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 Teaching Online: Reflections and Suggestions for the COS Instructor  ​

 Content Editor

Teaching Online Fall 2020 Iteration, by Deborah L Nolan, PhD, is licensed un​der a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License. 

I am the COS DE Coordinator. In this document, I offer my personal reflections (with some suggestions) concerning teaching online. I have been a teacher for most of my professional life. I have several years of experience teaching elementary school in California and nearly 20 years at the community college level both in Colorado and California. In addition to teaching community college students, a large part of my professional life has involved delivering instruction to my faculty peers concerning the uses of technology in instructional settings.    

My early teaching experience was “on the ground,” but nearly all of my community college teaching has been a combination of online and on the ground classes. I have seen primitive online teaching technologies develop into robust, common sense, and relatively easy-to-use platforms and applications. I have seen online education policy in California develop from a very restrictive set of rules to a broader, more enabling set of guidelines. In the spring of 2020, I witnessed an unimagined revolution in online teaching as a result of the educational community’s response to COVID-19. A future iteration of this document may describe the impact of this fundamental change to DE at COS.   

I have served as the Distance Education (DE) Coordinator (a faculty position) at COS for the last 13 years.  In this capacity, I do the following:  
  • facilitate the Online Teaching Certification Program (OTCP) which enables instructors to meet the contractual certification requirement for online teaching.  
  • communicate information about DE regulation changes, accessibility, instructional innovation, and accreditation.  
  • provide training for instructors on educational technologies available in the District.  
  • provide coaching on teaching with technologies using Universal Design for Learning support the implementation of strategies to make instructional materials accessible for all  learners.    

As DE Coordinator, I also serve with other faculty leaders on the Academic Senate. I co-chair two Academic Senate subcommittees. The role of the subcommittees is to promote the development of District policy concerning distance education and the uses of educational technologies to support student success. Additionally, the committees make recommendations to the Academic Senate concerning student success and faculty development related to DE and educational technology. The Educational Technology Committee (ETC) was formed in 2018, and the Distance Education @ COS Committee (DECOS) was formed in the late 1990s. DECOS is now a subcommittee of ETC.    

I am a teacher, not a technician, so when I work with instructors, I help them focus on strategies to support the teaching and learning goal rather than learn a specific tool. I earned a Ph.D. in Higher Education and Adult Studies with a cognate in college teaching at the University of Denver. I use the lessons I have learned to inform my work with faculty who are eager to integrate instructional technologies into their teaching practice.  

The Context for Distance Education at COS 
COS is a part of the California Community College system. At this point in time, the system includes 115 colleges that offer two-year degrees, along with industry-valued certificates. The system is loosely governed by a chancellor whose office, the California Community  

College Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO), supports the colleges offering Distance Education (DE) courses with guidelines for compliance with Title 5 regulations and DE data.  COS DE has a relatively short history, as depicted in the timeline below.  

1995-1​996 : DE Task Force formed followed by the creation of the Distance Learning Committee . First online classes (ENG 1&2) using email and bulletin board communication.  

199​7 : First Telecourse offered (CHLD 39)  

20​00 (approximately): Blackboard adopted (CCCCO sponsored)  

200​6 : Retired Telecourses and first Interactive TV (ITV) course offered   

2​007: Distance Education Coordinator position created and filled  

20​08: Blackboard upgrade from 6.0 to 8.0 (District supported)  

20​10: Online teaching certification requirement negotiated by COSTA and COSAFA  

20​11: Launched the Online Teaching Certification Program (OTCP)  

201​5: ACCJC Substantive Change approved for virtually all COS programs  

2016: Canvas adopted (CCCCO sponsored)  

20​17: District-Wide DE Plan approved  

201​8: DE administrative reorganization – Director of Learning Resources. Canvas Admin position filled, Online course offerings exceed 150 sections  

2020: Spring, Summer, and Fall 2020 move to DE teaching, Emergency DE addendums provided to the CCCCO, Emergency DE training provided to all instructors, ConferZoom adopted and integrated into Canvas , Canvas Studio adopted 

DE has been growing rapidly over the last two decades in large part because of the high demand from students and the advancement of technologies. The District provides Canvas Learning Management System (LMS) for online classes, and it contains all the tools you need to offer a rich online class. Canvas training is available to help instructors learn how to use the existing robust features available. The District’s response to COVID-19 has provided training for all instructors to help them learn the legal and pedagogical essentials of online teaching.    

Equity: Students and Success 
The District’s Mission Statement: Sequoias Community College District is dedicated to student learning, success, and equity by providing transfer education, basic skills, and workforce development for our diverse student population.  Reaffirmed by the Board of Trustees on Februrary 12, 2018  

Through its Mission Statement, the District encourages instructors to apply an equity focus to every instructional situation, especially DE. To support equity in DE classes, you may do well to understand the barriers to success that many of our students face in addition to learning about strategies that can help students overcome such barriers.   

Barriers to success include that students: 
  • Do not feel that they have the information they need 
  • Are unaware of available resources  
  • Are stressed 
  • Have little stability in their lives 
  • Do not own a computer  
  • Are just using a mobile device  
  • Do not have any Internet connection  
  • Do not schedule their time and may assume that the online class is self-paced 
  • Have few technology troubleshooting skills   
  • Do not know where or from whom to ask for help  
  • Do not have strong academic skills  
  • Ignore email  

Research indicates that students are successful when certain factors are present. According to the RP Group, students need to be: directed, focused, nurtured, engaged, connected, and valued. An instructor can support the establishment and maintenance of these six factors by developing structures and engaging in related practices within an online course. Structures might address: 
  • Making students aware of readiness factors, including the following: 
  • Computer and troubleshooting skills  
  • Computer and Internet infrastructure  
  • Strong time management skills and practices  
  • Strong reading skills  
  • A compelling reason to complete a class  
  • A support structure on and/or off campus  
  • Building logical course navigation through the Course Navigation Menu and Modules 
  • Providing technical tutorials (e.g., Office 365, Canvas, Read&Write Gold)  
  • Directing students to District resources and requiring activities that help students engage with those resources 
  • Providing clear directions in multiple formats (text, audio, video, image)  
  • Sending regular announcements  
  • Establishing due dates and enforcement of consequences related to course policies  
  • Giving timely and meaningful feedback and posting grades  
  • Providing opportunities for student feedback about the class  
  • Building multiple methods of content representation, engagement, and assessment  
  • Connecting with students proactively via email and Early Alert 
  • ​Arranging for student-to-student interaction 

Legal Issues in Distane Education (DE)
DE classes are subject to federal and state regulations about which the instructor should be aware. General regulations include these two: 
  • Before a course can be taught at a distance, it must be separately approved by the Curriculum Committee.  
  • ​Before a program can be offered with 50% or more DE classes, it must be approved by the accrediting commission. 

Course level regulations require that instructors: 
  • initiate regular and effective contact with students. 
  • arrange for student-to-student interaction. 
  • use a learning management system that includes a student authentication mechanism. 
  • be certain that all instructional materials within the course are accessible for students with disabilities.  
  • ​ensure that the course can not be described as a self-paced course. 
​Technology Reliance 
  • DE classes use technology. It’s important to have a technological key to the DE classroom door. The following technologies are required: 
  • Electrical power 
  • The Internet  
  • Devices to connect to course content and students. (Mobile devices may not always be compatible with available course tools, so computer devices are desirable.)
  • Redundancy is advised. That means that you should have alternatives should one technology become unavailable.  
  • ​High quality technologies are advised. It is important to have a reasonably powerful computer and a strong and reliable Internet service.  
Instructor Preparation and Effort 
In the recently revised Title 5 (California Code of Regulations) language was added that instructors should be prepared to teach online. Title 5 does not say how that should happen, but it is the first time that the recommendation has been mentioned in the regulations.  
To be prepared to teach online, basic computer skills are required. 

You need: 
  • to be able to use a computer to access the learning management system (Canvas).  
  • to produce documents using word processing software.  
  • to produce presentations using presentation software.  
  • ​to use video meeting applications to conduct synchronous DE sessions with students. 
The DE Coordinator can provide individual coaching, but a separate basic computer skills training program is not provided by the District at this time. There are many resources available to faculty through the Instructional Technology for Success monthly newsletter, as well as the Online Learning pages of the COS website.   

Online Teaching Certification 
At COS, an online teaching certification requirement was negotiated with the District by both faculty associations. The requirement was put in place over 10 years ago. Since 2011, an in-house certification program, the Online Teaching Certification Program (OTCP) has been offered for no cost. By 2019, over 150 full-time and adjunct instructors had completed the certification.  

COVID-19 Emergency DE Training 
In May of 2020 the District provided emergency training for all faculty to meet a Chancellor’s Office requirement as a response to COVID-19. The emergency training comprised three two-hour workshops: Canvas Basics, DE Legal Issues, and DE Course Design. By June 1, approximately 200 instructors had completed the District’s emergency DE training workshops and over 25% of that group went on to complete a fourth workshop to earn the full certification.  

The DE Coordinator developed the OTCP and emergency workshops, as well as presented multiple synchronous sessions of each workshop between May 18 and July 31. The DE Coordinator is available for individual and small group training for any instructors interested in learning more about teaching online. 

Instructor Effort 
Online teaching earned the 24/7 label early on, because there was no schedule attached to classes. The school week went from being a four- or five-day week to a seven-day week. The school day became a 24-hour day. Many instructors, being naturally responsive to students, made the assumption that being available to students in this new environment meant that they should be available whenever students asked for them.  

I can’t tell you that you have to restrict your schedule in any way. If you want to respond to students over the weekend, that’s up to you, but I can tell you that it is okay to set some limits on when you are available. Just tell your students what they can expect about when you are going to check for their messages and about when you will be able to respond. Tell them what you will do to inform them in the event of your absence. I recommend that you put this information in your syllabus.  Be sure to limit your exposure to responding to students to a reasonable level for your well-being.  Preparing your course and scheduling your daily activity may be significantly different from your activity as an on-the-ground instructor. You have the flexibility to work as you need to and may benefit from working a little bit at a time on a daily basis.   

The biggest time commitment when making the transition to teaching online is making the time to build your class. The first time you teach the class, you can build it as you go. After that, you may want to take time before the beginning of the semester to import your course content from the previous semester, make small changes to content, change all your due dates, and set your announcements. Having your class prepared and available in Canvas before the start of the term, gives you a lot of time you might previously have used for daily lecture preparation.    

​Developing Online Structures and Teaching Strategies  
Community college instructors are hired because of their credentials in their discipline, as well as their apparent ability to share what they know. Most instructors do not come into teaching with any pedagogical content knowledge, per se. They learned a lot about teaching from their teachers. I have heard some people say that they learned how “not” to teach from their own college experience, but few have been given direct instruction in classroom teaching strategies. Learning to teach online includes learning some things about teaching that can create an effective online class.   

Organizing Curriculum  
Teaching in a classroom on the ground may be familiar to an instructor, because it is so much like what they have experienced as a student for so long. It’s easy to model your teaching on the best teachers you have had. You can organize your curriculum into a manageable sequence, present your understanding of the content in lectures, engage students in discussions to help them grapple with important concepts, assign really good exercises, and test for understanding.   

When teaching online, you need to organize curriculum into manageable sequences, too. The Canvas Modules structure supports the organization of curriculum into weekly or thematic sections. Within any given module, text, images, and videos related to course content can be embedded alongside relevant assignments and assessments. You can make course content available all at once or set restrictions for the display of modules.   

Using Textbooks or Open Educational Resources (OER) 
​The textbook has traditionally been the source of all knowledge for any given subject. In an online class, it maybe possible to use a digital textbook, so you may want to check with your publisher about whether or not one is available. Digital textbooks may be less expensive than hardcopy books, and they may include an audio feature to support reading comprehension.    

The District Library/Learning Resource Center (LRC) may have a free copy of a text resource in the form of an electronic book, or e-book. Check with your Library Liaison for more information about what may be available. The Zero Textbook Cost Degree program (ZTC) is promoting the use of free textbooks.   Open educational resources (OER) are also being widely adopted for college classes and may include course modules, knowledge base resources (textbooks), and learning objects. Check with the COS Library/LRC OER librarian for more information.  

Lecturing is a great way to present a lot of information to students. When lecturing on the ground, it is usually a good idea to limit your lecture to 20 minutes or so and provide students with key terms and time to share notes and ask questions before going on to the next 20-minute lecture. You can split up a lecture in an online class by using Pages for discrete topics and follow each page with a short assignment that asks students to summarize the lecture. You can also embed a short objective quiz to help support student retention of knowledge gained through the lecture.  

The Chancellor’s Office has supported the integration of two synchronous video meeting platforms within Canvas to allow for instructors to continue to lecture even when separated from students by a distance. ConferZoom and Canvas Conferences allow students to see each other and the teacher and interact in real time.  

The development of these video platforms has increased the ability of online instructors to establish and maintain their presence in an online class. Instructors are encouraged to use ConferZoom and Conferences for scheduled sessions (as per the published Class Schedule) or for office hours. 20-minute mini lectures are still ideal for these live sessions. Sign-Language Interpreters or live captioners can join these live sessions.  You can take advantage of the recording options in both platforms to create pre-recorded lectures to link to in Canvas so students can consume at their convenience. These recordings include audio transcripts to ensure accessibility.    

Using Office 365 Word or Canvas Pages for your lecture notes allows students to use the Immersive Reader feature in Office 365 to have the words read aloud to them. Read&Write Gold is also a tool a student can use to have .PDF files read aloud.  

Incorporating Media (Images, Audio and Video) 
In addition to lecturing in bite-size chunks, students benefit from multiple perceptual channels for lecture material. In addition to text, it is recommended that you provide an audio file of what students are expected to read. Canvas has a media feature that makes it easy to record your lecture notes. A student can read the text on the screen and at the same time hear your voice reading the text. New screen-reading technologies exist for students to use, so you don’t have to do the recording yourself, but hearing your voice is a great way for students to get to know you and feel like they are a part of your online community.  

Sharing words online alone isn’t always enough for our online students. It is recommended that you include images and videos to accompany lecture materials in an online class.    Videos are available in abundance these days. Canvas has a YouTube app that you can add to enable you to search YouTube from within Canvas. You are allowed to use images and videos under copyright in certain circumstances in teaching (please refer to the District AP concerning copyright, AP 3750), but it’s always a good idea to include a citation for the image or video and teach your students what copyright means as you go. If an image or video is used, it should be an image that illustrates a concept or is directly related to your learning outcome. Using media for entertainment alone, is not advised, as it may violate the Fair Use defense of your use of copyrighted works.   

Engaging Students with Content  
Employing strategies for engaging students with content may not be something we think is necessary. I believe it is common for us to assume that our students will read what we give them, make sense out of it, and naturally be ready to explain to us what they have learned. Usually, we expect them to recall facts after reading or explain in writing what they understand about a particular concept. I believe that assuming students know how to engage with our content can lead to unsatisfactory student performance.    

We can support students in an online class by providing students with multiple ways to engage with content in addition to reading. Again, providing an audio version of written text may be extremely beneficial to student perception and retention of information. Additionally, it may be useful for students to talk to each other about what they find in the content delivered. Using the Discussion board feature in Canvas will allow you to provide students with a venue for sharing what they understand about a particular reading or other type of content presentation.    

You might also want to direct students to exploratory engagement with an idea. For example, your students may find that a case study will provide concrete examples of some of the concepts you are trying to present. You can also engage your students in debates or scenarios allowing them a chance to make abstract ideas more concrete in terms of behavior.  

The Groups feature in Canvas can allow you to divide students into small groups for debates or scenarios. You can also use the Collaborations tool that allows students to collaborate on documents or presentations for debate purposes, for example.  

Sometimes our engagement activities also serve as assessment of learning, but it is valuable to include assessment activities outside of engagement activities and tie the assessment to the learning objectives or outcomes being assessed.   

​Assessing Learning   

​Formative assessmentAssessing learning means giving tests, of course, but it can also take other forms. Building formative assessments in your class from the beginning, allows you to learn a little about your students’ prior knowledge and impressions about the structure and expectations of the course. For example, I always include a test on the syllabus to ascertain if students understand my late work expectations. I can also learn what students already know about my content. If I ask the right questions, I can reveal student misconceptions about my content, too. This type of assessment helps me insert scaffolding if it’s necessary. I also like to insert a mid-course evaluation to find out if students like the way the course is organized.   

Summ​ative assessment: Summative assessment usually takes the form of an objective test at the end of a unit, in the middle of the term, or at the end of the term. Essays can serve as summative assessment of content knowledge or skill development. It may be a satisfying addition to your summative assessment plan to include alternative assessments, such as media presentations (e.g., PowerPoint), oral presentations, or dramatic presentations. Some instructors like to include two- or three-dimensional modeling of concepts or structures, and these can be presented in online classes through video or images along with verbal or text explanation.   

We often miss an opportunity to turn a test or other assessment into a learning experience, so providing students with summary explanations of their individual performances on assessments can be invaluable. You can also discuss test results from the entire class as a group to encourage and challenge.  Involving students in the analysis of their performance on assessments can support the development of their metacognitive skills and further their understanding of the value of the course.   

To cap off your assessment efforts, you might want to have students engage in self-assessment activities. I like to find out how they feel about their participation (a student self-assessment approach) in the course at that point in time.  Ask your students what they think they have learned, and you may be surprised.    

The context for DE at COS changed relatively slowly from the 1990s until mid-March 2020 when the District’s response to COVID-19 required us to teach all courses as DE courses. Such rapid change caused a great deal of anxiety among the faculty, but as the individual who was meeting the faculty’s training needs, I can say that the faculty met the anxiety with phenomenal grace and enormous effort. Hundreds of instructors did what they had to do demonstrating their dedication to supporting COS students at almost any cost to themselves.   

One enduring impact of our COVID-19 response may be the reinforcement of the District’s equity mission among the faculty. Instructors thought first about the barriers to success that our students faced overnight. The faculty didn’t hesitate to learn about the technologies they needed to reach out to students. They built technological structures to provide students with the information they needed. They maintained the continuity of instruction for the sake of our students’ futures. Needless to say, the faculty may have developed new attitudes about the need to rely on technology, as well!     

It has been my great privilege to support COS faculty as they make the unexpected transition to DE. It is my hope to be able to continue to help prepare and support the faculty for online teaching by providing information about DE legal issues and online teaching with an equity focus through my modeling of online structures and teaching strategies for student success.  ​