Are Your Online Students Lost? Try a Course Map

Course MapIt’s that time of year again. The end of the Fall semester is in sight and we’re looking ahead to the Spring. Once Thanksgiving is behind us the days get busy with final exams, holiday celebrations and (hopefully) vacations, but planning for the next term is also a priority.

While the content and layout are familiar to you, what will the experience be like for students who are new to your course? What about those who will be enrolled in your class as their first online course?

The Geography of the Course

A resource for online syllabus creation from Northwest State Community College does a great job describing the job we must perform:

“In this new territory of the online classroom, students will seize upon your syllabus as if it were a map. Students will want to know how to proceed and where everything is located. So, one of the first things you must do, whether through the syllabus or in an introductory message, is to explain the geography of the course.”

Getting the “lay of the land” in an online course can be difficult, especially if instructions are posted in multiple locations, or if navigation isn’t particularly user-friendly. How will students know where to find everything they need? As instructors we don’t always have full control of the look and feel of the online courses we teach, but there are a few things we can do to help students.

The Syllabus

The first, and perhaps most basic, step is to ensure that the course syllabus is complete. Unfortunately, however, the syllabus as an institutional document has become clogged with required administrative information in addition to details about class assignments and expectations.

I have one course syllabus, for example, that is now 17 pages long. It includes not only all of the course attendance, schedule and assignment details, but also … application for graduation information, alignment of industry standards and course learning objectives, the university’s core values, Americans with Disabilities Act policy, academic honesty statement, Internet etiquette guidelines, classroom misconduct statement, academic excellence statement and thorough library access details. It’s a lot to digest, even for me.

The concept of an interactive syllabus isn’t a new one, but creating a more dynamic version of this important document is one way to help students process all of the information provided. There are a lot of options available from adding links and graphics to a Word document to developing a multimedia presentation:

  • Document: Educator Rachel DeMeo provides some reminders about how to make a text-based document more appealing, including the use of color, graphics, links and organization techniques to create a visually interesting options in which information is easy to locate.
  • Webpage: In an older, but still relevant, article from the University of North Carolina’s The Technology Source, examples are provided for the design of a web-based syllabus with images and embedded links.
  • Multimedia: With a presentation tool like Prezi you can create an alternative format to the standard Word document syllabus. Examples from two English teachers, Andrew Hollinger and Zack Jones, highlight course basics in an engaging way.

Guides, Reference Pages and Videos

Beyond the syllabus, other communication formats can help students get on the right path from their very first log in on the course site. As with the interactive syllabus approach described above, this supplemental information can be enhanced with visual elements. What are the essential instructions students need to get started in your class?

An introductory guide might include assignment descriptions and due dates, with a focus on what you think is most important about each one and where you expect students to spend their time in the course. Here are several formats to consider:

  • Site Maps: Your learning management system (LMS) may provide a tool that lets students to see (and access) all course pages on one screen. If not, or you are not using an LMS, there are a few tools you can use to create a similar interface pulling together multiple resources. Flowchart and concept mapping apps are visual, easy to use and allow for multiple forms of media. Try Creately, SmartDraw, LucidChart or MindMeister.
  • Start Here Page: This could be a separate menu item in your course, a Module 0 folder or even a course announcement. Think of this as a one-click reference with the most critical “what you need to know” information. Take a look at examples and descriptions from the University of West Georgia and Xavier University.
  • Quick-reference Course Guide: As a teaching assistant in my graduate program, the mentor I worked with created a course guide, which was separate from the syllabus in her online course. It was detailed, but more narrative in nature than a syllabus and included images. The details she included helped the class get to know her as a professional in the field, and understand the course as part of their overall academic program. This could be sent to registered students via email in the days before classes begin, and posted in the first module or lesson as a reminder.
  • Video Tour: There are many video tools for your online class, and any of them could be used to create a “quick start” introduction for students. Use Jing to walk students through a guided tour of the course terrain, for example.

Not sure what your course map should look like or include? Ask past or current students to weigh in with their recommended landmarks and routes. Where did they get stuck? What were they afraid to ask about when they couldn’t find it? What format are they most likely to read or view? Sometimes a simple solution is all that is needed to improve not only the students’ learning experience, but also your own teaching experience.

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Photo by: Pixabay

Source: Inside Online Learning Blog – onlinecolleges.net