Maintaining interaction is one of the most important parts of teaching online. It is good pedagogy, and it is part of the best practices to which Champlain is held as part of our accreditation. The ideas here will help you maintain high-quality interaction in your course without drastically increasing your workload, all while ensuring your course is accessible to students with disabilities or limited internet. Last update: 3/26/20, 1:45pm EDT
- Official Statement on Interactivity and Accreditation
- Pedagogical Best Practices for Online Discussion
- Using the Canvas Discussions Feature
- Useful and Fun Tech Tools for Remote Teaching
Official Statement on Interactivity and Accreditation
From Ellen Zeman, Sr. Director of Assessment, Curriculum, and Accreditation:
Our regional accreditor, NECHE, has for many years granted Champlain general approval to offer distance education programs within the scope of its mission. NECHE assures us that this approval covers the temporary transition of our on-campus courses to the remote format. Nonetheless, we are required to provide students with a quality learning experience that includes “regular, substantive academic interaction” between instructor and students. Regular interaction means that the faculty member connects with students fairly frequently, in a way that students can grow to expect. Substantive interaction means that the faculty-student interaction is academic in nature and initiated by the instructor. This substantive interaction accounts for the “instruction time” (3.5 hours per week) that credit-bearing courses require. Luckily, the types of activities that count as “substantive interaction” are wide and varied, including:
- Mediated asynchronous discussion (discussion board); synchronous video conference discussion
- Webinar, lecture, video blog, instructions, or presentations by the instructor
- Virtual office hours, review session, or open lab
- Quizzes, tests, or any assignment that includes instructor feedback
- Email messages, announcements, facilitated question forum
- Monitoring student activity, requesting feedback from students about the course
The Faculty Focus article, What Online Teachers Need to Know, outlines the basic elements of online presence:
- Time spent in the Canvas course
- Frequent, effective, clear communication with students
- Discussion mediated by the instructor
- Constructive feedback
Time Spent in the Course
Spending time “in” the course does not mean busy work for students. It means estimating that they will spend an amount of time actively involved in class that is equivalent to the course’s normal contact hours (but not including ordinary homework, reading, or out-of-class projects). This could involve discussion forums, live sessions, watching lecture videos, or reading/watching/listening to any materials you have provided to substitute for lecture.
Estimating the length of time students spend on some instructional and interactive activities is easy: the length of a live videoconference or chat session, or the length of a lecture or substitute video. Asynchronous activities are vaguer, but a good rule of thumb is that for a student, thinking about and composing a substantive post for a discussion board takes about 30 minutes. Three hours of instruction per week could be composed of an hour live session, two discussion posts, two twenty-minute lecture or supplemental videos, and two reading quizzes. Or it could be four discussion posts and three twenty-minute videos. You can choose the combination that works for you.
You are also expected to spend time in the course, in ways that are perceptible to students. One of the challenges of remote instruction is balancing the time you spend teaching. Here are some considerations:
- Set time every day to check into any asynchronous components (for example, discussion forums). If you are using these, make sure to respond to them on a regular basis. We note some strategies for being present in discussions below under Constructive Feedback.
- Let your students know what your response time is for email. A typical response window is 24 hours. Even if you don’t have a clear response to a question or problem, let students know you’re working on it and will be in touch as soon as you can.
- Convey your presence and connect with students. If you are not holding class through live sessions, consider posting regular short check-in videos in which you respond to students’ work and questions. Even adding a profile picture to Canvas and your Champlain account can help put a face to the course.
- Give feedback promptly and clearly.
- Be open to feedback about how the course is running, respond to it, and adapt when you can.
Frequent and Clear Communication with Students
See our page on COVID-19 Continuity: Communicating with Your Class for more information.
Discussion Mediated by the Instructor
Like other instructional elements, discussion can take many forms: videoconferences with student participation, live chat sessions (which you can run through Google Meet), or discussion forums. You can also be creative; some instructors use social media to facilitate discussion, including private Facebook groups, mock Twitter accounts, course blogs, and even TikTok.
We primarily recommend using the Discussions feature in Canvas, which provides flexible ways for instructors to structure and facilitate asynchronous discussion. A basic tutorial can be found here. More on discussion pedagogy is below.
Instructors can deliver feedback on assignments (as you normally do) and in interactive activities. In many cases, this simply means being actively present in discussion forums, chat sessions, comment threads, or social media groups (if you use them). You do not need to comment on every post. You can use your comments to tie students’ posts to each other, ask follow-up questions, or redirect the conversation. The frequency of your feedback might vary based on how often and in what ways you ask students to participate. Try to be prompt.
You can also provide feedback based on other assignments. For example, if students write a weekly reflection, take reading quizzes, or turn in other independent work, you can write a post, start a new discussion, or make a response video based on themes that emerge across the student submissions. If students have problem sets or other homework, you can follow up with review of concepts that students struggled with. These are all forms of feedback that increase interaction rather than simply being tied to evaluation.
Pedagogical Best Practices for Online Discussion
It may surprise you to learn that, compared to in-person discussions, online discussion forums can actually generate more consistent and higher quality participation that involves more of your students. Students respond well to clear instructions and specific requirements, as well as questions that help them make connections between materials, lectures, homework, assignments, and real-world applications.
Creating good discussion prompts
Good prompts pose a specific question or task, while inviting students to think critically or inquisitively about the material they’re discussing. They can also encourage interpersonal engagement, even in a distance-learning situation. This article, from digital learning company Cengage, provides some suggestions on crafting discussion questions. The University of Central Florida’s Teaching Online Pedagogical Repository has a collection of resources around discussion prompts. Our additional suggestions:
- Provide questions that help students make connections between content, themes, goals, and/or skills (as relevant to your class).
- Encourage students to work together to figure out difficult content (and be prepared to follow up with redirection if needed).
- Give opportunities for making real-life connections: for example, by having students provide a relevant example from their experience or the news, suggest an application for a skill, or apply their learning to a scenario you provide.
- Avoid asking yes or no questions.
- Balance the questions’ complexity; productive questions ask for more than a summary, but do not skip straight to the most complicated ideas or applications.
You may also consider how the discussion is framed. It is often effective to have a few students produce discussion questions (with guidance from you), because responding to a peer generates buy-in and students’ greatest interests may be different from what you expect. If you want to establish comprehension of material before a more complex discussion, consider having students do an exercise like a quiz or individual reflection before discussion, or use a discussion forum to follow up on a live session.
Requirements for good discussion posts
Discussion works best when you make it clear that superficial posts are not enough. Provide parameters for length (word count), what ideas or texts to respond to, required number of posts, and whether students should make original posts and/or respond to fellow students. A good rule of thumb for a substantive post is 100-150 words. Requiring that students post multiple times in the same discussion, and that at least some of their posts respond to other students, helps sustain a conversation.
Using the Canvas Discussions Feature
A basic tutorial on the Canvas Discussions feature can be found here. The CLT is producing a Canvas template you can import into your course, which will contain model discussions to which you will need to add your own questions and specific requirements. More information on the template is forthcoming.
One way of enhancing Canvas discussions is to include videos and images that students can talk about. We provide more information on how to embed media in discussion prompts (and other areas of Canvas, like assignments) in our new knowledge base article on Adding Media to Canvas.
Useful and Fun Tools for Remote Teaching
In collaboration with Marissa Garbiel ’21, who contributed a student perspective, we have identified a range of additional tools you can use to facilitate activities and spark discussion. Please see our guide here.