ended questions explicitly tied to your topic and your instructional goals that are well suited for the ways in which you will use them such as in discussions or elsewhere, these will be great questions. Now let’s move to our last and final area today.

How to Turn a Statement into a Question

A strategy to turn any statement into a question. I share this strategy with you because I have evaluated a lot of content, a lot of programming, many course design models, and a lot of forum discussion prompts specifically.

Many times I find educators giving statements to students rather than asking questions. A statement would be something like, “Tell me what you believe to be the most important outcome of X, Y, Z concept.” When you ask someone a question instead, it opens up thinking. When you speak in terms of a statement that you want to elicit a different response, it’s very directive and often closes down thinking.

Instead of, “Tell me X, Y, Z,” this can easily be turned into a great question by saying, “What are the primary outcomes that seem most important to you from whatever this is?” You can also say, “In your opinion, and based on the evidence you’ve learned in this class, what do you believe to be the most important outcomes of this historical event?”

When you ask a question like that, it’s also helpful to follow it up with an expectation. “In your response please give reference to your sources used, the concepts you learned and make connections to application, modern day, et cetera.”

As you give students your great questions and turn statements into questions, you will become much more effective in getting students to propel their own learning, helping them teach themselves more, retain the knowledge more, and become highly engaged in everything they’re learning.

Today, we’ve covered three critical areas of asking questions. The first was, why should we ask good questions? Why is asking good questions important at all? The second, how to ask a great question. And I shared with you a seven step strategy from the book, Everyday Instructional Coaching: Seven Daily Drivers to Support Teacher Effectiveness by Nathan Lang-Raad.

And lastly, a strategy to turn any question into a statement. It’s very simple. Although sometimes it requires practice, especially if it’s a change from your current approach in your classroom.

As you consider using questions in your online teaching, it will become easier to do, and you will find a lot of positive results. From there, you can continue to use your brainstorming process to create more questions, use positive questions, powerful questions, open-ended questions, and questions that generate higher order thinking. Thank you for being here with me today and exploring this topic.

If you have suggestions for future episodes, please visit my website, bethaniehansen.com/request. I love to hear from my listeners, and I’d love to make this podcast even more effective for you. Best wishes to you in your online teaching this week.

 
#28: Five Ways to Make Online Forum Discussions More Creative

#28: Five Ways to Make Online Forum Discussions More Creative

This podcast content initially appeared on OnlineLearningTips.com.

 

Transcript:

This podcast is for educators, academics, and parents who know that online teaching can be challenging, but it can also be rewarding, engaging, and fun. Welcome to the Online Teaching Lounge. I’m your host, Dr. Bethanie Hansen, and I’ll be your guide for online teaching tips, topics, and strategies. Walk with me into the Online Teaching Lounge.

Thank you for joining me today. We’re going to discuss online discussion forums and specifically, creative ideas to make those discussions more educationally valuable, help your students connect more, and help them to learn as well.

The typical discussion practices that we find in online, higher education across the board are to respond to a question reply to two peers. Well, when you reply to two classmates, often a student can post their answer, go back the very same day, respond to two others, and never enter that discussion again. Unless there’s a really compelling reason for them to do so, that often is the case.

When we create interesting and creative discussions that further their learning, as well as tapping into their creativity and apply to their real lives, the future, and their higher thinking, there’s a better tendency for students to engage in return and talk some more.

We want to be creative as much as we can to really engage the students in their learning. We also want to use a variety of instructional practices, as well as those active verbs from the taxonomies about thinking. These might range anywhere from factual level, all the way up to analysis and synthesis and creation.

The way we write the discussion forum has everything to do with what we get out of the end, where the students are writing and answering that discussion.

Today, I have five creative ideas for you that I think you’re going to enjoy, and I hope they liven up your discussion forums now and in the future, and that you will also enjoy creating more.

 

In a short piece called Generating Lively Online Discussion by John Orlando of North Central University, John tells us about how students are more likely to get involved in a discussion that is already active. If we have a discussion that really promotes activity early in the week, or instructions that ask students to engage early in the week, this is going to provide that kind of high level of interactivity.

In addition to that, we want the instructor to set a schedule for engaging and also responding to all the students that are there. This is going to give students a reason to check-in, return, see the latest posts, and engage further in that discussion. John’s tip about the activity level really comes from two things.

One is part of the instructions for a discussion forum, and the other is the way the instructor responds to students throughout the course and engages in that discussion.

Now, in my role, I have observed a lot of faculty over the course of the last several years, and I’ve noticed there are people who believe that the students should talk privately in that discussion with little intervention from the instructor, and then the instructor comes in later in the week and just adds a little bit or steers it. Then there are other people who post early in the week and are an integral part of that discussion. There are benefits to both of these approaches.

As you write the discussion questions, you want to consider your own involvement. How much will you be there? What kind of responses do you anticipate getting from your students, and will this really foster higher thinking? Will it help them dig into their learning a little bit more and apply the skills that you want them to have? Will it liven up that classroom?

Another thing John Orlando mentions is that students are more comfortable participating when they feel some kind of emotional bond of trust and comfort with others. That’s what he says actually makes the difference between productive discussions and those where there might be flaming comments or inappropriate types of interaction, like you might find on social media.

Be Creative with Week One Forum to Encourage Interaction and Create Psychological Safety for Students

Now, this kind of emotional bonding can occur when you have a bio at the beginning of the course. We’re talking about the week one forum discussion.

Idea number one this week is about your week one introductory forum. The idea is that you would post your bio as a model for students of what you expect, and also have a forum discussion where they introduce themselves, and they share something about their experience in the subject matter, and maybe even answer a creative question in that first week to help everyone get to know them.

You might further consider having a webcam that you use, or using some kind of digital storytelling John recommends, and narration over imagery, or a video where they just introduce themselves, and also type up a little bit.

In that week one discussion, I’ve tried this in my own online teaching, and I find that there’s an interesting thing that happens when you add questions about the subject matter. I’ll tell you about this. The example prompt I’m going to share with you today comes from a music appreciation class, which is the subject I spend a lot of time in, and this is a personal introduction for week one.

Students are asked to answer all the questions, consider numbering them, so they’re easy to find as you read, and pacing the questions into the post just to type in between the questions. Here are the questions that are asked:

  1. Introduce yourself: Where you are from, your profession, your family, your major, where are living now generally, and so forth.
  2. Have you had had any experiences in other cultures or countries? Have you experienced music in your native land, in another country, or in another culture?
  3. If you have experienced the music of any other culture or historical era prior to our course, please share your perception of one or more significant experiences you had with other cultures or eras.
  4. What are your learning goals or expectations for this class, and what do you hope to gain from obtaining your degree?
  5. How might learning about music benefit you?
  6. What kind of music do you connect with most and why? Feel free to share a sound, or video link to a sample of this kind of music to share with classmates.
  7. Tell us about your music or non-musical background, whether you have read music, sung in choir, played an instrument or more. Tell us about you and your feelings or experiences with music. If you have no musical background, don’t be afraid to say so.

Now by asking all these different questions for the first week forum, I’m pretty certain when I have a student truly engaging in the class and when I have one that’s just copying and pasting their initial post from some other course they’re also taking. I also get to know their background in the subject matter, and these are fairly non-threatening questions. They don’t have to study in order to answer these questions. They don’t have to know anything from the class, and they can fully engage in that very first week.

The week one introduction is a creative way to get to know your students, help them get to know each other, but also create that idea of psychological safety. That way, they’re going to be comfortable trying new concepts and doing the more difficult discussions, where they have to think more deeply in the future weeks.

The more you engage throughout that first week and provide encouraging feedback, and give your students your encouragement, positivity, and inspiration, as well as your acceptance of what they bring to the situation, the more they’re going to be comfortable and ready to go in the following weeks. That week one discussion idea is to tap into their existing knowledge and experience, and really bring it into the class from the very beginning.

Scaffold Complexity to Foster Critical Thinking and Increase Psychological Safety

A second idea you might really enjoy for creative discussions is more a strategy that starts in the beginning weeks of the course, and it increases throughout the class. Now this one I think is clever because it also creates a level of psychological safety. It helps students move from a very basic level of their understanding and their engagement in the discussion, and it takes them to higher levels throughout the course. This one is from Rob Kelly in a called How to Foster Critical Thinking and Student Engagement in Online Discussions.

Rob has a suggestion here that he got from an interview with Marcus Tanner, Jillian Yarbrough, and Andrea McCourt in an interview about online classes at Texas Tech University. Now, these instructors were talking about principles of designing and managing threaded discussions typical of most online classes.

One of the more interesting takeaways from this article is about crafting the discussion questions, and this part is about how lower-level questions early in the course that really don’t tap into the analysis synthesis, or higher thinking too soon help students become comfortable with the content. It also helps them participate while they’re learning their way around the course for those first few weeks, understanding the new topics, the content they’re learning, and really starting to build confidence in the way they engage in the discussion.

Even though a question might be a lower level question for your forums, you would still want them to be open-ended questions. Definitely don’t want closed-ended questions that ask a yes or no question. And if you can have it open-ended that invites a little bit of creativity, students can share in a way that is not threatening, and also enables them to have uniqueness from one student to the next.

I can’t tell you how many times I have taught a class where students read each other’s posts, and then they wanted to reply with their initial post on the exact same topic, instead of reaching outside the box, or being creative.

The more you craft your discussion posts, you want to encourage them to choose a topic not covered yet, an angle not covered yet, something like that that’s going to help them not reproduce the person right before them.

Another idea that has to do with this scaffolding is that in later weeks, you’re going to want to vary that and add more in-depth analysis, synthesis, and higher-thinking activities. You’re really getting to see what students truly understand, and they’re also increasing in complexity, so students are learning at a deeper level throughout the course.

You could, for example, have multi-part questions where in the first part, they’re answering a lower-level thing, and then the second part is going to be more mid-level thinking. Even in the same discussion question, they suggest here that you use more than one level of Bloom’s taxonomy, so that you’re challenging students to think higher and higher and higher as they go through.

If all of your discussion forums are graduated from the very basic level and scaffolded up to the more complex level that you want them to get at during the class, you’re setting them up for a high level of success, and you’re helping them build their confidence where they’re going to be able to engage better and better.

That idea supports three different example forum prompts that I’m going to share with you. Early in the class of, again, I’m going to refer to music appreciation here because that’s my example subject today, there are three different types of discussion prompts that illustrate this scaffolding idea.

The first one would be describing music. You might not know this, but students who are new to thinking about music from any viewpoint other than hearing it need a lots of opportunities to slow down, actively listen, and describe what they’re hearing. It just doesn’t come naturally for most people. In fact, many people remark that they’re used to hearing music in the background, and they’re not really focused on what the music parts sound like.

Active listening can be a challenge, and we discuss it a lot in the forums throughout the music classes. It requires that active listening and some picking apart what they’re hearing, identifying, and then writing about it, discussing it. Then later in the course, we want to move up to more than just descriptions.

That first discussion where they’re using what I call level one skills, they might be identifying the instrument sounds and the basic musical aspects, and maybe they could use some level two skills as well, like describing the music elements they’re hearing.

Then later, we can add level three skills like applying terms to what has been heard, predicting what might happen next in the music, and analyzing the overall musical arc of what has been played, or what has been listened to.

Prompt 1: Select one music selection included in a list provided here (and then the instructor would list six to eight different choices that are applicable to the weekly content), develop an initial forum post that describes the music you selected. Be sure to include the following:

  1. Write the name of your chosen music selection in the title of your initial forum response, so that everyone can tell which piece you chose before reading your post.
  2. In the body of the post, describe the following music aspects within the piece as you heard them: instrumentation, overall mood, tempo, dynamics or loudness and any changes you noticed, tone quality or timbre, melody, harmony, and any other aspects you would like to describe. In your answer, keep in mind that others are reading your initial post, who have not listened to this musical selection. Your description of the music might be the only way they can connect to it. Provide as much description as possible and give details and examples from your listening experience. Be sure to use music terminology.

This idea of using the academic terms and just starting with descriptions is a great way to dive into content the first week of any class. The second idea would be to compare and contrast some concepts. Again, taking from the music appreciation idea, we can compare and contrast two different musical styles to different historical periods, to different performances of a single song.

You could, for example, take a performance that is in front of a live audience of rock music and a performance in front of a live audience of what we call Western art music, and students could compare those.

Those kinds of posts and forum engagement, that kind forum topic, really does require a little guidance from the instructor to ensure that the examples they choose are really what you’re looking for, so be sure to explain fully.

Here’s an example prompt from that idea:

Read chapter four of your textbook about the classical period. Listen to the linked examples while completing your reading assignment. After listening to two examples of Mozart’s music as listed in the book, and also listening to two examples of Haydn’s, compare the styles of these two composers.

In your post share, which four pieces you sampled and by which composers. Tell about your initial impressions of the pieces. What musical similarities and differences did you note between the two composers? Use at least four specific key musical terms, like instrumentation, tempo, mood, texture dynamics, and so forth to discuss. After comparing and contrasting the two composers, which one do you prefer and why.

Then we could take this up another level and in another forum week, we could do the analysis.

This example is about commercials on television. Consider commercials you have watched on television and think about the music that accompanied them. As noted in your textbook, music powerfully affects the conscious and subconscious emotions of listeners. Select a television commercial that has music in it. Post a description of your selection using as much detail as possible about the music used. Provide the YouTube link if possible. Explain the qualities you heard in the commercial and tell about the music’s attractive traits if any. Then answer the following questions:

  • What makes music effective for its advertising purpose?
  • How do you respond to music and advertising, like the example you chose?
  • What role did music seem to play in the commercial?
  • Was the music in the background or more prominently in the focus of the commercial and why?
  • What kind of image or mood did the music seem to convey?

As you think about writing your forum discussion prompts early in the course at a more simple level and later in the course at a more complex level, and scaffolding your students through, this second strategy to writing forum discussion prompts will really help you increase the student’s confidence, continue to build psychological safety, and more effectively guide them to discussing and writing about things in greater depth.

Now, these next three examples come from a presentation that I witnessed that was sponsored by Quality Matters, and it was called Alternative Discussion Structures by Lisa Kidder and Mark Cooper from Idaho State University. It was just this past year, and it was really full of great discussion ideas.

The three I’m going to share with you as part of my five ideas today are case studies, alternate histories, and debates.

Using Case Studies in Discussion Forums

We’ll start out here with the case study idea. And in their suggestion of a case study, it was suggested that the learners will read a real-life case, then answer, discuss, or argue open-ended questions. A question might be something like: What would you do in this situation? Or you might come up with other questions to apply that pertain more to your subject matter. Or they could develop solutions with accompanying data to analyze. Case assignments can be done individually, or in teams so your learners can brainstorm solutions or ideas and share the workload.

A major advantage to teaching with case studies is that the learners actively engage in figuring things from the examples. This develop skills in problem-solving, analytical skills, quantitative or qualitative analysis, decision-making and coping with ambiguity.

Another thing we know students love about case studies is that they’re connected to real life. They’re storytelling. They’re informative. The examples help them to apply the concepts they would otherwise be reading about in the class. A case study can be particularly useful if you want students to be able to apply this knowledge later on outside of class. If your subject matter is particularly applied, that’s a great way to go.

Case studies could involve more than one example, or students could have to come up with their own example, and then share it with classmates who then discuss their case study. Either way, you want to be very clear about what they should discuss, what should they bring in, how they should apply it, how they should approach it, so that you don’t end up with students who are all discussing the exact same example in the exact same way.

You would evaluate the forum posts, basically using your criteria that you establish and advance. Now, the presenters here who shared this example discussed connecting the assignment to previous posts, also drawing insightful links between the case study and professional practice, and application to the real world. Some explanation of their own personal lives, or practice as they apply and also connecting ideas with classmates. Case studies are a fantastic way to bring in all kinds of new ideas, especially if they’re not specifically illustrated in the course content. Good stretch opportunities as well.

Using Alternative History in Forum Discussion

Next, we have the idea of alternate history and in this forum kind of prompt, you would ask students to discuss the way something might have unfolded if something in history had been done differently. The overview of this one is that in an alternative history, that you’re going to pose questions to your learners, like “what might’ve happened different if,” or simply “what if?”

This is going to help your students gained some understanding of the significance of a historical event and also the cause and effect relationship, the chain reaction of the way history unfolded afterwards, and also help your students discuss past and current conflicts. An even better way to write the alternate history is to then say, “After you’ve suggested all of this, how does that connect to things that are happening now?”

The idea is that an alternative history discussion works really well in a discipline that studies and analyzes historical events that already occurred. It can be really difficult to determine what you want to do with some historical topic if you’re not a history teacher. This one is a great way to get your students involved and be really creative about your approach.

Setting up a Debate for Discussion

Lastly, we have the example of a debate. Now the debate can be online. It can be synchronous in real time, or it could be done in your threaded discussions that are asynchronous.

A debate online can be set up between two or more groups or teams, or it could be between students who have been assigned one side of the topic and everyone can be discussing at once. Debates work really well to practice critical thinking skills, argumentation, support for ideas, details, and critical thinking, and it also, of course, actively engages your students.

Some suggestions about when this might work for you are leadership, when students have had limited exposure to different kinds of forums and need some kind of leadership themselves to lead out with ideas. Not everyone’s going to be saying the same thing, so this is an opportunity for them to take a leadership role.

It could also work really well when students need to interpret some kind of literature. It’s a great way to pull out some different interpretations of the texts. This is appropriate for not only texts that have clearly defined opposing views, but also something that could be situated that way. And you might have to provide some context in doing that.

Another time this works well is in theory. The forum discussion might have differing schools of thoughts. Maybe there are several theories within a discipline, or maybe we’re talking about different philosophers and their theories of how things are. This could be exciting for them to engage in the challenge of a typical wisdom exchange or Socratic discussion, or full-on debate within the structure of the formal discussion forum.

Another time it might work well to have a debate would be when you want students to consider ethics. Maybe the best way to explore this idea without controversy would be the devil’s advocate approach. This could be for sensitive subjects. May be difficult for students to remain objective when topics are emotionally charged. You have to be really involved as the instructor and help navigate that debate as it’s occurring.

And another one would be current events. If there’s a current event happening, we might want to debate the implications of it, or how it could be organized differently, or how things might unfold in the future. There are a lot of different angles you could take for relevant topics, and also ways to help students engage in an academic way, supporting their thinking without just throwing personal opinions around and accusing each other.

When you set up debates, you want to give clear instructions about the guidelines. It can be very difficult to get students to argue things from an academic perspective, especially if they have heated emotional feelings on the matter.

You want to choose something fairly simple at first and move up to the more complex, but also I suggest using a debate after they’ve already written a few discussion forums and engaged with each other, where they have practice supporting their ideas in a non-debate situation.

A lot of practice, a lot of context, and you can have great success with debates, where your students will be able to overcome limiting thinking, expand the way they see something, take on different perspectives, and see things from a number of points of view. Debates are a good thing.

Share Your Own Creative Forum Discussion Experience

Today we’ve looked at five different ideas for creative ways to use your discussions, creative discussion prompts. I hope you will try one or more of these and definitely stop by the feedback area at bethaniehansen.com/request. Share your ideas about whether these work for you and if you have suggestions about topics we could cover about discussion forums for the future.

The goal here is that we all know discussions are a great way to connect students to each other and to their faculty member who is teaching the class, but we really want to get out of that rut of having things being repetitive and using the same prompts all the time, where students are likely to just repeat their own ideas, or worse, use the ideas of someone from a previous course. Maybe it’s their friend, or something they found online. Changing your prompts is also a great thing.

If you continue to use the same discussion approaches over time and never try a creative approach, that might work for you just fine. But if you continue to work for the more creative and applied ideas, thinking about the way students move from factual recall up to synthesis and analysis, and scaffolding that process in your discussions, you’re going to have a lot more success with your students.

You’re going to be giving them a little bit more nurturing and mentoring along the way, and students are going to walk away from your class with some real insights and a lot more learning. Creative discussions can really win for your students and for you. I hope you’ll try it this week, and I wish you all the best in your online teaching.

This is Dr. Bethanie Hansen, your host for the Online Teaching Lounge Podcast. To share comments and requests for future episodes, please visit bethaniehansen.com/request. Best wishes this coming week in your online teaching journey.

 

Resources:

 

Hansen, Bethanie. Teaching Music Appreciation Online, Oxford University Press, New York: NY, 2020.

Kelly, Rob. How to Foster Critical Thinking and Student Engagement in Online Discussions, in Teaching Strategies for the Online College Classroom: A Collection of Articles for Faculty, Magna Publications, p. 108-111, 2016.

Kidder, Lisa C., and Mark Cooper. Alternative Discussion Structures. Quality Matters Webinar. 2020.

Orlando, John. Generating Lively Online Discussion, in Teaching Strategies for the Online College Classroom: A Collection of Articles for Faculty, Magna Publications, p. 150-152, 2016.

 

This podcast content initially appeared on OnlineLearningTips.com.