Quick Start Guide to Creating Your First Distance Learning Course

In a concerted effort to make college courses more accessible to a larger number of students, many colleges and universities are urging, if not requiring, their faculty to teach online, Internet-based, distance learning courses.  Unquestionably, there is considerable and often heated discussion about the potential strengths and weaknesses of teaching over the Internet.  At the same time, I am certain that distance learning courses in one form or another are here to stay and a reality for most ASTRO 101 professors.  In that spirit, and with more than a decade of online teaching experience, I offer some brief suggestions for how to create and deliver your first winning distance learning ASTRO 101 course.

                As a departure point, the first thing you need to realize is how NOT to create a successful distance learning course.  The guaranteed, time-tested, reproducible formula for failure is to select a textbook, require students to individually email you answers to all the end-of-chapter questions, and give them a couple multiple-choice exams.  This approach is best known as the traditional correspondence course and has been used for decades by colleges and universities honestly trying to help bring higher education to students living in locations far from towns with campuses.  The recurring problem with this approach is that students work as isolated individuals, with few social connections with the instructor or with other students.  Perhaps surprisingly, if you have videos of you lecturing in front of a class, this doesn’t really help improve the situation at all.  Feeling all alone and disconnected, even the most motivated students struggle mightily.  As a result, such courses have only about a 10% completion rate.  Obviously, this is not the approach you want to replicate in your distance learning course. 

But, what else can one do?  It turns out you have plenty of options, perhaps too many.  One of the best strategies is to go talk to someone called an INSTRUCTIONAL DESIGNER in your institutions’ teaching and learning center.  These people often have extensive backgrounds in which options and approaches will best intellectually engage your students and, simultaneously, create a program that you can effectively manage without staying up all night working on it.  However, if you don’t have access to such a person, please allow me to provide you with a tactical approach that isn’t ideal, but will work.

First, you need to decide which topics you will cover.  It is perfectly reasonable to take the learning targets and syllabus of topics from a successful face-to-face course you’ve taught, and use them as your goals.  What won’t work, however, is simply to shovel your face-to-face course to the Internet and call it good.  And, you might someday need to argue to an administrator or skeptical colleague that your distance learning course covers the same concepts that your on-campus course does (research summarized elsewhere has shown that distance learning courses can be much better than on-campus courses, but rarely much worse when created using contemporary instructional design principles).

The next step is to find reliable and stable sources of information for your students.  This is critically important because you’re not going to be lecturing to them and, as a result, you’re not going to be the central and most important fountain of knowledge for your students.  For me, I use two books, supplemented by the occasional web site.  Primarily, I use a widely used textbook (which again helps me if I need to justify my course to an administrator or a skeptical colleague).  The best college textbooks are well written, reasonably accurate, have end-of-chapter questions, and utilize teaching and reading queues like bold-faced words, margin-notes, and highlighted things to notice which off-the-shelf trade books and most websites do not have.  Today’s students really do need these support systems to help them better comprehend textbooks; ignore these benefits at your own peril.  You’ll need to set up a precise reading and question answering schedule of work for the students – the more frequent and detailed the due dates, the better.  I’ve had great luck with two to three times per week as required milestones (Sunday night being the worst choice of seven days you could use).

The other book I use is a popular trade book of one kind or another that highlights the human side of the scientific enterprise.  I believe this is important because I don’t have the opportunity to tell humorous anecdotes or the extended dramatic stories of science that emphasize that science is done by humans, who have egos, frailties, friends, enemies, set-backs, cloudy-skies, exploded rockets on the Launchpad, and the like.  I believe these are important attributes to science that if our students appreciate, they could be more compassionate and supportive of science as tax payers.  Some of my favorite options for ASTRO 101 are: Brown’s “How I Killed Pluto,” Roach’s “Packing for Mars,” Thimmesh’s “Team Moon,” and Ferris’ “Coming of Age in the Milky Way.”  I intentionally provide a non-exhaustive list here.  Some folks have had great luck with science fiction stories and books, which I myself am just beginning to experiment with.  As a brief aside, I wouldn’t spend much time focusing on which science fiction movies have gotten the science dreadfully wrong; it offhandedly seems to me that novice students are still struggling with which science is accurate and that lousy science movies can be a distraction.  During the second third of the term, I create a highly structured reading schedule, with semi-weekly, required milestones and host an online, blog-style, asynchronous group with discussion questions I create where students are required to participate.

As a side note, I should point out that I haven’t found web sites to be particularly useful for reading assignments.  In a textbook, there are contemporary pedagogical tools that students need and can use.  In a trade book, although they rarely have pedagogical tools for students, the reader does get to know the author and the way the author tells a story.  In contrast, a series of websites can have a tremendous number of author voices, which novices find distracting, even if the websites are accurate and well done.  I’m not saying to exclude websites, but a web journey of 1,000 clicks over the semester doesn’t make a cohesive learning experience for most ASTRO 101 students.  I should point out, however, that, I do rely heavily on websites for current events information, such as a Mars landing or for space weather updates.

After selecting your information sources, probably a textbook with a highly structured reading and end-of-chapter assignment schedule and a popular astronomy trade book which highlights the human side of the scientific enterprise, along with a heavily structured “book club” style of online discussion occurring somewhere in the first two-thirds of the course, you’re ready to convert your course from acceptable to great.

The distance learning courses that students consistently rate highest are those in which the students feel like they are part of a non-competitive community of people trying to learn the material together.  This is one where the instructor intentionally and explicitly plays the role of a guide and a coach instead of a professor who is a superior know-it-all and who is out to trick them.  The other important attribute is that students rank courses highest in which they feel like they are different as a result of their work and didn’t waste their time doing busy work.  The mistaken idea that the easiest courses that give everyone an A also get the highest student evaluation ratings is a misleading urban myth.

In this class, you’re role is going to be one of making students believe you are deeply engaged, heavily invested, and passionately interested in their success.  To do this, you need to “be present” so that students do not feel isolated.  That doesn’t mean that you need to post a blog note everyday or send daily emails; on the contrary you need to give them space and time to grow and react to what they are learning without interference.  They key idea here is that you need to “appear” present.  Which means that when students fall behind, they get a personal email saying, “hey, what’s up? What can I do to help?”

Being present means that you respond to email.  You don’t need to check your email constantly, or even once a day.  But, it does mean that you tell students when to expect responses from you and you be sure that you respond.  One university I worked at had a policy that all student email is responded to within 24 hours; personally, I think this is silly.  The best teachers manage student expectations.  I tell my students that if they email me, they should expect a reply by Monday at midnight or Thursday at midnight.  That way, if they get a response from me earlier, it is a bonus.  And, if they don’t hear from me for several days, they aren’t worried.  I also give my students my personal cell phone number and tell them that if what they need is so urgent, it can’t wait until Monday or Thursday, to please call me, just not in the middle of the night.  Over thousands of students, I have never had a student abuse this privilege and, when students do call, I’ve found that it really is an emergency that I need to respond to and I would have needed to talk with them over the phone instead of by email anyway.  In the end, students just need to know that they will hear back from you and when and that seems to work perfectly.  At the same time, all time management strategists will tell you that if you constantly have your email on, you rarely get any meaningful work done.

To be successful teaching online, one of your primary goals must be to make sure that students do not feel isolated.  To help combat this, I purposefully try to build an online e-community.  I choose one juicy question each week that I know students in my face-to-face class have historically loved to debate and I require students to contribute meaningfully to the discussion.  I devise questions like, “Should your tax dollars go to fund a mission to Mars?,” If we were contacted by an advanced alien civilization, who should be appointed to speak on Earth’s behalf?,” What evidence do you have that the astrology column in the newspaper is accurate,?” and “If our class could devise a space mission to visit any one planet, which planet will we pick and why?”.  Many textbooks have discussion ideas included in their instructor’s manual or in the end-of-chapter material that can be really great starters.  Or, you can use short online video or news story prompts, if they are short and socially relevant to your students. But, be warned, the less the instructor appears in the discussion the better, because as the authority figure, you can unintentionally stop the conversation, so if you must interject, do so with open-ended, leading questions.

My last piece of advice won’t surprise those of you who I talk with frequently because it applies to all teaching environments.  Unquestionably, the way to guarantee a focused class where students really learn what it is that you want them to learn is to write your final exam before you design your class.  Write a challenging final exam that goes far beyond memorizing bold faced words but asks students to synthesize ideas – an exam you’d be really proud of the students if they got it right.  THEN, create a structured learning experience with frequent feedback that fully prepares students to do a great job on the final exam.  This not only results in a great course and experience for your students, but is a course you can be very proud of.

Tim Slater, CAPER Center for Astronomy & Physics Education Research, tslater@caperteam.com

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