When moving from the face-to-face to the online environment, many activities and materials can be ported from one medium to the other, but in doing so there are two things that should be addressed right away: structure and feedback.

Getting the structure right

In the absence of the face-to-face interaction typical in traditional teaching, it is crucial that online students have a good understanding of course goals, methods, and expectations. Students in online environments are dependent on clarity with regard to the course structure, policies, and processes. Many online teachers have been highly successful with a structure that includes sections featuring:

Useful links

Anthony Herrington and colleagues at Edith Cowan University developed a...

  • An orientation and syllabus area
  • A modular design
  • Online office hours or other spaces for private interactions.

This structure can be highly effective in simplifying the interface in almost any learning management system (LMS)/virtual learning environment (VLE), reducing the burden on the online student to navigate your course structure.

learning management system (LMS)

A web-based system similar to a VLE that administers, documents, tracks, reports and delivers e-learning education courses or training programmes. Often used by universities, it enables students to use interactive features such as video conferencing and discussion boards. Examples include Moodle, Edmodo and Blackboard.

virtual learning environment (VLE)

A web-based system similar to an LMS. It is often used by universities to deliver educational content, providing tools, such as discussion boards, wikis and electronic submission, to support teaching and learning. Examples include Blackboard, Moodle and WebCT.

In the following activity, click on the headings to learn more about the kinds of orientation and syllabus documents that help students find success in online environments.

Let's consider the different kinds of orientation and syllabus documents that can help students find success in online environments:

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Portfolio activity

Consider the orientation sections, content and teaching goals for...

Welcome Section

The welcome document is really meant to set the tone for the introduction to the course. It should be warm and friendly and invite the students to the exciting intellectual challenges that you plan for them.

Contact Information

The contact information and teacher profile is your way to introduce yourself to the students. In this profile you will model how a sense of 'social presence' can be established and help students to understand how they can create their own profiles.

Course Overview

The course overview is a high level introduction to the goals and objectives of the course and is meant to help the students see the big picture.

Course Learning Objectives

Course learning objectives give the students a somewhat more detailed account of what they are to learn in the course.

Reading and other Course Materials

Reading and other course materials is a comprehensive list of all the materials the student will need to read, watch, or listen to throughout the course.

My Expectations

The expectations document helps students understand your stance on the standards that should guide their activity and behaviour in the course. This includes a general set of statements about the number of hours of work per week required to be successful and other information that will communicate course norms.

Overview of Course Learning Activities

The overview of course learning activities will help the student understand the variety of tasks that you have planned for them and will communicate the purpose of these in promoting their learning of course content.

How You Will Be Assessed

This document presents the method of evaluating and assessing (marking) completion of course learning activities. You may also want to include the 'when, how and what' of providing feedback.

Course Schedule and Assignment Calendar

The course schedule/assignment calendar allows students to see all the course deadlines in one place and is broken down by module, week or another set of time periods.

Your Next Steps

This document assumes that the students will review the orientation and syllabus section documents early in the course and will then be directed to the first task (normally an introduction activity of some sort). This document directs the student to that first activity.

Your context

Does your institution have an established set of standards for online...

What is missing from these documents? Hopefully nothing, but depending on your approach you may highlight some elements more than others. Some designers and teachers focus more on content acquisition, and thus objectives, while others may encourage a greater sense of sociability, interaction, and the development of 'swift trust' with the goal of promoting collaborative learning. In common, these documents are at the core of the design of an online course and will orientate the student to the learning environment that you plan for them. It may be helpful to review these elements and to ask yourself what function they serve, thinking about how you make your guide dynamic in an online environment. Are there any orientation documents that you would add or remove? Why?

Getting the feedback right

Did you know?

As a teacher, a key interaction with your students online will be...

The second key element to consider as you move from face-to-face to online learning (or create online learning from scratch), is feedback. In the absence of regular classroom interactions in online courses, ongoing and informative feedback takes on much greater importance. Students who are at a distance are even more dependent on feedback to understand how they are doing, whether they are making progress, and how they can do better. The moment-by-moment negotiation of meaning that occurs in face-to-face settings is absent and feedback is thus even more valuable. In the absence of face-to-face interaction it is important to consider that high stakes tests are difficult to monitor and more frequent and tailored assignments with multiple points for improvement may be a better option. Some of these include:

  • Multiple drafts of papers with feedback on progress
  • Multiple revisions of course projects including formative assessment
  • Other staged learning activities – either individual or in teams/groups
  • Reflective journals – that assist students to self-assess.

formative assessment

Ongoing assessment intended to be used as feedback to improve learning and teaching processes.

Helpful feedback in an online environment can also be characterised by the following attributes:

  • Formative
  • Frequent
  • Varied
  • Communicates a clear picture of learner progress
  • Gives advice on how learners might improve
  • Involves students in the process, prompting them to identify the kind of feedback they need
  • Provides encouragement.

In the following video, various practitioners discuss the role of formative feedback in online classes. As you watch the video, consider the importance of feedback in your own course.

In the following interview, various practitioners discuss the role of formative feedback in online classes.

Click 'Play' to start the video.
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Having considered these practitioners' thoughts on feedback, now take some time to reflect on your own content and teaching goals. What learning activities and what kinds of feedback will be most useful for your own students?

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Duration: 20 minutes

Consider the orientation sections, content and teaching goals for your own online courses. Which of the ten orientation sections reviewed on this screen will you use? Are there any you would add? What learning activities and what kinds of feedback will you use to get the most from your students?

Use the attached document to record your ideas, or complete the relevant page of your Teaching Online portfolio.

Your context

Does your institution have an established set of standards for online orientation or syllabus documents? Perhaps it has a rubric or template that you need to follow.

Did you know?

As a teacher, a key interaction with your students online will be through feedback on their assignments. It is therefore important to consider ways to make feedback truly reciprocal, such as allowing multiple revisions based on formative feedback, journaling with your students, and allowing students to communicate with you via email or phone outside of class.